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  • Writer's picturekatherinelerner

Linz, here we come.

Updated: Mar 24, 2020

So there’s this: In mid-August, Molly and I will be moving to Linz, Austria. We are moving there because I am starting a two year Dramatic Mezzo-soprano contract. I will be singing Wagner and Strauss and Humperdinck, and all the roles I’ve always felt instinctually were the right ones for my voice, but was told I was too young or had to wait for.

I’ve known this for over a month, but I’ve been reluctant to post about it here. I think it is because I am still a bit shell-shocked (in the good kind of way). The news still feels too abstract and the outcome too tenuous — it’s been a month racing against time to put the hardest role of my life into my brain and voice, and I begin rehearsals tomorrow. I’m terrified of failing and losing it all.

It’s probably also because I am painfully self-conscious about bragging on social media, at least about this kind of thing. I’ve experienced it too much from the other side. As much as I remind myself one’s Facebook or Instagram is carefully curated experience, a selectively cheerful raising of the curtain, a collection of fleetingly beautiful moments culled from a field of dross, colorful butterflies frozen on pins, it’s still easy to feel jealousy at someone’s continually amazing career developments (but not their loneliness), amazing relationship (but not its’ fraying), and high-flying adventures (but not the long stretches of boredom and mundanity in between). It’s very easy to feel like things for others come effortlessly. And so I don’t want this to be a breezy, effortless post. Getting this job was the culmination of a tremendous amount of effort.

Since March of 2016 I’ve been living and working in Germany as a member of the Heidelberg Opera Chorus. Before that, I worked as a real estate agent for Brooklyn apartment rentals in a medium-sized company and the part-time nanny to an eleven year old autistic child. In a distant time before that, I went to the Curtis Institute of Music, did a three year stint in the Ryan Opera Center, and got hired by the Metropolitan Opera to understudy two good-sized roles. In those sunny days I saw a different trajectory for my career.

I was naive then, but not without reason. I always paid lip-service to the idea that I was in a very competitive field, of course, but I had never truly experienced it. From the beginning I was sheltered from the harsh realities of a career in the arts by my elite surroundings and successes. There was the expectation and assumption that we would all succeed because we had gotten this far. And this wasn’t ill-founded because many of us did. Many of the people I worked with, was peers with, have gone on to fabulous international careers.

But immediately upon leaving the Ryan Opera Center, things stalled for me. I hadn’t impressed the right power-broker or deal-maker, landed the coveted IMG or CAMI agent. I hadn’t gotten my upper three notes. I hadn’t made the impression I needed to make to be Lyric Opera of Chicago stalwart. It is hard to be completely honest or objective when conducting a self-evaluation so I can only speculate. It could have been that I was prone to passivity and my past had prepared me poorly for the fact that everyone has to hustle. There could have been some bad luck involved. Or it could just have something as simple as I wasn’t quite good enough as I needed to be to propel myself into the top echelons of the opera world. I know how, with hindsight, that I didn’t have the perspective to realize just how lucky I was to be chosen for the Opera Center. The year I applied they took 5 out of 500 applicants, but the number only dented my consciousness insomuch as I took my acceptance to mean my career success was set. I was the youngest singer they took that year, immature and contrarian ways I didn’t yet realize, and I let the flaws that have always derailed me — poor time management, resistance to following rules just for rules sake (they had to make sense to me personally), willful eccentricity, a reluctance to suck-up to people, and a certain lack of care in my day to day appearance — creep into and affect the impression I made in my professional life. I didn’t realize how high the stakes were — not really — and I didn’t have the awareness and proper gratitude and drive and discipline to make the changes I needed make.

After finishing a return engagement at Chicago, I suddenly came face to face with the stunning reality that I had nothing. No work, no foreseeable future. I did auditions and failed. My agents fired me. I found a new agent who believed in me. I eked out a living for the next couple of months on the Chicago earnings. And then my agent got me a Met audition, and to my elation and disbelief I got a two role understudy contract for the next season.

The first cover was Olga in the season opener Eugene Onegin with Anna Netrebko. It was in Russian. I had never sung in Russian, not even in a recital set. All the other understudies sounded wonderful and 80% of them were native speakers. Everything depended on this. If I could make a great impression, then I could be re-hired, if I could be re-hired, then I could actually make a living doing this, maybe next time I could be even SINGING a medium role, and then people would hear it, and then because people are sheep I could sing at other places too, and then I would be launched and it would be okay that Molly was going back to library school next year and our income was going to dip because the Met pays so fucking well. And at first it went well… I got a paycheck for doing nothing. The director doesn’t want the understudies crowding the room, I was told. A week passed by, then another. I began to get uneasy. When I finally got into my first rehearsal, I hadn’t seen any of the staging. I spun headfirst into Olga’s aria and while trying to twirl around as per the choreography, totally got off-track with the assistant conductor. A normal person would have brushed that off as an understandable first day error and confidently looked forward, but I didn’t have any reserves of confidence left to draw upon. I could get more into the minutiae —the confusion of being told different things by different Met coaches, one -“Your singing of the Russian needs to be more idiomatic and syllable-stressed” and then the other, “Your Russian needs to be sung with more legato! stresses? no! there are no stresses in Russian,” — but the point is that I was the biggest obstacle to my success. I acted like weak dog in rehearsal, inviting more worries and criticism. I didn’t come to the job unprepared, I didn’t bomb anything, but I projected my imposter syndrome in bright lights for all to see. My final understudy run-through was well-done, but it was too late. The staff and administrators had lost confidence in me. My boss told my agent my voice was great but that I needed more experience before I came back. For a short while, I blithely, stupidly, took this at face value. Only a few months later did it fully hit me that I had choked and thrown it all away.

The impact of this realization, when it came, just about crushed me. It felt strange the next two a half years to simultaneously inhabit two worlds: one, warm, light, and love-filled, where I continually felt amazement, gratitude, and joy that I had found Molly, and the other, of intense pain, self-recrimination, and pervasive feelings of worthlessness and failure. Knowing I had to do something to earn money, but unable to commit to a full career change, I got a real estate license. I’d like to say that everything in life is a learning lesson or a character builder, but really all I learned from that experience is that I do not possess the key attributes of a successful saleswoman and my nerves are not up to dealing with irate, angry people who use you, the middleman, as a convenient target.

A better stop gap was working as a part-time nanny to an eleven year autistic boy. I’ve always conflated all kinds of patience, and because I have absolutely no patience for assembling IKEA furniture or figuring out why the pot lid got stuck or where my keys are, I’d always concluded that I have no patience. Sam was lovely, but full of fears and anxieties and routines, and everything with him had to move at a glacial pace. But I could soothe him and could stay calm myself and I could really make him laugh. I realized that my past had equipped me with deep reservoirs of patience for people with disabilities. And after years of having doubts of my parenting abilities (No patience! I’m selfish! I lose things!) I finally realized that I had something real to offer as a parent, strengths that would pair nicely with Molly’s. And for the first time, I saw another career path for me as a teacher of children, maybe even disabled ones.

I left Sam just after a half year to come to Germany. I needed to give it one final shot. But without a European agent, I was in the dark of any opportunities. I was turned into a trope— one more naive American opera singer with an empty gold sieve, a Depression era fruit farmer rushing eagerly to California only to find the trees picked bare. So when my friend Zach asked me if I’d like to audition for a substitute Alto position in the Heidelberg Opera Chorus, I said, yes please!

In the stereotype book, Germans don’t get great accolades for their personalities. They are rigid and rule-bond, reserved and cold. But from the very beginning, in the face of my great loneliness, cultural shock, and confusion, each member of the women’s choir has shown me such great kindness that it hurts my heart. I will miss them all so much - caring Claudia, who lent me German picture books and her hand-packed dinners, helped me with my pronunciation, and guided me towards the thrifty secret options in Heidelberg, Brigitte, my chain-smoking, wisecracking, beer-in-a-cup-mid-show-swilling Alto 2 neighbor, Manuela, whose English was British both in accent and word choice -“that fellow, that chap!”, who drove me home so frequently after late rehearsals and always wanted to know how Molly was feeling, and sassy Jana, who could somehow make harem pants seem stylish, with her beautiful deep speaking voice, dry humor, bluntness, and quick laugh, my real chorus friend. I will miss the others too. Before I had a choir job, I didn’t think I was a team person, I didn’t think I was a joiner. But I will deeply miss our communal efforts, our common purpose, the togetherness of the whole thing. And after the stress of the solo high-wire, it was nice to make music in an absolutely no-pressure environment. We got to fool around and be really silly in rehearsal and during the shows. If I wanted to hang out with friends late and drink the night before a show, no problem, I could do it. The level of the choir wasn’t high enough, and I did miss being a soloist, but I loved the whole experience in a way that surprised myself. Heidelberg was a beautiful, in so many ways — yes, of course, for its topography, the baroque buildings cradled by the green, green hills with the ruined castle at its crown, the river, the church spires, the lush flowers— but mainly for the people I met, the music we made, and the ladder it gave me to finally climb out of my depression. I will always feel incredibly grateful for this time, and it will be really wrenching for me to leave it behind. The silly 1950s ditty really has come true for me: Ich hab’ mein Herz in Heidelberg verloren.

But! I did it! That is, I came to Germany, and I did what I set out to do. I joined a choir, and worked quietly, unglamorously, so that I could remain in Germany and try to find a solo Fest. Through my own work and determination and perserverence, I found my way to this audition and now this job.

I feel enormously grateful to my friends Zach and Rinnat who got me the choir job that enabled me to get this new one, and who I’ve come to love so much and will miss terribly. And I feel a flood of gratitude for my wife. Looking back on it, I don’t know how she managed to stick by me through such a prolonged depression. I don’t know how she continued to believe in me, to encourage me to keep going, to have faith in my talent and ability in the times when I had none. She lived apart from me for almost six months while I auditioned and began work here. She left her own job and career prospects to be here with me. She has sacrificed so, so much for me to have this dream. Molly, I love you so much my heart could burst.

So Linz, here we come. It was a long, hard road, but we’re here.

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