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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Answers to Some Great Questions About Practical Opera Stuff

A very dear friend of mine recently asked me for information about practical opera matters which are the things that might only interest singers (or not) and anyway, I wanted to provide the answers that I'd be typing to her in an email also to all of you, so that everyone could benefit from what I'd be typing anyway :) (and also because I'm a stickler for not doing 'double-duty' when it comes to everything, lol).  Therefore, I will try to pose the answers to these questions in a series of posts- because when I considered what my answers to her questions would be- I realized they'd be WAY too long for just one post.  So, the first of these posts will be this one, and it will deal with:
WHAT TO DO BEFORE YOU GO TO GERMANY (OR EUROPE) FOR AN AUDITION:
First off, I have to explain that I do have a boyfriend in Germany and extended family there, so I never had to really worry about finding a long-term housing situation (which will probably be something that most people will have to find, and which I unfortunately, cannot help you with in detail).  That being said, I did have to find hotels in cities that I needed to stay in for auditions, and there I can help you out.
Secondly, I also had a pretty good command of the German language before I traveled to Germany (and that translates to: I could watch a German movie- made nowadays- and understand 70% of what was said and what was going on WITHOUT reading subtitles).  Therefore, I didn't have to worry too much about my language skills- so I didn't really practice that before I left other than trying to figure out how to write a basic cover letter for an agent and do that sort of email correspondence (which can be found in the index of that book you probably know, titled "What the Fach" written by Philip Shepard and clicking on the title will take you to its amazon.com page to purchase).
Thirdly, because I had the privilege of staying with my boyfriend and my extended family while in Germany for the down-time between auditions, AND because I went over to Germany the first time specifically for auditions this past June, I wasn't too worried about scheduling the auditions all within a certain time frame of, let's say two months (or something like what most singers on an 'audition tour' would do).
Therefore, taking those things into account, you can then assess if my advice is right for you and your circumstances and then hopefully you can take what I say, mold it to your needs, and then figure out the rest when you're there, or read it in a book that I will recommend to you later in this post, all hopefully not at too great a cost to your wallet.
Oh, and another thing- I will ALWAYS err on the side of cheapness when recommending things (which means I won't tell you to sleep under the stars on the beach, but I will tell you not to stay at the Ritz, so keep that in mind when gauging the restaurant recommendations and hotel recommendations that I give you--you WILL save money- I promise you- and you WON'T fall into the tourist traps) so that is something I hope helps.
Okay- here goes.
1. Make sure you have a Passport that is valid and that has a recognizable picture of you on it.  You would never believe how many times-mostly in Holland or London- that I've had the passport control people squinting at me for 5 minutes just checking my picture with my current face--and my picture is relatively clear!
2. Try to figure out when you're going (time-of-year-wise) and then figure out if you have all the necessary clothing/shoes for that time period (and if you're like me and normally a bit cold then you will want to pack for summer even a few long pants and long-sleeved shirts--you never know with those summers in Europe). And please make sure your shoes are comfortable (there is cobblestone over there and lots of it!) and that your audition shoes look great (they are picky about dress shoes being stylish and clean looking).
3. Since you might be there for a fair amount of time and you don't want to stop practicing everything else altogether besides the arias you're auditioning with, I'd suggest you start making photocopies and putting them in those 3-ring binders that are bendable (it helps with packing) and try to always bring two copies of each piece (for the pianist) and remember- scores are heavy- so if you can help it, don't pack them unless you really know you'll need them (your arms and back will thank you later). Oh, and get those Nico Castel translations written in with the IPA now- because those books are literally NOWHERE TO BE FOUND in Germany when you are on the go--and where they are (in the Bibliothek of the Musikhochschulen) you most likely won't be able to go. So, now you know.
4. I'm a nut for trying to have things planned in advance- so I emailed everyone that I knew/know/wanted to know to see what they knew about Germany, Europe, and everything having to do with that stuff in general and asked them if they knew people there and if they could put me in contact with them.  Then I contacted those people that were in Germany/Europe and then tried to set up times to meet/work with them whenever I was planning on being in their city/area.  It honestly always helps to have the perspective of a colleague/friend/family member/friend-of-friend when you are run-down, tired and just want to eat some food and hit the hay.
5. I've also read every book out there on the market about singing in Germany & Europe and I can tell you that they were helpful, but also just a pain in the butt at times, by providing me with information that I wouldn't be using just at the beginning of my time there.  However, the books I've read are as follows (with my ratings behind them):
-"What the Fach!?" by Philip Shepard (good book, probably most comprehensive, not my favorite writing style, but informative nonetheless, and talks about Germany, Austria and Switzerland- more bang for your buck!)
-"Auditioning in the 21st Century" by William Killmeier (also good, possibly 2nd best- information a bit dated since it deals with when Germany still had the Deutschmark--and it only talks about Germany- but he tells you some things that the first book doesn't so it's kinda a good supplement--just basic stuff that's kinda commonsense, but which might be also easy to forget if you're not reminded.)
-"So You Wanna Sing in Germany" by Paul Bellantoni (fairly helpful, but I wasn't impressed with this after reading the first two books on this list- pretty much says the same things)
-"Singing Opera in Germany: A Practical Guide" by Marita Knoebel and Brigitte Steinert (very good- possibly tie with the first book on my list--and provides as much information or more, though its much drier to read--but it does deliver the goods, so hang in there and read this!)
-"Kein' Angst Baby!" by Barry Lenson, Gail Sullivan and Dorothy Maddison (I actually didn't read this book because it wasn't available at the time anywhere---but, it is now available on amazon.com- so snap it up if you get the chance--who knows, it might be worth it!)
-"Nail Your Next Audition, The Ultimate 30-Day Guide for Singers" by Janet Williams (This book I read because I knew that I wanted to work with Ms. Williams and I really found that what she had to say was incredibly useful and helped me to do the work that we as singers think that we do, but normally don't take the time to really DO when it comes to preparing a role, a scene, an aria or whatever for an audition and performance situation.  Plus, she is a lovely woman and good teacher.)
-"Don't Believe It: How to Follow Your Dreams in Spite of Those Who Say You Can't" by Dan Montez (I know that this doesn't directly have to do with Germany or Europe, but I thought it wouldn't hurt to have a bit of a morale boost right before diving into uncharted waters, so I did it. And, it really helped at those times when I was like 'What the heck am I doing over here?!')
6. You need to make sure that you bring enough Press Packet materials with you to give out at auditions while you're over here (and I would suggest bringing 1.5 times more than you'd think to bring) because you can't get those things over here, and printing out resumes at Staples or someplace similar is killer on your wallet.  So bring head shots (black and white are fine but if you have color they are more into that nowadays, and even if they say they only take B&W, they normally take color if you ask) and bring Lebenslaufs (Resumes) and make sure that they have a COLOR PHOTO OF YOU PRINTED ON THEM (a.k.a. your head shot).  I know that seems silly to give a resume with photo in addition to a head shot, but it's just better to be prepared- trust me. You never know what they will ask for!
7. I booked my flight early (at the very minimum three weeks ahead of time) so that I didn't pay super expensive airfare, though you have to figure it's going to be around $550-$750 round-trip each time that you go over the Atlantic.  Try fly.com for the best rates and to compare all the options.
8. I made a list of everything that I thought I would need (no matter how silly) and then I tried to take either as few of each item as possible, or struck items off the list that I figured were maybe a bit too silly. ;) Remember, you will be lugging this suitcase around on trains and in subway stations and who-the-heck-knows where else.  So, try to pack as lightly as possible. And, you will probably want to bring powdered laundry detergent along with you just in case you have to wash something in your hotel sink (ladies, pantyhose?) or after spilling food on something, so don't forget it. Also, those space saver airtight zip bag things that they sell nowadays found here

9. This is probably obvious, but I practiced my butt off so that my audition arias were really solid before I left (even though when I got to Germany I tweaked them a bit so that they'd be more 'German theater friendly').  You can probably imagine how nerve-wracking it is for the first time singing in a foreign country where you don't know the rules of the game from experience, and you have to hear your comments right after you sing from the judges in a language that's not native to you- so do yourself a favor and get those songs so solid you could sing them even if you were in a coma.

10. Invest in a small German Dictionary (or the language of the country that you're traveling to- Italian, French, Greek, etc.) so that you can help yourself out in a pinch.  Most of the country that I've seen (which is pretty much actually) is predictable and normal with their vocab, but there were those occasions in the first month where I was really glad to have that thing- even with understanding normally most of what went on without it.

11. Pack your pitchpipe or iPhone with piano app, or your rollable travel piano, because practice rooms are scarce over there.  And when I say scarce I actually mean virtually non-existent in terms of the kind that we normally think of in the USA (the ones you can rent in NYC at Ripley Grier or some other studio that has a piano, hardwood floors, and a mirror usually in each room).  What they have in Germany is the following: if you are in Berlin you might be able to practice in the showroom of Steinway or Bosendoerfer when they have off-hours or during their 'lunch break' when they are closed to customers, and this is normally free or very very cheap (a.k.a. 5 Euros or below).  Or also in Berlin there is this place called 'Theaterhaus Mitte' which has practice rooms similar to the ones in NYC (they have pianos and you can rent them hourly and they are also pretty cheap- I think I paid 10 Euros for an hour rental) but they are kinda difficult to find at night, so don't try it if you've never gone there before--or scout it out in the daytime--trust me- it's way off the sidewalk in a kind of building-complex, just....scope it out in daylight beforehand.

12.  Pack one of those scrunchable mini canvas carry bags.  You would be appalled at how many times I used that thing.  I got one from my great friend Lindsay who got it from ACME Bags, now called Reuseit, here.

13.  Make sure to pack medicine that's strange (anything brand-name that you absolutely have to have which isn't like Tylenol or Ibuprofen--they've got that stuff- and it's cheaper than buying it in the USA- lol).  Also make sure to pack contacts if you need them--you can order them online there but it's not recommended for non-native speakers. (Oy.)

14. Do your research on how you're planning on getting around.  I talked to my boyfriend who figured out that the best deal for me would be to go by train within Germany (since I didn't travel anywhere else these past few times) and that I should get a thing that the 'Deutsche Bahn' offers called a "Bahn Card 25" which is approx 50 Euros to purchase, but allows you to get 25% off of the regular reduced fare in 2nd class for all the tickets you purchase with the Deutsche Bahn in a year's time (so it pretty much pays for itself after the first few rides).  They also have "Bahn Card 50" and others but they are proportionately more expensive, so make sure to do the math because travel is definitely a HUGE expense while over there.  Also, to those who get a ticket with the Deutsche Bahn- keep in mind that each train ticket also covers you with the regional train system all the way to your destination for that trip (which means if you have to get to your audition and it requires you to get off the Deutsche Bahn train at the Munich Hauptbahnhof and then take the subway two stops, then you don't have to get a ticket for the subway--your Deutsche Bahn ticket already covers you for the subway ride--so don't pay double!).  I would recommend taking the S-Bahn, U-Bahn and Strassenbahn as often as possible when getting around a city- cabs can be expensive and crazy drivers (as heard from colleagues) and also it gives you a better sense of where things are in the city when you walk around (plus, it helps to stretch your legs after long train rides, lol).  And, how do you think that I found all these great restaurants and stores that I always mention without walking around?  It's absolutely imperative to walk around a place when you get there (time permitting, of course).

15. I wish that I would have written more agents in Germany before I left, but since I didn't, just make sure that you do.  I believe that the best place to find their listings is on operabase.com-and don't look at the 'Deustche Buehnenjahrbuch'--that thing is such a confusing tome it's ridiculous.  When the info is on the web at operabase why would I bother (ever again) looking in a book in a library?  (I did check it out once recently at the NYPL Performing Arts Library in their Research Collection on the 3rd Floor---AND IT WAS SO NOT WORTH ALL THE TIME IT TOOK TO GET THAT STUPID BOOK FROM THE LIBRARIANS!) Just save your time and don't do it.

16. Pack a converter for any electronic appliances that you want to bring along, though you need to check on the appliance if it's compatible with the higher voltage that they have in Europe.  You can normally find these cheaply at places like Wal-Mart or your local AAA office.

17. If you have food allergies you should make sure ahead of time to know the words that are associated with your allergy food (ex. 'milch' for milk, 'mehl' for flour, etc.) so that you don't accidentally eat something that has this ingredient in it.  And if you are eating at a restaurant (as a good friend pointed out) there are often very generalized descriptions of what a dish includes, so if you have any suspicions about it maybe including something you're allergic to, make sure to ask ahead of time.  Nothing is worse than ordering food which you find out that you can't eat once it's on the table.

18.  Either get a portable USB stick at a place like O2 when you're in Europe (a cell phone store) or bring an internet capable device (iPhone, Blackberry, etc.) to communicate with people over here when you come. It's difficult to find internet cafes when you really need them (and then when you don't need them they seem to be popping up all over the place) and most cell phone providers nowadays have really good international coverage (ask them before you leave--I know Verizon is really good at that sort of thing).

19. If you're really new to Europe and how things work there (a.k.a. if you've never been) then make sure to read something like a Rick Steve's Guide of the country or countries you're planning on visiting before you leave.  Culture shock is real, and it's really painful if you are totally unprepared and then just confronted with things once you arrive, that you had no idea about before you left the USA.

20. Check your credit cards.  There are many cards that charge a 1% to 3% fee on each and every purchase that you make abroad, and if you want to avoid that, then go with Capital One Bank.  Their credit cards can be used abroad with no fee at all.  But get started early on that- they need 2-3 weeks to get everything set up and approved and get your card in the mail to you.

21. European people like to pay in cash. So knowing that, even with your no-fees credit card, you will probably be paying a lot with Euros- so check into what the exchange rate is before you go and have at least 50 Euros with you when you fly over--that's the minimum. You never know when you need cash, and sometimes if you don't have it, you can be totally stranded without other options.

22. Check out websites like My Happy Planet.  These things can help you really get answers that I've maybe not covered here, from people who actually LIVE or have lived in the country or cities to which you'll be traveling. And, it's free. It doesn't get much better than that because last time I checked, consultants are normally paid (and that's kinda what they are- your personal, native, consultant)!

23. Back to the language proficiency again.  If you do not feel comfortable holding a conversation at a pretty normal pace with a native speaker of the language where you'll be traveling, you need to brush up your language skills!  I know that sounds like a lot of work, but that can actually be accomplished in bite-size chunks of time that are pretty easy to squeeze into your schedule.  Make the next movie you rent a movie in Italian or French or German; heck, you should even switch your entire Netflix queue to those languages only! Then find a language-speaking group for that language, like something on MeetUp.com or a similiar site--or even make it a priority to be on My Happy Planet 20 minutes a day chatting with your new language buddies. There are also options like Mango Languages (which is something offered by many public libraries for their members for free) or Pimsleur (which many libraries have the CDs to) or even Rosetta Stone (also found at many libraries at universities or even online).  All of these things will help you to become more comfortable with a language in which you are trying to improve your speaking and comprehension abilities.  But, please do not skip this step- it's crucial.  They do so very much over there business-wise that is actually on the phone, and NOT email (unlike us Americans) and therefore, it's really important that you master the ability to converse sensibly in the languages you'll be using.  Not to mention, you do not want to look like an idiot when you do get a job working in Europe, and then you're flabbergasted at the first staging rehearsal from the Stage Director's speedily-spoken instructions.

So, that might be enough for now.  I can't honestly think of anything else that I did before I left- the majority of the other things I had to do while I was in Europe.  Therefore, have fun tackling this list of getting yourself 'Europe-ified' and ready for your upcoming big adventure!


5 comments:

  1. Hey Julia!

    Great blog post!!! Thank you so much for sharing all those wonderful things!
    I have one question though, what do you mean with: "even though when I got to Germany I tweaked them [Arias] a bit so that they'd be more 'German theater friendly'"?

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  2. Vielen Dank! This is very useful. :)

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  3. @ Anonymous: I will explain the 'German theater friendly' thing in detail in a later post, so keep your eyes peeled in the coming week! ;)

    @ Esha: Es freut mich sehr, aber natuerlich! :)

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  4. Thanks Julia! Even for non-singers (like myself) this is great advice. I'm thinking of studying in Europe in a year or so depending on which way the river of life takes me, and I will definitely refer back to this post to help make that happen!

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  5. @ sageyoku: I am so amazed and grateful to have somehow found an audience for my experiences in someone who isn't a singer! That is AWESOME!! I wish you very much success in your plans to study in Europe (wherein, pray tell?) and I hope that I have given you some useful advice to that end. However, if you do have any questions which might be more everyday-life-sort-of-things that you feel I would know, just message me and I'd be happy to answer them! :) Thanks so much for reading and thanks for your comments!!!

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