When you mention alto Dina König in front of her former colleagues, they insist on her musical excellence. That’s because, in September 2020, König gave up her burgeoning career as a singer of early music. Instead, she decided to become a tram driver with the local public transportation system in Basel, Switzerland.
Musicians often view those who exit the field with a certain suspicion, seeing the practice of their art as a calling rather than a job. König’s decision to drive a tram—instead of, say, getting into real estate—seemed especially radical. The utilitarian aspect of public transportation can appear a world away from the concert hall and the people who inhabit it. In September 2020, when Basel unveiled its newly renovated hall, the Stadtkasino, the acousticians emphasized how important it was for them to block out the rumbling and squeaking of trams from a nearby square.
König was born in 1991 in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. Her great-grandfather was a well-regarded traditional singer and dombra player. When König was two or three years old, a friend of her mother’s noticed König singing to herself—with excellent intonation. Her mother enrolled König in a local arts school. When she was seven, König and her mother, who have German ethnic roots, moved to a small town in southeastern Bavaria. She continued her musical education there, studying voice, piano, and later violin.
As a teenager, König went through a musical crisis. “I didn’t feel like doing anything,” she said. But she continued to sing jazz, pop songs, and musicals, for her own satisfaction. König finished high school at the age of 16, and her mother encouraged her to take voice lessons at a local music school in preparation for conservatory entrance exams. It was the beginning of König’s serious engagement with classical music. In the years to follow, she developed an unusually clear-eyed view of the profession which frequently surrounds itself in fuzzy, idealistic myths.
VAN: After you finished high school, what made you decide to go to a music school?
Dina König: I wasn’t sure what to do. I’d thought about something practical. I think it was my voice teacher who mentioned that, in Bavaria, there were music schools which were between the high school and college levels. I didn’t want to do it, but my mother said, “You have to try, you have to do music.” I auditioned on piano, which was a disaster. Then my mom said, “Alright, let’s try voice.” At one of the schools, a voice teacher who heard me said, “If you practice, you’ll get good.”
My mom and my voice teacher were very supportive. But I think it was also important to my mom that I go to conservatory. In Kazakhstan and Russia, that comes with a lot of prestige. I would have preferred to study musical theater-style singing, but many people, including my voice teacher, told me, “It’s hard, it’s bad for the voice, and people get burned out quickly.”
Classical music is a difficult field with lots of burnout, too.
Yeah, but they saw more potential for me in classical music.
What happened next?
I got pregnant. It was unplanned. I decided to keep the baby. So while I was studying music in preparation for conservatory auditions, I had a son. I had to decide what to do. I was given a goal: I had to sing, I had to get accepted to a conservatory. I auditioned in Frankfurt, Munich, Salzburg, and—because a friend recommended it to me—at the conservatory and the Schola Cantorum in Basel. In Basel I got accepted to both schools. But I didn’t feel comfortable singing that—sorry!—contemporary shit. I tried out the standard mezzo-soprano roles, but they didn’t feel right. Then I discovered early music, and I realized that alto parts came naturally to me. In September 2012, I started studying at the Schola.
Did you take your son with you to Basel?
Yeah. When I look back, I wonder, What had gotten into me? I was unbelievably young and on my own with a child. But I managed to study and be a mother. In the third year of my undergrad, I started getting gigs. I was grateful that I was able to put my foot in the door of the professional music world. When I was 22, I got a solo part in a ballet production of Vivaldi’s “Juditha Triumphans” with [early music ensemble] La Cetra and Andrea Marcon. Suddenly I was singing half of the 22 performances, with another singer covering the rest. It was fantastic: By the first year of my master’s, I was part of the scene. I was working every month, in Basel or elsewhere. I was definitely happy, but it was really intense: studying, performing, and being a mother. Somehow it worked. I don’t know how, but it did.
Did you enjoy being onstage?
Not when I was playing the piano or the violin; I was always afraid. I played well alone in my room, but as soon as I got onstage, I lost control of my fingers. Singing was the only thing that wasn’t like that for me. I felt like one of the few means of expression I had. I enjoyed singing for audiences and playing with other musicians, that was really nice.
You finished your masters at the Schola Cantorum in 2017, and completed a degree in music education in Zurich two years later. Then the pandemic happened.
In my first year as a freelance musician, I had a lot of gigs. COVID-19 hurt in that sense, because they would have been fantastic jobs. Let me put it this way: The pandemic was the catalyst for me quitting music, but not necessarily the reason. In the last few years, there had been moments where I didn’t feel comfortable: the touring, being away from home, the airports and hotels, hanging out alone in the hotel room with my phone. In November 2019, I had a really shitty gig: shitty music, shitty conductor, shitty pay. I came home and realized that I was depressed.
Then the pandemic started. For me—and probably for many others—everything collapsed. Personally and professionally. There were two or three weeks where I had no idea what I was going to do: with my son, financially, and just in general. I had student loans. I spent those two or three weeks crying. Then I said, OK, I have to do something. I was willing to do anything as long as it didn’t involve spending the whole day in front of the computer. Nurse, elder carer, postal worker, train conductor, policewoman… or tram driver with the Basel public transport system.
In September of last year, I got a call saying that I got the job as a tram driver and could start in March 2021. I was so happy. The first thing I did after signing the contract was to cancel all the musical projects I had coming up.
Did that feel good?
With some it did. To be able to say, “I don’t need to do this anymore.” There are lots of projects that you have to do just to make things work financially, with people who treat you horribly and disrespectfully. Or the pay is awful. No musician deserves that treatment.
It’s fairly common for musicians to get tired of life on the road. Usually they decide to perform less, but not give up their careers completely. On the other hand, many performers come from well-off backgrounds and can afford to take fewer gigs. Did you ever consider continuing to sing, just doing less of it?
The financial side of things was important. Singing is such a fragile profession. Once I caught a bug, so I couldn’t sing for three weeks, and I ended up losing almost $4,000, just like that. But also I feel like I’m a person for whom things are either black or white, as much as I wish I could be different. A lot of people have asked me why I made such a radical break with music. That kind of decision has been the right decision for me at many different points in my life. People have also asked whether I’ll come back later, or drive trams part time and sing part time. I don’t know. But in the last two years, I’ve lost the last vestiges of my pleasure in singing.
So although my finances were important, my personal reasons were more so. Mentally, I couldn’t take it anymore. When you’re a soloist—and I know I can’t compare myself to people who sing at La Scala or the Zurich Opera House—there are these sharp elbows among singers. You can’t just do the good projects, or the ones with people you like. I’ve never had the luxury of being able to choose.
Many established—and often male—musicians have said that they’ve enjoyed being able to spend more time with their families during the pandemic, and that they want to travel less in the future. Do you think there’s a difference in how men and women in classical music are perceived in relation to their families?
Yes, I think in general it’s different for men and women. It’s not a good profession for single mothers. With hindsight, I’ve been able to see how male-dominated, even macho, the profession of music is. It’s probably less so than it used to be, but it’s still extreme.
You see conductors—not all of them, but enough—who take advantage of their power: mentally, verbally, physically. I think it’s unprofessional when conductors get personal, or act like you’re their doll, in the interpretation of the music and in other ways. Something that bothered me personally was the way that married men with families would behave while away working on a project: There are pretty young women in the evening at the hotel bar, and then it’s fine. I thought it was disgusting. It’s not my place to tell people what to do, but I realized that wasn’t for me.
I’m an alto. How often have people told me, “It’s so easy for you, you don’t have to compete with all the sopranos”? Wait a second: I have to compete with all the countertenors. And they often get preferential treatment, because people say, “A man with that kind of woman’s voice is more historically accurate.” There have been auditions for my vocal range where I wasn’t even invited to try out for the part because I’m not a man.
While you were traveling and singing in gigs, did your relationship with your son change? Was that part of the reason why you wanted to be at home more?
It’s something I’ve just started to understand. My being a mother and my relationship with my son suffered enormously. I missed a lot of important moments. Sure, you always miss some important moments–you have to have a job. But I really missed many of them, being away for two or three weeks at a time. They say the first seven years are the most formative. My son wasn’t clingy, but a time came when he punished me by ignoring me. Looking back, that was the thing that hurt the most. I can’t blame him.
How is it different working with musicians compared to your new coworkers at Basel Public Transportation?
Driving a tram, you mostly work alone. You mainly see your coworkers when you’re changing trams or on break. But the interactions are very respectful. A big difference is that although there are different kinds of people from all over, there isn’t the attitude of, I’m better than you. That’s really common in music. Here, it’s like, Hey, how was your shift? Yeah, fuck those car drivers. It’s very humane, very communal. Of course there are more men than women, but that’s changing, and I feel like there’s no macho posturing. You’re a woman, but you’re respected. You’re capable of the work too, and that’s a good thing.
How have your fellow musicians reacted to your career change? In my experience, musicians don’t always know how to respond to people who work in other jobs.
The reactions were all over the place. Most people were very understanding, some were not at all. Some didn’t care. You see how quickly you get forgotten in the profession; there are enough altos out there. A few people said that they thought it was a shame. Back when I found out that I got the job as a tram driver, I was actually working on a project. I was so happy and started running around. I told a musician friend of mine, and he responded, in a kind of lamento, “My Dina, no.”
Has your relationship with your son improved since you started your new job?
The pandemic was an opportunity for me to be at home and build a real connection with my son. Now I enjoy coming home every day after work, and I feel like that’s been good for my son, too.
What does your mother think?
She’s come to accept it, but it was hard for her at first. She couldn’t believe it. She said, “That’s impossible, you put so much time and effort in and now you’re a singer, a musician. You can’t do anything else.” It was difficult. In the meantime, she’s been able to see how happy I am. I think she still hopes that I’ll make a comeback. It was a dream for her that I become a musician. But how should I put it: I’ve understood that it was her dream, not mine.
Do you still sing at all?
Yeah, at home. Or I’ll catch myself singing in the cabin of the tram.
What kind of songs?
Lots of pop. Things I heard on the radio which got stuck in my head. ¶