A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Friday, 21 March 2014

The language barrier - breaking the spine

As opera singers we are expected to sing in foreign languages. This is a fact. The degree to which this expectation stretches varies: I have heard some questionable pronunciation from non-native English singers in British houses, I've also had the comic pleasure of listening to non-Polish singers attempt Górecki or Chopin, and I'm sure the Italians have to put up with a lot of butchering of their language. Some people will settle for intelligible, others will strive for the idiomatic/vernacular.

However high or low you aim, you will need help. Speaking the language you're trying to sing in helps, and one of the things I'm thankful to the Academy of Music in Kraków for is that they tried to teach us exactly that. 3 hours of Italian a week for 3 years, 2 hours of German/French for 2 years, if I remember correctly, and that was all vocabulary, grammar, writing, conversation, etc (not much singing though). Over here in the UK it's all about phonetics, which is also great, because unlike in Poland my tutors here would not settle for imperfect pronunciation. The ideal from a student's point of view would be both approaches, but sadly with fees rising and what's on offer at colleges shrinking it's left to us to find the time and funds to make up for lost ground.

And here I am learning a role in Czech. It's a language I have never had to work in before. I've been to the country, but gotten by just speaking Polish. It has made me realise how hard it can be to get into a new language. My parents had me learning German and French as a child, not to mention a few years living in England, and Italian just naturally comes with the territory of singing, so as a fifth language it came quickly (not that I'm fluent or even far beyond basic in any apart from Polish and English). Tackling Janáček (who in terms of word-setting is the Czech equivalent of Britten) was initially a very steep uphill climb due to my lack of previous contact with the language (except an hour in Banff, which I foolishly didn't have the sense to record). A few months in I feel I've broken the spine of it and I'm not relying so heavily on the phonetic transcription I copied from a book (by the way, if you think Castel is overpriced, try buying the Czech equivalent!).

Why am I writing this? Everyone knows languages are hard. We just deal with it - get recordings of native singers, get phonetics books, get coaching... I'm writing on the off chance that people who can make decisions that will help young singers will read this and see our need. How could they help you ask? Well:

Colleges could make the effort to help in familiarising students with more languages. Perhaps rather than hammer away at Italian for 4-6 years sacrifice some of that time for a term each of Russian and Czech (any other rare-in-the-UK but regular operatic languages out there?*). Before you attack me, I know some colleges do offer coaching in those languages, but some do not, and they should, and not just as one off sessions. A term of regular input would go miles towards familiarising our ears with how it should sound and how to read it.

Companies helpfully tend to bring in language coaches. The problem is that by the time you get to work with them in rehearsal it becomes fixing ingrained mistakes (because you need to be off copy by the start of production), while trying to deal with the staging side of things. Now I know offering language coaching to a chorus is not always going to happen, but many companies take the time to teach their choruses the music (so everyone is on the same page and learning to be a unit from the word go) and it's great if the language coaching happens then. Principals and covers aren't so lucky. Now I'll be honest - I have not asked Garsington if I could have some Czech coaching from them, not because I don't think they'd provide it, but because by the time I thought of it I'd pretty much figured out a process of doing it myself. A slow, painful process (involving books, recordings, youtube, coaching, etc)... So I don't know if companies practice offering their contracted singers access to language coaching before rehearsals, but if they don't, they should at least consider it. Take a few of the hours that coaches come into the rehearsal room and use them to give principals some 1:1 time. Even an hour on just the language would be invaluable, and singers would feel they get some excellent support.

There are probably very good reasons these things don't happen - organisational, priority-managment, things I haven't thought of... But speaking as a singer, it would be nice to be prepared by college to deal with the less common languages, or to get offered support from an employer (in hindsight I should have asked - tip to all of you who have yet  to face a new language).

In the meantime, for all of you who didn't get the generous steeping in foreign languages that I have been given (thank you Mum and Dad!!!), I now feel your pain! Keep at it ;)

*Sanskrit doesn't count, no matter how popular Satyagraha becomes...

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The grass is always greener

It gave me quite a buzz seeing how popular my post on training and audition opportunities in the UK was. It also drove home the point that there is a serious gap in how colleges prepare young singers for the realities of the big bad world. I suppose this means that those of us who are enterprising enough to go out looking for a break, rather than waiting for it to come, have an advantage. Maybe, maybe not. I know quite a few singers who run themselves ragged going from one audition to the next, or from one small company to another, never taking the time to think why they aren't doing as well as they think they could be. So while you may think 'great! this guy has done all the hard work for me, I just have to go for everything now', trust me, it's not that simple. Statistically speaking, for most of us, the more things we go for, the more rejections we will get. They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger... but they don't know what it's like to say 'here I am' and continually get told 'no, that's not what we want... we don't want you'. And then to see your friends be the person that is in fact wanted. So before you rush into applying everywhere, stop and think how much failure you can handle, as at this stage in our careers we are quite fragile creatures, and no matter how strong or oblivious you think you are, there will be a point at which it can get to you.

Sermon over, and on to the good bits. I promised a list of German opera studios, and I intend to deliver. The UK is pretty saturated with young singers, and there simply aren't as many proper opera houses over here as there are in German speaking countries. Many German/Austrian/Swiss houses have opera studios, and these work a lot like the Jette Parker YAP at the ROH: a small group of young singers are on contract with the house for a year or two to sing small roles, cover medium or main ones, and receive coaching and professional development advice. They are usually paid a modest monthly fee for this, enough to get by. It works like an introduction to the world of fest contracts (normally 2 year full-time engagements to join a company's ensemble of soloists).

The way these studios and fest contracts work is very closely tied into the fach system, which governs pretty much all casting in Germany. So if you don't know what fach you are, or your audition package is geared towards showing variety and flexibility rather than one particular selling point, you almost need not bother going for them. To see how the fach system is interpreted by each house, you can explore their ensemble on the website and see who sings what and which roles tend to be bundled together. It's a rather impersonal approach to singers, but it works for the houses and for safety's sake they simply stick to it. In the UK things are a lot more fluid, and there are more chances you will find yourself singing varied repertoire (provided you have the notes) rather than be type-cast straight away.

All of the studios pre-select applicants based on a recording, then invite chosen singers to audition. I have only auditioned live for one of these studios, but it's worth noting the process was completely different than in Britain. The singers were heard in blocks according to voice type (45 sopranos in a row!) singing one chosen aria each. We did have the opportunity to rehearse with the pianist. Then after all singers of one voice type were heard, a list went up detailing who the panel wanted to hear again, along with which aria (from your submitted list of 5) they wanted. There was then a break to allow the singers to prepare and the panel to recover, and then they listened to the second aria from the recalled candidates. Out of the 45 sopranos, only 6 got recalled. Of 11 baritones, only 1 was heard again. It's a hell of a trip for one aria ;) But I suppose that since you only get invited if they like your recording, it at least means they gave you due consideration, and there normally isn't an application fee (however the cost of recordings, recorded post, etc does add up).

Other considerations include age limits (30 seems an average, but for men it can go as high as 34, and for girls as low as 28), language (some studios require a certificate attesting to your level of German with the application), travel costs (can you afford to go audition, and how many studios can you visit), etc.

So here we go, a list (probably not complete, but it's a start)! Have fun, I'm too old to go for most of these anyway ;)

Bayerische Staatsoper (Munich)
Deutsche Oper am Rhein (Düsseldorf)
Semperoper Dresden
Staatsoper Hamburg
Komische Oper Berlin
Oper Frankfurt
Oper Köln
Opernhaus Zürich
Staatsoper im Schiller Theater (Berlin)
Staatsoper Hannover
Oper Stuttgart
Oper Nürnberg
Theater Basel
Oper Graz
Theater Lübeck
Opernstudio Niederrhein
Theater an der Wien 
Thüringen Opernstudio (Weimar)

So that's 18 German-speaking YAPs compared to 2 in the UK (3 if you count the NOS). Go figure...