Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a soloist in an ensemble of a German Opera house? I recently caught up with Nina van Essen who has been at Staatsoper Hannover since 2019, and she was happy to share some wisdom that she has picked up so far along the way.
Many emerging singers dream of landing a fest contract (A fest contract means you are “fixed” in one ensemble for the duration of a contract, which usually starts at 1-2 years) without really knowing what it is all about. Nina van Essen started her contract almost straight out of school, which is exceptional, but she is doing very well and thriving. I caught her performance as Hänsel in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel back in December of 2019, and I was very proud to see her on stage.
I have been Nina’s coach, duo partner, and friend for almost five years. She is a wonderful mezzo-soprano with incredible artistic instincts. When she was in her studies, she was always one of the most hard-working people in the program. We have since transitioned from a teacher-student relationship to a friendship. I was happy to catch up with her recently and thought I would ask her about her experience in “the real world”. Here is what she had to share.
When did you decide to pursue a career in Opera?
Nina: I have the feeling that opera chose me. I was always interested in storytelling. When I discovered that being a character on stage would allow me the “freedom” to crawl into someone else’s skin and do things that I otherwise would never do in my own life, I thought: “Hey, that’s amazing!” I feel like I’m not the real me when I am in that moment. The more I was doing it, the more I started to feel post-performance like I had just been on an adventure -those are the good moments.
Next to your training, what has helped you become such a well-rounded artist?
Nina: Thank you for calling me that!
Especially since the pandemic, I realized that you could not make art from an “I have to” place. I needed to let go of all sorts of expectations that I seem to put upon myself. Coming from a place of connectedness, acceptance, and love of music is the only way to provoke emotion in your listeners. My particular struggle has always been that I tend to over-focus, which causes me to get stuck at times. Being focused is helpful when you need to get something done, and it can be challenging when you have to let all of that go on stage, especially since singing, for me, is very much an act of letting go.
Finding challenges outside of my training has never been difficult. I have always had an interest in learning new languages; I am always striving to improve my vocal technique-and not be blind to possible progress; I live life and enjoy the moment (Go all the way or don’t do it at all!). I also love to try new things (super scary, but necessary!). I make sure to spend time with people I care about and who give me energy. These things will always be part of my process, and it is a beautiful journey. The most important thing is to remind myself when I don’t meet my own expectations to not beat myself up about it. After all, I am the one setting my own goals (mostly), and so I can also be the one to take them off of my own plate.
When did you start your first fest contract?
Nina: It feels like my first fest contract has only just started. I started in the summer of 2019 at the Staatsoper Hannover, and I am still here.
What was it like stepping into an ensemble for the first time?
Nina: Unbelievably exciting and scary at the same time!
I was fresh out of school, having just finished a Master’s degree in opera, I was 25 years old, and I had only one season between the time I finished my studies and the start of my contract in which to prepare. I spent that season getting ready while keeping up with a full performing schedule. My first season in Hannover started with a full and demanding program, so yeah, it was full steam ahead!
How many roles did you sing during your first season, and how did you prepare for this undertaking?
Nina: In my first season, I was contracted to sing: Zweite Dame in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, the role of Page der Herodias in Straus’s Salome, Rosina in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Hänsel in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. I was scheduled to end the season singing the role of the Second Secretary to Mao in Nixon in China, but the performance, unfortunately, was canceled due to the pandemic. Instead, we prepared Martin’s Le Vin herbé, in which I sang Branghien.
I started to prepare most of the roles as soon as I received my contract and before arriving in Hannover. I traveled to Italy in summer 2019 to coach Rosina and, luckily, I had previously sung the Zweite Dame and Hänsel during my studies. The theatre gives us access to many excellent and helpful coaches, so I never have to study alone. The house also keeps an eye on your improvements, and your “Studienleiter” (study leader) will always be there if you need more piano preparation. I am very grateful that I had already performed the role of Hänsel since I was contracted to do a run of Hänsel und Gretel at the same time as I was rehearsing Rosina. Vocal guidance is something very personal, and if you feel like you need a teacher, you have to take care of that yourself.
What is a typical day like when you are part of an ensemble?
Nina: It varies quite a bit. You will have periods of having just one coaching a day (depending on how many roles you are scheduled to sing), but mainly the operas overlap with one another. There are all sorts of different kinds of contracts. In Germany, no matter your age, when you start your first fest contract, they usually give you an “anfanger” contract (beginner contract) with a minimum salary and a maximum amount of performances- which is more or less forty-five (45) performances. Performing so much gives you a lot of experience.
In my case, my “normal” schedule has always been: Morning session rehearsals from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm and evening stage rehearsals from 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm for one production, all the while preparing the next production. Sometimes, with performances at night (for yet another opera) which doesn’t necessarily allow you to miss the morning session for the show you are rehearsing.
Most German houses work with a morning and evening schedule because some people have families, and the lunch break is considered sacred. In the beginning, I thought this was a lot of break time, but I soon discovered that this break was essential in order to prepare upcoming projects and, most importantly, to REST! I must say; they will sometimes use it for costume fittings or promotion videos etc.
What has been the biggest challenge of being an ensemble singer in a house?
Nina: Keeping vocally and mentally healthy by learning to say “no” to undoable things and always keeping an eye on what you need for your development has been a challenge. When you start to feel like you are compromising your vocal technique or physical and mental health, it is essential to have a team to keep you in your “creative” space (including your teacher, your coach, physiotherapist…). It is your responsibility to keep yourself healthy, and no one comes to check on you to see if you are doing okay.
Stay true to yourself. You make your art, and that comes from a profound and personal place. No one can tell you in what state of mind you need to be. Mostly anything is negotiable, and there are always ways to take things off your plate like double casts, understudies, and requesting more coaching (musical or language). If you have a good agent, you can also set all of that in black and white in your contract before you begin a new season.
Usually, they inform you of the roles the house would like you to sing by the spring before the new season begins, but a lot can still change, especially now. The theater typically re-negotiates your contract in October to see if they will keep you for another season.
What has been your biggest “expectation versus reality” moment during your time at the Opera House?
Nina: While getting ready for the start of my contract, I was very prepared and focused on what was coming, but I experienced a lot of stress that I mostly put on myself. Letting go and just waiting to see what the stage directors and conductors will be like and what they would expect of me has been the reality. I tried not to start with lots of “I have to’s” which has been eye-opening.
The feeling of repeating a show 7 to 14 times can be a fantastic experience, but it asks a lot from your memory and stamina. Sometimes shows are spread all over the season while you are already busy with something else. That was new for me, and I didn’t realize just how hard it would be to keep a show always “fresh.”
When debuting a role, I needed much more mental preparation than I thought I would need. My expectation of debuting Rosina, for example, was something like: “I rehearse six weeks, and doing shows of something else in the middle is fine since I know Hansel inside out”. I didn’t realize that I also needed “after show rest,” and I wasn’t getting enough of that. In addition, my stamina was not yet ready, so I started to go to the gym more to the point where I got a bit obsessive, which resulted in more stress rather than release. Now, I realize that it had more to do with trust, and only I can build that with my sweat and blood.
What is the level of German you need to have to work in a house like Hannover?
Nina: It’s best if you already speak basic German. I happened to have a slightly better grasp of the language than most of my colleagues, and in this house, it didn’t seem to be a requirement. But then, if you don’t have a basic level, you end up not understanding emails and meetings which are in German. I think it is indispensable to learn the language of the country in which I am living. I believe it is possible to learn rather quickly when you get here, but I would recommend making an effort to know enough German before starting a fest contract.
If you have a good command of the language, the house will ask you to speak on the radio or with some regular visitors to the opera house, and then it’s best if you can make yourself understood. Our house offers weekly German lessons, which is excellent, but I don’t think that is the case everywhere.
What is the one thing you wish you knew about being fest in a house, but didn’t know?
Nina: You cannot do any other work besides the work itemized in your contract unless you negotiate it with the house way in advance. You have to work very hard and at the same time take care of YOURSELF first because you WILL meet your limits.
Something wonderful that I didn’t expect is the family you will build within the theatre. Everyone who works in the house is, in some way, totally devoted to their work, and it is palpable. It’s never dull. You’re constantly surrounded by inspiring people. It can give you a lot of comfort to see the regular audience members recognize you and come back every other week; this way, you can make a genuine impact on the community.
I wish I had known how important consistency is before I arrived here. I used to practice whenever I needed to. Now I have had to build more of a routine that allows me to perform at my optimal best. My routine includes exercise, mental care, time off, playing around with some light/folk singing, healthy cooking, practicing repertoire, and trusting myself; I always end up knowing my score more than enough to be considered prepared. If you have a steady routine already that you can rely on, that will help you get into the busy schedule of being in an ensemble.
What would be your most significant piece of advice to singers looking to get a fest contract?
Nina: Settle your technique. Make sure you know what your voice can and cannot do. Of course, it will change while you develop.
Learn the language and be willing to give your all while you are festing.
Festing gives you security and a monthly income but hardly any freedom, so make sure you like the theatre and the city because you will be spending most of your time there.
I would advise doing many fest auditions. All the German houses are somehow connected, and there are always casting directors associated with multiple theaters. Don’t be hesitant to step into this scary process. I was super young and felt not at all “ready,” but I learned so much from just doing it. You will be overwhelmed with responsibility unless you are prepared and really can handle it.
The easiest way to get a contract is going through an agent since theatres sometimes don’t invite singers to audition who do not have one. That doesn’t mean that you have to stay with this agent forever, but it does mean they take around 10 % of your income. This will be worth it especially when you are in a position where you need to negotiate something in your contract.
There are C, B, and A houses. It’s up to you where you want to audition. They all have different pros and cons. For example, If you start in a smaller house, you might sing more significant roles than if you start in a bigger house. Both are interesting.
Finally, never lose your curiosity and eagerness to learn, even if sometimes you feel like you’re part of a machine. Keep challenging yourself; your last performance is your standard. And remember, you are part of a team. You see the same makeup and costume people and you all contribute to the show. Please give them the same energy as they give to you. You are an “ensemble” after all.
What is coming up for you?
Nina: I am preparing Dorabella in Mozarts Cosi fan Tutte. We start rehearsals next week and we will (hopefully) perform until July.
Something occurred to me during these exceptional times and it has lead me on a new journey. I think that artists don’t get enough of a chance to talk about how they “shape” their minds so I recently started a podcast, “Mind your Mind” because I discovered when I began to sing professionally that training your mind is as important as training your voice.
About Nina van Essen’s podcast “Mind your Mind for Artists”
“Sharing some insights that I wish I would have had during my conservatory studies. Every episode I will talk to different artists from performers to designers and more, about their tricks and tips to live their most focused life and perform their best.”
Stay tuned for the first episode with Psychiatrist/violinist/politician Esther van Fenema
Art work: Eileen O’Neill