Jumping off cliffs
I've done a woefully poor job of posting blog updates. Sorry about that! Here are a few quick rambling thoughts from my head to yours.
It's already been quite a few months here in Passau. If I had to describe it in just a few words, I would say that it's been a time of learning, self-reflection, and discovery. I am learning what this career requires and what it gives back in return. Through it all, my mantra has been stay open.
Staying open is not easy. It's a nearly constant struggle for me, as I know it is for everyone, whether we admit it or not. Newness is by definition uncertain, unknown. It's a much easier choice to stay in the territory of the known. Shutting myself off from the world is comfortable, but I find that it too brings its own kind of struggle. It doesn't satisfy the deeper tugging of the heart which says to grow, to branch out, to jump in to the unknown. Where is up and where is down and that is suddenly this and this is suddenly that and English is suddenly German and what I thought I knew is suddenly useless...
As Kurt Vonnegut put it: "We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down."
Perhaps this is one of the bigger realizations I've had in the last few months. Music and art (and really all creative endeavors) push us off these cliffs. They force us to consider new ideas and to see things from different angles. And we find that our perceptions change over time. This is such a wonderful realization: when we are fully present, every moment is alive and perfect. When we experience a piece of music, either as a performer or a spectator, we arrive in that experience only as we are now. And that experience is different than the day before. Of course it is. We are different people than we were the day before.
Tonight I'll perform Haydn's Die Welt auf dem Monde (originally in Italian as Il mondo della luna) for the twelfth time this season. And each one of those performances has been different. Sometimes there is raucous laughter, and sometimes after an attempted joke I swear I can hear the crickets chirping. Sometimes I feel great about my performances, and other times I might be disappointed. But I try my best to accept what I'm feeling, to be where I am, and no matter what, there is kind of a peace that comes with doing that. When I know I gave all of myself and I approached the work with honesty and humility, I can be satisfied. I overcame my own resistance for one day. Now, to do it again tomorrow. That, I'm realizing, is a major part of the work of being an artist.
So, my friends, I wish you wellness and the mantra: stay open.
Boston → Passau
The last two months or so have been a wild ride. First, an adventure in Boston with the Boston Early Music Festival, performing Le Carnaval de Venise by André Campra. That was a dream for me, getting to learn from such a remarkably talented (and I must say exceptionally friendly and self-effacing) cast. I had a relatively small part in the production, at least on paper, singing in the chorus and portraying an over-eager henchman to the emotionally distraught villain (performed by my friend and fellow Berliner Douglas Williams).
I had fun learning more about the tradition of commedia dell'arte, which is an old Italian tradition of theater based on stock characters representing particular characters in society. Being in Boston and not having too much to sing in this production gave me a perfect opportunity to work on character movement, acting, and comic timing. This experience certainly reaffirmed a phrase I had heard before, but heard time and time again by fellow singer-actors in Boston: comedy is more difficult than tragedy.
It's such a difficult thing to do. The goal, of course, is to make people laugh, but if you simply go into a performance with only that in mind, it's likely to flop. It has to be natural, coming from a real place inside you, and yet it also has to be rehearsed to the finest details of movement and timing. Sometimes a specific gesture or body movement just doesn't seem funny if it comes a split-second too soon or too late. It's an amazing art form, when you think about it. It's just like music: ephemeral, entirely based on the passing of time, and yet it must be practiced over and over to reach a level of competency to be able to have fluency in the moment.
One idea that resonated continuously in my head throughout our rehearsals in Boston was that live theater is based on trust. It's a trust in yourself, a kind of self-confidence, but it's also ultimately trust in your colleagues on stage. You never actually know what someone else will do on stage. It's a fine line to walk--you don't want it to feel so scripted and so prepared that it loses its feeling of being real. But you still want to be able to trust that your colleagues won't do something so totally unexpected on stage that it throws you off and takes you out of the moment. This also shows the importance of building relationships with your colleagues off the stage. We have to know each other, at least a little bit, for that trust to manifest into confidence on stage.
So that was a bit of a diversion, but important life lessons, nonetheless.
I jumped on a plane the evening after our last performance in Boston with some persistent stage makeup still left on my face, and immediately started rehearsals for my first production with Landestheater Niederbayern in Passau, a small, charming city in Bavaria. Of course I was nervous to start in my new theater, but I couldn't have asked for a better reception here. Our cast of Die Welt auf dem Monde (Haydn) already has so much fun together. Most of our rehearsals derail at some point into fits of laughter and absurdity. Truly the best kind of rehearsals.
There's surely more to come on this production (and life in Passau--I'll be living here for the next year!).
A few random shots from the last couple months, for your enjoyment.
Bonus video: HARDCORE PARKOUR over my friend Alexis in the Massachusetts wilderness. Video by Olivier Laquerre.
BLOG REVIVAL, GO. I truly wonder what percentage of blogs never make it past the 1-post mark. I'd venture half. But NOT THIS ONE! (Small victories, am I right?)
So my big news is that this fall I'll be starting a fest contract in Passau, Germany. That means I'm hired full-time by a theater! This really was my dream in coming to Germany in the first place, so I feel pretty fortunate to have landed something in my first year. It means I'll have some relative stability, both financially and career-wise. (No more anxiety from withdrawing from my ever-dwindling savings! Just kidding—that anxiety probably never ends.) I will have the opportunity to learn about the German theater system and perform multiple nights a week on a regular basis. Not to mention being able to speak German on a regular basis, which is actually kind of difficult in Berlin. Really it feels like a gift has been given to me.
A little clarification on the German system of hiring singers. It's vastly different from how it works in the States, which is essentially based on freelancing—contracts are for a single production in a given house. In Germany (and on a smaller scale, Austria and Switzerland) the opera houses hire singers to perform in all the house's productions in an entire season. This is called singing on a fest, or "fixed," basis, presumably because you're fixed in one location for an extended period of time. In the opera world you'll hear singers talk about getting a fest contract, or in German Festvertrag, and that's what this means. This kind of system doesn't exist anywhere outside of the German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria, and Switzerland).
Freelancing does still exist in Germany, and not all singers are "fest" singers. In fact, many make careers out of what's called "guesting," which is essentially freelancing. (The term guesting just means "to work as a guest in a theater where a singer is not contracted as a fest singer.") It happens when a house needs to find someone who can perform a particular role that, for whatever reason, the house lacks. Sometimes it's for a specialized "fach," or voice type, that requires unique vocal qualities or abilities, like a Wagnerian singer, for instance. It's good to find your niche!
So, my hope is to be able to share some of my experience discovering this new world. I'm painfully aware that I'm a naive fool when it comes to singing in Germany, but I'm trying to embrace the notknowingness of it all. We all begin somewhere, and there's something beautiful about being in that liminal space. So, for now, I look forward to a wonderful new life in Passau, which by the way is a stupid beautiful little Bavarian town. It's called the Dreiflüssige Stadt ("Three River City") because it sits at the confluence of the Inn, Danube, and Ilz Rivers. Postcard-worthy, to say the least.
Ich bin ein Berliner
My first blog post ever. Woweeeeeee! Are blogs cliched? Is the sky blue?
But hey, I made it to Berlin! The last three weeks have been a wild ride. So much is new. The culture, the language, the ways of interacting, the food, the bureaucracy (!). It has definitely taken me some time to adjust to the sensory overload of Deutsch newness, and as an introvert I find I have to retreat sometimes to process and unwind. But after several weeks of new experiences and new people, despite some stress, I can already say it will have been worth it. And at this point, what more can I ask for, than to know that?
There have been times when I've felt completely crazy for even trying to do this... to make a career in Germany. Really, why bother to do anything so new and so challenging? It's uncomfortable and anxiety-producing. (I can hardly communicate with people on the street sometimes!) And just what makes me think I'm so qualified to jump into some new place and succeed? You're not a great singer yet, Mark. These are some of the voices in my head.
And yet, I know I'm not alone in this regard. We all experience these kinds of thoughts. So, my response is that there is beauty and wisdom in both the uncertainty of the future and in the experience of being humbled. I try to embrace these experiences every day. It's not always easy, for sure. I don't particularly appreciate the fact that I barely speak at a kindergarten (a good German word!) level. But I also know that being lowered to the level of a child has its benefits as well. We begin to see the world with new eyes, as a child again. There is great wonder to be found in such newness.
Now that I've sufficiently philosophized, a quick update on my goings-on. I've been staying with some good friends, Jess and Matt, in a neighborhood called Prenzlauer Berg. It's a lively place with lots of shops and cafes. The greatest challenge of the last three weeks has been finding an apartment! Who knew that such a big city would have such challenges. But TRULY, this became a full-time job, just looking for a place to stay. After ten days or so of contacting people directly, I decided I would try an agent, which proved fruitful. I ended up with a short-term (3-month) lease on an apartment that's considerably more than I want to be paying (although at least comparable to the prices in Boston that I'm used to!). But the huge advantage is that it's a two-bedroom, and that other room will be filled by my dear old college friend Martha. Throwback, what what?! That's gonna be fun.
My girlfriend Danielle and I have continued to maintain a beautiful Skype-based relationship. She's changing lives and kickin' booty. Long distance is yet another challenge of this kind of leap, but I like to think we've handled it with grace and good humor. And I'll see her in just a few weeks!
So, what else? A few notable discoveries:
-Grocery stores are terrifying places (that's material for another blog post entirely)
-Transportation around Berlin is fantastic and works on a trust system
-The English-speaking singer community here is wicked awesome and hella supportive
-Such respect for bikers!
-German bureaucracy is no joke. That's the challenge of the next few weeks.
-I think there's some kind of wall here?
-So much opera to be had here!
A few action shots, for your pleasure. Hopefully more posts to come! Bis bald!