03 Oct Kristina Agur – My Operatic Journey to Vienna
Cover photo by: Bo Huang
Written by: Saige Carlson
As a young singer, I often find myself trying to analyze the career trajectories of other singers with whom I have crossed paths, as though I could write a recipe for success if given enough information. In University, we learn how to sing well, how to conduct ourselves professionally, how to show up well-prepared – the list goes on. Our instructors open up opportunities for us to speak with seasoned professionals, and we batter them with questions in hopes of figuring out exactly what they did that made their career take off. The reality is that no two singers can have the same career, and no matter how prepared we are to enter the world of professional singing, we must eventually jump into the deep end and swim around in applications, auditions, competitions, and young artist programs without a life jacket, so to speak. While I am still a student, I feel this reality looming over me, and it is equally exciting and terrifying. For this reason, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with Kristina Agur, alumna of UofT Opera and newly-hired member of the chorus at the famed Vienna State Opera, or Wiener Staatsoper, in Austria. The Wiener Staatsoper Choir, as described in their website, is “considered one of the leading opera choirs in the world”. The group performs on stage in as many as 55 operas per year, a number that this young soprano can scarcely imagine, given that the 3 fully-staged operas per year that we do at UofT Opera feels like quite enough for now. Kristina and I spoke via video chat last week.
Can you describe the process that you went through to get this position?
“I saw online that Vienna had a spot and sent in my CV, and got an audition a few months later. There were two audition days because they had so many applicants, and then they cut them down from there. There were 15 singers for the first round on my day, and they cut it down to 2. In the second round, we both sang our choice of aria. I got asked to stay and I had to sing 2 out of the 3 chorus pieces I had prepared, and then there was some sight reading, and I sang a classic Rossini vocalise just so they could hear how I transition into my lower voice. After my audition day, they told me that they had another audition day scheduled the next week, but they would let me know after that. The next week (about 15 minutes before a staging rehearsal for Jesus Christ Superstar, auf Deutsch) I got a phone call that I had gotten the position.”
Can you describe what a typical work day looks like for you?
“We have staging rehearsal from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., then we are free in the afternoon. Those of us who are new are called into rehearsal at 6, or if there is a show in the evening, we have rehearsal from 4:30-5:30. If the show goes past 10:50 at night, we can’t start before 10 a.m. because there has to be 11 hours of rest time. On average, we have 4-5 full days off per month, with some half days in between.”
Photo Credit: Il Trovatore © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH, Michael Pöhn
Do you ever get vocally fatigued?
“I find that second alto isn’t taxing – ask me when I’m in the third year of this and I’m in all of the shows! We are learning a new opera right now and rehearsing it like crazy. I just really have to pay attention and I am making a point to go practice on my own to make sure I am singing with good technique. Nobody bats an eye if we hop down the octave, and everyone in the choir does it if they need to because it’s the only way to survive. You find your ways.”
What is different about where you are now than you may have expected, and what is the same?
“During my time at UofT Opera, we had learned a little bit about the Metropolitan Opera chorus and the kind of stability that being in the chorus gives, but I never imagined that a retirement pension could have been an achievable thing for me. I love working with people on stage, and I’ve always loved being on stage, whether it is as part of the chorus or as a soloist. I love the teamwork of being in the chorus, and it’s so much less stressful!”
How did U of T Opera prepare you for where you are in your career?
“The first opera chorus I sang in third year undergrad was Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, which I am performing on stage this week. That is a basic example; I learned those things a really long time ago and I still know them, and just have to brush them up. UofT Opera also got me used to running on a schedule that changes all the time. Another thing is being with a group of people and learning what it is to be professional, how to act, how to be an excellent colleague who is well prepared. Working in a chorus, that’s almost more important, because you’re always together with these people – potentially for the rest of your performing career.”
If you could travel back five years and talk to yourself, what advice would you give?
“Five years ago, I was just starting Opera School. I would say, learn German. I had an idea at the time that I was going to move to Europe, and I should have taken more German language courses or found a tutor.
I would also say to be more open-minded with repertoire and just try things. I was so worried about what I “was” – singers spend a lot of time figuring out their Fach, and what kind of repertoire they should put forth in auditions – rather than just playing. It seems so stressful to be ready to audition for young artist programs during the UofT years, and yes, you have to focus and work on your aria package, but just try things out a little more.”
What has been the most difficult part of your new position?
“The first three years are “training” years. During those first three years, you have to sing in every performance of every show you already know. Right now, we are just finishing off Madama Butterfly, and the only people who hadn’t learned it were two first altos and me as a second alto, so we didn’t learn it with the group, which is tough. I was in La Traviata in my first week and I was so nervous – it wasn’t too complicated for staging, I could follow people around, but I was thinking, “I’m on a stage I have never been on before”, and it’s just like, “And, GO!”. They don’t have [staging] rehearsals for everything. We go into performances with no rehearsal. You get used to going with the flow, thinking on your feet, and trusting the people around you.”
Kiss Me Kate, Theater Vorpommern
Why did you decide to become a singer, and have you ever questioned that choice?
“I question it all the time, I don’t know any singer who hasn’t. I have consistent work now; if any theatre will ever close, it won’t be the Vienna Staatsoper, and it’s nice to have that.
I was in science, and I joined the choir as my elective, and then I auditioned for solos in the Vivaldi Gloria. The director (David Holler, a recent graduate of the DMA in Choral Conducting program at UofT) told me I could study voice, and I was like, “What? Okay…” It was the right timing, and I knew I wasn’t 100% happy with what I was doing. I auditioned and got into UofT, and I thought I was going to teach in a high school because of my geochemistry degree, and music would be my second teachable. But I got the performance bug at UofT and it just kept snowballing from there. I tripped and fell on the path of an opera singer!”
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
“Thinking about the question you asked me about what UofT left me with, I will never forget what Sandra told us early on in my time at UofT Opera. She said that everyone needs to find their own path, and that no matter what your job is and what you do, no one can ever take away from you that you are a musician. The artistry and the musicianship is in you. And that stuck with me, and my colleagues [in Europe] have been really impressed whenever I mentioned that and it is something that I take with me.”
The thing about the recipe for success I mentioned earlier is that there really isn’t one. I started my undergrad at UofT around the same time that Kristina was in Opera School, and I remember seeing her in the halls and knowing she was in Opera School. I didn’t know at the time that she had a whole science degree under her belt, that she had tripped and fallen and became a singer, as she said, or that I would be interviewing her only 5 years later on the heels of a major win in her career. Somehow the fact that I crossed paths with Kristina when she was a student, and that I am now in the same program that she went through, makes me feel as though the elusive “success” is just slightly more achievable. There is no way for me to know what the big world of singing has in store for me, but I am unexpectedly comforted by my conversation with Kristina, once a student like me being released into the professional realm, now one of many success stories.
Thanks for reading, and until next time, happy singing!