Late last fall, after years of hoping, saving, waiting, and planning, I packed my two suitcases and moved to Germany. For those of you who know me, you know that moving to Europe was nearly always part of my career plan in some way. However, I'm aware that some may believe this a perplexing choice, often misconstrued as an overly-romanticized daydream. And perhaps there is some element of dreaming - we do work in a creative field after all. But, I know that for me, and many others, moving to Europe is part of a calculated risk that can be taken to develop a career. This choice is of course a highly personal one and something more complex than I can sufficiently articulate in one blog post. Still, I wanted to present some of the most compelling factors that I took into consideration when I moved.
Like nearly every American singer, I struggle with the financial burden of student loans and the cost of higher education in the US. This makes graduate school - something that is not only an excellent learning experience, but also a nearly universally expected credential for professional musicians - to feel unattainable in the US simply because I cannot stand to incur more debt. However, due to more substantial government and popular support, graduate school in Europe is a much more cost-effective path. Even third-country nationals (those who are not citizens of the EU and a small list of other countries) can attend school for less than the price of community college in most parts of the US. For example, the most expensive program I've considered in Europe is €5000 a year, though a vast majority of programs cost between €0 and €1000 a semester. Some classes are taught in English, while others are in the local language of the university. The less mainstream the language, the more likely it is that courses could be offered in English. European education credentials can also lead to networking opportunities and can assure connections that you are committed to living in Europe.
Number of Jobs and Performances
According to the latest statistics from Operabase, Germany alone averages over 7100 operatic performances a year, whereas the United States barely cracks 900 (though bear in mind that these may be pre-pandemic numbers). This is not only due to much more frequent performances, but also an absolute wealth of opera companies. Most towns and cities of significant (and sometimes insignificant) size will house one or more theater companies, which are often aided by financial support from the government. Therefore, it is also safe to say that there are simply, by virtue, more jobs in the arts in Germany. In addition to a staff of soloists, most houses hire out choruses, extra choruses, coaches, dancers, instrumentalists, stage crews, and designers. It’s also not uncommon for the orchestra and chorus to have a concert season separate from operatic productions. Does this guarantee a position at an opera house or with a choir? No, certainly not. But it does signify a much larger number of contracted, full-time positions than in the US.
Speaking of contracts, that leads me to what is perhaps the most alluring possibility of working in Europe. Stability. Many positions in the European system are contracted, meaning you are the employee of a particular house or company, and don't necessarily have to rely on a gig-to-gig grind to survive. This is the opera equivalent of working a 9-5 job. You have insurance, dedicated time to prepare musical material, a salary, and vacation time. Most of these benefits are codified in law, and in some cases, opera house employees are technically government employees that work in the cultural sector. For me, the prospect of being able to create art and perform without so many of the mental and financial uncertainties of gig life is palpable. The nature of contracted positions also offered (and continue to offer) many singers and creatives in Germany a fair amount of financial protection during the pandemic, even when performances are cancelled.
Certainly, I am aware that no place and no system is perfect. There are structural issues and problematic power dynamics at play in the opera industry all over the world. Moving to another country can be expensive, isolating, and uncomfortable. Bureaucracy and language barriers can cause serious frustration. But despite all of that, I think that for me, at the present moment in my life and career, it’s the best decision I could have made. Thus far, the experience has been liberating, and I feel that for the first time, I am able to really discover what I have to say as an artist and form a clearer image of who I want to become. Am I terrified more frequently than I care to say? Yes. Am I excited for what’s to come? Absolutely.
Have you ever considered moving abroad to pursue your career or education? Where do you have your sights set on? We'd love to discuss this more in the comments!