Your Questions: Deborah Humble

Your Questions: Deborah Humble

Figuring out life and work overseas. 

Deborah Humble
Sydney, Australia

Your Questions: Deborah Humble

Figuring out life and work overseas. 

Embarking on the start of an international career is a challenging endeavour, and not just because of the amount of work. Dealing with homesickness, a new language and accomodation costs are just some of the points to think about before your big move. To help get our heads around what it took to make it as a musician overseas, we turned to our good friend Deborah Humble, who is one of Australia's most successful international artists, and asked her your questions about life overseas. 

How do I get an agent in the UK or Europe?

If you are getting roles with companies or at least have some decent roles under your belt after college or university and if you are ready to travel in pursuit of a professional career then it may be time to find an agent. There is no formulaic answer to this often asked question. The most obvious way is to find out who the main agents are in each country (ask colleagues, coaches and teachers or consult the Deutsche Bühnen Jahrbuch which covers German speaking countries) and write to them. Some may send a reply suggesting an audition time in the future or asking you when and where they can hear you in performance, but in my experience most will not. A lot of the higher level agents would prefer to discover you and not the other way around. Nonetheless, it could be that your letter of introduction arrives on someone’s desk at just the moment they need a singer with your particular voice type, or maybe your name will stick in their mind for the future. It's ironic that without an agent it is difficult to find work, but that an agent wants to see you perform before they sign you. Remember the saying “nobody wants you until somebody wants you?” Try not to be discouraged by this sometimes frustrating process. Agents attend competitions, auditions and concerts and these scenarios will most often provide an opportunity to meet a potential agent. When you do find an agent who wishes to represent you make sure it's a good fit for you. Check their artist list and see who else they represent. Remember that some smaller agencies promise the world and then deliver absolutely nothing. It is tempting to say yes to the first offer that comes along but it is always important to ask around in order to make an informed choice. Your agent will end up being one of the most important people in your life. Put your career in reliable and trustworthy hands.

When I write to an agent seeking representation what do I send?

It's a good idea to send a short and precise letter of introduction. Agents in Europe receive many requests and rarely have time to read page upon page of information. Research each agency and personalise your letter by finding out who the exact person is who represents the singers at the same level as you. Include a good quality head shot and a full length or production photo. A sound recording is a good idea (make sure it is recent and well-recorded) and a link to your web site where reviews, recommendations and further information about performance dates and experience can be read. If you have a performance coming up you could ask them if they would be interested in attending by offering complimentary tickets.

Do you have any ideas about how to go about gaining auditions overseas? Many agents reply to email requests to say they already have too many singers on their books, or won't be holding auditions this season. Is it possible to gain house auditions without a German agent?" 

You can certainly write direct to opera houses in any country. Again, I recommend the Deutsche Bühnen Jahrbuch (www.buehnengenossenschaft.de) for a list of all German theatres and the names of people who work there. You can buy the book for around €75 or find a copy in all big libraries.  You may receive replies from companies relating to general or informative auditions so it is a good idea to write well in advance if you are coming from overseas. There are generally two audition ‘seasons,’ from September to December and then again from January to April, but these days opportunities can become available at any time. The summer break in Europe is usually July and August and little happens in the way of auditions during this time.

When I write to German companies asking for auditions should I write in German or English?

I think that depends on which languages you speak. I have been asked to help singers with audition cover letters in German but I always remind them that if they write a letter in good German it may logically be presumed that you also speak good German. There's not much point sending a German letter written by someone else if you can't communicate in German once you get to Germany.

When you're going overseas to a non-English speaking country to audition, how much of their native language should you already have? Can you learn as you go?"

Of course you can learn as you go, (I did), but it certainly makes life easier to have the basics covered before you arrive. All major companies will be able to conduct an audition or a rehearsal in English if necessary, but the smaller the opera house and the town the less likely this will be and a good standard of German comprehension and communication is a given. Mostly operas are cast with singers, conductors and directors of many different nationalities and a common language will be chosen in which to conduct rehearsals. Therefore the basics of Italian and French are also very useful. I recently worked in France with a Spanish director, French assistant director, Norwegian conductor and singers from China, Belgium, Sweden and Britain. Any professional musician working in Europe has to get used to an international environment and learn to cope with many different languages and cultures. Early on in my career I auditioned in Braunschweig and was asked in English if I ‘spoke’ German. After answering in the affirmative the panel then gave me a series of directions in German; ‘take two steps towards the piano,’ sing your next aria further back,’ etc obviously designed to test me. It's best never to lie about the extent of your language skills.

Which of German, French and Italian is the most important language for me to learn?

This depends on the kind of repertoire you think you will be focussing on and the country in which you are most likely to get work. If you are looking for a contract in Germany then it would be German, most likely followed by Italian and French. If you are an early music singer then maybe French and Italian first. In order to earn a decent living these days, you will probably have to work all over Europe. The advice I give to all young Australian singers is to get all three languages under your belt as soon as possible while you are studying. Once you start working there is often less time to devote to study.

In Germany, what is the difference between a Fest and a Gast contract?

A Fest contract is one where you are attached to a particular house. You receive a contract for a full year with a certain number of required roles and performances. You will live in that city, receive a monthly salary and health insurance and enjoy the many benefits of having full-time employment. If you are sick and cannot perform you will still receive your full monthly pay. Above and beyond your quota of performances you will be paid extra for any additional performances. A Gast contract means you are employed for a particular role in an opera. You will be required to be based in that city while you rehearse and perform for the duration of the contract. Most likely you will not receive any fee for the rehearsal period (which might be up to 6 weeks or more) and you will be responsible for finding and paying up front for your own accommodation. If you are sick and cannot sing you will not receive any compensation for missed performances. Potentially you will earn more money this way, but for many singers, the lifestyle does not suit and the financial risk is too great.

Do I need a regular coach as well as a technical teacher?

Yes. A teacher usually focuses on aspects of vocal technique and health such as breath control, range, vowel production, focus etc which require work and development. A coach is necessary to help you with language, style and interpretation. A coach can also help you prepare roles, help with repertoire choices and prepare you for auditions. A trustworthy ‘second pair of ears’ is vital.

What does the term ‘Fach’ mean exactly and how important is it?

‘Fach’ is a term that has been used in Germany since the end of the 19th century to help categorise voices. It generally means ‘specialty’ or ‘category’ and it is important to understand which particular voice type you are when auditioning and singing in the German opera system. Fest contracts will be described by Fach when you are auditioning. For example, a house will advertise for a ‘lyrischer Sopran/lyric soprano’ or a ‘dramatischer Alt/dramatic contralto’ or a ‘Spieltenor/character tenor.’ It is up to you to know which roles fall under these categories when auditioning. Rudolf Kloiber’s ‘Handbuch der Oper,’ written in German, is a complete manual on voice types, auditioning and roles. There are 25 different voice types described as follows: soubrette, lyric coloratura soprano, dramatic coloratura soprano, lyric soprano, character soprano, spinto/young dramatic soprano, dramatic soprano, coloratura mezzo, lyric mezzo, dramatic mezzo, dramatic alto, low alto, countertenor, lyric tenor, character/acting tenor, lyric baritone, cavalier baritone, character baritone, dramatic baritone, character bass,acting/character bass, heavy character/acting bass, serious bass.

I am sometimes confused by the different input I receive on my voice from teachers, coaches, agents and at masterclasses etc. what can I do about this?

Everyone, and I mean everyone, will have an opinion about your voice during all stages of your career. Everyone will be a critic. Some will know what they are talking about and many will not.  It is important to understand your own voice and capabilities as soon as possible and to have a teacher and coach in your life whom you trust implicitly to tell you the truth. I always advise singers to listen carefully to what they are told and then decide what may be useful and to discard what is not helpful. Different suggestions will resonate at different stages of your vocal development. Try to remember that most people have good intentions when making suggestions about your voice. Also remember that a well-intentioned suggestion does not always come from an expert. As a young singer, it is difficult to avoid situations when you must sing for people such as visiting coaches and at masterclasses etc. When you are starting out and still working on your vocal technique it is helpful to find one or two people you feel work well for you and stick to that rather than seeking opinions from too many different sources.

Do you think being Australian means I will be overlooked in favour of Europeans or Americans?

No. I was quite disappointed to read a report recently which suggested that European companies prefer not to employ Australians. It is true to say that Australians may need to work harder at language and understanding foreign culture, customs and systems, but you only have to look at the large numbers of Australian singers and instrumentalists enjoying success abroad to realise an international career is absolutely possible. The teachers and opera coaches I have spoken to in Germany, France and Italy are very positive about the contribution Australian artists have to make in a European environment.

How much will I earn on a Fest contract in Germany?

This depends on the size of the house, where it is and how much funding it receives. German opera houses are categorised as A+, A, B, C and D. An average salary might be around €3000 per month. After taxes and insurances you will often take home little more than half that. Extra money can be earned by guesting, concert work and taking in extra performances above your contracted quota.

How much does an apartment cost per month in Germany?

Again this depends which city you live in. Accommodation in Berlin is very reasonable and €600 Euro per month will get you started. The smaller the city the cheaper it is. Hamburg and Munich are more expensive but a good quality apartment can still be found for under €800/900 per month. Check your contractual ‘Neben Kosten/extra costs’ for heating, water etc which can be high.

How do you deal with being away from home for so much of the year? I'm worried about being homesick when I go overseas to travel. Do you have any tips for dealing with this?" 

A freelance career involves constant travel which means staying in different hotels and serviced apartments, living out of a suitcase, not being able to be involved with regular activities, seeing friends and family irregularly and dealing with loneliness. When considering whether this lifestyle is for you you might like to ask yourself some the following questions:

“Do I enjoy spending lots of time alone?”

“Do I enjoy constantly meeting new people and working with new colleagues?”

“Can I eat in a restaurant alone?”

“Will I feel comfortable in an environment where English is not my first language?”

“Can I survive without my friends and family?”

“How will I deal with long,cold winters?”

“Can I deal with financial insecurity?”

“How will my job/travel affect my relationship/children?”

Loneliness and homesickness are part and parcel of the lifestyle of a singer. Learning languages will help you communicate and becoming comfortable with your own company will help you survive in new cities. Get out, explore your surroundings and take an interest in new cultures.

Social media, Skype and free phone calls/messaging are wonderful ways to keep in touch with friends and family and find contacts all over the world.

 Got more questions for Deborah? Leave them in the comments!