Reaching for the Gold Ring
Attempting a career as an opera singer is akin to climbing Mt. Everest. It seems almost impossible, but those who make it do so by taking one step at a time and making the most of each step. My former voice student Thomas Lehman, a young baritone with all the necessary attributes, is currently singing at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. He is there because he was a winner last year in the annual competition of the Opera Foundation, a commendable organization which has since 1987 provided the opportunity and the funds for up to four young American singers to be “interns” at three major European opera houses.
Tom attended Ithaca College for his undergraduate study and earned his Master of Music in Vocal Performance at the Eastman School of Music. Last year he was in the Young Artist Program for the Florida Grand Opera, and now he has this amazing opportunity to work abroad and hone his craft … for opera singing is a craft as well as an art. It requires a great deal more than most people realize. Years ago, the kinds of programs and scholarships now available in this country did not exist, and many young American singers went to Europe to study, and hopefully, to work. In Germany opera is supported by the government. Opera has long been a vital part of the culture of Europe in a way it is not in the United States.
Tom shared some thoughts with me on what he has learned during his first year in Europe and gave me permission to pass these on. I generally ask him about his health when we communicate, because a cold or a sore throat is something a singer does not want to deal with. The best singers take excellent care of themselves; they have to. As a singer, your body is your instrument, and fatigue, depression, muscle strains can adversely affect your voice.
Here’s part of Tom’s reply (emphasis throughout is mine):
Thanks for your message! Fingers crossed, but I haven't even contracted a scratchy throat or cough since I arrived, so that is great! (I’m) about 2 months into my better diet and workout plan and things are going much better vocally, so I am happy. I’m encouraged that my bosses seem pleased with what I’m doing.
As you said, Europe used to be the best way for a singer to get a good start. I like to think this is still the case. So many people obsess about getting into schools of "repute" that they don't realize the truth of it all. Getting into school is a nice accomplishment, but this business does not reward such things. Opera auditions can certainly be aided by connections, but if you go in and lay an egg, your chance is ruined. Young singers seem to forget that every year, 10-20 or so singers enter these college programs, so year by year those numbers add up astronomically. There are really maybe 6 or 7 Young Artist programs that are truly valuable, so each year, there are maybe 40-50 spots total in the Opera world for young singers to snatch up and feel that their career is being "vaulted".
The reason Europe is such an important place, specifically Germany, is because of Governmental support and most of all, youth interest in the art form. I have begun to suggest to some of my friends that they look into schools in Europe, whether in the UK, France, Italy, or Germany. Seeing 2000 seats filled every single night I perform is really inspiring. By the numbers, I will have sung for 130,000 bodies (some repeated, of course) in this season alone, which amazes me.
The trap that I know exists in the states is "what do I do after school if I don't get into a YAP (Young Artist Program)?" People who feel like they "aren't ready" at 24 to step on a stage professionally had better be Wagnerian soprani or some other "huge" voice type that takes years to develop. I see Musical Theater and Theater folk who are just MEANT to be on stage. In opera, it seems as if the problem is that young singers are not given the chance to go on stage and do much of anything. I know plenty of people who were lucky to get a 1 or 2 line part in their 4 years of school and then they are left confused and wondering if it was all worth it. Sometimes, as in my case, you get lucky and do 4-5 roles in 4 years and learn a billion wonderful things about stage deportment, but what about those who haven't?
A lot of thoughts. It's a wonderful thing that schools are taking more and more singers in at colleges these days (so was the trend in my years at both schools) but I think with tuition rates ever climbing, there is very little reason to do advanced studies in a place where the amount owed is more than the amount earned through 5-10 years. I think the wonderful thing about the US is that there are plenty of schools that aren't asking for tuition fees of 60-70K that can provide in a lot of cases MORE roles and opportunities with voice professors who are just as helpful and talented. People just assume that if they go to the "big city", everything will happen. I see it happen far too much with my colleagues and it breaks my heart. I feel lucky to be where I am.
My thoughts are more or less indicative of my worries for fellow singers who are perhaps less fortunate than I. There are far too many factors in play in this profession, but I have to admit that the best singers are not always the most successful. It's not just their voice that matters, even if sometimes we wish that were just the case. Sadly, no one can get a minor in Luck along side of their degree in Voice. I just feel blessed to have had some of it thus far!
Tom is so right about luck. A lucky break can “jump-start” a young singer’s career, without a doubt. But the singer needs to have worked hard to be prepared to accept that break. Tom’s comment about schools not giving young singers the opportunities they really need to perform made me think, and I plan to look more carefully at smaller, less prestigious schools which have active opera programs to suggest to my students. These are often schools that are also more affordable and don’t leave the student with the financial burden of repaying excessive student loans.
Lastly, I wish I could find the magic potion that would make opera much more a part of the culture of this country outside of the metropolitan areas which support active opera houses. The Deutsche Oper Berlin season runs from late August through early July … nearly a full year. And to his great credit, because this happens seldom, the opera house has engaged Thomas Lehman, American baritone, for a second season. Toi toi toi Tom!! (That’s opera talk for “Way to go!”)
Link to Tom’s website: http://www.thomaslehmanbaritone.com/
Thomas Lehman, baritone
photo by Gerry Szymanski