American Opera Singers in Germany Shed Light on How They’re Safely Going Back to Work

Nationaltheater, where the Bayerische Staatsoper performs. Wilfried Hösl

In Germany, live, staged opera is making a gradual return. Just last week, an ambitious second installment of director Stefan Herheim’s Ring Cycle opened in Berlin. And in Bavaria, the site of the first COVID-19 infection in Germany, the Bayerische Staatsoper (B.S.O.) in Munich announced it would be building out its revised season of staged operas and ballets following demand from a culture-starved public. Such news might seem otherworldly for opera fans in the United States, where the Metropolitan Opera has canceled its entire 2020-21 season, a grim bellwether for other U.S. performing arts institutions as the country fails to limit the spread of a respiratory virus that renders singers particularly vulnerable. 

For the handful of American singers based in Germany, the dissonance between what’s going on at home and a gradual return to work is unsettling. And for contracted ensemble members readjusting to an altered but rigorous resuming of their jobs, it’s downright head-spinning. 

“It’s very disorienting being an American in Germany because most of the news that we see relates to what is going on back home,” said Samantha Hankey, an American mezzo-soprano in the ensemble of the Bayerische Staatsoper since 2019, “so, being in a country where things are going pretty good, it’s heartbreaking being at work.”

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Hankey and her colleagues, a group of 22 singers of various voice types, performance experiences, and nationalities, form the core of the historic Munich theater’s solo-vocal reserves. Unlike most singers stateside, who negotiate a freelance career after music school and young artist programs, contracted ensemble singers in Germany build their careers performing routinely and understudying both principal and featured roles in state-supported theaters. A local thirst for opera in these communities means that opportunities are abundant, exposure is high, and freelancing colleagues can number among opera’s international A-listers. 

While many European singers have launched their careers from ensemble jobs in regional houses, a small handful of American singers, like Hankey in Munich, Jessye Norman in Berlin, and Thomas Hampson in Zurich, have also turned to European repertory theaters to gain experience. Despite the job security ensemble members enjoy, Americans have a steep learning curve that involves relocating overseas, often to provincial cities; navigating rehearsals in foreign languages; and quickly adapting to a demanding performance schedule in which some productions may receive mere hours of rehearsal before opening. 

“It’s not so much that things are crazy and out of control,” said baritone Sean Michael Plumb, a B.S.O. ensemble member since 2015, “but it forces me to trust my colleagues that everyone is doing their job.” 

That level of activity not only provides plenty of opportunities for on-the-job learning, but it also permits a flexibility of repertoire and frequency of performances that sates the region’s unique cultural appetite and betrays both a different business model and a different regard for opera than is the standard in the U.S. 

“The enthusiasm that the Munich community has for this theater is like nothing I have ever seen. It is a respected thing to be a singer here. It is an honor to be a singer,” observed soprano Emily Pogorelc, whose arrival in Munich in advance of her contract start in August was fraught with uncertainty and bureaucracy. 

Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed that passion in her remarks about expanded virus precautions to Bundestag lawmakers last week, saying, “we want the economy to recover; we want artists to be able to perform again.” 

And little by little, perform again the artists have. Since the spring, when weekly livestreamed concerts brought both performers and a small number of audience members into the Staatsoper, performances have resumed in Munich with the formal opening of the season, the premiere of Marina Abramović’s 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, in September. But reopening the Staatsoper, with its rapid turnover of artists and productions, means adapting to the pandemic in the audience and backstage, and intendant Nikolaus Bachler, in his final year on the job, has opted to follow the protocol developed for this year’s Salzburg Festival, during which over 100 operatic, theatrical, and symphonic events were presented to 70,000 people with zero resulting COVID-19 cases. 

While distancing in the theater, masks, routine testing of artists and staff, and maintenance of individual contact diaries for employees all factor into the plan, the B.S.O. has also borrowed Salzburg’s tiered badge system for workers. Ranging from red (artists whose work makes abiding by distancing or mask rules in rehearsals impossible) to yellow (employees expected to abide by standard public health guidelines), ID badges have come to symbolize how the element of trust that Plumb mentioned in day-to-day ensemble work has morphed during the pandemic. “It takes a lot of trust in our entire community at the opera house,” Hankey affirms. “COVID-19 is still out there. We are taking a risk.”

ID badges alert members of the Bayerische Staatsoper company what social distancing protocols they are adhering to. Bayerische Staatsoper

Regardless of Salzburg’s success however, B.S.O.’s endeavor to apply these measures over a longer period of time to a greater number of staged productions with variables like choruses, international casts, and involved technical processes is a particularly ambitious one. Overcoming the challenges has meant changing rehearsal processes, both for revivals, which might receive just one stage rehearsal before opening, as well as new productions, which can luxuriate for weeks in a rehearsal room. 

In a recent remount of The Magic Flute, starring Hankey as The Second Lady, quick changes were eliminated and music was cut, though it actually received a slower and more intentional rehearsal process than when she rehearsed the part back in February. Meanwhile a new production of Walter Braunfels’s Die Vögel, an adaptation of Aristophanes’s satirical ensemble comedy The Birds starring Pogorelc, has been holding music rehearsals in a warehouse in Munich to accommodate the large cast and chorus under conductor Ingo Metzmacher.

“It’s a very timely piece about following good hope and advising friends through the adventures in the bird kingdom, but it has a huge chorus. It was so incredible to hear such a large chorus live, now,” Pogorelc said. 

Though ensemble singers spend the majority of their time in their home theaters, the Staatsoper encourages singers to sing roles at other houses in Europe and the United States. But since the onset of the pandemic in March, a proverbial “waterfall of cancellations,” as Plumb puts it, has continued its demoralizing flow outside of Munich. The impulse to return to work where possible, however, has remained strong, even as safety measures evolve in response to the virus. 

“The initial shock has worn off and we’re all rolling up our sleeves and doing whatever it takes to put the show up,” he added.

The luxury of returning to work is now granted to a small handful of singers across the globe. But for both the artists and the enthusiastic and compliant public, the distance has prompted a reflection on the value of opera for both singers and audience members. 

“I have a renewed sense of appreciation for what it is that I do, how special it is, and that it is needed. I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do in the middle of a pandemic, but it feels right to me,” Hankey said. “It feels really appreciated by the audience and it makes me feel like I have purpose.”

American Opera Singers in Germany Shed Light on How They’re Safely Going Back to Work