Jennifer Porto U.S. Ode to State-Supported German Opera

After a decade performing in Leipzig, a U.S. soprano from Iowa sings the praises of Germany’s subsidized opera sector, which she said benefits performers and audiences alike.
Jennifer Porto, an American Singer in Leipzig.


Soprano Jennifer Porto practices as she cleans, hums as she walks, learning her songs for a children’s show to run in Leipzig this season.

She’s working on several pieces for shows at the eastern German city’s opera house. Alongside “Sleeping Beauty,” the children’s opera, she is playing in “Secretaries,” a musical about eight women working in an open-plan office. “It’s full of great hits for people who grew up in Germany in the 1980s – and for people who grew up in America in the '70s and '80s,” Ms. Porto said.

She is also singing in “Trouble in Tahiti,” “La Cenerentola,” and in “Hänsel und Gretel mobil.”

Working on several pieces at once is typical for an ensemble singer, Ms. Porto said.

It's busy, but she isn't complaining. Working in Germany's state-supported opera system means there's more support for artists and that means more variety for audiences, too.

Ms. Porto has spent a decade living and working in Leipzig and joined the city's opera house ensemble in 2008.

For singers, she said, working in Germany is like nowhere else in the world.

It's partly because opera is so popular in Germany. According to Operabase, one third of all opera performances in the world took place in Germany in 2012. Music is an important part of the country's cultural sector. Opera houses and orchestras often employ staff on full-time contracts – currently, German opera houses employ 1,270 soloists and 2,870 choir members on full-time contracts.

Playing many different roles in a single season is just one way life is different than it is in the United States, Ms. Porto explained.

Another advantage of working for a single institution, as is common for artists in Germany, is that life isn’t spent on the road. For many opera singers, that’s rare. “Don’t get me wrong, I love traveling, but it’s also great to come home and sleep in your own bed,” she said.

After graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Music, Ms. Porto first came to Leipzig in 2005 on a Fulbright scholarship. “Back then the only vocabulary I knew was from singing, about the moon and the stars and love. That didn’t help me much when I went to the store,” she recalled.

She was determined to get work in Germany, well known among musicians for the value it places on the arts, and the government money it channels into the arts. Despite reductions in recent years, cultural institutions in Germany get generous subsidies and Germany has more state-sponsored theaters than any other country in the world. Germany has 83 publicly funded opera houses, 130 orchestras and 200 privately funded theaters.

I can’t imagine a U.S. theater ever being able to afford to take such programming risks. Jennifer Porto, opera singer

Although there have been cuts, in 2013 Germany’s cultural budget rose by 8 percent even though the overall federal budget fell by 3.1 percent. In 2014, German spending on the arts reached €11 billion, combining federal and municipal sources. According to some calculations, this puts spending per person at $183 compared to $3.60 per head in the United States.

This has attracted singers from all around the world. “There are fewer opera houses in the United States so it’s much harder to get a job,” Ms. Porto said. She studied the German language and hasn’t looked back since.

Beyond job security for artists, there are many other advantages – including longer rehearsal periods of sometimes six to eight weeks. “In the United States, people would think that was crazy,” Ms. Porto said.


Backstage at the opera.


Generous funding of the arts also means concert houses can run more different kinds of music, Ms. Porto said, recalling that the orchestra at the municipal concert hall in the town where she grew up performed one concert every five weeks. In the coming season, the Leipzig Opera house will show pieces by Giacomo Puccini, Johann Strauss, Richard Wagner – and also Albert Lortzing, a Berlin composer who lived in the first part of the nineteenth century. “I hadn’t heard of him before I got here,” Ms. Porto said. Because of the need to sell tickets, she said, “I can’t imagine a U.S. theater ever being able to afford to take such programming risks.”

While some observers say the generous level of funding puts Germany among the leading countries in the world in terms of its creative economy, Ms. Porto said the real difference is in people’s everyday lives. For listeners, the wider choice means they can enjoy a broader range of music too, from classical to popular. “I can only explain it’s like beer and wine. In some places, people prefer one or the other – but here they’re both much more part of people’s everyday lives,” Ms. Porto said.

“In Germany, there are also lots of performances created for children and young people – even for babies, featured during the day rather than the evening.”

She said this season, several opera houses across Germany are all featuring very different interpretations of the same piece, exploring the characters in different ways and in greater depth – as differently as could be, Ms. Porto said. “Ultimately, it means there’s a higher chance of touching someone’s heart.”


Allison Williams is deputy editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact her: [email protected]