An Australian Opera Singer Moves to Germany: Part 2

Well.

This has been a long time coming. Joseph and I actually left Germany for Belgium in September 2021, but I haven’t had a moment to put these thoughts on paper. Moving countries, undertaking a degree again for the first time in nearly ten years and off the back of a pandemic will do that to you.

Part one: A recap

There are some silver linings to the world being forced to lock down. In March 2020 Joseph and I decided to stay in Germany and wait out the first wave of COVID. We assumed, like pretty much everyone else, that we would be out of the woods and back on track by June or July the same year. We knew that neither of us were ‘done’ with our time overseas, and that there was still much to be achieved by staying in Europe. I had just had the time of my life singing at the Glyndebourne Opera Cup Semi-Finals and I knew it was a great burst of momentum worth riding. Of course the pandemic developed everyone’s lives in a very different direction, which brought with it terrible things; but like I said, there was also a silver lining or two.

At the same time, I was waiting on the decision for my next visa, having just finished my working holiday. I was applying for a visa to teach English as a second language, as I was working for one of the companies based in Dresden. It should have been awesome, with the flexible hours to allow me to attend any and all auditions and performance opportunities I so desired until I scored a soloist contract somewhere in Germany. Of course, however, I ran into a bureaucracy snag.

Despite the contracts of employment that I could provide for the future teaching I would be doing, I was not granted a visa as I do not hold a degree in teaching. You need both, my friends, or at least, the degree to count as a ‘skilled worker’.

In my naïveté I assumed I’d be able to cobble together a living as I had always done in Australia, by working several jobs flexibly around gigs and auditions and working it out somehow until I was picked up by an opera house. Turns out this doesn’t fly in any country if you’re not a citizen or a permanent resident.

‘What about the fancy German artist visa?’ I hear you ask. Well, my darlings, that one is available exclusively in Berlin, and not in other German cities or states, so was not an option for me.

In any normal year my ‘lack of skill’ would mean packing up and going home, but because we were all neck deep in the pandemic, Germany was kind enough to extend my bridging visa THREE TIMES (so I was allowed to stay an additional 18 months). I had no working rights or rights to public funding or anything, but they did let me stay with Joseph in a very reasonably priced apartment and avoid the $46,000.00 non-binding economy ticket back to Australia that was the reality for most of 2020. They also vaccinated me for freesies. Thank you Germany, I will always love you eternally.

I wouldn’t recommend the ‘turning up and assuming it will be fine’ course of action, even though I was very lucky to have had three extensions on my visa. That, my friends, was a pandemic related fluke. If you can’t get a job or don’t have the credentials to stay, you need to leave the EU for 3 months minimum. If you’re in an established and stable relationship, good renting agreement, and getting to your home country is made impossible, it leaves you in a stressful situation. I can safely say I’ve lost at least 5 years of my life to worrying about my immigration status. Happily it turned out well for me, but given how much luck is needed to break into this industry even without a pandemic in tow I’d say on balance that it’s not worth the risk to come without a really solid plan.

Thankfully I learned an enormous amount of music over this time, spent many hours at our local gym (except for the six months when it was closed) and was even able to attend a handful of auditions and competitions as well. One of these auditions in 2020 is what led me to having a guest soloist contract in a fabulous opera house for a show that will premiere mere weeks from time of writing.

From this side of the situation, all the heartache, distress and existential terror feels like it was worth it.

It became clear that the only way to stay in Germany or Europe would be to go back to studying. Honestly, this was a fine idea anyway, as I was getting as bored as the rest of the world. Having some genuine structure is always a delight. Joseph started his cello Master at the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp in September 2020, so I had a look at postgraduate studies there and at the Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber in Dresden.

Antwerp won of the two. Not only is my teacher here amazing, but Joseph and I really love and prefer our analogue relationship as opposed to the digital one we had for a while there. A long distance relationship (even over just one land border) is a particular bore during a pandemic when movement is very limited and VERY expensive.

So things have turned out unbelievably well for me. I am extremely fortunate, as is anyone who happens to be working at this time. You bet your bottom dollar I’m not taking it for granted and I never will.

So, now we come to part two of this blog:

Dot points. We all love some dot points.

The observations about moving to Germany:

Summary:

  1. Do it. It’s awesome. Of course, not without its challenges, but really, really awesome.
  2. If I had my time over, I would come to Germany to do a Masters degree immediately.
  3. If you want to do a smaller trip to dip your toe in the water, I would recommend finding a few coaches, doing a super intensive German course at a Goethe Institut (5 hours a day) and having maybe three coachings a week if you can afford them. This is a great way to pow wow a role or an audition pack, or have a trial lesson with teachers you’re interested in at any given institution. Australians have 3 months schengen time and an additional three months visa waver time in Germany specifically, so you could technically stay there for a full six months if you’re clever about it. You’ll also work out whether or not you have the gumption to do the international thing, before committing to a degree and all that jazz.
  4. If you have a second string to your bow, such as Speech Pathology, get your degree in order before you leave so you can work in your side hustle field on a long stay visa while you’re auditioning. You will not achieve much, if anything, in 3 months, or the 9-12 on your working holiday visa if you’re in Germany to find work, as opposed to studying. Making the right contacts and getting invited to auditions takes more time than you’d think.
  5. Competitions are extremely useful.
  6. The right summer schools are also extremely useful.
  7. This is not for the faint of heart. If there is anything else at all that you feel you could do with your life, I would do that.

A bit more detail about degrees in Germany:

  • You will have incredible access to YAPS and opera studios, as many opera houses are teaming up with conservatories now. Essentially the model more and more is that of someone doing their Masters while working in tandem at the local opera house. You get roles and teaching and all the good stuff rolled into one.
  • Another benefit, which I would argue is the greatest one and will save you enormous amounts of heartache, is that if you do a Bachelor or Master degree in Germany you are granted a visa for the period of study, but then an additional 18 months of ‘Arbeitssuche’ (looking for work) which allows you to take full advantage of the contacts you will have made at your institution. I cannot begin to tell you how useful this time could be for you.
  • Hot tip: come in your mid to late twenties. The ageism is real and it’s gross.
  • Further benefit of studying in Germany in particular is that you are made to study in German, and to get a B1 minimum language certificate to progress to your second semester of the Masters degree. If you are taking your journey to being a classical singer seriously, you MUST take language learning equally seriously. Not only is your language command essential to text interpretation, you will not be hired in Germany (or Austria, or parts of Switzerland) if you don’t speak enough German.
    • Case in point: I am currently working at the Semperoper, which is an international ‘A’ house. We speak half German half English in the rehearsal room, as the cast and creative team covers pretty much every continent, but in the canteen, costume, makeup etc. it’s aaaaaalll German baby.
  • Next to doing a Masters in Australia, the UK or America, it feels like free education. As an international student with no EU citizenship you pay a nominal fee of roughly 900-1500 euros a year. If you’re one of those extraordinarily lucky people with an EU passport, it’s something like 300 euros.

A few more details about competing in Europe:

  • Apply for and enter as many competitions as you can afford/ that you qualify for.
  • That being said, make sure you ask other singers about competitions because there is literally a cornucopia of them out here. Some of them are conducted fairly and with music making at the heart of the matter. Some of them are a cooked money-making circus. You MUST do your research. You MUST consult other singers.
  • A lot of the European comps have international panels. I have sung for representatives of anywhere from 4 to 12 top opera houses at a time several times in live rounds and semi-finals. You only have to go to one city and you are auditioning for plenty of houses at one time. Honestly, it’s just really damn fiscally and temporally efficient if you ask me.
  • I have had offers of work from auditioning and progressing in competitions, regardless of whether I made the finals or won a prize. I didn’t think that sort of thing happened for soprani, but I have happily been proven wrong. As I said, it’s a really useful audition.
  • Make sure you sing music that fits you and that you can sing if you feel dreadful on the day. This goes for auditions as much as comps. War horses only, my dears.

Some tips and gossip about Summer Schools:

  • As per my note about the legitimacy of competitions, the legitimacy of MANY summer schools is questionable. Reach out to singers on social media and ask them about their experiences if you’re considering doing a programme. So many of them are just out there to extort aspiring singers. A lot of them have incredible marketing but the experience itself is severely lacking.
  • I know someone who did one where the singers were promised proper accommodation and continental breakfast each day, but were housed in a filthy hostel and given no food at all. The faculty, on the other hand, were put up in a local castle… and the singers had barely any tuition. Do your research before parting with your hard earned money.
  • I’ve also heard stories where people get quadruple cast, even when there are only two shows happening at the end of the program. The singers find out that they are one of four only upon arrival at the summer school, and are then made to battle it out. Casts are announced in the final week before the shows go on stage. Appalling.
  • There have also been stories from one particular summer school that makes younger singers pay full fees to sing a smaller role like Barbarina, but bring in and pay an alumnus or friend of the staff to sing big roles like Conte or Figaro. This particular summer school advertises scholarships for all participants… but they only mean the select boys club, or maybe all the boys and even the mezzos if they’re lucky. So like I said, DO YOUR RESEARCH. If something feels off, go with your gut!
  • I’d recommend following the blogs and newsletters from Ema Katrovas AKA Soprano on the Verge, as she has written about this at length. Think of it as the YouTube review of opera summer schools. Niche, but we need it.

Final tidbits:

The sad truth is that the industry (not only in Europe) is just as decimated from the pandemic as we all thought it was. The job market for professional classical singers was already saturated before 2020, but now it’s even more so. There are approximately the same amount of singers with even fewer opportunities on offer, and a traffic jam of contracts and agreements that had to be postponed from 2020.

So if you know in your heart that you don’t want to do this career exclusively, that’s absolutely fine. You must listen to that. My hope is that you will have had the light bulb moment during the pandemic anyway. Another silver lining there – perspective.

But if this is all you can do with your life, and you have enough backing from your mentors, and you’re prepared for the lifetime of work and honest self reflection ahead of you, then GO FOR IT.

That’s it for now my loves, and thank you for being here!

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