“When I was at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, I was so startled that all the singers were running around and doing anything other than what I could see seems necessary,” Mark Sampson, a bass and the founder and artistic director of the Berlin Opera Academy (BOA), tells me. “And they were too tired for singing lessons, because they had some history paper to write about Schubert. I was like: ‘How does this help you? When you’re on stage you just have to sing and act well.’ So I decided to do my own version of things.”
BOA’s annual summer courses promise to give young singers a final layer of polish and a coveted foot in the door of the opera industry in Germany. Young artists refer to BOA, and the many other courses like it, as “pay to sing” programs.
According to Sampson, a chatty, enthusiastic Canadian who has performed at venues such as the Volkstheater Rostock and the Theater Osnabrück and occasionally sings musicals as well as opera, BOA provides what many conservatories don’t: practical, on-stage experience and direct connections in the opera business. Successful applicants—Sampson tells me he doesn’t have exact figures, but that many singers try to get into the program—perform operas from the standard repertoire in full productions (including costumes). They are accompanied by a student chamber orchestra and coached by professional singers, directors, conductors, and choreographers. For the summer of 2023, the repertoire includes “Die Zauberflöte,” “Così fan tutte,” “Ariadne auf Naxos” and “Orpheus in the Underworld.” The operas are triple cast, and participants also receive acting courses, vocal coaching, and the opportunity to take part in mock auditions. At the end of the program, the hopefuls are introduced to an agent. According to the BOA website’s Frequency Asked Questions page, “BOA Alumni have been successful in securing engagements in German-speaking houses in both solo and chorus repertoire.”
“Two years ago or so, one of our staff was like, ‘Oh look, every single person in the Metropolitan finals is an alumni.’ And the same time I am still really cautious,” Sampson says. “If someone goes on to work with Semperoper Dresden after they came here, they were already a good singer. It’s not that a month of working with Mark has transformed them.”
Like the Lyric Opera Studio Weimar, which Sampson also founded, the Berlin Opera Academy caters especially to the needs of young talents from outside Germany. These artists are looking for a way to break into the country’s generously subsidized musical life, where even small towns have professional orchestras and full-fledged opera houses. They want to sing, but also learn German and make connections.
Young singers often “don’t realize how much better the German opera market is,” Sampson says. “Germany has 9,000 performances per year. All of North America has 1,800, and that’s pre-COVID. During COVID, Germany has done the best, obviously, because they have state support.”
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A similar calculation was behind American tenor Darrell Haynes’s decision to move to Berlin. In 2017, he sang Prince Tamino in “Die Zauberflöte” at BOA. “I saw it as an opportunity to transition into moving to Germany,” he tells me. Besides a debut in a new role, the program introduced Haynes to a new professional network, and he met singing teachers with whom he still works today. Finally, he snagged and won an audition for the Extrachor at the Deutsche Oper Berlin (a freelance vocal ensemble that supports the house’s full-time choral singers when additional voices are needed, particularly in large operas). “I would not have gotten there without the network of the Berlin Opera Academy,” Haynes says.
BOA is an expensive proposition. For singers cast in a production, the course fee is €4,950 (about $5,400)—excluding the cost of accommodation on the city’s notoriously ruthless housing market. Singers can also add the Explore Berlin & Transport Package or the Visa Application Consultation Package for €500 each.
The combination of on-stage experience and networking makes pay to sing programs appealing for upcoming German singers too. Katharina Holzapfel, a soprano, spent two summers in a row at the Opera Performance Studio of the Trentino Music Festival in Italy. She enjoyed the clear Dolomite Mountains air and got to work with renowned coaches such as the soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet and Jane Robinson, a vocal coach at English National Opera.
“I profited from that enormously,” Holzapfel says. “In 2018, I sang Oberto in ‘Alcina,’ and in 2019 Flora in ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ plus Annio in ‘La clemenza di Tito.’ At the time, in conservatory, I’d never had the chance to sing a whole role while acting out a staging and being accompanied by an orchestra—a major shortcoming on the part of conservatories in my opinion,” she says.
“In Trentino, I grew as an artist, gained valuable experience, and learned how to behave professionally during an engagement,” Holzapfel adds. (Singing a full opera role at the Trentino Musical Festival costs €5,000.)
Pay to sing programs aren’t as productive for everyone. One German voice student, who requested anonymity, described a particularly shoddy experience at a course in Austria. “The rehearsals consisted of about 30 people sitting in a basement for the whole day, listening to one another sing all the duos and terzettos in different combinations,” she says. “There was hardly any real musical work, since most of the rehearsals were led by conducting assistants, who were also paying participants in the program and had little experience.”
“But the scenic rehearsals were almost worse,” she continues. “All they did was the blocking. We were only told where to stand and what kind of faces to make.”
Networking opportunities were limited as well. “We were promised an audition in front of agents, but the agents involved were just the agents of the two heads of the academy. Each of us got five minutes to sing, and in the end, we didn’t even get the feedback we were promised,” she says. “Many of the singers who came from the States had high hopes for the academy. I felt especially sorry for them.” (This student paid around €2,000 for the course.)
Is it worth thousands of euros for an evening in the opera spotlight? Holzapfel isn’t sure. “When I was younger, it was easier to handle that than it is now, as a freelance singer,” she says. “Now it’s almost unimaginable to have a few thousand euros left over for such a program, especially because you can’t have any other income during that time.” (Holzapfel used a mixture of her own savings and money from her parents to pay for the course.)
The value of a course “depends on the role they offer you,” Darrell Haynes tells me. “Queen of the Night? Yes, absolutely. Second Lady? No.” He adds, “When I was first singing with [Berlin Opera Academy] the fees still covered housing– that’s not the case anymore. If they offered me Tamino now without housing, I would say no.”
Haynes raised the money for BOA on GoFundMe, so he didn’t have to pay out of pocket. “I saw singers max out their credit cards to do it,” he says. “I would never do that.”
Of course, not everyone has the resources for pay to sing programs. In Germany, where tuition is often just a few hundred euros per semester, one pay to sing program can cost more in tuition than an entire four-year Bachelor’s at a conservatory. For American students, who must sometimes pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for college, the extra several thousand euros for a pay to sing program might even seem reasonable. But considering the going rates for opera soloists in Germany, the investment in a pay to sing program appears somewhat out of proportion. Since January, singers with a full-time contract at a German opera house earn at least €2,715 gross per month, or roughly €2,000 net. But guest performers receive just €271.50 per performance and €135.75 per day of rehearsal. Singers who earn guest roles at opera houses following participation in a pay to sing program will need many gigs to earn the money back.
But there’s no guarantee that the programs will help young singers get roles in the first place. Sascha Krebs, director of artistic planning at the Theater Magdeburg, tells me, “If a singer has only sung Tatyana in a pay to sing program, that doesn’t mean she has any kind of advantage over other applicants when I’m casting ‘Eugene Onegin,’” he says. “I think the educational programs that make more sense for young artists are the opera studios at the major houses.”
That’s precisely the problem. Spots in major German opera studios are highly coveted and extremely competitive. Take the opera studio of the Deutsche Opera am Rhein, in Dusseldorf: For the 2022-23 season, some 600 singers applied for eight spots. (Over 300 of the applications were from sopranos.) At the bigger studios in Cologne, Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, and Dresden, the odds are likely even worse.
On the German opera market, hundreds, if not thousands, of frustrated young singers are looking for a leg up. Companies offering private courses can easily step in to earn money from their professional hopes. For individual singers, a pay to sing program may be a good experience. Structurally, it’s a symptom of a failing marketplace where supply and demand have gone haywire, and where young artists pay through the nose to keep their dreams alive. ¶
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