German Thematic Trip

Information Tour at the Invitation of the Federal Foreign Office, October 2018

Opera in Germany – Historic Development, Structure and Career Opportunities

In October this year, at the invitation of the German Federal Foreign Office, four Australian singers were given the opportunity to be part of an Information Tour to Germany. Livia Brash (soprano) and Nathan Bryon (tenor) from Pacific Opera (PO) and two gifted young singers from the German Australian Opera Grant (GAOG) - Fleuranne Brockway (mezzo) and Fiona McArdle (soprano). I accompanied the group and took part in all activities in my role as Executive Vice Chair of Pacific Opera. The information I gathered on the trip will become an excellent resource for young Australian singers wishing to make the move to Germany to pursue operatic careers.

The Goethe Institute, Bonn arranged the itinerary and provided excellent guides who made travel arrangements and providing cultural background. All expenses for the singers were generously covered by the German Government.

Activities and encounters during the packed five-day itinerary included:

Day One:

Our first stop was Hessiches Staatstheater Wiesbaden. Over 600 people work at the Staatstheater where a large range of plays, ballets, musicals and over 25 operas are produced annually. The theatre is the host for the annual festival Internationale Maifestspiele Wiesbaden, established in 1896 following the concept of the Bayreuth Festival.

There is a long history of Australians working at this house and currently Sharon Kempton (winner of the 1st GAOG) and Daniel Carison, (winner of the 2017 GAOG) are performing there. One of our group, Fleuranne Brockway will take up a position at this house in 2019.

We were welcomed by Head Dramaturg, Regine Palmai who greeted us before taking us to a production rehearsal for Jenufa, to get an insight into the everyday work of a German Opera House. It was fascinating for our young artists to hear an opera being sung in Czech, with direction being given in German and responses in English. Artists from many nationalities were in the company and most effortlessly switched from German to English and back again. Australian baritone, Daniel Carison did so as a principal in this cast. The technical director, Dominick Scheiermann showed us around the extraordinary premises including the stunning opera theatre. The backstage and production facilities are all in house and put our beloved Sydney Opera House to shame…

A lunch followed attended by both Sharon Kempton and Daniel Carison plus our own PO alumna, Sarah Jones, who had sung at Wiesbaden for several years before recently taking up a new position at Staatsoper Stuttgart. This lunch was utterly invaluable in describing the working conditions, expectations, potential pitfalls, difficult red tape and culture of the house from Australian singers’ perspectives. Our young artists came away with their eyes fully opened in terms of what it means to win a competition and find yourself plunged into a foreign system. Below: Left to right, Nathan Bryon, Livia Brash, Fiona McArdle, Regine Palmai, Dominick Scheiermann.

Evening

In the evening we travelled by train to Bielefeld, some 4 hours train ride to the north.

Day Two:

After a late evening arrival, we were up early and visiting and the Rudolf-Oetker Concert Hall, an extraordinary building in Bielefeld. Singers are pictured with a 17th century tapestry.  The Bielefeld Theatre is the largest theatre in East Westphalia, reaching out with its approx. 500 performances per year to over 200,000 spectators in the region, but also nationwide.

Artistic Administrator of the Municipal Theatre, Stephanie Pavel, met us. We know one another from the Germany Australia Opera Forum in 2017. It was wonderful to see Stephanie again. Canberran pianist, coach and conductor, Adam Laslett was our tour guide for the morning. We soon realised that wherever we went there would be an Australian musician. We were shown the backstage workings of the entire theatre complex and introduced to many friendly and fascinating theatre people. (As it happened, Stephanie had been responsible for assisting PO alumnus, Baritone James Roser, to find employment in Germany some years ago. I met with James in Vienna on my way home and he was amazed to see us both together in the below photo.) L-R Stephanie Pavel, Nathan Bryon, Fiona McArdle, Fleuranne Brockway, Livia Brash, Adam Laslett and myself, seated.

The Bielefeld theatre is a typical smaller theatre which produces and presents opera, theatre and dance equally. It was eye opening to learn just how much is produced in this house and again what wonderful production facilities were available. The house was typical of the German Municipal Theatre Scene and the kind of place a young Australian could begin a career.

In the afternoon we were offered an exploratory audition for our singers. This was a wonderful opportunity to see how auditions are conducted in Germany. A panel of 12, including myself was formed and included the musical director, two opera directors, two dramaturgs, music staff, and various others. Our group was then invited to a production rehearsal for Hansel and Gretel, following which we were included in an extensive question and answer session in the most generous way by the director and the two major principals, the director and cast switching into English to make the experience more inclusive for us. So many questions were answered by the performers, leaving us all tired but excited. 

Above, Stephanie Pavel, Nathan, Fiona, Fleuranne, Livia, Adam Laslett, Christine Douglas seated.

Day Three:

Gütersloh is the home of the prestigious Neue Stimmen competition - A Young Talent Programme of the Bertelsmann Foundation. The foundation is both a think tank and an agent for social change. Australian soprano Nicole Car was a winner in 2013. Approximately 1,500 applications are submitted for each year’s competition. In 2017, 1,430 singers from 76 nations applied to compete. Neue Stimmen prize-winners receive a cash award and long-term support in securing high-profile engagements. Opera house directors and agents use the competition to scout for new talent and to bring promising singers from around the world to the venues they represent.

As guests, our group was given rare access to Masterclasses given by the great Brigitte Fassbaender and an Open Masterclass given by John Norris from Berlin. It was a joy and an honour to experience Frau Fassbaender’s work with the young competitors. We were also invited for lunch and many informative conversations ensued with the various competitors and organisers.

Evening - Train to Berlin, 3.5 hrs

Day Four:

Our group met with Mathias Schultz, Artistic Director of Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin State Opera), Spokesperson, Victoria Dietrich and Corinna Scheurle, a member of the International Opera Studio of the Staatsoper. During a ninety-minute meeting we were able to ask any questions we wished about the way the house and the system function in Berlin. All three were fonts of knowledge and so generous with their time. Corinna gave us a detailed insight into just how busy a young artist is in such circumstances. She is currently a scholarship holder of the Liz Mohn Culture and Music Foundation, allied with the Bertelsmann Foundation.

A brisk walk through Berlin took us to the Komische Oper where we met with Chief Administrator and Head of the Opera Studio, Dominik Licht and a number of young artists from the International Opera Studio which was formed in 2008. The studio provides young singers with intensive, practice-oriented additional training after their singing studies, preparing them over a period of two years expressly for a career on the stage. Dominick took us through the role of the young artist program and the concept and culture of the house which most obviously revolves around the personality and artistic bravery of another Australian, Barrie Kosky. When Barrie arrived the reverence with which he is held was palpable. I was delighted with the warmth of the greeting as it had been years.

The strong impression which stayed with me was that the Young Artists are onstage straight away, using their new knowledge. It took me back to a time when Pacific Opera produced an annual production and how important that was in building young careers. After an intense 90 minute meeting, we were each given a show bag of goodies including the Program for 2018-19, a fan, a balloon, a mug, 2 pens etc. pictured below. Anything to do with Barrie is always quirky, intelligent and entertaining. I took detailed notes on the audition process for this young artist program.

Day Four continued – Career paths in the German Opera Scene

During our afternoon we met with karsten witt music management gmbh – a Commercial Artists’ Placement Agency, mainly focussing on classical musicians. We met with the founder Karsten, a former CEO of Southbank Centre, London and currently director of the agency and Kerstin Alt – Artists’ Manager. This agency is interested in building the careers of artists over time. We were given a great deal of relevant information on how to go about getting an agent in Germany.

In the evening we were at the opera to see a performance of Me?de?e by Luigi Cherubini at Staatsoper Unter den Linden, in French with German and English subtitles, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. The opera was a tour de force for the Médeé, Sonya Yoncheva and Barenboim was all you would expect. The opera house itself was absolutely gorgeous and had apparently benefitted from a recent renovation which improved acoustics and gave greater height to the ceiling, making life more pleasant for those seated in the third Rang. It was great to see Corinna Scheurle, the young artist who had been so generous with her time in the morning, on stage in a main supporting role and singing beautifully.  

Left to right: Nathan Bryon, Fleuranne Brockway, Fiona McArdle & Livia Brash at the Berlin State Opera excited to see a performance of Medée.

The Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin's Mitte district is the city's oldest opera house. The Berlin State Opera has been regrouped under the roof of the Berlin Opera Foundation along with Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Komische Oper, the Berlin State Ballet, and the Bu?hnenservice Berlin, a stage services company, with a view to securing their long-term existence.

Day Five:

The Services of the Federal Artists' Placement Agencies; Work Permit Regulations

Our group met with the Mr. Jo?rg Bru?ckner, Teamleader Film/TV, Theatre, Music (Opera, Musical Theatre) at the ZAV-Ku?nstlervermittlung Berlin  - Federal Artists' Engagement Agency Berlin. This meeting was extraordinarily useful. We learnt a great deal about the complexities of working in German houses and the Visa and Permit issues and now have contacts we can speak to and a wealth of information to disseminate to young singers.

The Placement Service staff (placement agents) themselves come from artistic vocations (e.g. directors, singers, dramaturges, actors etc.) and advise employers and employees on all artistic and vocational questions. The Placement Service for the Performing Arts also helps foreign artists with the approval procedure they have to undergo before they can work in Germany. This government funded agency works for artists free of charge.

Lunch at the Federal Foreign Office – Foreign Ministry

The Federal Foreign Office represents Germany’s interests to the world. It promotes international exchange and offers protection and assistance to Germans abroad. With headquarters in Berlin and a network of 229 missions abroad, the Federal Foreign Office maintains Germany’s relations with other countries as well as with international and supra-national organisations.

The Visitors Programme and its information tours are also initiated by the Federal Foreign Office. Each year these information tours give some 1,000 guests, among them foreign journalists, politicians, and experts from all fields of education, art and culture, an up-to-date and varied picture of Germany through exchange with specialists and personal experience.

At the invitation of the Directorate-General for Culture and Communication, we were hosted at lunch by Jan Ku?hn von Burgsdorff, Cultural and Media Relations Southeast Asia and Iran and Alexander Winter, Desk Officer Australia, Mongolia.

We enjoyed seeing this extraordinary building with its wonderful views and eccentric vintage elevators. We will stay in touch with these generous representatives of Germany. This was a fitting end to an exceptional trip.

Left to right, Diplomat Alexander Winter, Fiona McArdle, Fleuranne Brockway, Livia Brash,. Nathan Bryon, Christine Douglas, Diplomat Jan Kühn von Burgsdorff  on the rooftop of the German Foreign Office, Berlin.

Above, Goethe Institute Guide #1, Nicholas Nordt, farewelling us at Bielefeld train station.

Report by Christine Douglas, Executive Vice Chair, Pacific Opera Company, Sydney, Australia.

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