Interview: An opera theater audition tour in Germany through the eyes of an American singer
American tenor Brett Sprague who recently won first prize of the Seattle Opera Guild Singer's Awards just came back from Germany where he sang for theater auditions. GVAI’s Director Christine conducted this interview with him. Learn and enjoy!
GVAI: Thank you Brett, for being willing to share your insights about your tour and your experiences with GVAI's young singers!
Brett: It is absolutely my pleasure to share what I learned on my audition tour; it is information I wish I had from someone who recently had the experience. I hope my insights, however limited, can help!
GVAI: How long did you stay in Germany? What did your schedule look like?
Brett: I made two trips to Germany, both very different. The first set up the second. I spent a week with the Bavarian Opera Academy in Schönberg working with an agent and a vocal coach on repertoire and audition skills. That led to an invitation to return for a three week tour the following month. In total, I was scheduled for five auditions, but performed only four of them. This was due to an unscheduled callback (of sorts) in Munich. There were potentially two other auditions I could have taken, if I had been able to change my flight back to the USA without incurring a massive expense.
During the May audition tour, I averaged three days per city with the exception of a week with the agent and coach between the first set of auditions and the second. The DB trains were my best friend from city to city.
Generally, I would arrive in the city of my audition a day or a day and a half early, so I could get acquainted with the city, walk around, etc. I left the day after each audition, so I could explore as much as possible. No need to rush unless it is necessary, I think. Especially in cities where I was auditioning for an ensemble position. I wanted to make sure it was a place I could enjoy long term.
GVAI: How long did it take you from thinking about doing an audition tour in Germany until actually doing it?
Brett: I have been thinking about it since college when I first went to Munich and fell in love with the culture and people of Germany. I fully intended to go after graduate school, but my time in New York pushed me in a different direction.
GVAI: What held you back and what made you go for it this time?
Brett: What held me back - I was convinced by teachers and mentors that leaving the American market where I was already established would make for a harder re-entry when I inevitably returned to the States. I cannot say whether or not this is true, but I am certainly a better performer and person for taking the risk. I also saw some success here after grad school, so I was in no hurry to leave that momentum behind.
What made me go for it - In January, I had a lot of major life changes happen all at once. As is the case for many people, I decided to throw out the old playbook and try something new. My friend Greg was going to this workshop and invited me to join him. It was great timing for me and I was ready to take a chance. Had he not encouraged me, I wouldn’t have gone. I recommend going with a friend the first time, it is a blast and it makes the process a little easier to adjust to.
So, it has been about ten years since I decided I wanted to do it and here I am finally making it happen. I have no regrets about this choice. If I had gone sooner, I would not have found the right repertoire and would not be ready on a personal level to handle this type of tour. I guarantee I would not have had the success I did, had I gone any sooner.
GVAI: How did you get the invitations to your auditions and how many of them did you do?
Brett: My friend had a few contacts in the business over there and he thought he could procure us some auditions, I also called a contact of mine. None of those contacts led to anything. Honestly, had it not been for the agent I sang for in this workshop (Bavarian Opera Academy), I would not have had any auditions. He made it easy for me. He got me in front of five companies and could have had me in front of two more if I could have remained in Germany. I ended up singing for four companies in total.
GVAI: How did you prepared for the tour?
Brett: In the few weeks between my April and May trips, I had a lot of new repertoire assigned to me by the agent I work with. I made sure all of it was ready to go for day one. Finding the right repertoire and targeting it to the season of the houses makes all the difference. I did my research, listened to advice, and worked really hard to prepare a good aria package for each theater.
GVAI: What does a typical audition at a theater in Germany look like? Are there differences from US?
Brett: In my few experiences, the German system is far better than the American system. First of all, I did not have to pay to audition (beyond travel costs, obviously). Second, the day of audition was so much more structured. Each singer was offered a rehearsal time with the pianist, which was incredibly valuable. I was able to check in with the staff, have a warm up and changing space. These were not cattle call, fifty singer days. Each theater was clear about the repertoire needed and the positions or roles available. My favorite thing was singing on the stage of the theater for the entire creative team and staff of the company. I was lucky to have all but one audition on the stage of each theater. It is inspiring and much more comfortable than a poorly lit, tiny rehearsal room like we often encounter here. Each panel gave me immediate feedback and opened a dialogue with me about what I just did and their impressions. In two instances, Bremen and Munich, I was given the opportunity to have an Arbeitsprobe with the music staff. This was essentially a coaching session on the repertoire so they could see how we worked together. I really enjoyed that opportunity. All in all, the auditions I had there were much more organized, respectful, and enjoyable than any of my experiences here in the States.
GVAI: What were the requirements for the auditions? What repertoire did you offer? Did agents or directors ask you to sing something which is not on your list? What arias did they ask for? Any English ones?
Brett: My audition repertoire was many of the Spieltenor greatest hits. I was going in for specific roles and ensembles with predefined repertoire, so each was a little different. For example, for Bremen I knew they wanted Steuermann, Pedrillo, and Beppe, so I presented those and they asked for all of them. Then they wanted to hear my English aria because it was a piece none of them knew. I take my English in because it is a very showy piece and I enjoy singing it, but I would not start with it there, like I do in the US. In Nordhausen, it was specifically for Pedrillo so I offered both the aria and the romanze. They also asked for a monologue sample from the score. In Munich, I offered a list geared toward their upcoming season that was indicative of my Fach. In my callback, they requested something not on my list so they could hear a certain part of my register needed to determine whether I was capable of singing a specific role. They explained that, so I had no problem offering the piece.
GVAI: Did you get constructive feedback from agencies or was it just the kind "Thank you. You'll hear from us."
Brett: I got very specific and helpful feedback from the agent and the theater staff. I loved the specific notes and the opportunity to coach with the music staff. It was a completely different experience from those I have had in the States.
GVAI: Were all the interviews/auditions in German or did agents and directors speak in English to you?
Brett: I started every audition communicating in German. Everyone I sang for spoke perfect English and in a few cases they asked for my preferred language after I sang and we started talking. In Nordhausen, they were concerned that my lack of fluency would prevent me from giving a convincing performance of the dialogue for Pedrillo. I was able to convince them I was capable, but had I been more prepared conversationally, I wouldn't have needed to convince them. The Intendant in Munich encouraged me to get better as well, after we spoke.
GVAI: What is it like for you on an audition day? Do you have routines that help you to be your best?
Brett: I do not have rituals, because I find them to be a dangerous crutch. That said, we are all different! I like to do a little yoga in the morning, go for a walk, and have a nice breakfast the day of an audition. It makes me feel awake, excited, and energized. I also drink a lot of water.
GVAI: How do you deal with jetlag and vocal health on such a demanding tour?
Brett: I am a HUGE proponent of red eye flights and powering through the day of arrival. Both trips I arrived in the morning, local time, checked into my airbnb and went about the day as normal. I am not a sleeping pill person, especially on planes, so I did my best to sleep on the flight even if for a few hours. Then, no matter the exhaustion, I hit the ground running. I walked a lot day one and hydrated like crazy. Each day looked a lot like that, tons of water, miles of walking, and plenty of fresh air. I adjusted pretty quickly with that recipe. The nice thing about being alone on the longer audition trip was not feeling the need to talk too much, thus resting my voice. That plus plenty of sleep and plenty of water was a great combo for vocal and physical health.
GVAI: How much German did you need to get around?
Brett: Everyone I encountered spoke English, but being able to communicate in German was huge for my credibility in the theaters. This was especially true because I was the only American in every single audition. Traveling around it was easy to ask for things in English if I had trouble understanding or communicating in German. I always defaulted to German, if I could, because it is respectful (I think) to communicate in the vernacular and also because it helps me improve my language skills.
GVAI: Singers always ask how much money they should save before going on an audition tour. How much did you spend this time?
Brett: On the three week tour, between planes, trains, buses, airbnbs, food, coaching fees, and miscellaneous expenses, I spent just under $2000. I took some coachings while I was there, which upped my cost, as did a fun excursion or two. I budgeted for that, because I know if I had been there and spent all my time in my room pinching pennies, I would have been miserable. But that is me; each person is different.
GVAI: How many auditions or audition tours do you think it can take until a singer lands a job?
Brett: I am fortunate, I got multiple offers from these trips. My agent said it is not uncommon for his singers to take between twenty and forty auditions before they get an offer. It depends, I think, on what one is looking to land. Again, if I didn’t have an agent in my corner, I would not have landed anything.
GVAI: What did you learn from the tour? Any surprises? New experiences? Cultural differences?
Brett: I loved it all! It was fun to see the cultural differences from Bayern to Berlin to Bremen and everywhere in between. I was happily surprised by the opportunity to sing on amazing stages, looking out on the theater. I learned a lot about myself as a performer and person, in many ways.
GVAI: What would you recommend singers to do before going on an audition tour to Germany? How did you know you were ready?
Brett: I firmly believe in making connections before one goes over there. If I hadn’t done the workshop and met the agent, I would have aimlessly wandered with no auditions or at least no auditions specifically set up for me to succeed. I would say the three biggest things for me were:
I never want to be a downer, but I mean this with all sincerity: Don’t go on a European audition tour too soon. Develop your brand, your repertoire, and your talents. Research the business and the differences in how things are run over there. Ask for help. Be patient. You will have more fun and more success that way.
GVAI: It is often said, it is good for people to have dreams and to aim high. If life would be ideal what would your professional life look like and what do you do to get closer?
Brett: I used to have very specific dreams/goals regarding where I wanted to sing and what roles I wanted to sing. That has changed a lot over the years. Now, I want to continue to make my living in the performing arts, preferably onstage. I would love to get into a larger German theater’s ensemble in the next few years. That would afford me the opportunity to make a decent living while performing a lot of roles and living in a new place. It would be a grand adventure! In order to make that happen, I will continue to hone my performance skills, my spoken German, and my repertoire so this audition season I can take a step toward that opportunity.
GVAI: What's next?
Brett: I am in Hawai’i now, teaching at the Hawai’i performing arts festival, then I am going to be with GVAI. I sing a gala in Colorado, then on to a new opera workshop in New York. I will spend half of the Fall season in Germany for an immersive language course and auditions, followed by some American auditions. I have a few projects in Germany coming up in Spring and Summer 2019 that I will announce as soon as I have final contracts signed.
GVAI: Thank you so much, Brett. This is great inside information. We will keep our fingers crossed for you and are looking forward to your performance as Monostatos in The Magic Flute with us in August!
If you want to learn more about Brett, visit his website www.brettsprague.com.
We at GVAI are preparing for our Summer Opera Program Magic Flute and German Art song that will start shortly. We are taking a blogging summer break and will be back with a new blog post in September.
Meanwhile follow us on Facebook and if you are in the Greater Seattle area, please come to our performances.
Have a wonderful summer break full of relaxation, fun music learning and travelling!
If you want to improve your German diction and get a head start on your recital or audition rep for next season, Christine is doing her famous Online German Diction Coaching for singers from all over the world. Check it out here.
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Most blog posts from June 2017 - June 2018 were written by GVAI's blogger Anikka Abbott who has just started her journalism studies. We already miss her. Learn more about her here or connect with her on Facebook.
Hello, I am Christine, the director of GVAI, a passionate singer, German diction, voice and performance coach. I love music, singing and dancing. Life is an exciting journey and I invite you to walk with me....