Today, a special treat for 100 Pounds readers. As you know, I am a professional opera singer. That, and the fact that I am a blogger, is pretty much my only connection with Wolf Trap Opera's Director, Kim Witman. But when she offered to do an interview to help celebrate Wolf Trap's new season announcement, I thought it would be fun. Wolf Trap is a company that specializes in training and launching young artists. Image is an increasingly important part of the business, so I wanted to know how this affected their young singers. Also, I thought you'd like to get a glimpse into the inner workings of the opera world. Enjoy!
Kim, a lot of my readers are opera "civilians". For them, can you explain what a Young Artists Program is and tell us a little about Wolf Trap Opera?
In the opera world, Young Artist Programs (a.k.a. “YAPs”) are akin to professional residencies or apprenticeships in some other industries. Around the time singers earn their terminal degrees (a wide range of options, including master’s degrees and artist diplomas), they sometimes sign on with YAPs to do some performance-oriented training to finish off the student part of their career. There are YAPs that are year-round (or close to it) and are affiliated with the big opera companies, and there are others (like Wolf Trap) that operate for just a few months a year, typically in the summer.
Many YAPs provide important opportunities to aspiring singers by giving them a chance to operate within the structure of a large, high-profile company. These programs usually engage the singers to sing small roles, cover (understudy) larger ones, and sing in the ensemble. Since Wolf Trap doesn’t have a large parent opera company, our singers do everything – featured roles, supporting roles, small roles, and ensemble. (We have two tiers: our Filene Young Artists [FYA] form the main roster, and our Studio Artists handle smaller assignments.)
The life of an opera professional can be pretty busy and stressful, with lots of travel and long, sometimes odd hours. Young Artists in particular go through very intensive training during which there aren't enough hours in a day. Can you describe a typical day for a Wolf Trap Young Artist?
A typical day for a FYA is quite similar to what an artist will experience in the “real” opera world. Up to 6 hours of music or staging rehearsals, and up to 2 hours of additional calls for private coachings, costume fittings, etc. A typical day for a Studio Artist might also include a group diction seminar, dance class or other educational opportunity, but the SA days are also capped off at 8 hours. But, as in almost any artistic endeavor, those are just the visible hours; most artists put in extra time on their own, preparing and memorizing music.
Outside the classical music arena, the popular image of the fat lady in the horned helmet and the hanky-waving tenor busting through his cummerbund prevail. Many people even believe that opera singers are "supposed" to be fat in order to sing well. How do you respond when confronted with these stereotypes?
Any stereotype is just an image formed from surface knowledge. The only real way to combat it is to provide additional information and context. I would respond by inviting a skeptic to one of our performancesJ.
Part of your job is to guide young singers. What, if anything, do you tell them about weight, physical fitness, and looks as they relate to their chances at career success? Does your program provide any sort of guidance or encouragement to your young singers to help them achieve greater health and physical fitness? How important is it to a singer, these days, to be slender and fit?
It’s incredibly important to be fit and healthy, and by extension, as slender as your basic body type allows you. Singers obsess about this a lot, and it’s generally not something we need to emphasize, as they bring the preoccupation with them when they arrive. Our task is to provide a sounding board and to help disseminate any information we have that will assist them in reaching their own goals.
We have gotten terrific feedback from our Studio Artists about the dance classes that are part of their curriculum. Choreographer Susan Shields (and before her, dancer Bradon McDonald) led fabulous classes with our Studio Artists, and we hope to bring her back this summer. These sessions are not dumbed-down “movement for singers” – they treat them as actual dancers. They give the singers legitimate opportunities to be expressive and creative with their bodies, and our artists respond to them enthusiastically.
And last summer we teamed with Equinox Fitness Tysons Corner, and our artists received free guest memberships during their residencies. Life on the road is tough enough, and knowing that you have a place to work out, break a sweat, and shake off your frustrations – well, that’s huge.
Do you ever get audience feedback about singers' looks?
Yes, but it’s anecdotal and highly individual. There are some folks who believe every woman has to be a size 6, and they don’t hesitate to tell me so. But that’s their problem, not ours.
How strongly do looks influence your casting choices? Would you cast a six foot tall Norina? A fat Don Giovanni? A middle-aged Despina?
We’re probably a little less influenced by this phenomenon than mainstream companies, because our mandate is to find the best emerging talent and promote it. Our fans really respond to the amazing potential they hear in our artists and don’t tend to get quite as worked up about movie star-type casting. We’ve had plenty of tall heroines, short leading men, and singers who are still wrestling their way down to their goal weight. [Since we serve singers who have recently finished their vocal studies, our average age hangs in the late 20’s, so the age differential thing really doesn’t hit us. We don’t have an age requirement, but there’s usually no more than an 8-9-year spread among our artists, so it washes out onstage. Actually we have the opposite challenge; casting young artists in roles for which, in an abstract casting world, older singers would be more appropriate.]
For quite some time, conventional singer wisdom held that male singers could get away with being overweight much more easily than their female counterparts. Do you think this is still (or was ever) true?
Hmmm. Probably so, but only because it’s that way in the rest of the world. Women (and by extension, female operatic characters) are more often expected to be sexy and alluring, and since our culture defines that as thin rather than fat, this will probably always be true.
Nowadays, men have to compete with the likes of Nathan Gunn*. Do men, especially leading man types, who don't hit the gym face an uphill battle when it comes to casting?
Well, Nathan is a fabulous singer. He has the added asset of being fit and attractive, so that gives him an edge. This dynamic will always be thus. But the fallacy comes when it’s expected that a buff body will give a singer a permanent edge over the competition even when the singing that comes out of that body isn’t up to snuff. Yes, the gym rat will get the occasional gig he mightn’t have gotten otherwise, but talent will out eventually. All other things (vocal and musical chops) being equal, I suppose being able to bench-press more than your body weight could give you a leg up over the competition.
*Cindy's note: I went to grad school with Nathan ... he was a hottie then, too. Also very sweet. I'm just sayin'.
How do you, personally, manage to stay fit with your own crazy schedule? :)
Well, there’s an assumption (fitness) in that loaded question…. I’ve been overweight my whole life, never morbidly so, but enough to never take anything for granted. I am fortunate that I have a naturally high energy level and a strong constitution. I go to the gym 3 times a week, and I have my own very modest but helpful home yoga practice. I do think that I’m fitter than most women my age (I’m in my 50’s), and oddly enough, my ongoing battle with weight probably has kept me engaged with staying active more than some folks whose body doesn’t need the extra encouragement. :)