Sophie Rashbrook speaks to opera singers Pavel Petrov, Adam Plachetka & Christina Gansch about their experiences of life on a Fest Contract
For any opera singer at the start of their career, a Fest Contract at a major European opera house is the Holy Grail. Based at a Repertoire theatre – that is, one of the houses that stage up to four or five different productions per week – you join the Fest Ensemble: a pool of fellow singers-in-residence who perform numerous principal roles in mainstage shows. You are given access to practice rooms, regular coachings, and, crucially, a monthly salary, with all the associated employment benefits (paid holiday, sick pay, health insurance). A Fest Contract can be an important stepping stone to becoming a Guest Artist at a theatre, and it can also provide important training for an international singing career. So where’s the catch, you may ask? For Pavel Petrov, Adam Plachetka and Christina Gansch, life on a Fest Contract can be something of a balancing act.
Belarusian tenor, Pavel Petrov, is about to go into his second year in the Fest Ensemble at Graz Opera, Austria. He is enthusiastic about the experience so far: “It’s been really good for my career: I get to learn lots of roles and to sing them in, in performance. Also, I don’t sing too much,” he adds, alluding to the more demanding schedules of his counterparts at on contracts at German opera houses. “They perform in many as six or seven productions annually, sometimes performing on consecutive nights, but I only sing in two or three productions a year.” This flexibility has worked well for him: he was able to enter the Operalia competition in 2018, which he won, in part thanks to the musical and administrative support of the team at Graz, who organised his visa for him. Watch the video below to see Pavel’s performance as Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor for Graz Opera.
Czech baritone Adam Plachetka believes that the training provided by the system is second to none: “You can always tell whether a singer has been through a Fest contract: they are always more effective, and more efficient.” A member of the Fest Ensemble at the Vienna State Opera for four years, he is now a Guest artist there, but he recalls that he was initially concerned about accepting the contract: “I was really afraid that it would ruin my voice, but it was the complete opposite. It gives you the space to work on your repertoire, and your technique, even.” The workload can be daunting: instead of the usual month of rehearsals, Fest Ensemble artists are frequently required to learn the staging of an entire role in three days, or rehearse one opera in the morning, and perform something completely different that night. Adam says this approach may not suit everyone: “You have to learn how to sing every day, without days off between performances. It can be stressful, but if you can do it, and you have the stomach and the brains for it, it can help you get along, both as an artist and a person.” His Fest contract experience has been a truly immersive one: at the end of rehearsal days, artists are allowed to watch all performances from a special ‘Ensemble’ box in the auditorium. In such a big theatre, this means exposure to as many as 50 productions a year: “I tried to go to almost every night to see at least part of a show,” he says. “You get to know what you like, what you don’t like, and you take inspiration from that. It’s brilliant.”
“I was really afraid that it would ruin my voice, but it was the complete opposite. It gives you the space to work on your repertoire, and your technique, even.”
Following her studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London, Austrian soprano Christina Gansch became a member of the Hamburg Opera Young Artists’ programme for two years. From there, she was invited to join the Hamburg Fest Ensemble, where she stayed for a further season before embarking on a freelance career. Despite this, she has maintained a close connection with Hamburg, and says the experience has hugely benefited her career: “I wouldn’t be where I am now without it. I made so many artistic connections there, and sang so many roles, especially in my two years as a Young Artist: my second ever role there was Gretel in Hansel and Gretel! But that was good for me, and I thrived on it.” She feels lucky that whenever she raised concerns about her workload, the team at Hamburg was always sympathetic, removing a project or a role from her contract if her schedule looked too full. Likewise, Pavel speaks positively about the sensitivity with which vocal roles have been chosen for him at Graz: “I’m a lyric tenor, and they have only chosen roles for me which suit me, which is brilliant for the development of my voice.”
“You have to always think ahead, and work outside if you can. For me, that was always important; knowing where I wanted to go next.”
Even beyond the demands of a busy schedule, Christina explains how all-encompassing Fest Contract life can be: “The theatre becomes like your family. You spend your holidays and Christmasses there because that’s when people are most likely to come to the opera.” Yet that sense of cosiness can bring its own dangers: “It can happen that on the Young Artists’ programmes, you work so hard in one place that when you finish, you’re not sure what to do next. You have to always think ahead, and work outside if you can. For me, that was always important; knowing where I wanted to go next.”
For Pavel, Adam and Christina, there is an element of compromise to life in a Fest Ensemble. Although you have the security of a monthly salary, you are also tied to one place, and may have to turn down other attractive engagements. Adam and Christina had to respectively turn down offers from the Metropolitan Opera and the Bayerische Staatsoper owing to Fest Contract commitments. Thankfully, they have both since been invited to return there on a freelance basis, and Christina adds, “The opera houses understand that you have commitments – but it’s still a very personal decision, about what compromise you want to make.” Pavel, too, had to decide between taking a Fest Contract at a bigger House – but with secondary roles – and the principle role contract he was offered at Graz: “It was a difficult choice to make, but now I know it was the right one: it is an investment in the future.” An investment in the future, which, he adds, he is very much enjoying in the present: “Graz is a great place to be based, and my colleagues are wonderful. And I have a secret weapon: my wife is a professional pianist, and she lives with me in Graz. She helps me with learning and studying roles, too.”
Pavel, Adam and Christina are all in agreement, that they would recommend the experience to young singers. It may be indicative of the all-consuming nature of the profession that both Christina and Adam’s partners are opera singers with Fest Contract experience. Adam’s wife is an Ensemble singer in Prague, and their two children spend time with them in Austria and the Czech Republic, while Christina’s partner has just spent two years in the Fest Ensemble in Weimar. Striking the right balance between contract commitments, freelance work, and family life is a never-ending challenge for every opera singer, but thanks to the intense training of the Fest Ensemble experience, a bright future awaits all three of these rising stars of the opera world.
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2019 Edition of The Green Room.