IES Abroad: As an undergraduate at Lawrence University, what inspired you to study abroad in Vienna, Austria?
Justin Berkowitz (JB): At Lawrence, I was pursuing both a degree in voice performance as well as a Bachelor’s degree in English literature. As I began exploring study abroad options, I knew that I wanted to be in a musical city, where I could take in many performances and find opportunities to continue my musical training. I also wanted to be able to take courses in music-history and literature and wanted to be in a city where I would be learning and speaking a language that would be beneficial to my performance career. With all those factors taken into mind, Vienna seemed like a natural fit - one of the best opera houses in the world in town, a chance to be in a place where so many composers I admire trained and lived, and getting to immerse myself in the German language—what could be better?
IES Abroad: What was one lesson you learned about yourself while abroad?
Justin: I came out just before I departed for my time abroad, and I really think—as cheesy as this may sound—that living halfway around the world as a newly out person, my time in Vienna taught me that it was okay to live authentically as myself. When I arrived in Vienna and wasn't hiding who I was—be that gay, a musician, someone who loved analyzing literature, a reality TV aficionado—you name it—people came to respect and love every aspect of who I am. I don't know that I would have figured any of that out if I hadn't left my college campus and gone abroad.
IES Abroad: How has your study abroad experience impacted your life personally and professionally?
Justin: Did it inspire you to become a musician? What's funny, looking back, is I set out on my time abroad thinking I would "decide" if I wanted to pursue performance full-time, or wanted to focus my career ambitions elsewhere. My time in Vienna did NOT help me decide that - and I am extremely grateful that no decision was made, because I don't think I would be sitting here if I made a "choice" about my career path while abroad. I left my time in Vienna knowing I wanted to perform; having seen almost two dozen operas at the Vienna State Opera House made that very clear—but I also knew that I wanted to engage with the arts not just from the stage. I think realizing these two facets of myself could exist at the same time has defined my career: I am able to perform with amazing companies and orchestras around the city, country and world and am able to use my communications and writing skills in my roles as Executive Director of the William Ferris Chorale and working with non-profits around the city.
IES Abroad: You are currently performing in the Grant Park Festival Chorus and will be performing with Haymarket Opera and Chicago Opera Theater this fall and winter. What have these experiences been like? Has it been difficult to pursue music full time?
Justin: I will start this answer with a phrase I've heard many times that totally rings true for me: there's not one perfect path to a performance career, and I think I am a great embodiment of that saying. Pursuing music has been incredibly challenging, but not for the reasons folks may think. The most challenging part for me hasn't ever been memorizing music or acting like a clown onstage—I've always enjoyed those parts of the job! It has been missing important events—weddings, funerals, birthdays, etc., and not always being to be with loved ones on holidays that has been most challenging for me.
Chicago is home to some incredible companies and musical organizations, and I love getting into the rehearsal room for the first time and putting things together. In opera, we show up to the first rehearsal memorized and ready to go, without having often sung our roles with others in the cast. I always love the energy of hearing the pieces put together for the first time. Regarding pursuing music full-time, I'll say that that often involves taking on a myriad of different projects and work all at once: singing with choruses and in church choirs, performing in choruses or roles with opera companies, teaching, working in administrative roles within arts organizations - most musicians are doing it all! For me, it takes an organized calendar, constantly checking to make sure I'm heading to the right rehearsal, and a lot of coffee!
IES Abroad: What are you currently listening to when you are not rehearsing?
Justin: I am one of those classical musicians who enjoys spending time listening to music of all kinds, but I tend to turn my brain off best with non-classical music. Lately, I've been spending a lot of time listening to singer-songwriter duos and trios. This summer has been a summer of Beach House, The Staves, MUNA—and a lot of Japanese Breakfast as well! If I'm turning on classical music, there's a good chance it is Mahler - thanks in large part to my course with Morten Solvik in Vienna!
IES Abroad: What advice do you have for future study abroad students?
Justin: Say YES to all the exciting opportunities you'll be presented with to get to know the city you're living in! Travel while abroad is fantastic—but don't turn down the chances to get to know the nooks and crannies of where you're living. Some of my favorite memories come from evenings out at a beer garden or grabbing a kebab with friends and walking around a neighborhood in Vienna.
Oh, and if you're studying somewhere where you can see an opera or classical music performance, please do (and don't forget to bring a scarf to the opera house to tie off your standing room spot!)!
Read more student experiences on our LGBTQIA+ and Ally Resources page, and explore additional social identity resources, to see the ways we commit to making your study abroad experience one where you can bring your fullest self along the journey.