Home on the Road: Katharine Goeldner

Home on the Road is a series in which I interview opera professionals about how they survive their nomadic lives. You can find previous interviews here.


Photo by David Angus
I've been so looking forward to sharing the lovely mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner's interview with you. Katharine most recently scored a big success in Carmen at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, but in real life she is grounded, practical, and infinitely reliable. She is also my favorite expert on how to be an expat in Austria, as she's been living in Salzburg for many years.

Katharine has been freelancing on the road since 1996. This past year she was away from home even more than usual, including a 4.5-month stint away she hopes not to repeat.  Here, she expounds on the benefits of socialism, the importance of picking the right husband, and how to manage a bustling career on two continents.

LMB: You have chosen to make your home in Salzburg. What brought you there in the first place, and what made you stay? What advantages and disadvantages has being based in Europe given you?

KG: I came to Salzburg for a Master's—in short, because I couldn't afford to study in the US. Tuition at American universities is ridiculously expensive. And here, the fee is  approximately $400.00 per semester. That's it. And that's because I'm non-EU. Otherwise it would be free.

The biggest advantages of being based in Europe? Socialism. National health insurance (and yes, I can choose my doctors.) Baby leave: you are allowed up to 3 years of baby leave, split once between the parents if you like. The first two years are partially paid, and the third is not paid at all, but they have to keep your job open for you. A pension. Unemployment insurance.

Other advantages—I started singing in Austria and Germany at an age when my American colleagues were doing young artist programs (which I couldn't get into, by the way). It wasn't easy, but I learned German, how to negotiate contracts, stand up to administration, and that I could sing Evita (title role), Cherubino, and Angelina AND Tisbe (La Cenerentola) all in the same week and survive. I also learned how to jump into a production with no stage or orchestra rehearsal, which served me very well when I started singing at City Opera and the Met. (Two examples: I sang Nicklausse at the Met, my first time doing the role, with no stage or orchestra rehearsal. Same for Carmen at City Opera: only one day on stage and only a Sitzprobe with the orchestra).

Another advantage of living over here is that I have been able to establish myself on both sides of the ocean, which means that in this bad economy, I'm not dependent solely upon the US houses for work.
I should point out here, though, that there have been disadvantages as well. It took me years to get my foot in the door in the US because I hadn't worked with American coaches/teachers/young artist programs—so I was an unknown quantity. It was very difficult to even get heard in the US for a long time. Even now, I can tell that in certain houses, singers who have gone through their studio programs definitely have the advantage over me.



LMB: I'm always looking for advice on how to negotiate a relationship/marriage when you're apart for long periods of time. You've been married 22 years this summer(!), so you obviously have this figured out pretty well. Any tips?

KG: First tip: find an amazing guy. Besides that, Skype has been a godsend. We Skype everyday, and it's allowed me to watch my daughter open her birthday presents, for example. We used to have huge phone bills—just part of the deal, I figured—but Skype has changed that.

The hardest part, I think, is what I call "re-entry": coming home after so long away. You have to resist the temptation to try to make up for all that lost time and not try to be the perfect wife, mother, AND singer at the same time. It just isn't possible. Also, remember that they've gotten into their own routine while you've been gone. Give yourself a break, get over jet lag, and ease in gradually.

Because my husband already had his tenured position in the orchestra here when we met, we had the advantage that we weren't both trying to pursue jobs at the same time. I think it is very difficult to keep a relationship going when both partners are trying to establish  music careers. One partner needs to be the steady one. In all these years, I have very rarely seen a relationship with two singers work out. Our egos are just too big and the pressure, distance, and competition eventually take their toll. I'm not saying it's impossible—just that it's very, very difficult.



LMB: Your daughter is in high school now. I'm sure singers with younger kids would love to hear your advice on how you've managed to be a parent at the same time as having your career. What has made it work for you?

KG: Basically, what's made this all work for me is that I have a really amazing husband. He's also a musician—he's a bassoonist in the Mozarteum Orchestra, here in Salzburg—so he understands better than someone not in "the business," I think, what having a singing career involves.

When my daughter was born, we sort of thought I would take her with me on the road—and I did, at the beginning. But when she was 2+ and I was starting to do bigger roles, it was clear that I really only had time and energy for rehearsing, sleeping, and eating, and not much left over to take care of a child. It didn't seem fair to her to take her away from her home, her routine, and her friends and have her dealing with yet another foreign language (she was already learning German and English, and I was singing in France a lot at the time. And remember, she was only 2 and just learning to talk.) So we opted to have her stay home with Dad, and Mom being gone was the only disruption to her routine. My husband and daughter did travel to be with me for part of the time, usually in time to see my premiere. But they would stay a week, rather than the entire 4–5 weeks of a typical gig.

Once she got into middle school/high school, it became much more difficult for her to miss school, so the length of time we're apart has actually gotten longer. Plus, my husband is in the orchestra here. So we have to plan their trips around both the school and orchestra/theater schedules. We used to aim for no more than a month apart. Now that has sometimes stretched to 2 months.


LMB: In order to have the career that you have, you have to be willing to be away from home a lot of the time. What makes it worthwhile for you?

KG: Hmm. That's not an easy one to answer. I guess I would have to say, and I know this sounds like a cliché, but…this is what I do, this is what I am. You have to really want to do this to make it work. If there's ANYTHING you like just as much—do that instead. This career is far too difficult if you don't "have" to do it.

That said, the occasionally really great team, wonderful piece to sing, beautiful production…sometimes it all just "clicks" and you remember, "oh yeah, THIS is why I'm here!" And interestingly enough, those moments don't necessarily occur where you think they would—in the biggest houses with the "best" casts. Some of the most fun and fulfilling productions I've been a part of have been in regional houses. And some of my most disappointing artistic experiences have been in the "big" houses.

LMB: Any other advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out? Or advice that you did get that has been helpful to you?

KG: One of the best bits of advice I got was from my first voice teacher. She said, "Never turn down an audition and take every gig seriously. You never know who may be listening." Now, at the point I am now at in my career, no, I don't take every possible audition. But when you're starting out, you must. I see so many young American singers these days with an attitude of Entitlement. They're "too good" to take this or that audition because the house or role "isn't good/big/glamourous enough" for them. Big mistake. This business is all about Networking, and that "unimportant" gig you turned your nose up at just might have involved a young conductor or stage director who then goes on to work in a "big" house—and you've now missed a great opportunity.

Do your work, learn your music and COME PREPARED! You would think this is a no-brainer, but the level of preparation I have seen in the past 5-6 years has sometimes been appalling. I have seen far too many young singers show up for rehearsals not having their parts memorized. It's extremely disrespectful to your colleagues and it wastes our time. And it will catch up to you. You may not get fired from this job, but you can be sure they're going to remember it when you come up for consideration for the next one. 

Learn German, French, and Italian.Yesterday.

Take a business class. You're going to wish you had one when it comes to bookkeeping and taxes. Trust me on this one.

Always sing the first musical run-through and the dress rehearsal. It's your responsibility to show them that you are prepared and can sing the role. Other than that, whether or not you sing out at any given rehearsal is up to the singer—you have to get the role into your body and voice, of course. But if you're too tired or feeling like you're getting a cold, only you can judge whether or not you're in shape to sing. Don't let the conductor bully you. Because they will.

Be nice. Be humble. Don't play the diva/divo. You may think you're irreplaceable, but believe me, you're not. Even if you ARE a tenor.

A great big thank you to Katharine! You can find out much more about her at www.katharinegoeldner.com.

4 comments:

  1. I met Kathy about a decade ago in Salzburg when I was attending a study abroad program and thinking I might want to pursue a career as an opera singer. Although my life took another path, I was struck then - as I am now - how authentic and open the Great Goeldner is. This interview certainly reflects her warmth, friendliness, and *realness*. Thank you so much for posting!

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  2. That's my girl. Brava KGB! And brava LBM, it's so nice to see this series continue.

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  3. Really great interview- thanks for sharing!

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