Back in the spring, I had the privilege of hearing many, many young singers who came to share their gifts with me in the hopes of being invited to participate in Spotlight on Opera, the professional development program I founded and run. As I talked and listened to them, I was acutely aware of their gifts of effort, faith, sacrifice, and talent.
The effort to prepare themselves vocally, dramatically, and mentally for performance, and the effort to come to this audition.
The faith they place in me to be present for their performance, to understand where they are in their training right now, to see where their talent could take them, to be kind.
The sacrifice of emotions, of ego, of time and money they endure to be in this place and perform for me.
The talent they offer to share with me and the greater world.
These things are not to be taken lightly by any educator or producer. We hold these things in trust. As producers, it's our job to find the best way to use that gift of talent in the opportunity available; as educators, it's our job to use that gift is such a way that it will give the student what he or she most needs and help them take the next step or two towards their goals.
As an active performer myself, it's enormously valuable to have the perspective of sitting across the table, hearing, seeing, and evaluating these singers. It teaches you a lot about what works and what doesn't, what your priorities should be, and how tiny some of the dealbreakers are when all things are otherwise equal. So I offer the following observations --- one adjudicator's opinion only, though it is an opinion rooted in experience --- in the hopes of helping some of my young colleagues gain some perspective they might be able to use in their own auditions and beyond. Here goes.
- Start with the piece you feel absolutely, 100% comfortable with and can sing any time, any where, under any circumstances. If that piece is "Caro mio ben", and you also are offering "Sempre libera" but there's that one place where the coloratura is never 100% clean; yet you really want to start with "Sempre libera" because it's flashier and you think it will be more impressive ... don't. It won't be. I'd rather hear a beautifully sung "Caro mio ben" than a "Sempre libera" that just isn't quite there yet. The rule about flashy arias is that you can only offer them for auditions if you sing them really, really well, ALL the time.
- If you are auditioning for a certain role, it's best if you have an aria from that role. And it's absolutely fine if you don't; however, in that case make sure you show the panel something vocally and dramatically that shows you have what it takes for the role you want. If you are auditioning for Carmen or Musetta, and you don't show me intensity and fire and a sexy legato line, I don't know that you can embody the role. If you're auditioning for Don Jose or Marcello and you don't show me that you can have an edge or a firey temper, you haven't convinced me.
- If you are a young singer and you are being encouraged to sing grownup repertoire --- Fidelio, Ariadne, Tannhauser, Aida, and the like --- before you go out and start auditioning for these things, get a second opinion from someone not at your school. Get a second opinion from a New York coach, or a conductor, or someone who runs an opera company. The reality is that there are very, very few young singers who really should be singing this repertoire at their age and stage of development.
- Versatility is overrated. What I mean by that is: very, very few people are actually as versatile as they think they are when it comes to repertoire they sing amazingly and embody both physically and dramatically. While adjudicators expect young singers to be exploring, there's a big difference between offering arias on either side of the Fach you think you inhabit and showing up with everything from "O mio babbino caro" to "Entweihte Goetter" on your list.
- Fach is overrated. This might seem contradictory to what I just said --- but I care much less about what you call yourself than what makes me sit up and take notice of your voice. As a young singer, don't worry so much about a label --- focus on figuring out what repertoire gets people excited about you!
THE PAIN AND GLORY OF BEING A SOPRANO
- Sopranos (especially lyrics). It's not enough to be pretty; it's not enough to sing pretty well; it's not enough to have a pretty voice. Even at the pay-to-sing level, you have to distinguish yourself. As a developing singer, you do this by singing as well as you possibly can, but you will also be miles ahead if you know what you're singing about, have great diction, are a wonderful musician, and can ACT. Come to think of it, this is true for everyone. But it's more true for young sopranos, because you do NOT want to be the slowest gazelle in the herd.
ARIAS NO ONE SHOULD EVER SING IN AN AUDITION (UNLESS)
The following are arias you should never, ever sing in an audition unless you 1. Sing them tremendously well; 2. Know what every word means when you sing it; 3. Understand the background of the opera, the character, and the precise circumstances under which you're singing it; 4. Can embody the role completely; 5. Are not merely imitating vocal and physical gestures you heard or saw a famous singer do on YouTube.
- Any Mozart whatsoever but ESPECIALLY "Deh vieni non tardar" and the Count's aria.
- The Doll Aria. Just ... don't.
- Obscure arias from operas no one ever does or arias that are usually cut from mainstream operas, unless they are amazing pieces of music that really show you off.
- Wagner, if you are not yet developed enough to be heard over a professional orchestra.
- Anything that is incredibly long, unless you don't care if you get cut off, only sing one piece, or offer to start somewhere other than the beginning.
- Arias that are normally presented with recits or cabalettas, and you're offering neither.
WHY YOU DIDN'T GET CAST IN THE ROLE YOU WANTED
- You may not be quite as technically advanced as you think. If you have poor intonation (even just part of the time), bad diction, sloppy musicianship, or no visible connection to the text or dramatic aspects of the piece, you are unlikely to be cast in a substantial role.
- You may be singing completely wrong repertoire for your voice.
- You may be have failed to show the panel what they needed to see dramatically or technically in order to consider you for a specific role.
- You may have come across as nervous, desperate, or in some way high maintenance. (Hint: just go in there and do your business, so to speak. Announce your name and your selection. Speak when spoken to. Do not offer excuses or unsolicited explanations. Just sing, and let your singing do the talking for you)!
- You may have misbehaved in the waiting area and it got back to the panel. Ain't nobody got time for that.
- You may have been absolutely fantastic, but they just liked someone else better than you.
WHY YOU GOT CAST IN A ROLE YOU THINK IS INAPPROPRIATE OR BENEATH YOU
- Honestly? The most common reason for odd casting in a PTS or YAP is that they just needed someone to sing that role, didn't have the right voice type at the right level of accomplishment, and you were the next best choice. Feel free to politely decline if you feel singing such a role won't do you any good; but also consider that there may be benefits other than adding a Fach-appropriate role to your resume.
- If you're being told by your teachers that you are the next big star and you just need to sing for the Met or go to Europe or whatever, and yet you can't get cast in a leading role in a PTS or YAP ... guess what. You are not the next big thing; not yet. (Nor does getting cast as a lead indicate that you ARE the NBT). But if you were all that and a bag of chips, companies would be falling over themselves to get you. The proof is in the pudding, folks.
- Beware Big Fish in a Little Pond Syndrome. One of the hardest and yet most important skills for singers to accomplish, is perspective. You might be a really big deal on your campus, but if you're not getting the same kind of recognition elsewhere, that's a sign that you may need to readjust your expectations and find out what the competition has that you don't. Conversely, you may NOT be recognized much at your school, but maybe you just need the right kind of encouragement to grow. That's one reason attending a summer program can be extremely useful. But when collecting expert opinions and advice, remember to value your own instincts, and also to look for consensus!
WHAT YOU SHOULD BE GETTING
- You deserve respect and kindness. (However, this doesn't mean candy-coating).
- Extenuating circumstances notwithstanding, you deserve to get what you paid for and were promised.
- You deserve well-considered feedback and help --- if you're not getting it, don't be afraid to ask!
- You should be getting a great learning experience --- and that experience is all around you, not just in the classes. Every situation you find yourself in during your program is an opportunity to learn and become a better artist, business person, and maybe even human being.
- Fun. You should be having fun.
Go forth and have a fantastic summer, everyone!