Ilker Arcayurek struggled financially and had odd jobs in Vienna, but his life changed after he did an audition at the International Opera Studio in Zurich.
Ilker Arcayürek was five-years-old when his family moved from Istanbul to Vienna so his older step-sister could pursue violin studies. Little did they expect that it would be Ilker who would become a critically acclaimed tenor and the only professional musician in the family.
Thanks to an abundance of natural talent, a bit of luck and hard work, Ilker pursued a path that nobody in his family had trodden before him, taking an unconventional route into opera singing.
Besides winning several accolades, Ilker won the prestigious International Art Song Competition at Germany’s Hugo Wolf Academy in 2016, cementing his reputation as a singer of exceptional ability.
His journey began after his mother enrolled him in an extracurricular music school to learn piano when he was seven. After two years, he was given the choice to play in an ensemble or sing in a choir. He chose to join the choir and began singing at the age of nine. The choir’s conductor, who also worked for one of the most famous choirs in Europe, noticed Ilker’s voice “shining out” of the crowd and invited him to audition for the Mozart Boys’ Choir (MBC).
The MBC snapped him up and almost immediately whisked him off to tour in Japan, a trip which left a deep impression on him. “Japan is a destination that not every kid is able to see,” he said. “I really appreciated that, (especially) at the age of nine. It was an honour to be part of this choir and represent something.” Moreover, he enjoyed the social aspect of the choir, especially the soccer played with a crushed can of Coke. The choir’s camaraderie and their passion for singing were key factors that encouraged him to stay with them until he was 19 when his voice broke. He then joined different adult choirs in Vienna, including the highly respected Arnold Schoenberg Choir.
While many of his peers went off to university, Ilker went through a difficult period in his life and did not have the finances to attend university. He ended up working at different places, including a bakery, supermarket and call centre. Singing was still a much-loved hobby at that point and only became a vocation when he realised that he had a talent for it.
“Over time the singing got more and more, and I decided to try and live from singing. At the age of 23, I had the opportunity to sing solo with a well-known conductor called Claudio Abbado,” he said. His time with the highly acclaimed Abbado further ignited his passion and lead him to start taking voice lessons.
Under the tutelage of a teacher, his vocal technique expanded at a rapid pace. So much so, that just two years later while competing in a little-known competition, he was spotted by a casting director from the fiercely competitive International Opera Studio (IOS) in Zurich, who invited him to audition.
“At first I thought it was a joke,” he said. “I read the rules and must-haves and other requirements which I didn’t fulfil.” He decided not to apply. But the casting director wrote to him before the deadline asking him if he had applied. Ilker put his doubts aside and took the plunge. His application was successful, something short of a miracle he says.
“They get 500 applications each year, and depending on how many students leave, they take five to ten maximum. It’s very hard to be one of those. They also take one voice type – one soprano, tenor, bass, baritone, and mezzo-soprano. The chance of you being the chosen one is very close to zero.”
At IOS, Ilker received the training and exposure that he needed to propel his operatic career. After graduating, he joined an Austrian municipal theatre called Stadttheater Klagenfurt, where he had the opportunity to perform leading roles and to develop as a singer and artist. From there he went to the Staatstheater Nuernberg in 2015, a state theatre in Nuremberg, Germany, where he took on meaty roles such as Rodolfo in La Boheme. In 2015, he also became a finalist in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition and was selected to be one of BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists, which he says “opened the door for my career” giving him international exposure.
The following year, he won the International Art Song Competition at Germany’s Hugo Wolf Academy.
This season (2018-2019), will see him transition from a European to an international stage with forthcoming recital debuts in New York and San Francisco and an operatic debut in Santa Fe. Despite the challenges of being continuously on the road and living out of a suitcase, he is keen to keep growing as a singer.
“For me, it’s important to share my music and my voice with the world. I’m very excited to be in the United States for the first time – I’ve never been there. There’s so much to develop and learn. Although it’s sometimes difficult and tiring to travel and live out of a suitcase, I still enjoy travelling and making new friends.”
One of the challenges of his life on the road is leaving his wife and 13-month-old daughter behind in Zurich, where he is based. Consequently, he takes the opportunity to visit places where he performs with his family, saying: “You are not always home, so you have to make your whole world your home.”
His wife, incidentally, is called Carmen, the name of a well-known opera. His daughter, Stella Sophia, was named in part after the Hagia Sophia because he and Carmen shared a lovely moment there and Istanbul was where they made the decision to start a family. He admits he does not get the chance to visit Turkey as often as he would like, saying: “I would love to go more and see my family. I miss my aunts and uncles and cousins. It’s always special when I’m in Turkey because of food and culture, the smell and taste, a lot of emotions and memories come up each time I’m there.”
When he has downtime, Ilker likes to hike, saying: “It’s a time when I can refill my batteries and be inspired by nature. We have a few moments where we can reflect on our lives or just be silent. It’s weird but I enjoy silence a lot. I don’t listen to a lot of music in private anymore.” He also enjoys watching sports, particularly ball games.
He says that if he hadn’t been an opera singer, he would have probably become a geologist or long-distance runner. As a teenager, he enjoyed running and took part in many competitions.
Looking forward, the 33-year-old still has a lot he wants to achieve and many dream roles that he would love to perform, particularly Cavaradossi in Tosca. During his performances, though, he wants to transport his audiences.
“Nowadays we are bombarded with so much information. It’s nice to go to a concert and forget the world outside and have a moment of reflection. I want people to just forget what the weather is like, what is happening outside in politics and in their families. I want to give them the highest amount of emotions I can express in that moment.”