Opera Overseas . . . with Company

This article originally appeared in Classical Singer magazine. To subscribe to the print magazine, go to www.csmusic.info/subscribe.

How’s this for a musical life: rehearsals in the morning; afternoons free to explore your highly livable, cosmopolitan city; and evening performances with some the brightest stars of the opera world? The career path is rarely promoted in conservatories, and it’s difficult to make a comfortable living this way in stateside opera companies. The competition for this career is increasing, but it still remains a hidden gem to many aspiring singers. If you love opera and have dreamed of living abroad, play your cards right and you could land a steady job in the chorus of a European opera house.

Few singers set out on this path from the beginning. But once they do, most stick with it until they retire. And why not? Unlike in the United States, opera choruses in Europe are often full-time, well-paid positions with generous benefits―not to mention the prestige of working with world-renowned soloists. A life in the chorus can have its downsides, but many expats are finding that this unexpected opportunity suits them perfectly.

To gain a perspective on the life of a chorister, I spoke with four singers at Opernhaus Zürich in Switzerland and Den Norske Opera and Ballet in Oslo, Norway. All had begun their careers with the intent of becoming soloists, but never looked back once they won their new job. Linda (at her request, her name and some details have been changed) who sings in Zürich, was “a typical young soloist who had been singing and covering small and leading roles in various opera houses in America and then later in Switzerland.” She had management and a season full of auditions and performances when she auditioned for the chorus on a whim, got the job right away, and canceled the remainder of her solo auditions, much to the disappointment of her agent.

“I was tired of constantly giving out money for auditions, traveling, living in hotels, and not being able to develop any long-term friendships or relationships because of the demands of the ‘solo career,’” Linda explains. “I wanted a job where I could stay in one place and feel like I was part of a community and not have the entire focus of my life be The Voice.”

Linda’s colleague Noel Vasquez had been freelancing in Boston in early music circles when he heard about an opening and flew to Zürich for an audition. He was hired on the spot. The job came a short time after a child “fortune teller” at a Halloween party had told Vasquez’s daughter that she would soon live in Switzerland.

Chris Hux, who also sings at Opernhaus Zürich, ended up in Europe for the most operatic of reasons: love. “I had not sung in an opera chorus prior to starting work in Zürich,” he says. “Frankly, I never wanted to: I was busily pursuing my solo career until I fell out of love with the business of singing and probably would have considered a complete change of profession had I not fallen in love with an Italian” and planned ways to move closer. His partner knew someone at the opera who helped him get an audition.

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Ken (name changed at singer’s request) had only considered life in the chorus “in my darkest hours,” but won a post with Den Norske Opera through the government agency in Germany that arranges stage and screen auditions across Europe. That’s right, Germany has a government agency that helps performing artists get jobs.

Since joining the chorus, none of these singers expresses regrets. “Most of the highlights of my career have been after I started singing at Opernhaus Zürich,” says Linda. “As a soloist, it was very hard for me to enjoy the success that I had while I was always worried about getting the next job. Since working at OHZ, I have had the opportunity to just enjoy singing with some of the best in the business. I have sung in several productions and recordings with Cecilia Bartoli; been on stage with likes of Thomas Hampson, Juan Diego Flórez, Anna Netrebko, Renée Fleming, Leo Nucci; and worked with legendary conductors like William Christie, Marc Minkowski, John Eliot Gardner, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt.”

Vasquez agrees: “The greatest talents have all been at our stage. After 15 years of being employed by the Zürich opera house, it remains an incredible thrill to be on stage and share in the excitement and high level of such music making.”

Once singers join the chorus, most of them stay for the rest of their careers, enjoying a busy performing and recording schedule and the opportunity for a young retirement. Not to mention, of course, eight to 10 weeks of paid vacation each year, comprehensive health care, and up to six-figure salaries.

Singers have to put in the work, however. There is usually a rehearsal in the morning and a performance in the evening, and productions often come together with minimal rehearsal. The Den Norske Opera does approximately six operas each season that involve the whole chorus, with eight to 10 performances of each opera. “In addition,” says Ken, “we also have concert work, occasional tours, and various collaborations either in Norway or elsewhere in Scandinavia that round out the season.” Music rehearsals begin at 10 or 11 a.m. and go until anywhere from 2 to 3 p.m., Ken explains, with staging rehearsals lasting until 4 or 5 p.m.

In Zürich, a typical workweek is comprised of 11 shifts “made up of music rehearsals, staging rehearsals with and without orchestra, and performances,” explains Vasquez. “We average between 150-200 performances a season.” Rehearsals are conducted in German or English, if the conductor is not German speaking.

Den Norske Opera conducts its rehearsals in Norwegian and English and provides free Norwegian lessons for choristers. Foreign singers in Zürich leverage their study of singer’s German when they first began their jobs and learn more from experience once they are there. Interestingly, the Zürich opera chorus consists entirely of European, American, and Asian expatriates while Den Norske Opera is split roughly in half between Norwegians and foreigners.

In Zürich, the grueling schedule and demands on the voice can actually make it challenging to find qualified candidates. With nine premieres and 20-26 repertory productions each season, “that is a lot of text and singing in comparison to other chorus jobs in Europe,” says Linda. “Most qualified singers would rather work at an opera house that would allow more free time with less stress. So a singer auditioning at OHZ must fulfill certain requirements that are very hard to find: an emotionally stable singer with a faultless technique who can also learn and memorize music very fast.”

Hux agrees that candidates “should have a solo quality voice without aspirations of pursuing a solo career and possess a substantial technique to manage the wear and tear of the daily grind of rehearsals and performances.” Even with a growing pool of talented singers to choose from, Opernhaus Zürich has had difficulty filling some positions and is currently seeking an additional tenor and bass.

There are some downsides to a life in the chorus overseas. Ken describes some “seemingly unbridgeable multicultural gaps” in the Den Norske Opera and the fact that “it is nearly impossible to fire anyone from their job,” which can make for some less-motivated colleagues. Vasquez and Hux concede that it is difficult to live so far away from family and old friends. Hux describes living overseas as a bit like “being the boy in the bubble: I am definitely living in Switzerland but still a bit removed because I am a foreigner. I am comfortable with German, but I miss the ease of expressing myself in English,” he says. Nevertheless, Hux and the other singers have no plans to return to their home countries.

The singers explain that they had to adjust their attitude about becoming ensemble singers instead of having the solo careers they had originally dreamed about. In addition to giving up the “glory” a soloist might feel, as Hux says, “Your performance is only as good as the entire chorus, which is sometimes frustrating.” He also says that spending large amounts of time with one group of people can be overstimulating at times―but by contrast, Linda says that “my colleagues with whom I work every day are some of my best friends and I can’t imagine living without having met them.”

In addition, the full-time demands of committing to a life in the opera house mean significantly reduced time to spend pursuing solo gigs. Ken says, however, that, “some of my most personally fulfilling, high-profile engagements came after I accepted a full-time job at Den Norske Opera. Luckily, these engagements had minimal rehearsal commitments and, luckier still, I have an employer who was flexible enough to grant me permission to accept them.” Linda notes that “singing in the chorus is not for everyone, but neither is being a soloist.”

Still, says Hux, “I do enjoy the luxury of having a full-time job in the performing arts. Also, it is nice not to have the pressure of being the title character and have the success of a show resting on your shoulders: if you are sick, you stay home and are still paid.” Vasquez describes the perks of “living right in the middle of Europe and the wonderful benefit of raising a family among such a rich diversity of cultures and languages.” In addition, “having afternoons and early evenings free has allowed me more family time with my wife and two kids and given me the joy of witnessing my children’s growth throughout the years.”

For singers longing for steady work as a performer, financial stability, and the chance to be part of a community, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. “Living in Europe has always been my dream, so for me it is the perfect place to be,” says Linda. “I think Zürich is one of the most beautiful European cities—cosmopolitan, but small. Everything here functions well, the standard of living is very high, and it is just gorgeous! I feel like a much more harmonious person since I have moved overseas and have had the ability to do things that I never would have been able to if I had stayed in the U.S.A.,” she says. For Ken, “having a secure, steady job has allowed me to become rooted in one place and, consequently, in life—which has ultimately led to much greater happiness and fulfillment.”

“Nobody talks in the conservatory positively about singing in a professional chorus, but why not?” Linda says. “It seems to be the same sickness that plagues the instrumentalists—they are all trained that they will graduate and have wonderful solo careers, but most would be lucky if they made it in a top orchestra. A job in a big, professional chorus will afford a singer a good life without having to go back to school to learn another career should the solo thing not turn out to be all it’s cracked up to be.”

Ken agrees, but uses a different turn of phrase. “For me personally, it felt like some sort of big, cosmic joke—that I was able to find a level of happiness and enjoyment by engaging in a kind of work that I thought I would never want to do.”

Amanda Keil

Amanda Keil writes for Classical Singer, OPERA America, and BachTrack.com, and she also runs her Baroque company, Musica Nuova. Find more entrepreneurial ideas on her blog: thousandfoldecho.com.