Master Class: Between Calling and Career

Photos: Jan Voth
Movement Coach John Norris (left) explains that not only is the voice important, so is stage presence, expressiveness and having fun.

During the “Neue Stimmen” Master Class, young opera talents not only learn a great deal about singing and expressing themselves onstage, they also discover what the “opera business” is all about.

Singers are responsible for their careers, not agents. But a good agent is someone who solves their problems,” says Boris Orlob, smiling at the group assembled before him. The director of a Berlin-based agency that represents performers and other artists, Orlob is meeting with 12 young people from North and South America, Europe and Asia. They all have the same dream: a high-profile career as an opera singer.

And all of them have completed the most important steps required for reaching their goal: studying voice, entering major competitions, participating in opera studios for young voices, taking on their first roles. Having competed in the “Neue Stimmen” International Singing Competition – which not all of them won, but during which they all showed themselves to be extremely gifted young talents – they have now been invited to participate in the “Neue Stimmen” Master Class in Gütersloh. That means they will spend an entire week working with renowned international opera personalities such as soprano Cheryl Studer, tenor Francisco Araíza, conductor and opera director Gustav Kuhn, movement coach John Norris and agent Boris Orlob.

Tips for getting started

The world of opera is changing, and not just because of the Internet. Shrinking budgets are also an issue – especially when it comes to young singers and their initial engagements. “There are big differences between the various opera studios for young people, including the compensation,” Orlob says. Anyone who wants to make it in the opera business has to make the right decisions, network with the right contacts and trust the right people. “Singers who go from a music college to an opera house often find they are on their own. They know about singing and have possibly participated in a few of their college productions, but they’ve not yet had the chance to discover how things work in the real world. That’s not something they can learn at an opera house, since, to exaggerate just a bit, the people there want someone who is 25 years old and already has 15 years of professional experience,” explains director Andreas Leisner. “What every singer therefore needs is a major reality check. But that is not what being a singer is all about. A singer is a singer because he or she has a voice. And a spirit. And the spirit has to match the voice.” (Andreas Leisner)

A good manager can make it possible for singers to continue concentrating only on their voice and spirit. “After all, we must never let our profession become a business,” emphasizes Cheryl Studer. The renowned soprano has won the Furtwängler Prize, the Prix Maria Callas, the Franz Schubert Institute Prize for Excellence in Lied Interpretation and two Grammy Awards. She has been part of over 100 record, CD and video productions. She has also worked as a director and, since 2003, has been a professor of voice at Wurzburg’s University of Music. “As an artist you have to learn how to deal with this business,” she says. “At the same time, you cannot forget or ignore the traditional values that have existed for centuries. Otherwise you would be lost. Otherwise there would be no reason to become an opera singer at all.”

“It doesn’t matter which decisions a young singer makes. What is important is that they know what the consequences are and can live with them,” she explains. “Healthy singers don’t think about business. They sing because they love singing. For them it’s a calling, otherwise they wouldn’t choose to make so many sacrifices. The sensibility, the vulnerability – that is what makes it interesting. Many of my students don’t really know what awaits them. That means they have to trust people with experience.”

Flooded with applications

People like Boris Orlob, who also finds time to meet with and give advice to individual participants after the master classes have ended. One such participant was tenor Jonathan Winell from the United States. Winell took part in auditions for the 2013 “Neue Stimmen” competition and joined the International Opera Studio at the Berlin State Opera in the 2013/2014 season, having received a scholarship from the Liz Mohn Culture and Music Foundation. “I found the meeting very informative. Naturally you’re always interested in good ideas for your own career,” Winell says. “I would like to gain as much experience as possible in the coming years. Singing in Germany is a good way to do that, since opera is such an important part of the culture here. No other country has so many opera houses.”

Before departing for Berlin, Orlob asks the “Neue Stimmen” team where he can view recordings of the performances given by the up-and-coming talents. His interest is genuine, since he knows that anyone who makes it to the “Neue Stimmen” Master Class has something to offer. “I receive about five unsolicited applications every day,” he says. “As a singer you have to distinguish yourself in some way from the rest. I don’t have the time to deal with everyone, since I have to concentrate on the artists I’m already representing. But when someone I know and trust writes me that they think a performer is good, then naturally I try to have a look.”

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