‘As an opera singer, work is much more abundant in Germany than at home’

Irish baritone on the trials and tribulations of being based abroad: Tayto, pretzels and Deutsch that’s not so perfekt

Irish baritone Benjamin Russell returns from his base in Germany to play the title role in Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave.

Irish baritone Benjamin Russell returns from his base in Germany to play the title role in Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave.

 

I moved to Germany in June of 2014 and I wasn’t quite sure what was in store for me in Wiesbaden. I had previously spent a year in the International Opera Studio of Opera Zürich in Switzerland, so I had a bit of the language under my belt and had an idea of what would be expected of me music-wise. But actually living in Germany was a whole new adventure.

I was joining the ensemble of well respected German theatre – Hessisches Staatstheater, Wiesbaden – as a full fledged professional singer, my student days behind me. And while the ins and outs of everyday theatre life were strange to me (the Tagesplan, or daily schedule which dictates a singer’s life, the odd 10am-2pm and 6pm-10pm work days, coupled with sometimes weeks at a time of no schedule at all), it was living abroad that really took some getting used to. Public transport that is chronically on time, the way all the shops are closed on Sundays and, of course, that infamous German sense of humour.

Care packages

So I did my best to acclimatise. I was helped by care packages of good Irish tea bags, salt and vinegar Taytos, Cadburys chocolate and Ballymaloe Relish. Internet was essential for chatting with friends and family at home, and I have been known to stick on RTÉ radio on the computer in the morning just to hear the Irish accents.

But now, starting my fourth year here, I can say that I am hugely enjoying it. German people are very warm and accepting, I have found. And they are, for the most part, very patient, especially after you explain that your Deutsch is not so perfekt. You get used to the more extreme weather (they have an actual summer and winter), and the punctual transport, and you learn, eventually, to have all your shopping done on a Saturday evening. And the brezeln [pretzels] and weissbier help somewhat.

Benjamin Russell and Sarah Richmond on stage in a scene from Owen Wingrave. Photograph: Frances Marshall
Benjamin Russell and Sarah Richmond on stage in a scene from Owen Wingrave. Photograph: Frances Marshall

As an opera singer, work is much more abundant in Germany than at home, with more than 7,000 performances a year taking place in the country, on average. People go to the opera all the time and they have plenty to choose from.

I’ve been lucky enough to get to sing some of my favourite roles here, such as Figaro and Papageno from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Magic Flute, as well as Schaunard in La Bohème and Malatesta in Don Pasquale. I sang my first Wagner part (something I was never sure I’d do), in Rheingold last season. This season I will be singing Wolfram in his opera Tannhauser, which I’m hugely looking forward to.

Home turf

I’m delighted to be on home turf again in Ireland this week, where I sing the title role in Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave with Opera Collective Ireland in Limerick, Cork and Dublin. It’s a great piece of theatre and I’m a huge fan of Britten’s music.

After all the hard work put in abroad, I’m excited to see what the reception will be like from an Irish audience for this superb opera. It is also great to work with my fellow Irish opera singers in this production, many of whom have to work abroad for the same reason as I do.

Benjamin Russell performs the lead role in Opera Collective Ireland’s Owen Wingrave which runs at The O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin on September 15th and 16th, as part of Dublin Fringe Festival 2017. See operacollectiveireland.com

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