Sitting together in the basement of a wood-paneled pizza parlor in Central City, Colorado after having sung the seventh or eighth show of the summer’s La Traviata, we were having a disagreement.
“You cannot wait,” Gabe said. “Otherwise, you’ll never go.”
“I don’t want to go until I’m sure I’m ready,” responded Terence.
“Every month we wait, we get more attached to life here.”
We were debating the merits and flaws of launching over to Europe to broaden our career perspectives as opera singers. The three of us were in our early twenties and agreed that we wanted to go at some point but couldn’t agree on whether it was best to go now or after gaining experience in the States.
American opera singers have been going over to Europe ever since America stopped being a part of Europe, but a more significant pilgrimage to opera’s birthplace started in the aftermath of WWII. Despite the destruction and devastation of the war, Europe continued to invest heavily in the arts and intrepid young American musicians made their way to study with newly-minted exchange programs or on their own.
As a young singer myself, I had the great honor of meeting some of that first post-war generation. Their stories inspired me to try my hand in the old countries as well, seduced by the stories of full-time government-paid ensemble positions and strong social safety nets.
I was impressed during a coaching with my university’s artist in residence, who was one such person, when he took a call in French to discuss an upcoming engagement in Belgium, then turned back to me and went back to describing how the word order in the Heine poem influenced how Schubert set his text to music. There was something so exciting about the way he described his life in Europe that set my wanderlust abuzz.
My work with him inspired me to apply for a Fulbright award in Germany, which I received in the year following that post-performance pizza parlor conversation. To make a quick resume of the seven years in Europe that followed: I stayed at the Munich University of Music for two years finishing a masters in Art Song Performance, then at the Paris Opera as a Young Artist for three years, then launched a freelance career based in France for the last two years. It is with great excitement and humility that I can announce my next step will be joining the soloist ensemble at the Landestheater Linz in Austria.
If it was wanderlust that brought me to Europe, it has been the economic and career prospects that have kept me rooted here. It may seem that my career trajectory has been pretty direct, but it has felt anything but that.
Like anyone who has the honor of calling themselves a professional musician, I owe an enormous debt to the scores of teachers, mentors, and sponsors who have centered me on the path towards a professional career. But I also owe a debt to the social support systems in Germany, France, and now Austria that have paid my bills and allowed my focus to be on my art.
The times when I questioned whether I was suited to the lifestyle of the opera singer, I was buoyed by the belief that I had deeper social safety nets to catch me if I stumbled.
In Germany, I was the beneficiary of a university system that charges less than €1000 tuition per year and that connected me with a scholarship to help me pay my bills when my year of Fulbright money ran out. The university encouraged and facilitated professional engagements for students, valuing their role as a vocational placement service whose job it was to provide students the means to make the leap into the workforce.
As I started to have performances outside the university, my professors prepared me for the rigorous standards of the European audiences and allowed these external performances to replace mandated university ones, coming to observe and give me a grade.
In Munich, I felt less pressure from my teachers to have a full-time performance career by the time I was 24 years old, as it was not unusual for someone to be starting a bachelor's degree at 22 or completing a masters at the age of 30. In offering separate masters degrees in Opera, Concert, and Art Song, the university seemed to understand that the fully-fledged 25 year-old opera singer is a rarity and created this system to sustain its students as their physiognomies and singing mechanisms developed.
When I received the job offer at the Paris Opera, I was excited to dive into a new culture and lifestyle. Young artist life was difficult as it is for many people, but when I finished the program and was facing down the barrel of a freelance life without many gigs on the calendar, I could relax a bit because of the system of intermittence that was going to support me into my first year of being a freelancer.
The French system of intermittence is a performing artist welfare system designed to imitate the financial conditions of full-time employment so that freelancers can benefit from a living wage, even in times when they have little or no work. Like many singers in the US, I had a church job to help pay the bills, but my church job in France paid into this system and, combined with my gigs as a soloist, permitted me to make an honest wage in my first two years out of the young artist program.
My decision to stay and build my career in Europe has been a financial one. I frequently hear my colleagues in the US rightfully bemoaning the inequity in the classical music industry and how high the entry price seems to be. Seemingly we all have to pay to sing before we can be paid to sing.
Exorbitant conservatory tuitions coupled with the incidental costs of YAPs, lessons, and coachings make a career in the arts almost unimaginable for young people without significant financial support. However, I see my European colleagues coming from myriad socioeconomic and familial backgrounds and they espouse a deep pride in the egalitarianism of the classical music industry.
Of course life for Americans in Europe isn’t all rosy. A lack of career prospects dictates that some people have to give up their performance dreams or pivot into new jobs. Culture shock can force you to change how you see yourself and the world around you. The struggle to communicate in a foreign language and to make yourself seen and understood is real. It’s the experience of a lifetime to be immersed in a new language and culture, but you will inevitably feel like a bumbling idiot from time to time.
I share all this because I feel like there is a lot of opportunity in Europe for my fellow American singers (and musicians in general) and you don’t have to be a once-in-a-generation talent to capitalize on it.
Part of my journey as a singer recently has been accepting that I am not exceptional. My “big fish in a little pond” story is a familiar one for many of you, and I built my identity around being a big fish. Except that at one point the pond became an ocean.
The death of my exceptionalism was made easier by the fact that I could still earn a salary and maintain a comfortable lifestyle as a pretty good singer in Europe. In letting go of being externally recognized as exceptional, I’m able to focus on just trying to be good. And there is something humbling and freeing in that as an artist.
I had the great honor of working with the late American vocal coach, Margaret Singer, at the Paris Opera. She helped free me from my need to be exceptional by describing her journey to do the same when she first arrived in Europe in the 1960s.
She realized she was never going to be an exceptional solo pianist, but thanks to the abundance of German opera houses and the eternal need of singers to have good pianists, she did have an exceptional career as a coach, channeling her American work ethic into learning and perfecting the repertoire and helping her students make the progress that was important to them.
Like Margaret, I have been able to live the American dream in Europe. The knowledge and skills developed in my American education paired with a fertile European employment market and generous social welfare system have enabled me to live the unexceptional exceptional life as a middle-class artist.
Don’t get me wrong - I know that I have some strengths and am deserving of the successes I have enjoyed, but there are many, many singers fitting that bill in the US who are not working as much as I am. I believe Europe could provide them an opportunity. To quote the beautiful American setting of an obscure European novel, I have been able to build my house and chop my wood, and make my garden grow.