Straight from university to the opera stage

21 March 2012

In 1988, the famous mezzo-soprano Claudia Eder brought a breath of fresh air to the School of Music at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). As a professor, the singer was able to combine study and practice in a unique way. Her concept continues to be very successful and she now has many imitators.

Her office is small. Not much can fit in besides two tables and the mandatory cabinets. "This is exactly the way I like it," says Professor Claudia Eder. "It may well be that this is the smallest office in the building, but it is definitely the most attractive. The others only have windows into the courtyard." Eder, who is head of the Department of Vocal Studies at the School of Music at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), has an uninterrupted view over the campus and out into the world. "And the Black Box is directly opposite," she adds. 'Barock vokal' students are rehearsing there at this very moment. "So I am lucky enough to have my work room just a hop and skip away."

A passion for teaching

So we've already touched on two aspects of the multi-faceted career of Claudia Eder: the wide world and the teaching of students. "I have a real passion for teaching," she states decisively.

When she herself was studying voice and violoncello she always felt something was missing - irrespective of whether she was in Munich, Frankfurt or Milan. "No one took the trouble to combine study with practice," she recalls. After graduating, one had to shift for oneself when it came to making a career in the world of theater.

But the mezzo-soprano did well. In addition to engagements at the Hesse State Theater in Wiesbaden, the State Theater am Gärtnerplatz at the German Opera in Düsseldorf, and the 'Volksoper' in Vienna she also performed as a guest in major cities. She sang in London, Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, New York, Los Angeles, and Tokyo. She also performed at the 'Salzburger Festspiele' and the Vienna 'Festwochen'.

The 'Junges Ensemble' and the State Theater

"When I received my first teaching assignment at Johannes Gutenberg University in the 1980s, I first fought it tooth and nail. I have never been as apprehensive as I was before the first singing lesson where someone is supposed to stand there in front of me and do everything I say. It was an incredible feeling of responsibility." She taught for two years. "Then I went to Vienna. But since then I had known that I wanted to be a professor." In 1988, her wish came true. "Even now, I am still grateful that I was given this opportunity."

Over the next few years, Eder began to work towards providing her students with what she had missed, and so she began collaborating with Mainz State Theater. "The 'Junges Ensemble' program gives students from their fourth or fifth semester onwards a taste of performance experience in a real theater. They soon see that there is a big difference between being praised by a voice teacher and appearing before an audience."

The life of a performer is not for the faint-hearted

Eder is proud of the collaborative project. For the past few years, the Baroque operas featuring a young cast have been a tremendous success. "It is fantastic for the students, and the theater benefits." But, as she herself admits: "The life of a performer is not for the faint-hearted. You're expected to be on your toes everyday from ten in the morning to ten at night." And this is exactly what the young men and women need to experience because this will be their life. "Since 2002, no one has quit - quite the contrary." Eder indicates a photo collage of portraits of her former students and points to various individuals: "This one has an engagement at the Vienna State Opera, she performs in Hanover, and he is a countertenor in Cologne." Through its practical approach, the School of Music is setting new standards. "We now have imitators; I am aware of similar programs in Leipzig and Weimar."

Eder also introduced a series of other innovations. In the lecture-free periods, she and her colleagues offer workshops and productions. "You have to practice daily if you want to be a singer. We used to be left to our own devices during the vacations. Some students paid for private voice teachers." It is very different in Mainz. "Of course, this means more work for the teaching staff and a lot of commitment from the students."

'Barock vokal'

The continuing education program 'Barock vokal - Kolleg für Alte Musik' was instigated on Eder's initiative. Year after year, she gets prominent mentors to come to Mainz for this and other projects. "Early music is very popular right now," she claims. And students who learn the techniques of Baroque singing gain a broader base of experience.

"Let's just see if we look in on lessons", she suggests. We leave her small office and cross the hall to the Black Box. When we arrive, a young countertenor is performing a piece by Handel. Ralf Otto, conductor of the Mainz Bach Choir and professor at the School of Music, comments on the performance while nearly a dozen fellow students sit and listen.

The Black Box was designed as a multi-purpose studio stage. Although the technology is state-of-the-art, the Black Box is not particularly lavishly equipped. In 2008, the School of Music moved into its new building on the campus. Eder is quite happy with it. "However, we could use a larger performance space." The concert hall seats 220 guests. That's sometimes not enough in view of the tremendous interest in the concerts that are given on an almost daily basis.

Black Box, practice rooms, and organ hall

While she's about it, Eder decides to briefly show us the practice rooms. Students can practice individually in these small rooms that look a bit like monastic cells. "But we've made sure each one has a window," Eder points out with a grin. There is also an auditorium with a new concert organ.

Back in the foyer, Eder says goodbye. On its wall are images taken by the photographer Martina Pipprich showing 'Junges Ensemble' projects. There are scenes from Handel's 'Amadigi di Gaula', Purcell's 'Dido and Aeneas', and Scarlatti's 'La Giuditta'. Theater life may be tough, but these pictures illustrate the magic of music, a magic that Eder transfers from campus to stage with the aid of her students year after year, sending these off with the best of all possible qualifications into the wide world.