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An American in France: Nice Work If You Can Get It
My story is an old one: The young, hungry singer in the right place at the right time. My Franco adventure began while I was covering in a New York City Opera production directed by the artistic director of Opéra de Nice. He pulled me aside one day after a cover rehearsal (which he attended — a first for me) and asked me what kind of repertoire I sang. I passed my biography on to him, and two days later he offered me the role of Buonafede in Haydn’s comic romp, Il mondo della luna. It’s safe to say it was the easiest audition I ever had, not having one at all! In the future I plan on getting all my jobs like that, though I’m not sure most companies will agree.
So there I was, inspired by a new role and my first trip across the pond to continental Europe. There was a passport to get, an apartment to find, Berlitz Easy French tapes to buy, and, most important of all, a role to learn. All preparations were accomplished over the course of a few months with only a small amount of pain. The TSA recommended arriving at the airport two hours before an international flight. I arrived two and a half hours before departure and my reward was sitting around for two and one quarter hours with nothing to do. The flight was smooth, complete with a complimentary lavender-scented sleeping mask, a pair of socks, and a mini toothbrush/toothpaste set for freshening up before arriving on the terra firma of Nice. In hindsight I could have used a few Handi Wipes as well, but that’s neither here nor there. The travel time was, of course, a great chance to focus and study my music with few distractions.
Enfin, there I was in France, home of de Gaulle, Jacques Brel, and one of the bloodiest revolutions in history. (I’m happy to report that things had calmed down by that point and relatively few monarchs were losing their heads.) To top it all off, I was in Nice. The Riviera of… well… I guess the Riviera. The drive from the airport was scenic; the mighty Mediterranean to my right, with waves crashing against the beach like something out of the Aneid or The Guns of Navaronne. After a day of general acclimation, I arrived at the first rehearsal to meet my cast mates. They were all wonderful people: fine artists and as kind as could be.
The one glaring problem was that I didn’t speak French and most of them spoke very little English; this was the main difficulty I had. There was another American and a French Canadian there who did speak English which made things a bit easier, but overall it was tough. My fellow American mentioned to me that it’s hard being in a foreign country when you don’t speak the language because it seems as if you lose your personality. It’s a strange thought but it’s very true. Those who know me know that I’m usually pretty quick on my feet verbally — the cut-up of the make-up room, if you will. Here I was reduced to a few polite nods and the occasional pardon, mais je ne parle pas Français (which apparently I say like a native Frenchman). In the end the saving grace (for me at least) was that the assistant director, who was Slovakian and assisting an Italian director, spoke Italian and English but no French! At one point, she took over the duties of staging when the director had to leave to begin another production elsewhere. Rehearsals were then conducted in English, which really helped me get to work.
I always throw myself into a production full force — prepared beforehand, but always open to changing and experimenting, especially with a comedy. To me, there is still an old-world style to the way opera is produced in Europe. It’s not the “roll up your sleeves and dig in” style that I have encountered in America. I may be totally incorrect about this attitude however; this was my first time working in Europe. The production had less of a collaborative feel than American shows do. It was very instructional and not as much an exchange of creative ideas. I’m sure that my language barrier had something to do with this. I never really knew what the director thought of my performance. I don’t need constant approval, just feedback, i.e.: someone telling me what works as opposed to what doesn’t. I did start getting that eventually, but it was a less immediate feedback process. Not that it was bad — it was a just a different way to work. It required a great deal of confidence that can only come through knowing your part, understanding the context of the opera, and identifying with your character.
All that matters is that the end result was a success. The opera house itself was beautiful, the management complimentary and helpful, and the performances were delivered well with everyone doing a fantastic job. I should mention I also enjoyed a private dressing room overlooking the gorgeous Mediterranean coast!
I have a few practical points to make. First, housing was not provided for me; luckily, my management has an office in Paris which helped a great deal. They were able to find a rental apartment that was a bit costly. Second, decide beforehand what you are going to do about telephone communication. I purchased a prepaid cellular phone there which saved me a lot of the roaming charges I would have incurred if I had used my U.S. phone, but it didn’t last the duration of the trip. Third, French taxes are very high and a good portion of your paycheck will go to taxes. You can apply for a tax credit when you pay your taxes in the United States for a portion of the taxes paid to France. You can also get an exemption through the company that is employing you. You can find additional information on the French Embassy Web site at www.info-france-usa.org. Fourth, try to stay current regarding U.S. news and events, and with your friends and family. Via WiFi, I was able to download U.S. news podcasts and communicate with friends and loved ones, which helped me feel connected to what was going on back in the States. Finally, I should mention that it is cheaper in Nice to buy wine than Coca-Cola, so indulge!
The city of Nice is an amazing town, combining old-world charm with new-world amenities. The Chagall and Matisse Art Galleries are not to be missed and Monte Carlo is only a 15-minute train ride away. For me, the best part was the old town area of Nice. Located on the sea near the opera house, it was like something out of a fairy tale: a bit dark and dusty in some places, but absolutely charming with its open-air markets, old churches, and corner cafes. The narrow, stone-paved streets reminded me of scenes from the movie Ronin (which was filmed there). The pace is very slow, which I’m sure everyone hears and knows about; it was my first time experiencing it, so it felt very strange. I’m so used to the fast pace of American cities that it was hard for me to adjust at first, but by the end I was casually sitting at sidewalk cafes, smoking Galliouses and sipping French coffee like a spy out of a John le Carré novel.
What would I like you take from all of this? Well, if you are smart, very little. Who am I to tell you what to expect from a transatlantic adventure? Aside from the above tips, I can say that I had a wonderful experience, artistically and culturally, and I have much to bring to my performances in the United States.
About the Author: Michael Rice is a bass-baritone living in Chicago. He has sung with opera companies and festivals throughout North America and Europe including New York City Opera, Sarasota Opera, Utah Symphony & Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, and Caramoor. He holds a B.M. from Northwestern University and a Master’s in vocal performance from the Manhattan School of Music