Across the Pond : A Singer's Guide to Britain and Ireland

When singers talk about Europe, they usually mean Germany or, at the very most, continental Europe. But there’s more to the European Union (E.U.) than “the Continent,” and the British Isles can offer real opportunities. The United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) claims plenty of reputable companies, and the Republic of Ireland, small though it is, supports several companies as well. With the recent problems at the country’s highest-profile house, Covent Garden–including drastic working practice changes, pay cuts, roster trimmings, and eventually the cancellation of the entire 1999 season–serious questions have been raised about the future. But artistic standards currently remain high, and the rewards are tremendous for those who manage to get the few jobs. But where do you start?

There are five main international/national houses in Britain and many smaller companies and seasonal festival companies. The Big Five are: The Royal Opera at Covent Garden; English National Opera (loosely comparable to the Met and NYCO, respectively); Scottish Opera, in Glasgow; Welsh National Opera, in Cardiff (host of the Singer of the World competition); and Opera North, in Leeds. Belfast’s Opera Northern Ireland is a smaller company, but they do hire Americans regularly. Above and beyond these large houses are the prestigious festivals, such as Glyndebourne and Wexford (in Ireland), as well as a host of smaller touring companies, the biggest and most established of which are English Touring Opera and City of Birmingham Touring Opera. Not bad for a country 5/7 the size of Idaho!

There are opportunities, too, in the non-operatic world. While church jobs are generally only an option for men (most paying church jobs are cathedral jobs, which generally use boys and counter-tenors), the many choral societies need soloists for their oratorios, and there’s a market for recitals as well. It’s quite possible to set some of these up for yourself, and you’ll probably find there’s opportunity even in the smallest town.

For information on the opera companies, as well as lists of agents, singers, conductors, educational programmes, competitions, etc., you need a copy of The British Music Yearbook, published by Rhinegold Publishing (address below). Like Musical America, all the phone numbers, addresses, and listings you need are in this publication. The 1996 edition cost £20 (approximately $35). It’s also worth checking ads/reviews/audition listings in Opera magazine, essentially the U.K.’s trade rag for opera, and Opera Now, excellent for listings. Both of these magazines are available in the States at good bookstores or by subscription.

Some aspects of auditioning are the same–some things are just universal!–but procedure is a little different. For starters, you will generally only be asked to prepare two arias, rather than the standard-issue U.S. five-aria package. These should usually be contrasting arias in two different languages. Some of the houses request an aria in English, and some even specifically ask this to be a translation, but you should check this. Accompanists are usually provided. Some are good, some not so, but at most professional auditions you’re likely to get someone competent. Always ask if there is a warm-up space available–sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t. In most of the major cities, there are practice studios you can use to warm up if no room is provided at the audition.

Fach is a little different in that singers may sing heavier rep than they would in the U.S.; what a U.S. singer might consider a “borderline” piece would quite possibly be thought appropriate fare in Britain. Of course, the rule about singing what you sing best still applies: Do what you feel most comfortable with and can sell most effectively, and let the auditioners decide how they feel they can use your voice.

Auditions can usually be arranged simply by calling or writing directly to the audition secretary or artistic administrator of the company in question. Send a cover letter with your résumé (usually referred to as the curriculum vitae, or C.V.) and photo (5×7’s are the norm), indicating when you’d be available to sing; if they’re having auditions at that time, you may well be offered a chance to sing. The main audition seasons are usually in the autumn (September_November) and then again in late winter (January_March). Some companies hold auditions throughout the year, while others confine themselves to seasonal audition periods (usually a couple of weeks where they hear people at general auditions in London and then go around to the music colleges and conservatories across the country). You’ll find it easier to get the auditions if you have an agent, but plenty of unmanaged singers are singing good roles in good houses all over the British Isles. While managed singers may get preference, the companies–all of them–do try to hear as many people as possible.

There’s no way to gloss over the problems with obtaining visas and work permits. Both the Home Office, which handles visas and immigration, and Equity, the union governing operatic performances, are fairly inflexible in giving out work permits, particularly if the job on offer is not a principal role. The pool of singers already in the U.K. is so large that they can’t usually justify giving the job to a non-resident. You (or your agent or the company) have to prove why you, the non-national, are the only acceptable choice. For a gig with one of the major houses, this is usually worked out by The Powers That Be, and generally, if they want you, they find a way to ensure that you’ll be allowed to do it. If you’re simply trying to set up shop and work your way up through the ranks, however, this isn’t so easy. There are, to the best of my knowledge, no visa restrictions on auditioning for a company.

To work in Great Britain, you must have a valid work permit (permission to work at a specific job), permanent residence (permission to live and work in the country indefinitely), or be a citizen–and these are not always easy hurdles to jump, particularly for the American with no family connections (the usual reason for a permanent residency visa to be issued). Remember, though, that eligibility to work in any E.U. country will allow you to work throughout the Union, so it’s worth checking your options in other European countries. Having family connections in a country is one of the easiest ways to solve the problem, usually by getting a passport or residency in that country based on familial lines. Usually the furthest back that will count is a grandparent (check with the embassy of the country in question), but if you have such an option, it’s one of the most hassle-free ways of getting around the problems that the fairly stringent immigration laws impose.

One of the big advantages of singing in the U.K. is that there are a lot of opportunities in a small space. Even on a “national tour” you’re likely to be able to check in at home several times during the run (wherever home might be–London is where most of the audition action is, but it’s expensive, and the train network makes it fairly painless to get to London from most other places in the country). Also, even when you’re at the other end of the country, it’s pretty easy to get to your singing teacher within 24 hours if you really need to! And don’t mistake it–there are plenty of top-flight teachers in Britain, and the fees, while not cheap, aren’t usually quite as high as the name teachers in New York. London prices are usually about £40-80 (approximately $60-140); regional prices are much lower, even if the teacher is a London teacher simply teaching in a different part of the country, i.e. £25-50 ($40-80).

Getting work in the U.K. isn’t easy for anyone, particularly with the entire British operatic industry facing substantial cuts to what has been a long-standing government-subsidized funding system. A specialist audition tour, a la Germany, would currently be unlikely to yield enough work to make it a worthwhile trip. But if you are already there for something else (or, for that matter, are using Britain as an English-speaking base while visiting other European countries), why not? And the rewards can be great. Artistic standards are both imaginative and high, particularly the dramatic side of things–hardly surprising in a country which produces some of the finest theatre in the world. Fees may not match what you get in the U.S., although this will of course vary depending on the company and your–or your agent’s–negotiating ability. But artistically you’ll probably have the time of your life.

Madeleine Gray

Madeleine Gray is an American who was trained, and has lived and worked, in the U.K. for the last 10 years. Her credits include performances with Scottish Opera, Opera North (U.K.), Aldeburgh Festival, Washington Opera and Western Opera Theater, among others