Global Estonians: Maari Ernits, an aspiring opera singer in Amsterdam

Maari Ernits, an Estonian in Amsterdam, invites me to meet her at the Amsterdam Public Library, in a rooftop café which overlooks the whole city. After some twists and turns and trying different things in her life, she has realised her true ambition and is studying to be an opera singer in the Conservatory of Amsterdam. It turns out that we have a few friends in common in Estonia as well. Maari talks to Estonian World about life in Holland and her future plans.

Maari, how did you end up in Amsterdam?

I come from Tartu, and at first I studied law at the University of Tartu. I had been singing in Tartu Women’s choir for years and learned to play the violin at the music school. At some point I noticed that I was getting better and better at music and singing, so I decided to follow my heart and change course in my studies. It’s now my second year in Amsterdam, and I’m studying opera singing in the Conservatory of Amsterdam (also called Amsterdam School of the Arts). I also tried for the Sibelius Academy in Finland and another one in the Netherlands, but since I was among the very few who were accepted here, it was an easy choice. The competition was hard, only nine people out of two hundred got excepted for my study programme.

How do you manage and where do you live?

I organised everything myself, but I did get some financial support from Kultuurkapital (Cultural Endowment of Estonia) as well. My schedule at the university is always busy, so I hardly have time for anything else. In the beginning, I lived in Amsterdam for three months, and then decided to live somewhere more calm with less tourists. I’m currently living in Heemstede, a suburb of Amsterdam about a 20-minute train ride away from the city centre. It is very idyllic there. Before that I lived in Slotervaart, almost 45 minutes away.

What were your first impressions of Holland?

First of all the bureaucracy was a bit intimidating. It took some time to get all my documents “apostilled”, and there were always little surprises like having to apostille and confirm my birth certificate again. One wouldn’t think a birth certificate can expire! I was surprised that it is very hard here to organise things via e-mail. Most things are still being sent via post,- and can take up to three months. The second slightly tiny surprise was that Dutch people really don’t hide anything. It is a common notion that to draw the curtains on your house means there is something to hide. This is due to their Calvinistic background and mentality, and explained to all the tourists as one of the peculiarities of Dutch life. Even in my university, not only the windows, but the walls and doors are made of glass as well. Everything is open and you can see everything what is going on. For a privacy-seeking Estonian this takes some getting used to.

What do you like most about life in Holland?

It really is a very liberal and tolerant society. No one is being discriminated against, no matter what’s their skin colour, sexual or other preferences. Everyone can do what they like. I like the laid-back attitude of the Dutch people the most. You could say that “anything goes”. Personal happiness is important to them.

What is more difficult about living there?

The straightforwardness and directness of the Dutch also takes some getting used to. They tell you everything right away and without inhibitions. Especially professionally, in the music world, the critique can be harsh at times, but you have to learn to handle it, and not take it personally.

What about Estonians in Holland?

To be honest, I haven’t met so many Estonians here yet. One of my best friends is studying in Groningen, a city known for its university. I’m looking forward to celebrating Jaanipäev (Midsummer Night) soon, which the Estonian community is organising here. I know that there was one girl studying to be a flute player a couple of years ago at the Conservatory of Amsterdam, and there are quite a few Estonians working and studying in The Hague as well. I guess that right now my group of friends is more international in general due to my university being very international. I tend to spend my free time with fellow students and musicians, going to the opera together etc.

What are your future plans? Do you see your future in Holland as well?

I have nothing against Holland, but I see my future elsewhere. In my professional life, Holland would offer too little room for development. The country is rather small, and so are the cultural circles. After finishing my studies, I will try my luck in other countries needing good opera singers. Germany would be great, but it’s also difficult in my field as they use other vocal systems and voice types there. I have family/relatives in New York, and as hard as it can be to “make it in New York”, I will definitely give it a try. I understand that there are many mediocre opera singers over there, and less really good ones. This might be my chance.

What about Estonia?

I guess that anything is possible. I’m always open for Estonian projects as well. In general, I am also worried for Estonia.

Why? What would you like to change?

I certainly wish for more tolerance, understanding and seeing things in a broader perspective. Coming out of the closet and breaking taboos in a general sense as well – having enough courage to be who you are and do what you want to do. Living in such a liberal and tolerant society as the Dutch, it seems silly that in Estonia the debate over same-sex civil partnerships, let alone gay marriages, still continues. Similar to the President’s Independence Day speech in February, I wish that Estonians would discriminate less, and care more for each other.

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