The Junges Ensemble at the Theater an der Wien: boot camp for six newly minted opera singers
The opera world can be “a crazy and dangerous place,” smiles Jochen Breiholz of Theater an der Wien (TadW). Of course it’s an overstatement, but Breiholz does know something about how strenuous the business can be: He’s the director of artistic administration and does the casting for the theater’s opera productions. He is also the artistic director of the TadW’s Junges Ensemble, its Young Ensemble, also known as the JET program.
And so, the JET program doesn’t just offer singing lessons. It is “opera boot camp,” says Breiholz. “Most young singers, no matter how talented they are or how amazing their music schools were, don’t really have any idea what they are in for. Opera is like the Wild West.”
This season welcomes a new batch of six JET members, who are joining for the next two years. Hand-picked, there’s one for every voice range: two sopranos (one a coloratura, the other a lyric), a mezzo-soprano, a tenor, a baritone and a bass. They arrived in Vienna at the end of July and started in August with a weeklong, intensive acting workshop. Young means under 30 for women and under 32 for men (who get a little longer since the voice-change years slow things down).
While opera houses all over the world have programs for fresh singers, Breiholz is proud that the JET program is different. Rather than giving them a scholarship and a nibble of the stage as understudies or with bit parts “where all you sing is ‘dinner is served,’ or ‘the horses are ready’ ” JET singers are salaried and have their own full season of four productions at the TadW’s second house, the Kammeroper (Chamber Opera)
Moreover, they have frequent master classes and workshops, fill smaller roles in the big stage productions at the Theater an der Wien, and each will sing a solo portrait recital. The idea, according to Breiholz, is “to give them as much stage opportunity as possible,” to learn the craft in every conceivable form by “having them work with really great, experienced people.”
Spoiled for Choice
Breiholz chose the group from a mind-boggling 437 applicants. Of these, 120 were invited for a personal audition. Not only was the competition enormous, so was the level of singing. Of all these candidates, Breiholz says, fewer than 10 could be rejected out of hand. Hopefuls came from all over the world – from 51 countries, including Swaziland and India. He looked for singers with charisma and presence who would fit together as a team, “chemistry-wise and type-wise,” with vocal colors that would balance and, hopefully, with good acting abilities. He ended up with one singer from Iceland and two from Russia, an American, an Austrian and a Romanian. Three have studied in Vienna, which certainly says something about vocal training in this music capital.
“And now I am responsible,” as he describes his role, “for their well-being and development, for feedback and advice.” His job is to offer everything possible to make them “better, smarter, more experienced, more grounded.”
That is exactly what new JET soprano Jenna Siladie wants. Originally from Florida, she studied at Yale’s fine music school, was a member of the young singers’ program in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and has already had some professional engagements. In the transition phase from student to international career, she says, “we need time; the voice is like a fine wine, maturing with age.” As for being an opera singer in Vienna, she admits that “you can’t top it.”
The intimate Kammeroper has a stage close enough to hear every nuance, see every bead of sweat. The first JET production this season will be Die Zauberinsel (The Magic Island), an opera pasticcio (in English) using music by Henry Purcell with a story based on Shakespeare’s Tempest. It gives every member of the JET team a leading role. What a way to meet them all!
Sept 29; Oct 1,3,5,7,9,12,15,17,19 – 19:00 Kammeroper, 1., Fleischmarkt. theater-wien.at