Singers’ Experiences Working and Auditioning in Europe

I had insurance before I came to Europe. If you have private insurance here they treat you well, and it’s inexpensive (way less than America). But remember that you get what you pay for. Don’t get really sick here if you don’t know how to say’Concorde jetî in all languages.

Even though I’m not an American, I have to pay the American union (AGMA) when I work in the States. In fact, I think I owe them now and don’t have much intention of paying it. There used to be Equity in the UK; and when I started you had to belong, like AGMA, but you don’t now. I know in Germany the tax is about 45 percent and a lot of people don’t work there as much because of it.

There’s a much more laid-back attitude in Europe, and times for rehearsals and things can be delayed. I also think some opera intendants’ ways of talking are in some cases more abrupt, and could be seen as rudeness, when it’s only their way. It’s strange that people in all the European countries are SO different, since they’re so close together. The tax problem for me is that between 20-25 percent is stopped out of a fee, and I think that’s the same with Americans too. However, this can be offset against your U.S. tax. I’m sure it’s against British tax, and I would urge anyone working in Europe to get an accountant who knows about relief from double taxation.

As far as the Fach goes, I auditioned once in Germany with Sieglinde, Donna Anna and Tosca. When I told them what I had brought there were murmerings from the panel, then a voice said’But what Fach are you?’ to which I replied,”I’m a soprano.” I detest the Fach thing and think people should sing what they are comfortable singing, but in Germany it still prevails.

It’s rare for a character tenor from America to be asked to sing in Europe, so I was happy to do it. The only real problem I encountered was lack of information given to singers. My first contract was Ariadne in Italy. I got there at the appointed date only to learn that they had decided to start rehearsals three days later. There I was in Italy, with no rehearsal for three days. The only other thing I had to worry about was the tax situation. In Italy, in particular, they charge 20 percent for tax and another 18 percent for Impase which is kin to our own Social Security. I found out, through some research, that if you have a blue form from the U.S. Social Security office saying that you pay Social Security tax in the U.S., you are exempt from this extra 18 percent! (Makes a huge difference in your check!) The company will tell you that it makes no difference, but if you refuse to sing under those arrangements, you’ll be amazed how much difference it makes. One other warning–one night they came around with the bank drafts for everyone’s fee and they didn’t have mine. I said, ‘That’s OK, I’ll get it tomorrow. An Italian colleague said, ‘Do not sing without your check. They won’t pay you! I went back to them and said I would not sing the rest of the performance without my pay and they found it in less than five minutes! They would have never paid me that fee had I let it go.

I have worked in Europe (am doing so at this moment!) as well as auditioned there, so I have different answers for both situations. Since I am working in Switzerland right now I will start there. There are quite a few Americans here. The rehearsals are done in French but we all get by somehow. I find that, just like in America, each company is different. I feel better treated here and in Paris than in Germany. In Germany they tend to view us as civil servants and not particularily special or artists. On one hand, it is refreshing because the hero worship in the U.S. is out-of-hand, but still what we do is hard. You learn very quickly how to take care of yourself. For example, they do not appreciate’markingî and you have to either insist or if you are really too tired, cancel the rehearsal altogether. Unlike the American way (do the best you can and be rewarded for trying) the Germans do not like that and expect full-out singing and attention. They do not care if you have a sitz in the evening or if you sang last night. It doesn’t work well to get defensive or upset, just simply know yourself and what you can do and draw your lines, so to speak.

The opportunities are becoming more scarce because money is tighter everywhere. The tax situation is still bad so they know they have to pay more for an American to make it worth his/her while, and often they will stick to a European. There are so many talented people here too. It is no longer the open market it once was. I would compare the audition situation to New York and it isn’t any easier. Generally, the bigger companies in all countries run smoothly and conduct themselves like they do in New York, Chicago, etc., and the fees are comparable. They pay less if it is your first gig here and I would warn anyone not to start too low because all the companies keep in touch with what you are earning elsewhere and it is hard to get raised up after the fact. Don’t accept anything lower than you do in America. In Germany for example, where taxation is 42 percent, take what you think you are getting, halve it and that is what you can expect. Then take away commissions and living expenses and you have about $1 to come home with!

As far as an audition tour goes, the best advice I can give is do not expect anything! Many Americans feel, myself included at one time or another, that by spending all that money and time and working so hard, they deserve a pay-off. I have auditioned here three times and only once was I hired directly. Other things came through working here which came through connections or performances in the States! Basically one should think of it as an experience and just go for it. It is valuable on that level alone. Dealing with languages and other cultures and the pressure is a good thing. You can expect to spend a few thousand dollars for a two-week trip if you are going to stay near opera houses and travel first-class on trains or fly within Europe. Don’t try to do everything, and if you are sick, or too tired, and have to cancel an audition it is better to do so because it is very hard to get a second chance at, say, Covent Garden or the Bastille. My auditions were set up by both American agents and European agents. If I could re-do my last audition trip, I would have canceled my Vienna audition. My plane was delayed, the weather was awful, I was 20 minutes late and had NO warm-up. I never should have gone that day from Paris as soon as the fog delayed the plane. Again, it is hard to forget all the money you’ve spent to be there, but in those situations, you must. I do think audition trips are worth it, but very difficult. If you can’t do auditions while actually working there and have to plan a specific trip, I would advise giving yourself lots of time, take someone along, if at all possible (for your spirits), and pamper yourself the whole time! Lots of positive thinking. Baths, good food, etc. And after the auditions, go to a museum or sightseeing and let it go!! In some ways, I think that helped my career the most: giving myself perspective and a break. I sang better, and at one of the last auditions of the trip, I was hired on the spot!

It’s important not to lose your American connections while you are in Europe. Make sure you have a singing job in the States lined up. Your European reviews are nice, but everyone wants to know where you are singing NEXT!

If you are going to Europe, be there ‘officiallyî–don’t just pack your bags and go. Europe is becoming anti-immigrant, in part because of the many Eastern block immigrants fleeing to France, Germany, and Italy. Foreigners are often NOT welcome.

I’m told you can’t break into the regional houses in Italy, but I know there are Americans singing at the bigger houses in Rome, Palermo, Turin, and Milan. Americans are respected in Europe as well-trained singers, but our greatest disadvantage is the inability to speak and understand the nuances of the operatic languages and to understand their heritage. I’ts about living your art. It’s much more than learning to sing. In Europe you become a sponge. You soak up the experience, the people, and the culture by observing, speaking, eating, living!

Colenton Freeman in Germany:

‘Europe is an exciting and interesting place. There is a great danger in spending too much money for unnecessary items. I ran out of money and had to borrow. Also, although many Americans still work here, the overall percentage has dropped enormously. This is due to the fall of the Iron Curtain. Having to build up former East Germany is costing billions of deutsch- marks and the theaters are being forced to cut back. Also singers from the East Block are coming over and being engaged. Many of them are quite talented and will sing for much less money. In Poland, Rumania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania and Russia, the DM is like gold. Eastern singers who sing for 500 DM a performance are considered very well off at home. However, if you want to come to Europe DO IT! In my opinion, Germany is still the best place fo young singers trying to get their start. It is not easy, but also not impossible!”

Janice Creswell from Italy:

‘People say singers can’t break into the regional houses in Italy, but I know Americans singing at the bigger houses–Rome, Palermo, Torin, and Milan. Americans are respected in Europe as well-trained singers, but our greatest disadvantage is the inability to speak and understand the nuances of the operatic languages and to understand their heritage. It’s much more than learning to sing; it’s about living your art. In Europe you become a sponge. You soak up the experience, the people, and the culture by observing, speaking, eating, and just living!”

CJ Williamson

CJ Williamson founded Classical Singer magazine. She served as Editor-in-Chief until her death in July, 2005. Read more about her incredible life and contributions to the singing community here.