Starting something new for the long term is a sobering proposition for sure. Launching a new life takes courage and a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them and every time in my life when I was entering a new phase I always had about 5% excitement and 95% fear. Palpable fear.
Foreigners Feel Fear
People often seem to think that people who come from somewhere else into their culture that they are doing it because they know what to expect and are taking advantage of a situation.
I cannot say if that is true about anyone else, but I can say for certain that it wasn’t the case for me.
Going into new situations has never been comfortable for me and I am unsure about if they are ever comfortable for anyone. To me, it sure seemed like everyone I found in a new place was comfortable and knew what was going on, even when they too were new to it, but for me I can tell you I was shivering in the knees.
Going new places and meeting new people was a challenge for me in the United States but because basically everyone was from the United States it really was not that different. I mean whether you live in a small borough in New Jersey or a small town in Kentucky, basically it is still America and pretty much everything has morphed into this sameness of culture.
But, my ventures across the ocean into Europe, while also being of a similar culture, I experienced true anxiety every time I went someplace new. Regardless of how much I wanted to be there, I still felt a lot of anxiety about it.
Each of these experiences: my study summer in Bregenz, Austria, moving to Zurich for the Opera Studio and finally the flight into Bremen for my first engagement in Germany, created a lot of anxiety for me. I didn’t really know what to expect or how it would go for me in a foreign environment.
Within my European experience I was constantly looking for new opportunities to enter an environment unknown to me. Even though most theaters are alike, they are inhabited by different people, different levels of artistry and certainly a different set of singers to work with. When you work as a guest, most everyone there is acquainted with that situation, so you always come in clueless about everything. Those were all anxious moments.
Auditioning is also one of those anxiety producing activities. I think classical musicians and to a greater degree, opera singers, have one of the most difficult job interview situations there is. A lot of value is placed on perfection and on top of that perfection add compelling musicality, beauty of sound, personal appearance and dress and the one shot show of confidence that sells you to the company. One of the things you have to deal with at auditions are the other people auditioning. The loose orbiting mix of personalities backstage waiting is probably the strangest aspects of it. It is just weird.
Blow Them Away
An artists greatest fear is the fear of being not good enough. There is this subliminal desire to impress because somehow that is what people seem to believe people are looking for and after all of these years I truly believe it isn’t.
I can’t recall ever going into a situation feeling like I was going to “blow them away” with my awesome abilities. In fact, whenever I chose my repertoire on the “blow them away” strategy that never worked. In the end, the only person you are trying to impress is yourself, and when you chose literature to sing that seems to you like a milestone piece, especially for auditions, then you are setting yourself up for failure because already in your mind you are admitting it is a stretch for you.
Never go into an audition with something you are unsure about. Opera is by definition a challenge no matter what you sing, but if you are “trying” to sing something, maybe you can’t actually yet sing it. Rarely does a company hire a singer based on what they might be able to do, they hire on what they can do right now. Two elements are critical: 1. Technical skill in singing an aria and therefore the role. 2. Confidence and expression. It is difficult to have number 2 if number 1 isn’t present.
People are looking for singers who can sing what they are auditioning with. I have seen so many singers crash and burn because they were trying to be more than they were. Honestly, it takes performing to really get good at arias. I actually wouldn’t suggest auditioning with an aria you hadn’t performed in public already with success. So, recitals are a great thing, and I highly recommend the “audition” recital. Singing a recital of your repertoire in performances for anyone who will listen to them.
The audition is the most difficult performance, so you had best know what to expect from yourself when singing an aria. Doing it in a practice room is one thing, on stage it is completely different.
Feeling Out of Place
Being an outsider is a weird thing. It sometimes feels as if I have never lived anywhere where I didn’t feel like I actually 100% belonged. It always felt like I was just passing through. No matter how much I loved living in a place I never was able to settle down there because out of some masochistic tendency I was always on the quest for the next step forward and up.
In retrospect, now years removed from my life in Germany, I find that the place I felt a real love for was in Bonn. My friends and colleagues there are magnificent people. I loved the beautiful setting that Bonn’s natural position on the Rhein afforded it. I feel more connected to Bonn as a place to live than anywhere and it was so well situated in Germany, not too big and not too small and easily accessible to the rest of Europe and the world.
Now even my hometown feels like a foreign country to me. In fact, my native land feels foreign to me.
I guess one of my biggest issues in life is the feeling like I am going to get “stuck” somewhere and will be held prisoner by it. Now the quest for movement and travel is more compelling to me than anything with the one exception being that I can offer a place for people to come and visit me.
Flying into Bremen
Possibly the most anxious I felt in life was when my plane was circling over Bremen on it’s final approach to land back in August 1988. I had rented an apartment but had no furniture, no dishes or cookware, nothing. I wasn’t yet even good enough at German to be able to handle a conversation. I was going to be a soloist in the very German opera “Fidelio” by Beethoven, as the first thing on stage, with a German director whose father was the father of the famous “Deutsche Regie Musikheater” style of opera direction.
I remember the clouds allowing glimpses of the land below, the houses with their shingled roofs and the grounds with the lush deep green of a moist northern German climate. My heart was pumping and I was certain I was launching into a disaster.
But, you just keep on taking steps forward. You land, grab your luggage and make your way to the train station. You climb aboard and see the countryside fly by and you find your way to the apartment to meet your landlord and open the door to nothing.
The first day at the theater was like the first day of school and many in the ensemble were completely new to the theater as they had just changed leadership.
The following three years taught me so much about the language, where I came a fluent speaker, the culture and about music and opera. I got to know some wonderful people who welcomed me with open arms and worked with some fellow Americans who were also Expats as I now was.
As painful as taking steps forward is there is no other way to move forward. I think my most admirable trait is my humility. I never walked into a situation thinking I was anything special at all but always felt like I was there by some mistake in judgement. Humility wins a lot of points with people and it is never wise to go into a situation thinking your are going to transform the place just because of your divine presence.
Well, for the present, I am at a turning point and I have to find my way in a a new world for me. I have yet to find my place in it. America hasn’t felt like home for many years. I’m beginning to think it never will. Maybe it is just me, someone who just can’t settle down.
Whatever it is I am getting a bit too old for the uncertainty in my life. But having lived a life of moving from one place to the other and being able to travel freely, I know that being tied down to a place where I can’t be free to move about is not going to work for me.
At the moment, it seems as if my near future will be about music advocacy, if there is such a thing.