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Starting out in a foreign country is daunting for a young singer. Six American artists under contract in Europe tell PATRICK DILLON about their experiences.

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View of Dresden
© Andreas Zellinger/agefotostock 2015
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Vuong as Frankfurt’s Rusalka, 2014
Courtesy Karen Vuong
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Greenhalgh as Onegin at Theater an der Wien, 2014
© Armin Bardel 2015

Imagine finding yourself across an ocean, in a place where people speak a language not your own — one you’ve heard and maybe even studied but don’t easily speak or understand — where even the simplest local customs can be baffling.  That may be no stretch; who these days hasn't spent a little time abroad? But imagine you are bound by contract to stay in this strange land for a full two years — and the first thing you’ve got to do is get onstage and sing an opera.

That’s exactly what a new crop of young American singers does every year. Recently, opera news chatted with six of them, at various junctures of their European adventures, from two just finishing up their stints abroad to one still on this side of the Atlantic, looking ahead at his. Their backgrounds differ, though certain names recur on their resumés — Juilliard, Tanglewood, Santa Fe. Lucky for them, they’re all a lot better traveled, and more worldly-wise, than the average American their age. Still, the transatlantic transplantation can be daunting, fraught with problems large (Where will I live? How will I communicate?) and small (Where will I find my morning latte?). 

“As singers, we’re so accustomed to moving around and being in new environments, and I thought that coming to Germany would be just another one of those changes,” says mezzo-soprano Julia Mintzer, a Philadelphia native at the end of her two years as a member of the Semperoper’s Junges Ensemble in Dresden, where she has continued her training while performing on the company’s main stage. “Well, this was different. It took me a good two months to acclimate. It wasn’t the practicalities — the grocery store, the transport. It was the people.” Over there, she found, “a certain level of friendliness has to be earned. It can’t be assumed.” 

A Juilliard graduate and a veteran of young-artist programs at Santa Fe, Dayton, Washington National Opera and Glimmerglass, Mintzer had grown “used to being greeted, reacted to, in a certain way” in the U.S. Then, she says, “suddenly you’re not. It took me a long time not to take that personally, even though intellectually I knew it was a cultural difference, not me.” 

Mintzer’s Semperoper colleague Rachel Willis-Sørensen echoes that assessment. “Americans have these tools for communicating with one another,” she says, “and some of that affected West Germany, but the East was isolated for so long, it’s a different thing. People are still speaking this older kind of German — a more thorough kind of German than you can get away with in the West. If you try to speak to people indirectly, they won’t know what you’re trying to get at. You have to come right out and say it, really go for it.” The soprano, a Utah native whose success at the Met’s National Council Auditions in 2010 gave her now-thriving career a high-profile boost, had already made her debut at London’s Royal Opera when she took up her three-season Festvertrag, or fixed contract — commonly shortened, in the opera biz, to Fest, and used variably as noun, adjective or verb — for leading roles at the Semperoper.

The difference in communicative tone has its pros and cons.“If you’re going to get criticized, maybe it’s better to do it the American way, through the back door. But if you’re getting a compliment, the old German way makes it even better!” says Willis-Sørensen, who had a linguistic leg up, having lived in Germany during a three-semester break from college and “learned the language independent of the pressures of being a working singer.”

More typical is a singer who has picked up a little German here and there, mostly from sources not very amenable to ordinary chat — Schubert songs, Beethoven’s Ninth. Bass-baritone Evan Hughes, a member of Dresden’s Junges Ensemble since December 2013, spoke hardly a word of German when he entered the company, despite having been raised at Santa Barbara’s Music Academy of the West, where his parents met and married and German lieder were part of his childhood soundtrack. “I had a tiny bit from my studies,” Hughes remembers, “but there’s little chance to get really conversational until you’re there. I took a crash course in Berlin before I started at the opera.” 

Likewise, soprano Karen Vuong, a fellow Californian entering her third year of Fest in Frankfurt, confesses that her German was “very minimal” when she signed her contract; a UCLA graduate and then-recent recipient of Juilliard’s performance-oriented artist diploma, she “bought the Rosetta Stone” program and drilled herself daily. When she got to Germany, though, she says she was “pleasantly surprised, because the Germans are so nice about their language — as long as you show an enthusiasm for speaking and learning. Everyone at the opera house is great about my learning on the job.” Still, she felt a little cowed by her first onstage assignment in Frankfurt, as the First Lady in Die Zauberflöte, with its spoken dialogue “with words difficult even for a German to pronounce,” and by another early role, Gretel, with its “nursery rhymes that every German knows.” She passed both tests. 

Three hundred miles southeast, in Vienna, Pittsburgh-born baritone Tobias Greenhalgh, Juilliard-educated and a member of the Kammeroper-based Junges Ensemble of the Theater an der Wien since last September, extols the benefits of belonging to a polyglot company. “There’s probably at least four languages being spoken at every rehearsal,” he says. “Not only am I around German but Polish, Russian, Lithuanian, Italian — I’m getting a smorgasbord.” (That diversity surely was a boon when his debut role was Onegin — in Russian.) “Everyone seems to know a bit of everyone else’s language,” Vuong says. “It makes for a really fun, really cool work environment.” 

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Così in Dresden, 2014, with Christopher Tiesi (Ferrando) and Willis-Sørensen
© Matthias Creutziger 2015

Language apart, there are the “practicalities” that Mintzer cites, housing prime among them: there’s no “official” lodging provided by any of these companies. “The opera was incredibly helpful with my visa,” she says, “and a lot of the administrative tasks, which otherwise might’ve been overwhelming, but the practical stuff was left to me. Luckily, I had wonderful colleagues who took me in hand, looked for apartments with me — I had some great mentors.” Willis-Sørensen cites mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughn, “who’s been Festing [in Germany] for twenty years. She’s the loveliest person, and she knows everything — what tax guy to go to, where to get your nails done.” Vuong had studied one summer at the Internationale Meistersinger Akademie in Neumarkt, Germany — run by esteemed Juilliard voice teacher Edith Wiens, who maintains strong ties to the Semperoper — and already had an apartment when she arrived. Greenhalgh credits “an expat website” with landing him a fully furnished apartment. He’d fallen in love with Vienna while studying at Juilliard, thanks to a class he took on the city and its culture. “So when I found out I had the opportunity to come here, sing leading roles, and bring my life here at a time when I’m not tied down to anything in the States — well, it was pretty easy to say yes.” When he got there, it was the little things that demanded the most adjustment, not the city itself. “I think Vienna is ranked as the world’s most livable city — or maybe second, after Melbourne,” he says. “Everything’s clean — it works. There’s beautiful art and beautiful buildings and, of course, beautiful music. I feel like I’m in heaven.” 

Still awaiting his own ascent to that heaven, and still buoyant with his victory at this year’s Met National Council Auditions, is Texan tenor Joseph Dennis, who’ll be leaving Juilliard after a single year in the artist-diploma program to take up a Fest contract at Vienna’s Staatsoper. He’s not a Germanophone yet, but, he says, “I’ve purchased some language programs, and Rosetta Stone is probably next, with my Met money.” As for accommodations, “I don’t know yet. People have told me that while it’s more expensive, it’s easier to go through a broker.” He’s getting married on July 25, and his wife will be joining him in Vienna; he’ll have friends at the Staatsoper, too, and at another company — Greenhalgh, a colleague last year in Our Town in Palm Beach. “I’m really not too concerned about the move,” Dennis says. “I’ve always been the type who likes new starts and new adventures.”

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Orlando in Dresden, 2015, with Sonia Prina (Orlando) and Hughes
© Matthias Creutziger 2015

But he’d better count on at least an occasional bout of homesickness. “I moved here all by myself, and it was scary,” admits the seemingly dauntless Hughes, who sang on the Met stage as a Lindemann Young Artist. “I’ve got to admit I’ve still got mixed feelings about living so far away from my family, my loved ones. It’s something I think I’ll always struggle with, but it’s the nature of this business. I’m just happy that in my early thirties, I’m able to be bold and brave and working like this, in another culture.” Hughes was busy rehearsing Handel’s Orlando when a few of his Semperoper colleagues offered an all-American concert entitled “Beautiful Child of Song,” after the Stephen Foster classic. “We Americans have a natural bond,” Willis-Sørensen, one participant (Mintzer was another), says with a note of pride, “and that concert was so much fun. Our encore was ‘America the Beautiful,’ and it was really special to be a part of that.” spacer 

PATRICK DILLON is the New York correspondent for Toronto-based Opera Canada and for Scherzo in Madrid. 

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