Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Filene Center - When Grand Opera Isn't

I was more than a little fried when posting last night, and I should’ve known better than to try to discuss the complicated relationship between our young artist company and Wolf Trap’s amphitheatre. It’s a thorny issue even for a clear mind.

So, if operas like Aida, Tosca and Madama Butterfly sell lots of tickets, why not embrace them? Why not perform them in our 6,000-seat theatre? Within our industry, it’s widely (but not universally) believed that developing voices should not sing a lot of grand opera. The thing is, it’s astonishingly difficult to explain exactly why.


A savvy voice teacher would probably describe this more scientifically and accurately, but the result would likely be pretty arcane. If you’re maddened by the generalities I’m about to spew forth, then just skip this section.

I was determined to find a sports metaphor for this phenomenon. After all, the limitations here are largely physiological. It’s not as if young singers lack the musical or interpretive chops to tackle Puccini. (Rather, Puccini gives up his secrets more easily than Mozart… If this were an intellectual or artistic issue, Puccini would be one of the first places we’d send newbies.) No, it’s a question of readiness and suitability of the instrument: the vocal cords, the support mechanism, the entire singing body. But athletics is a young person’s domain. Ball players are washed up by their 40’s. But operatic basses and dramatic sopranos don’t hit their stride until their mid-30’s.

What’s the worst that could happen if we turned a 25-year-old singer loose on Madame Butterfly? Well, the world would still turn. Perhaps she would crash and burn, maybe there would be lasting damage to the voice. Or maybe the chops would be strong enough to sustain it for a while.

An important digression: It hasn’t always been thus. Licia Albanese debuted as Butterfly at age 22. Callas made her professional debut as Tosca at 18. But two important things (at least) have changed. First: Early- and mid-20th century singers were studying with teachers and coaches daily, for many hours, to the exclusion of most other activities. No liberal arts undergraduate degrees for them. Second: They were generally not staring down a career of jet-setting to a series of huge theatres across the world. Many venues (particularly in Europe) were (and are) more hospitable to the voice. And while travel was certainly arduous, the pace of a career was more humane.

Do our singers fritter away valuable years getting multiple degrees and attending class? I’m almost afraid to answer. For the record, I believe the answer is no, but there are plenty who disagree. Do our singers suffer from a paucity of targeted, sustained technical study? You bet. One voice lesson a week for two semesters (if you’re lucky) is hardly a recipe for efficient training of an entire musculature. Imagine a professional gymnast who only sees his coach 25-30 times a year.

When Grand Opera Isn’t

But just why is grand opera such a threat to a developing voice? Part of the answer lies in the size of the orchestra. It takes a lot of well-placed decibels and overtone frequencies to be heard over a 75+-piece orchestra. Another component is the emotionally gut-wrenching nature of the material. It’s easy to get sucked up in the hyper-dramatic stories and viscerally emotional music. It takes a strong foundation to put your voice at the service of such potent stuff without having it eat you alive. And finally, there’s a question of stamina. A huge outpouring of physical energy for a fairly long time.

Those of us who have the opportunity to work with singers who are primed to begin singing professionally have the obligation not to abuse the privilege. Could I make a bet that Emerging-Dramatic-Soprano would get through an Aida? Would the odds be good that Young-Lyric-Tenor could throw himself at Cavaradossi and live to tell the tale? Probably. Would it be in the performers’ best interest to do so? Decidedly not.

The Mozart Prescription

So, what should these 20-somethings sing? Mozart? It’s a topic for tomorrow. Or the next day, depending on how things run at the office.

The Small World of Blogging

Later this winter, when there’s more time*, I’ll make a short list of the blogs I read. But tonight I must mention Greg Sandow’s writing, hosted on Arts Journal. He’s posting installments of his new book on the “classical music crisis”, and this week he referenced Julian Johnson’s book Who Needs Classical Music – one of the best things I have ever read on this topic. It’s becoming a huge soapbox of mine. If you end up sticking with us all the way into January, I’m sure you’ll be subjected to some ranting on this topic. But don’t assume that you can guess what direction said ranting will take.

*I always believe there's going to be time for critical reflection in January or February. There never is. But it doesn't stop me from believing.


Oh yes, and we’re still working on operas and casts for next summer. The process will be ongoing for a couple of weeks, but I’m in one of those black-out periods where I can’t be too specific in a public forum. Information will be forthcoming soon enough. And I still have audition fodder to post. Next week.

Today was spent with a huge spreadsheet that sketches out a possible schedule scenario for 3 operas, a concert, 2 recitals, and a week of children’s performances over a 14-week period. It’s tedious, but critical. A few mistakes at this stage can result in lots of frayed tempers in July.

All this talk about grand opera has Cake’s “Opera Singer” playing in my head. Thanks to Peter Z. for allowing this song to take up the remaining scarce real estate in my brain.

"I am an Opera Singer
I stand on painted Tape
It tells me where I'm going
And where to throw my cape

I call my co-star's brother
I call my co-star's name
I play both good and evil parts
I sing to Verdi's play

And every single morning
By 10 AM I'm dressed
My rehearsals last for hours and hours
With diligence I have been blessed

Some people they call me monster
Some people they call me saint
My talent feeds my darker side
Yet no one will complain

I am an opera singer
I sing in foreign lands
I've sung for kings in Europe
And emperors in Japan

And after each performance
People stand around and wave
Just to tell me that they love my voice
Just to tell me that I'm great

I am an opera singer
I will sing when you're all dead
I sing the mountains crumbling apart
I sing what can't be said

I am an opera singer
I sing in foreign lands
Most people seem to know my name
Or at least know who I am"

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Filene Center - Charting a Narrow Course

As we close in on repertoire for 2006, I’ll take a moment to share my pain. The subject is our large amphitheatre – the Filene Center. The dilemma: deciding which opera to produce in the Filene Center each summer.

The facts:

#1) The capacity for Filene Center opera (different than that for concerts because of sightline issues) is 6,130 (3,730 in the house; 2,400 on the lawn). In order to come close to filling the seats (on a single ticket / no subscription basis, thank you very much) and recouping even a portion of the expense of performing in such a large house, it’s essential to program an opera that has instant and widespread name recognition. Not just among opera fans, but on a man-on-the-street level. It’s important to our bottom line and our mission that we attract first-time patrons who might not try opera in a more formal venue, but just might come to Wolf Trap to try out an operathat they’ve heard of before. The operas that meet that household name test are represented in lists like Opera America’s “Top Ten” (Sometimes this general category is called the “ABC’s – a.k.a. “Aida-Bohème-Carmen”)

#2) The singers of the Wolf Trap Opera Company are emerging artists, and their average age usually hovers around 26-27. Most of these voices are still developing, and the heft, stamina, and general requirements of grand opera are not a good match for the vast majority of singers in the first few years of their careers.

#3) The kicker. #1 and #2 are, to a large degree, mutually exclusive. The only operas that easily fit into both categories are The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni, and The Barber of Seville. Those are terrific shows, but the list is, well, short. (This would make a fascinating Venn diagram, but it’s after midnight, and the time for illustrations has passed.)

Why not do Magic Flute every year? What exactly is wrong with doing Aida anyway? And didn’t Wolf Trap do La bohème last year? All good questions. For another day.

Sunday, November 27, 2005


Feeling a little more human after a few days off. It always takes longer than I think it should to regain some sort of equilibrium. I am, however, getting much better at finding balance in my life over the last few years. Middle age has its benefits.

Audition Results Notification

As of this weekend, all singers who auditioned for us have been notified as to the results of their auditions. If you auditioned and haven’t heard from us yet, send us a message.

Preliminary Casting – What’s Happening This Week

We’ve identified 29 singers as finalists. Over the last few days, we’ve begun to get in touch with a few of those people in order to discuss possible repertoire and role assignments for next summer. We don’t choose our operas until we’ve heard the auditions, so the process of deciding which operas are the best vehicles for this group of people is a bit like a series of interlocking puzzles. The really sick thing is that I detest puzzles of all kinds. (My husband is a crossword & Sudoku fan. I consider them a step away from torture.)

We have a temporary sketch of what next summer might turn out to look like. (Sorry; it’s the one thing I can’t share in this forum until it’s finalized, and there are many steps to go until we get there.) As I speak with our finalists over the next two weeks, we’ll determine if the current scenario will hold. Right now it comprises 54 different assignments spread out over 13 weeks – roughly 19 featured roles, 20 supporting roles, and 15 recital and concert assignments. The challenge is to disperse those 54 assignments among 15 or 16 singers, making sure rehearsals and performances for different projects don’t overlap, each singer has a chance to sing both featured and supporting material, and the assignments are tailored to the strengths of each artist. Sudoku is starting to look pretty good.

If you’ve followed any of this math, you’ll realize that almost half of our finalists won’t receive final offers for next summer. That’s one of the toughest things about this process. It’s truly not possible to take the best 15 singers without paying attention to the way the casting process begins to narrow the repertoire. The Fach system is very specific, and every year there are people we’d like to hire that we are unable to find the right roles for in any given year.

This Year’s Finalists – A Snapshot

I hear (secondhand, of course) a lot of complaints about what some singers feel is a closed system. The impression is that we only hire singers from the big young artist programs (at the Met, or Houston Grand Opera, for example). While it is true that each summer we choose a few people from these and other young artist training programs, the singers we choose are a pretty diverse group. There’s a sizeable contingent of finalists from these “Big House” YAP’s, but the vast majority of them are people we began to follow before they were accepted into those programs. Trust me - it would be easier (if much less effective) to just handpick some folks from the high-profile training programs and not have to travel all over the country every fall. But that's not our goal.

This year's finalists - an overview:

City of Audition

  • Chicago – 2
  • Cincinnati – 4
  • Houston – 5
  • New York – 9
  • Philadelphia – 3
  • Seattle – 2
  • Vienna – 4

Current Professional/Academic Status:

  • Big house YAP – 10
  • Enrolled in Advanced Degree Program – 11
  • Freelancing – 8

Other Descriptors:

  • Average age: 27
  • Age range: 24-34
  • Have participated in an average of 2 paid summer apprentice programs
  • Hail from 17 states, the District of Columbia, 1 U.S. territory, and 2 foreign countries (birthplace, not current address)

No Day Like Today – Off-Topic

My daughter and I are Rent-heads, and we took the whole family to see the new Rent movie the day it opened. If you’re not familiar with Rent, all you need to know is that its basic subject material is the same as the source for La bohème. (So I guess this isn’t truly off-topic.)

I won’t force our response to the movie on you, but I have to say a few things.

First, all young sopranos who sing Musetta’s Waltz should really spend some time listening to “Take Me or Leave Me”. An infusion of red-blooded exhibitionism that some Musetta's could use. “Every single day, I walk down the street, I hear people say 'baby so sweet'. Ever since puberty, everybody stares at me – boys, girls, I can't help it baby.” Really not so far from Quando m’en vo’: “When I walk alone down the street, people stop and stare at me…”.

Second, Jesse Martin was a revelation as Collins. Couldn't take my eyes off him. A bit unfair, for unlike most of his Broadway colleagues, he has the advantage of having spent much of the last 10 years in front of the camera. Too bad Colline doesn't have as much raw material. Basses, work the subtext.

And last, it’s so weird not to applaud in the movie theatre. (I would’ve but didn’t want to embarrass my teenage son.) We did stay and sing along with the credits, though.

Truly Off-Topic

Went shopping on Black Friday for the first time in my life. I’m pretty much mall-phobic, but I jumped at the chance to spend the whole day with my daughter who’s home from college. Did manage to buy a red sweater to wear when I co-host next Sunday’s Holiday Sing-Along at Wolf Trap. (Said daughter refuses to allow me to wear anything with large Christmas trees or Santas imprinted on it.) But the most interesting thing I learned is that all the hippie clothes we wore in the 60’s are coming back in style. If I had kept any of them, I’d be an Ebay millionaire.

Some Perspective for the Audition Season

“Not everything that counts can be counted. And not everything that can be counted counts.” (Einstein)

Monday, November 21, 2005

Cincinnati, then Home!

The last day of the audition tour dawned with a palpable sense of fatigue. But the level of singing in Cincinnati was so reassuringly high that the day flew by. A few real surprises – probably the biggest percentage of the entire tour. CCM always welcomes us so warmly, and their facilities are among the best in the country.

If J. Alfred Prufrock “measured out [his] life with coffee spoons”, then we have measured ours out with opera arias. There’s a curious rhythm that settles in during a full day of auditions. Just as my kids and their friends used to measure time by saying an event took “three Simpson’s (episodes)”, I now have an internal clock whose units of time correspond to the Catalogue Aria, Dido’s Lament, and Musetta’s Waltz. Whenever I think about the prospect of spending a solid six hours of wall-to-wall arias, it’s more than daunting. But the truth is that a rhythm sets in, and the day flies by.

I’m back home now, facing the usual backlog of laundry, mail, and phone calls. I’m always surprised by the wallop of mental fatigue that hits right at about Thanksgiving. All by way of saying that postings will be scarce this week. I’ll try to catch up on Wednesday, then go into a tryptophan-induced turkey coma until next week. You should do the same.

15 Minutes of Fame

It was a little strange to be recognized by singers and other colleagues all across the country. Noticing my startled reaction, they usually explained that they saw my picture on this blog. Thank you, Lisa Kohler, for making me look even better than I do on a good day!

For those of you who are reading primarily for audition information, stick with us for another couple of weeks as I tie up loose ends. And take this opportunity to ask me any questions you have about auditioning. Send an email to, and put “Blog Questions” in the subject line.

And thanks to all of the Blog Cheerleaders I’ve encountered. It’s a tough thing to keep this up and do my real job as well. If it were just a whistling into the wind exercise, I’d abandon it quickly. But I hear regularly from teachers, singers, colleagues and patrons who say that we’re making an important contribution, and that keeps me going, at least for now!

Coming Attractions

There’s a huge backlog of notes from the audition tour that have yet to be translated into blog entries. I’ll chip away at them over these next few weeks.

  • Fach. Mezzo or soprano? An audition panel’s perspective.
  • Choice of a second aria: What factors into the panel’s choice after your first choice aria is heard.
  • More audition pianist feedback. Lots of it. Good stuff. We were mentioned on the Collaborative Piano Blog during the audition tour, and we’re inspired to hit you with another round of things to consider.
  • Résumés. Basic, largely common sense suggestions. Surprisingly, not everyone follows them.
  • Responses to your questions. (See above)

Where Do We Go From Here?

December 2005 & January 2006: An audition tour summary, and an analysis of the scheduling and casting processes that will consume us over the next 6-8 weeks. My “Young Artist Development” and “Artistic Director” hats.

February & March 2006: Pre-production. Getting the season ready. Deciding how it will play out, how we will pay for it, how we will advertise it. Artistic Administration, Finance, Development, Marketing.

April & May 2006: Season kick-off. Logistics – housing, travel, schedule, facilities usage. Company Management, Production.

June – August 2006: The summer 2006 season. The best plans have been laid. Now it’s all about active response.

September 2006: What worked? What didn’t? Lessons learned, satisfaction taken, train wrecks avoided.

Audition Tour Wrap-Up By the Numbers

  • Arias Heard: 608

  • Cities Visited: 7
  • Miles Flown: 5,853
  • Coffee Drunk: somewhere north of 10 gallons
  • Pounds Gained: only 2!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Chicago & the Aria Frequency List!

Not an easy day. Started out with a voice mail from United Airlines telling us that our flight to Cincinnati tonight is canceled. The helpful reservations agent was happy to put us on a flight tomorrow morning. Unfortunately, it would arrive an hour after we’re due to start auditions tomorrow morning. Anticipate needing lots of caffeine to get through today (at left). Four ventis for two people. That's 80 ounces of coffee. 2.37 liters. Even I think that sounds obscene.

Got onto an American airlines flight that leaves a few hours later than the originally scheduled one (it's theoretical, of course, because we're still sitting in the airport, so we're not strictly on the flight yet...). Of course, changing one's flight to a one-way ticket mere hours before departure is a threatening thing to do, so we were singled out for particularly special treatment by O'Hare security. Getting tired and cranky. I'm not a good road warrior.

Thanks to the extra two-hour hang time here at the airport, the rest of today's entry is given over to this year's aria frequency list. It's a summary of all the arias that singers have offered for our auditions, sorted by frequency of appearance. This list doesn't reflect what we've actually heard people sing, but rather the choices they've offered. Please forgive typos, etc. Made an attempt to proof for accuracy, but there's only so much time.

Who’s Singing What


The big winner – 31 times
Ach ich fühl’s

The Runners-up – about 20 times each
No word from Tom...I go to him
Ain't it a pretty night
Jewel Song
Deh vieni

Very Popular - 10 or more times
Adieu, notre petite table
Be kind and courteous
Come scoglio
Durch Zärtlichkeit
Je dis
Je veux vivre
Non mi dir
Porgi amor
Quando m'en vo
Quel guardo…So anch'io

Somewhat Frequent - 3-10 times each
Ach ich liebte
Ah fors'è lui...Sempre libera
Ah non credea...Ah non giunge
Ah! fuggi il traditor
Batti batti
Bester Jüngling
But you do not know this man
Caro nome
Chacun le sait
Chi il bel sogno di Doretta
Comme autre fois
Da tempeste
Dearest Mama
Depuis le jour
Der Hölle Rache
Donde lieta uscí
Dove sono
Du gai soleil
Elle a fui
Embroidery aria
Es gibt ein Reich
Fire aria
Glitter and be gay
Grossmächitge Prinzessin
Have peace, Jo
How beautiful it is
I want magic
Je marche sur tous les chemins
Je suis encore tout étourdie
Les oiseaux
Mein Herr Marquis
Mi chiamano Mimi
Mi tradi
Nun eilt herbei
O luce di quest'anima
O mio babbino caro
O quante volte
O wär' ich schon
O zittre nicht
Once I thought
Padre, germani, addio
Piangete voi…Al dolce guidami
Presentation of the Rose
Silver Aria
Song to the Moon
Steal me
Sul fil d'un soffio etesio
Tornami a vagheggiar
Tu che di gel
Willow song

Once or Twice
Adele's Audition aria
Ah! Douce Enfant
Ah! non sai qual prestigio si cela (Maria Padilla)
Ah, que ton âme (Jemmy’s aria)
Always through the changing
Amour, ranime mon courage
As when the dove
Barbaro, o Dio, mi vedi
Bel raggio lusinghier
Bell song
Care compagne
Come in quest'ora
Come per me sereno
Convien partir
Da schlägt des Abschieds Stunde
D'amor sull'ali rosee
Das war sehr gut
Di, cor mio
Dich, theure Halle
Die Wiener Herrn
Dieu, quel frisson
Douce enfant
Du bist der Lenz
Einsam in trüben Tagen
En proie à la tristesse
Eran già create in cielo
Fair Robin
Furie terribili
Gluck das mir verbliebt
I can smell the sea air
I’m looking for Curly
Ich bin die Christel von der Post
Il faut partir
I'm full of happiness
In uomini
Injurious Hermia
Io son l'umile ancella
Je suis Titania
Je vais le voir
Kiss me not goodbye
Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen
L’altra notte
Lady, to your dressing table
Lagrimas Mias
Love me big
Ma quando tornerai
Marenka's aria
Mes filles (Carmelites)
Monica's Waltz
My man’s gone now
Non so le tetre immagini
O patria mia
O sleep
Oh Nelly I’ve fallen in love
Ombre pallide
Par le rang...Salut à la France
Pensieri, voi mi tormentate
Per pietà
Plus grand, dans son obscurite
Quella vita a me funesta
Qui la voce...Vien diletta
Regnava nel silenzio
Robert, toi que j'aime
S'altro che lagrime
Saper vorreste
Se il padre perdei
Se pietà
Sempre libera
Senza mamma
Si, mi chiamano Mimì
Signore, ascolta
Snow wraps us
So che non e più mio (Arianna in Creta)
Sola, perduta, abbondanata
Son vergin vezzosa
Stridonò lassu
Tacea la notte
The hours creep on apace
Tiny’s song
To this we've come
Trees on the mountain
Tu che le vanità
Tutte nel cor vi sento
Un bel di vedremo
Una donna a quindici anni
Una voce poco fa (sop)
V'adoro pupille
Vedrai carino
Venite inginocchiatevi
Vixen’s aria
Volta la terrea
Welche Wonne, welche Lust
What would it be for me
Wo bin ich
You’ve never seen the winter here


Tied for First Place
Must the Winter Come So Soon
Sein wir wieder gut
Smanie implacabili
Va, laisse couler mes larmes

The Runners-up
Cruda sorte
Non so più
Parto parto
Una voce poco fa
Voi che sapete

Ah Michele don’t you know
Chacun à son goût
Faites-lui mes aveux
Give him this orchid
Iris hence away
Je vous écris
Nobles seigneurs
Podrugi milïye
Sta nell'Ircana
Things change, Jo
When I am laid in earth
Wie du warst

Once or Twice
Addio o miei sospiri
Adieu forêts
Afraid, am I afraid?
Ah! que j’aime les miltaires
Al lampo dell’armi
All’alma fedel
Amour, viens aider
Cara sposa
Che farò
Cho chvila (Jenufa)
Connais-tu le pays
Dopo notte
È amore un ladroncello
En vain pour eviter
Enfin je suis ici
Già dagli occhi
I do not judge you John
I was a constant, faithful wife
Il segreto per esser felice
Je suis Lazuli
Kiss me not goodbye
Lascia ch'io pianga
Lullaby (from Consul)
Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix
Nancy’s aria (Bartered Bride)
Nina’s aria (The Seagull)
No innoncence (Grapes of Wrath)
Non ho colpa
Non piu di fiori
Non più mesta
Non, non vous n’avez (Huguenots)
O don fatale
O mio Fernando
O pallida, che un giorno
O thou bright sun
Ombra mai fu
Perfect as we are
Presti omai
Priva son d'ogni conforto
Que fais-tu
Quint, Peter Quint
Re dell'abisso
Saga of Jenny
Se Romeo
Send in the clowns
Sgombra è la sacra selva
Stride la vampa
Svegliatevi nel core
The Best Thing of All
Und ob die Wolke
Va, l’error mi palesa
Vedrai carino
Voce di donna
Voi lo sapete
Vois sous l'archet
Waiting (Great Gatsby)
We cannot retrace our steps
What a movie
Where shall I fly


First Place and Runner-up
Dies Bildniss (16 times)
Ah lève-toi soleil (12 times)

Very Popular
Ah fuyez
Che gelida manina
Dalla sua pace
Ecco ridente
Here I stand
Il mio tesoro
La mia letizia infondere
Lonely House
New York Lights
O wie ängstlich
Parmi veder le lagrime
Salut, demeure chaste e pure
Sam's aria
Si, ritrovarla
Un aura amorosa
Una furtiva lagrima
Vainement, ma bien aimée

Once or Twice
Ah come mai non senti
Ah mes amis
Ah! Do not laugh (Goya)
Ah, la paterna mano
Air de gonzalve (L’heure Espanole)
Amore o grillo
Avete torto!
Cessa di più resistere
Com'è gentil
Dal labbro il canto
De' miei bollenti spiriti
Deserto in terra
Di rigori armato il seno
Donna non vidi mai
E lucevan le stelle
Empio, per farti guerra
Fatto inferno
Fra poco a me ricovero
Frisch zum Kampfe
Fuor del mar
I know that you all hate me
Ich baue ganz
In quegli anni
Inkslinger’s Song
Je crois entendre
Kuda, kuda
La fleur
La giustizia
Languir per una bella
Love sounds th’alarm
Love too frequently betrayed
No puede ser
O blonde Cérès
O Paridis
On the path to the lake
Oui, je veux par le monde
Outside this house
Pour me rapproacher
Pourquoi me réveiller
Povero Ernesto
Que les destins prospères
Rome is now ruled
Take a pair of sparkling eyes
Tarquinius does not wait
Täubchen das entflattert ist
Tradito, schernito
Un momento di contento
Una ne so a memorìa (Viaggio)
Unis dès la plus tendre enfance
Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton


The Winner
Hai gia vinta la causa (22 times)

Avant de quitter ces lieux
Look, through the port

E fra quest'ansie
Largo al factotum
Lieben, Hassen
Mein Sehnen
O du mein holder Abendstern
Onegin's aria
Papageno's suicide aria
Questo amor
Within this frail crucible

Once or Twice
Bella siccome un angelo
Carlos, ecoute
Cecil’s Song of Government (Gloriana)
Churchyard’s agog
Come Paride vezzose
Come un ape
Come un'ape
Cruda, funesta smania
Dearest Amelia
Deh vieni alla finestra
Der Vogelfanger bin ich ja
Do you know the land
Donne mie
È sogno?
God does not need my name
I am a saint (Miss Lonelyhearts)
I burn, I freeze
I had to strike down that Jemmy Legs
If she be innocent
Il cavallo scalpiti (Cavalleria)
I've got plenty of nuttin’
Joseph’s confession
Lodgers’ aria
Mary Warren
Nur mutig, mein Herze
O Nadir
O vin dissipe la tristesse
One alone
Pari siamo
Schaunard's aria
Se vuol ballare
See the raging flames arise
Si tra I ceppi
Sibillar gli angui d’Aletto
Soliloquy (Carousel)
There was a knight
Tickling a Trout
Vision fugitive
When the air sings of summer
Who am I? (A Month in the Country)
Ya vas lyublu
Zaza, piccola zingara


Most Popular

I'm a lonely man, Susannah
Aprite un po'
O du mein holder Abendstern

Once or Twice
A Ship called Hunger
Ah per sempre
Come dal ciel
Come Master
Ecco la sconsolata donna
Ella giammai m'amó
Épouse quelque brave fille
Gospod' moy
Hear me O Lord
Hear me ye winds and waves
Ho capito
Il lacerato spirito
La calunnia
Lakme, ton doux regard se voile
Let things be like they always was
Lyubvi vse vozrastï pokornï
Mein Herr und Gott
Sanft schloss Schlaf dein Aug’ (Fasolt)
Non più andrai
O beauty
O Isis und Osiris
O wie will ich triumphieren
Piff paff
Pravaslavniye (Shelkalov’s aria)
Se vuol ballare
Si la rigeur
Sorge infausta
Sweet Moon, I thank thee
Vecchia zimarra
Votre toast
Vous qui faites l'endormie
Wie schon ist doch die Musik


Multiple times
Che farò
I know a bank
Tu preparati a morire

Ah di si nobil alma
Cara speme
Cor ingrato
Di tanti palpiti
Di te mi rido
Fammi combattere
Hymen haste
Impious Wretch
Non so più
Non so, se sia la speme
Ombra mai fu
Quel torrente
Son reo
Venga pur minacci e frema
Verdi allori

See you in Ohio tomorrow.

Friday, November 18, 2005


I can feel my brain reaching its pitiful saturation point, and I’m oh so thankful that there’s no singing in my Friday.

Spent the day getting from Seattle to Chicago and catching up on some paperwork. And as if to make up for the fact that we couldn’t see Mt. Rainier from Seattle because of the fog, today’s lift-off provided a spectacular view of the Cascades.


It’s appropriate that on our way to Chicago I finished reading Fortissimo (“Backstage at the Opera with Sacred Monsters and Young Singers”) on the plane. William Murray’s report of a year spent behind the scenes in the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists just hit the bookshelves this fall. A pleasant and easy read, informative without being dry, frank without being cruel.

Richard Pearlman runs one of the great year-round young artist training programs in the country, and he’s quoted to good effect in this book. “Every would-be opera singer, no matter how talented…soon discovers that it’s a long, often painful road from having a beautiful instrument in your throat to being able to compete in one of the world’s most demanding and difficult professions.”

And the Chicago theme continues – I’m in the middle of The Devil in the White City. Great historical novel about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. A story of truly operatic proportions:)

Knowing When to Quit

Ever since we set up the schedule for the audition tour, I’ve been eyeing the Lyric Opera’s production of Manon Lescaut, with a 7:30pm curtain this evening. I love Karita Mattila’s work, and this piece isn’t done very often. But it became clear this week that in order to do good work in auditioning our final 70 singers tomorrow and Sunday, I’d better make it an early night. Deep dish pizza, some clerical work on this year’s aria frequency list (it’s almost ready… maybe tomorrow’s posting…), and hashing out some possible permutations for next summer’s schedule.


Some random parting words on the art and craft of practicing – of learning music.

  • From Benjamin Zander in his fabulous book The Art of Possibility: “What? You’ve been practicing it for three minutes and you still can’t play it?”
  • From Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: “There is nothing more pointless, or common, than doing the same things and expecting different results.”
  • And finally, two divergent points of view, not surprising considering their respective sources: “Chance favors the prepared mind” (Louis Pasteur) and “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative” (Oscar Wilde).

Have a great weekend! I’ll be posting throughout as we wind up this little odyssey of ours. Parting image is of the always-astonishing Beaux Arts ceiling here at the Palmer House in Chicago.

Thursday, November 17, 2005



I’m afraid that I would spend an obscene percentage of my food budget on coffee if I lived in Seattle. The coffee shops are so inviting, and who can resist the lure of free wireless access and caffeine?

This is my second time here, and I haven’t seen Mt. Rainier yet. But the view from Kerry Park (with Thomas, who's one of the most caffeinated people I know, at left) was lovely this morning.

Strange Behavior at the Table

It was brought to my attention that some singers find it troubling that I don’t always look at them during their auditions. I’m sorry that this is the case – believe me, I don’t intend to appear inattentive. I do it for two reasons.

1) I occasionally need to look down when I type – not often, for my touch-typing is pretty good. But the stream-of-consciousness monologue that I try to capture during the audition is crucial. When I get back home and the crush of casting is over, I promise to devote a blog entry or two to demonstrating exactly what we are writing on our laptops.

2) I listen better when I’m not watching. Yes, the visual component is terribly important, and of course I watch the audition to get a sense of the artist’s ability to communicate. But my old instincts as a coach and teacher kick in very quickly. I empathize immediately and fatally with almost everyone, and I find myself rooting for each singer’s success. That’s a lovely and noble thing to do, but it doesn’t help one bit when the ultimate and unavoidable goal is to take 320 auditions and trim them down to 15.

The Videotape

I was also mortified to find out that people are watching to see when I turn the video-camera on and off. Singers should not read too much into this! We record the audio for every single note of every single audition, but I dip in and out of the video. It’s used as a quick reminder of the visual component of the audition – it jogs the memory and helps me put my written comments in perspective. I use it in snippets – usually not for entire arias. My use of it is not scientific, and it’s certainly not directly proportionate to the success of the audition.

Fatigue Setting In

Really wanted to hear the Seattle Symphony tonight (Beethoven 4th Piano Concert and Bruckner 7th Symphony), but I’m toast. Travel day tomorrow. The ears need a rest, and I need a good night’s sleep.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


It’s the Little Things

I’m reluctant to mention this, for I’m sure it will reveal the depth of my compulsiveness. When we arrive at our various venues (usually large rehearsal rooms of some sort), we expect to spend the first ten minutes doing basic setup. Pushing pianos, finding chairs and tables, locating electrical outlets. Thomas also has to arrange the furniture for good Feng Shui.

We walked into our Houston Grand Opera home for the day and found the piano and furniture preset, an extension cord carefully strung and taped to the floor, a table with pencils, Kleenex, post-its, water, and hand sanitizer. God bless stage managers!

Shop Talk

“Smanie implacabili” – a nice demonstration today of how it’s possible to deliver the recitative without it becoming a caricature of a lady with severe ADHD. There are moments in this recit (and aria) that give perspective to Dorabella’s agitation. Look for those points of focus and self-control, and the more manic episodes will have more clarity and impact.

Baby Doe – lots of “Dearest Mama”s and “Silver” arias this year. No “Willow”s so far, and that’s unusual. One “Always Through the Changing.” This is pretty much a good thing. We always find that the Silver Aria tells us much more about the artist than does “Willow” or “Dearest Mama”.

Despina – another trend: “In uomini” seems to be edging out “Una donna a quindici anni”. This is a good thing.

The Equation in Practice

There are two frustrating extremes that we encounter pretty regularly during these auditions. Let’s call them “Miss America” and “Extreme Stage Animal.” Of course, most artists fall somewhere in between these two poles, but they help illustrate two common problems. And please, don’t take offense at the nicknames.

  • Miss America. Not, strictly speaking, always a female. But the most common incarnation is a soprano with a lovely, sweet, light instrument. What distinguishes the Miss America is the lack of fire in the belly. No blood and guts. No coglioni, as they say in Italian. (If you don’t know what it means, don’t look it up. You’ll be embarrassed.) The singing is sometimes charming, always inoffensive, typically technically proficient. But it’s maddening because after the first few minutes there’s very little to command the audience’s attention. Unfortunately, this is the type of performance that sounds lovely piped into an Italian restaurant or an upscale boutique. The problem is that it’s DOA as art. Music needs to move us, agitate us, console us, inspire us. Which brings us to
  • Extreme Stage Animal. Unbridled enthusiasm. Raw talent. Burning desire to perform. All of which are unmatched by either technical skill or stylistic integrity, or both. It’s easy to see why vocal technique is a necessity – after all, it matters little with how much verve someone throws himself at a high note if he can’t attain it. But stylistic integrity – that’s a little hard to describe. It comes from a discerning ear, knowledge of the legacies of great opera singers of the past, and a willingness to get inside the music and the language. It’s all about finding out what gives our art form its potency and structuring your performance toward that goal. (I know, it’s a little obtuse but I warned you.)

The Short List Gets Shorter

We’ve heard 235 of our scheduled 320 auditions. The repertoire for 2006 is not yet set, for I’m sure there’ll be a few more surprises in the next several days. But the list is narrowing by process of elimination.

What is falling by the wayside?

  • Most of the Handel, because we have a wonderful “crop” of baritones (What is the proper aggregate term for baritones? A pride? A flock? A herd? A bevy?:)). My beloved Handel specialized in lots of mezzos or countertenors, a fair amount of sopranos, a smattering of basses, and the occasional tenor. Few baritones.
  • Most of the Donizetti, because it just doesn’t seem viable for The Barns at this time.
  • The Rape of Lucretia – still a slight possibility, but looking less likely that the full casting is optimal.
  • Paisiello’s Re Teodoro. Too many basses in a year in which most of the basses we are hearing are pretty young and inexperienced. But we have a half-dozen or so more to hear up north, so who knows?
  • Rossini’s Viaggio. We prefer Comte Ory; the music for the two is almost interchangeable, for good ol’ Giachino stole from himself in a big way, shamelessly crafting Ory from pre-existing material.
  • Rossini’s La gazza ladra. Aside from the exciting and well-known overture and occasional aria, I can’t seem to get behind this piece enough to produce it. If you’ve seen it done well, tell me about it.
  • Ariadne. Duh.

I promise a discussion (soon!) of the elephant in the room: What are we going to produce in our large outdoor venue?


We have the pleasure to work with some truly fine audition pianists. Being pianists ourselves (Thomas in the present tense, myself in the occasional tense…), we probably appreciate their contribution more than most.

What makes a fabulous audition pianist?

  • Listening. The ability to put the playing in subconscious mode and use most of the conscious mind to take in all of the details of the performance and become a split-second collaborator for singers the pianist has never met.
  • Flexibility. Turning on a dime to respond to the unexpected – a mis-timed entrance, a sudden change in tempo, an ill-marked cut in the printed music, a book (or, perish the thought, a stray piece of loose music) that won’t stay on the rack.
  • ESP. The ability to know sometimes a singer grinds to a halt not because he wants to, but because he can’t help himself. The pianist must gently prod the tempo. The ability to know that a singer’s desired tempo is predicated on the length of phrase she can sustain or the very specific speed that the coloratura must move in that particular voice.
  • Tolerance. Auditioners are a nervous lot. Normally sane, pleasant people can become pretty tightly wound in the audition room. Face it – the pianist is physically closer to the singer than any of us, and some of that wears off.
  • Musicality. We notice this and are thankful for it almost hourly. Singers feel it in their bones even if they don’t acknowledge it consciously. A well-shaped phrase, an interlude or prelude that actually encourages the singer to join in the music-making – that’s what it’s all about.

A note to singers: What does the audition pianist need in order to serve the singer well?

  • Pianist-friendly materials. Books that stay open. Sheets of paper that are held securely in place by a binder. Double-sided, please. And not in shiny sheet-protectors.
  • Clearly-marked cuts. You don’t want your support system to have to guess where the next measure is.
  • Easy-to-find arias. We ask for aria #2, you smile and acquiesce, and begin to compose yourself to assume the new character. Meanwhile, the pianist is fumbling through your notebook or anthology.
  • Clear intentions. Know what you want to do and indicate it. By preparing for phrases with a breath that indicates the downbeat. By choosing a tempo and sticking to it. Indicating the tempo of an aria by conducting it, snapping it, or singing a phrase before starting never works. Never. I know you don’t believe me, but it doesn’t. Sing with clear intentions and a good pianist will be with you.

Leg Room

I’ve rambled far too long during this long, overbooked flight to Seattle. Less leg room than I’ve had on a plane in a while. An entire basketball team is occupying the last 5 rows. Poor guys – their knees are up around their ears, and their legs are spilling out into the aisles.

More from the beautiful Pacific Northwest tomorrow!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Vienna, Virginia

Auditions yesterday at The Barns. Nice to be on home turf. The warm and inviting acoustics of our home theatre are both a boon and a challenge.

Each audition city seems to have its own personality, and it seems to require a different set of ears to get what we need from each site.

  • We hear much more “raw” talent in these DC-area auditions. Many of these singers have great potential but are still foundering with technique and mastery of style.
  • Up-and-comers – Philadelphia (Curtis Institute and Academy of Vocal Arts, primarily) and Cincinnati (University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Indiana University, Northwestern University, University of Illinois, University of Missouri – Kansas City, and others) are largely populated with very promising singers who are just a few steps earlier in their training.
  • YAP’s – Relative beginners also show up in Houston (Rice University, University of Houston, University of North Texas) and our west coast locations, but there they are joined by advanced singers who have found a place in the Houston Grand Opera Studio and the Seattle Opera Young Artist Program. (San Francisco Opera also has a terrific YAP, but it’s a year-round commitment. Los Angeles Opera’s YAP is an up-and-comer.)
  • Young Professionals – In contrast, New York offers up a higher percentage of seasoned young singers – folks who have may have already finished advanced degrees and are enjoying the opportunity to work with some of our business’ best teachers and coaches.
  • Mixed Bag –Chicago always offers a little of everything – some Midwest university students, some singers from the Lyric Opera Center, and anyone else for whom it’s convenient to use O’Hare as a hub.

Opera on DVD

I don’t usually watch opera on DVD. I wish I did enjoy it, but I find it only minimally satisfying. I am not, however, above using Netflix to help with repertoire research. The first three I surfed brought a smile to my face – not because they were enjoyable (they varied widely on this count), but because they featured old Wolf Trap friends: Paul Austin Kelly in La fille du regiment, David Kuebler in La gazza ladra, and Charlotte Hellekant in Owen Wingrave.

“A Few Bumps”

That’s what the flight attendants say when you’re going to spend the next 20 minutes trying to keep your lunch down. Lovely weather moving across the eastern half of the country had air traffic in a tizzy tonight. Felt like riding an old wooden roller coaster. (Remember those?) In between bumps, we sampled two more DVD’s – an uneven Italian production of L’equivoco stravagante and the beautiful Glyndebourne production of Le comte Ory.

The Shuffle

  • Finale from Don Giovanni – “Questo è il fin di chi fa mal” (That’s how evil men meet their end!)
  • Jack Johnson’s “Brushfire Fairytales” – lots of Jack on the iPod thanks to my acoustic-guitar-wielding son.
  • Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony. Didn’t understand Shostakovich a whit when I was trying to play the piano trios about ten years ago. Now I’m fascinated by him. Happy 100th birthday, Dmitri!
  • Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld. Wacky piece. Wish we could produce it, but our venue is too small.
  • Barbara Cook singing “Time Heals Everything.” Indeed.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The End of the Great Big American Voice – A Response

My plans for an opera-free Sunday were dashed by the front page of this morning’s New York Times Arts section. Anne Midgette’s feature on the shortcomings of America’s opera “farm teams” has my head spinning. For what it’s worth, here’s a response – argumentative, sympathetic, and defensive all at once.

Stephanie Blythe in 2005.
(Richard Termine for The New York Times.)

I will not deny that identifying and nurturing the “big voices” of tomorrow is difficult. Nor will I refute that we who deal with emerging artists tend to do a better job with those singers whose entire “package” comes together at an earlier age. While this bias is not deliberate, correcting it is a conundrum.

First, identification.
In our annual auditions, we typically hear 15-20 voices that might fit in this category. A rare few already have enough of a skill set to benefit from our particular program. (Meaning that their languages are in decent shape, and their vocal technique is solid enough to sustain the assignment of a full-length role.) Most are still bundles of raw talent. Many are biding their time in an alternate Fach (vocal classification) until their instruments and techniques mature. Dramatic sopranos often refine their linguistic, dramatic, and musical chops while passing a few years as mezzos until the top portion of the soprano range comes under complete control. Likewise for full lyric tenors masquerading as baritones and Helden-baritones singing as basses. This is not a bad thing, and those of us who work with emerging talent recognize this path.

Then, stewardship.
Ms. Midgette’s article only grazed the fact that the young artist programs in this country’s big houses are making a concerted attempt to be good stewards of these big voices. More should be made of this. Mention was made of Marjorie Owens, a budding full lyric who blossomed in the Houston Grand Opera Studio, sang her first big role with us at Wolf Trap last summer, and is now moving to the Chicago Lyric Opera Center. Just one example, but a pertinent one.

Them’s Fightin’ Words

Shared culpability.
I believe that the media (broadest use of the term) are hugely implicated in this scenario. "Slight, light” singers are not just favored by training programs; they are also the darlings of magazines, newspapers, record companies and (whenever opera is lucky enough to be mentioned) television. They fit so much more nicely into our culture. Usually thinner, prettier, and perceived as more refined. Not as much a threat to our popular culture’s norms as are the messy force-of-nature talents that are bigger voices.

Success Stories.
A quick read of today’s paper leaves a gloom-and-doom impression. But many big voices have been well-served by this country’s “farm team” system. In spite of the proclamations of folks like Ms. Midgette and Peter Davis (The American Opera Singer is a book-length indictment on this same subject) the American system for singer training is the best in the world. Not without its warts, but all the same, the largest contributor to the international scene. The accompanying audio file on the New York Times website glorifies mezzo Stephanie Blythe as a “hope for the future…(with the) huge thrilling voice of a golden age singer.” Stephanie received training in the Met’s young artist program, and she spent two summers at Wolf Trap. Our own history with the Big American Voice is extensive. Before Stephanie Blythe, there was Alan Held, Gordon Hawkins, Nancy Maultsby and Margaret Jane Wray. In recent years, we’ve had emerging artists Morris Robinson (also mentioned in today’s feature), Carolyn Betty, Simon O’Neill, and Stacey Rishoi. The recent Ring at Seattle Opera included nine former Wolf Trappers in its cast.

Other Paths

Have we missed some important voices? To be sure. We passed over Deborah Voigt. (And Renée Fleming, for that matter.) We’re proud of our track record (over 90% of our company members from the last 15 years are still career singers), but no one program can participate in the development of all of tomorrow’s great singers. The goal is to do a comprehensive job as an aggregate.

Jennifer Wilson, the soprano whose performances of Brünnhilde kicked off today’s article, is one that fell through the cracks. I knew Jennifer briefly when she was starting out in the Washington, D.C. area – she coached with me just a few times in the early 90’s. Clearly a significant voice, even then, but so far to go. The biggest thing that separates her from those who won’t sing on the Chicago Lyric stage is determination. Not that we want anyone to have to work so hard and wait so long, but it happens. It’s important that she didn’t give up, but it’s equally as instructive that she didn’t spend all her energy on damning the system that didn’t serve her well. She just kept singing.

The question of career paths that don’t involve singing in “the minors” is one with which I’m familiar. Every business has a pyramid structure, and opera is no different. The air gets more rarefied and the selection more rigorous with every step toward the "top." Some people fall off because the level of God-given talent (the “pipes”) can’t compete. Some have a toxic lack of work ethic. Still others realize that the itinerant lifestyle is something they can’t sustain. But there are many other ways to participate in cultural life – to inspire audiences and challenge oneself. These things don’t only happen on the stage of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.


Is Mozart a miracle drug to be indiscriminately prescribed to all young singers? Of course not. Yes, we who work with young singers, and Wolf Trap Opera in particular, have made a big deal about Wolfgang’s suitability for emerging voices. Although I would personally broaden the circle a bit to include Handel and contemporaries, I’m sticking with the basic premise. Almost every developing voice that I’ve been involved with (including my coaching staff days at Wolf Trap, we’re talking 21 years’ worth) can both serve and be served by a few roles in this mid-late 18th century canon. Assignments must be made judiciously, and singers must be allowed and encouraged to sing with the entire voices. And pride shouldn’t get in the way of singing “comprimario” roles to gain stage experience and chops while the voice is still developing. (More about Mozart and Wolf Trap in a later entry…)

Voice Lessons

I won’t say too much, for this is an area in which I don’t participate. But judging from what we see when auditioning singers from the country’s top conservatories, this is a huge dilemma. Once a week is not enough. Once a day is more like it. In another time and place, a few generations of singers ago, that’s the way it was done. Singing is a physical act. Would you expect a gymnast to only see her coach for an hour a week? It’s crazy. Singers are flying blind so much of the time. It’s about money (teachers’ time doesn’t come cheap), it’s about time (competing pressure for students to refine languages, study culture and music history and repertoire), and it’s about schedules (yes, many teachers are still performing and have their own travel and rehearsal schedules to accommodate). I don’t know what the answer is, but too often the singers who prosper in this system are the ones with fairly unproblematic, tidy voices and techniques. The “slight, light” voices of today’s newspaper.

And Finally…

I’ve been tamping this down, but I must admit that my secondary response to today’s article was one of chagrin. I’m a realist regarding the part our company plays in the careers of today’s developing artists. We’re a single component in a large system, but our contribution is unique and independent. Ask anyone who knows us. I can’t decide if I’m disappointed that we were entirely overlooked in this survey, or if I’m relieved that we weren’t implicated in the generally disparaging tone of the report. Probably both.

The timing of this tirade is fortuitous, for our next big hurdle involves how we’re going to program opera in Wolf Trap’s large venue (the Filene Center). The discussion of larger voices has implications for this venue that don’t figure at all in discussion of repertoire at our primary venue (the small Barns). It might take a few days for me to get to this topic, for travel will be intense this week. But check back soon, and thanks for letting me vent!

Friday, November 11, 2005

New York Day 5

Report from the Road

You know you’re getting tired when forgetfulness sets in. Left my purse in Starbucks this morning. Checked out of the hotel; was carrying a suitcase, a bag of computer and audio gear, a bunch of books and CDs; had a meeting scheduled before auditions, and afterwards walked down Columbus Avenue schlepping everything but my purse.

There’s hope for mankind, though. Ten minutes later, the purse was still there.

Auditions went well, though, and the day turned out just fine. "Keine Panik," as my colleague Thomas likes to remind me.

Shop Talk

Regional Accents. If English isn’t your first language, it’s usually not wise to choose an aria that requires a regional accent. The clearest example is Susannah (in Carlisle Floyd’s opera of the same name). While it’s possible to sing this aria in the King’s English, it’s best performed with an authentic touch (just a touch!) of an Appalachian accent. Not an easy thing to do well, particularly if English isn’t your mother tongue. But overly conscientious and tortured diphthongs and triphthongs are tremendously distracting.

Soprano Traps. 1) “Caro nome” and 2) “Depuis le jour.” I’m not trying to keep these two arias out of the audition room. But just a few words of caution: They are extremely difficult to pull off. Sopranos often feel good about conquering their vocal hurdles but don’t realize that they’re underestimating the musical challenges. (These aren’t the only two that fall into this category, but they’re the ones that appear on rep lists with alarming frequency.) Phrasing, form, idiomatic touches – a significant level of artistry is needed to sing them well. Not that we expect 25-year-olds to be able to impart the musical wisdom of the ages. And I don’t mean for these beautiful songs to fall off everyone’s lists. If you sing one of them, take extra care. Spend extra time unearthing its secrets.

Testing the Acoustics. We chatted last night with tenor Javier Abreu (our Ramiro last summer) about auditioning in venues with wide-ranging acoustical properties. He likes to start a few measures of recitative preceding an aria whenever possible. Uses the recit to gauge the acoustics so that he isn’t surprised during the aria. The biggest mistake that inexperienced singers make is to react to dry acoustics by pushing for volume because they don’t hear much sound coming back at them.

A Cappella Rules!

I’ve become a college a cappella junkie. My daughter’s a cappella group concert is this week, but, as is too frequently the case during the auditions tour, I’m missing out on some family stuff. I hate missing their concerts. Go Virginia Sil’hoettes! Check them out at (My daughter is the gorgeous redhead:))

Taking the weekend off from blogging. Playing the organ for my nephew's wedding! See you Monday.

New York Day 4

Wolf Trap in New York dinner

L-R: Audrey Babcock, Liora Maurer, Heather Gilles, Lisa Ostrich, Kate Lindsey, Sarah Meyers, Javier Abreu, Anna Christy, Alex Tall, Dimitri Pittas, Kate Mangiameli, Jen Aylmer, Keith Phares

Report from the Road

There are trends – maybe even fads – in the choice of audition arias. It seems that there are always a few pieces that crop up again and again. The strange thing about this year is that we seem to be hearing the widest variety of arias ever. We’ve heard about 300 arias so far, and fewer than 30 of them were duplicates. (This is anecdotal, based on a quick summary. If I have time later in the month, waiting for some delayed airplane or something, I’ll do hard cold statistics. Unnecessary, I know, but completely irresistible in a weird way.)

Remember the rash of cancellations on Monday? Well, we’ve only had one person cancel since. It all evens out. These days we’re scrambling to stay on schedule.

More and more singers are coming into the room saying that they’re reading this. I'm both encouraged and a little freaked out by that. Please remember that while I occasionally slip into humor, it’s never meant to be malicious. I tend to speak frankly because I find that the cult-like secrecy that often surrounds our business rarely serves us or the music well.

Shop Talk

Pianists. I know that it’s comforting to bring an accompanist who knows you and who knows your repertoire. But please don’t bring someone who does you a disservice. It happened a few times this week. Both my colleague and I are coaches, and we know when a singer is struggling to drag his or her pianist up to tempo. (Or fighting to slow down a runaway train.) The majority of singers who bring accompanists do not fall into this category, but sadly, the singers who do make this mistake are often the very ones who can ill afford a liability like that.

New Arias. Neither of these are brand new, but they’re certainly uncommon.

  • Mezzo – “Waiting” from Harbison’s Great Gatsby. A chance to dig into a character piece and indulge in some juicy singing, too.
  • Soprano – “Love Me Big” from Bolcom’s McTeague. You have to be the right kind of singer (it takes some good “steel” in the voice, and great force of personality), but it’s a fabulous sing.
  • Soprano – “You’ve Never Seen the Winter Here” from Hoiby’s A Month in the Country. Light lyric soprano. Only about 2 minutes long.


No theatre- or concert-going tonight. It’s time for our annual Wolf Trap in New York dinner. 17 singers and staff from previous seasons, vintage 1996 through 2005! Photo at top.

Parting Words

Words I try to live by as a sometime pianist. Applies to singing, too, of course. “Anything you can imagine clearly, you can play. That’s the great secret.” (Body and Soul – Frank Conroy) The catch is that truly imagining is not an easy thing to do.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

New York Day 3

Report from the Road

Getting into the rhythm. Every 10-minute interval is filled with about 7 -8 minutes of singing, a minute of chatting/welcoming, and a minute of documentation. The database is an amazingly helpful thing, for it allows us to hear singers’ performances in context.

What’s on the database? This is a simplification, of course, but we’re able to access the following information on one screen:

  • How many times the singer has auditioned for us before. (Comments from previous years are also available, but we tend not to look at them until the current audition has passed. Keeps the memory of a previous bad sing from influencing our responses.)
  • Graduate schools, conservatories, and young artist programs attended. (The more opportunity an artist has had to participate high-level training programs, the more we expect of him/her. Someone who hasn’t had access to top-flight instruction can have a successful audition on the strength of natural talent. But a singer who has had a high level of experience and professional exposure can’t get away with sloppy skills.)
  • Teachers, coaches, colleagues. We know who to call if we have questions about your past engagements. (Often this works in an artist’s favor, especially those who don’t do stellar auditions but are dynamite onstage.)
  • Roles sung and awards won.

The database is a conscientious singer’s friend. It allows us to make informed, considered responses to the whole artist, not just 7.5 minutes of singing out of context.

Shop Talk

First impressions, continued. For sopranos.

If you begin with Juliette’s waltz or “Chacun le sait” from La fille du regiment, be sure that under any circumstances (a cold, too much or too little caffeine, a sleepless night, a drop in barometric pressure…) you can sing those initial cadenzas in tune and without any casualties. If you end up in a different key than you started in, you’re faced with re-winning our confidence. The same thing happens at the ends of arias (long cadenzas that stray), but then we’re likely to chalk it up to fatigue. Troubles at the beginning can be caused by nerves, I know. But if the cadenza makes you nervous, start with something else.

News from Yale

This is old news, but I keep forgetting to put it in the blog. Yale has received an endowment that will pay tuition for all School of Music degree candidates. Curtis Institute is the only conservatory that currently does this. If you haven't heard about this yet, go here.

Opera by Day (The Little Prince)…

Ran upstairs at lunchtime to catch the dress rehearsal of Act II of The Little Prince – it opens here at City Opera on Saturday. Wolf-Trappers Keith Phares, Josh Winograde (in costume pajamas at right, demonstrating how not to behave when on an audition panel), and Hanan Alattar in the cast. A dress rehearsal audience full of rabidly enthusiastic New York City schoolchildren.

…Chamber Music by Night (Borromeo Quartet)

Another facet of my job involves bringing artists to The Barns at Wolf Trap for our chamber music series. We're hoping to feature the Borromeo String Quartet next season, so I took the opportunity to hear them tonight at Alice Tully Hall.

I didn’t have a chance to do my intermission eavesdropping, for I had some phone business to take care of. But an evening of chamber music was just what the doctor ordered. Even though 45 minutes of it was Schoenberg. An early work (Quartet #1), but still a bit of a difficult sit in a few stretches. Truly rewarding, though, for the patient.

And chamber music audiences are (for the large part) nothing if not patient. A great 'flip-side' to opera audiences. The latter are loud, opinionated, and usually engage in love-hate relationships with their artists and their repertoire. But chamber music audiences abound in equanimity and sheer love of music. Many of them were or are amateur players themselves. You can imagine them doing Tai Chi and drinking chai. I’m a chamber music personality trapped in an opera world. :)

"Il est très simple : on ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux."

New York Day 2

Report from the Road

Visitations from many friends – former Wolf Trappers (Joshua Winograde, Matt Boehler, Keith Phares, Kevin Burdette & Matt Burns – the latter of whom are beaming out at you from the photo on the left), conductors Gary Wedow and Steve Mosteller, and former apprentice director Sarah Meyers (who’s directing the Little Prince production upstairs at City Opera right now). When I mused about the fact that most of our singer visitations were by basses, Kevin reminded me that basses are always in it for the long haul. It’s their basic temperament. It has to be.

Spent another evening at Lincoln Center, this time to see The Light in the Piazza. Related rant found at the end of this entry.

Shop Talk

Long recitatives: If you sing an aria with a recitative that’s longer than the aria proper (“Eccomi in lieta vesta….O quante volte from I Capuleti ed i Montecchi is the best example I can think of), you may want to reconsider. Or find a way of offering just the aria with a brief lead-in of recit. Three or more minutes of recitative is a lifetime in an audition setting. Yes, it shows if you have the acting chops to tackle the scene. But sadly, out of dramatic context, most young singers don’t.

Coloratura: You’ve heard the admonitions. It has to mean something. It must be motivated, have intention, color, detail. We know that you know this. But we very rarely see it put into practice. It’s astonishing how easy it is to see the eyes glaze over, the face go blank, the arms and hands begin to clench. Don’t disappear on us. Trust me, I know how difficult it is. But most of these composers knew what they were doing. We’re not asking you to treat these challenging passages as if they were easy. They exist for musical and dramatic reasons. 1) Figure out exactly what those reasons are, 2) Merge the composer's intentions with your technique and approach to the coloratura, and (this is the hardest one) 3) Make it more than an intellectual exercise. It must, as they say, “read” all the way to the back row.

Biographies: Later on, when your manager provides materials to prospective employers, s/he will include a lovely prose biography that makes you sound irresistible. But for now, you should resist the temptation to make up your own biography and submit it with your résumé (or worse, in place of your résumé.) Let your singing demonstrate how terrific you are.


One of my favorite things to do at the theatre or opera house is mill around during intermission and eavesdrop on conversations. (This irritates my husband, who thinks it’s just plain weird.)

Overheard last night at the Met’s Lucia. “I can’t believe that [insert singer’s name] made that mistake….tsk tsk tsk….”. “I remember Lucia with [insert names of retired famous singers], and it was so much better.” “I think [singer] sounded much better last season.” And on and on.

What I find consistently and disconcertingly missing is any conversation about what is really happening in the theatre. Donizetti isn’t my first love, I’ll admit that. But I’m touched by this young woman whose mother just died. She’s utterly alone, with only her brother to look after her. When he begins to verbally and physically abuse her in Act II, my heart breaks for her. And is it really that operatically far-fetched that she goes mad and kills the husband that she was forced to marry? These things really happen. And not just in moldy old Scotland.

Why don’t we seem to care? Or maybe we do, and it’s just not the kind of thing we talk about. To be sure, grand opera requires suspension of disbelief. Things don’t happen in real time. But that’s what gives them extraordinary power. As the late Robertson Davies said, “Music is the lyre and opera is the underworld of passion and romance that everyone desires but which daily life rarely offers."

I’m getting way off topic.

Overheard tonight at Light in the Piazza. “The music is hideous.” “The sets and costumes are to die for, but there isn’t a single tune.” “I find the whole thing unbelievable.”

What? OK, full disclosure here. I’m a sucker for this show, and it has nothing to do with my “professional” opinion of it as a theatrical or musical work. I cry almost every time I hear the recording, and I cried through most of the second act tonight.

Don’t we all see ourselves up there? Young people whose entire lives are ahead of them, and whose optimism and belief in the power of love takes your breath away. Husbands and wives who have lost their way and don’t know when or how. Parents who can’t protect their children any more. Kind of like Lucia.

Maybe I’m just sucked into bad black holes when I’m picking up on conversations in the lobby. Maybe it’s human nature for everyone to be a critic. In both cases, at the opera and the theatre, there were standing ovations. So all is not lost.


I think that it was safer when the internet connection in my hotel room didn’t work and I could go to sleep with a clear conscience. Tonight, armed with a backlog of emails, a functioning wireless connection, and a fit of compulsive behavior, I’ve stayed up way too late.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

New York Day 1

Report from the Road

Today’s entry is long. Treat it like a Chinese menu.

Sad amateur photo at the right was taken as I and a few thousand of my closest friends were leaving the Met after tonight’s performance of Lucia di Lammermoor. (I really do need to get a better camera or learn how to use the one I have.) More Lucia if you make it to the bottom of this entry.

Made the mistake of getting into New York at midnight last night, and there were no “No Smoking” rooms left at the hotel. Grrr. Also broke the earphones to my iPod. Trouble with the internet connection at the hotel, so this posting is late. Boring travel irritations…

Rash of singer cancellations today due to sickness. Four out of 33 – a higher percentage than usual. But if we try to bank on cancellations and overbook the auditions, suddenly everyone shows up and we have to hurry folks through.

We’re at New York City Opera today, auditioning in the Orchestra Rehearsal Room. Singers hate it because the acoustic is dry. We’re not tremendously fond of it, but ears adapt very quickly, and the lack of reverb makes our job easier. That sounds callous, but look at it this way. When I hear a singer in a generous, boomy acoustic, I do immediate mental subtraction: What does the voice sound like minus all of that extra resonance? In the drier acoustic, the mental math is all about addition. Giving the benefit of the doubt. And because details emerge more clearly, a well-prepared, focused singer with a solid technique probably has a slight advantage over a similar performer in a “live” room where I’m likely to be mildly suspicious of my favorable response.

Shop Talk

“Sometimes it’s better to focus on one big thing” (Officer Lockstock, in Urinetown, of course…I promise this is the last time I mention it...) Today’s “big thing” –

Singing On Pitch. I wish I had the magic bullet. I’m certainly glad I’m not coaching singers any more because I’m really at a loss. It’s truly an issue for singers and their teachers, but it too often gets ignored, or tabled, or minimized. But it’s the elephant in the room. Years and years of work devoted to refining all other aspects of vocalism (projection, resonance, smoothing out the registers, etc), learning languages and styles, dissecting characters and scenes – it all takes a back seat if the singing isn’t on pitch. Flatness is more pervasive, but being sharp is just as deadly. I have no advice on this. It would be pretentious to believe I do.


Tenors: “Celie” from Pasatieri’s Signore Deluso – a viable alternative English aria. For a heavier voice than Rakewell, but stacks up nicely against Anatol (“Outside This House”) and Sam (“Lonely House”.)

Sopranos: Zerbinetta’s scene from Ariadne auf Naxos – don’t. Please don’t. It’s so tempting. I love it too. But it’s almost 12 minutes long. Even if you’re prepared for us to cut you off, it’s hardly the optimal scenario for making a good impression. If you’re really attached to it, start with “So war es mit Pagliazzo…”

Ladies: Parade of the E-naturals. This sounds silly, but first impressions count… The E-natural at the top of the treble staff is not a problem-free note. For many women it’s dangerous territory. There are a few arias that seem momentarily (and dramatically) to be about that E-natural: “Va!..............laisse couler mes larmes”, “Gualtier Maldé…….(Caro nome)”, and “Quan…… m’en vo” for starters. Of course, all of those arias go on to be about much more than the E-natural. But if the first sustained sound we hear is problematic, you’re already working with a deficit. (OK, now you really do think I’m crazy.)


Lucia at the Met tonight. But if you’re waiting for me to “review” the performance, you should get back to work or read your email or something.

Busman’s Holiday: It’s not easy to spend 7 hours listening to auditions then go to the opera at night. But I do it for a few reasons. I don’t get out very often (literally) under normal circumstances. Life gets in the way. Catching up on work, volunteering at school or church, or being at home so the teenager that’s still living there is suitably nagged. I go to the opera to be sure I don’t lose sight of the goal. Running a young artist program within a parent institution that isn’t all about opera means that it’s easy to lose touch with the rest of the industry. As much as I love my beautiful office in the woods at Wolf Trap, it can certainly be isolating. And finally, I love to go see productions that feature alumni of our company. Elizabeth Futral (WTOC ’91) has been singing Lucia at the Met (and elsewhere) for quite a while now, and I finally got to hear her. (Sidebar: Elizabeth is married to conductor Steven White, who led our L’elisir d’amore at The Barns last year. She spent some time with us in Vienna, and it was a pleasure to catch up.)

Verdi: I was delighted to see that Edoardo Müller was conducting tonight. Back when I was working for Washington Opera, Maestro Müller conducted a Luisa Miller for which I played rehearsals (about 15 years ago). I learned more about Verdi in three weeks with him than I learned before or since. I’d worked with too many conductors who treated Verdi interpretation like a secret members-only club that we poor mortals could never join. Maestro Müller approached it in a way that allowed this poor pianist (who, at that time, didn’t have a single natural Italianate bone in her entire body) to understand it as good music, pure and simple.


For those of you who asked, the Urinetown performances at the high school were great fun. First sell-out (Saturday night) in our history. I could go on and on about what theatre does for these kids – teaches them that creativity and discipline aren’t mutually exclusive, for example – but this isn’t the time or place. Can’t close this chapter without a few pictures, though!

Above: Bobby Strong & Company
Right: My son as “Robbie the Stockfish” :)

Friday, November 04, 2005

By the Numbers

Statistics for this year. Skip entirely if this kind of thing irritates, confuses or demoralizes you. Read and use if you are curious or you find it useful.

What’s to be learned?
Fach: Sopranos represent about half of all aspiring singers. (Don’t despair, soprani; just acknowledge that the competition is stiff. It just means that you must hold yourself to a very high standard, vocally and artistically.) Tenors are better represented than basses.

Location Location Location:
New York is, predictably, a popular audition site. We always spend at least four days there. For some reason, the Midwest is extraordinarily busy this year. The west coast cities are always underpopulated.

Age and Training:
Although we don't have an age limit, there's an obvious chronological component. Our program is targeted toward those singers who are just beginning their careers. (90% of the auditionees are either in grad school, have recently finished, or are in young artist programs.)

Applicants for 2006 Auditions

Total Number – 558

By voice type

  • 52% soprano
  • 20% mezzo
  • 1% countertenor
  • 13% tenor
  • 10% baritone
  • 4% bass-baritone & bass

By city

  • Philadelphia – 6%
  • New York – 44%
  • Vienna – 9%
  • Houston – 5%
  • Seattle – 4%
  • Chicago – 18%
  • Cincinnati – 13%

Applicants Scheduled for Live Audition

Total Number – 318 (57% of all applicants)

By voice type

  • 50% soprano
  • 18% mezzo
  • 2% countertenor
  • 13% tenor
  • 13% baritone
  • 5% bass-baritone & bass

Other Statistics

33% of this year’s auditionees are new to us.

Average age of applicants - 27.
Average age of auditionees - 26.

Of those who were accepted to audition, their current “status” breaks down like this:

  • 43% finished an advanced degree or extended (not summer) young artist program within the last two years.
  • 36% are finishing an advanced degree (M.M., A.D., P.D., D.M.A)
  • 12% are currently involved in a young artist training program
  • 9% finished their academic or young artist training within the last 3-5 years
  • 1% are doing undergraduate work

That’s where it stops for now. No pie charts, bar graphs or Venn diagrams. There are a few lessons to be learned from these numbers, but there’s no future in dwelling on them. It doesn’t matter where you fall in these lists if you sing with consummate skill, integrity, commitment, imagination, and passion.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Let’s just say it’s filled with symbolism and things like that…


Even though we just started auditions last Friday, we’re taking this week off. I’m staying in town for personal reasons – I’m in charge of the pit band for my son’s high school production of Urinetown, the Musical. We’re one of the first high schools in the country to get the rights to this tremendously witty show. Two parts Threepenny Opera, one part Les Mis parody, with Busby Berkeley, The Perils of Pauline, and Superman thrown in for good measure. Tough show, but perfect for high school in a lot of ways. Socio-political commentary with potty humor.

The Midwest

We finished all of the application screening. Unfortunately, it didn’t get much easier. Cincinnati had 70 applications. Is this huge increase for the Midwest cities a trend? A fluke?

Otherwise, got very little opera done. Work day filled with meetings and other glamorous artistic administration stuff – chamber music series programming, summer calendar discussions, budget negotiations.

The Shuffle

Rendered my beloved iPod temporarily useless today. Long boring story involving an external hard drive, network mapping, and software updates. I realized two things: 1) Buying the 2-year extended warranty was a brilliant idea, and 2) I’m more dependent on this silly contraption than I’d like to admit. The idea of traveling without it is unthinkable. I’ve managed to avoid most harmful vices, but I’m still an addictive personality at heart.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Chicago... Baby, What a Big Surprise...

Well, very little blogging to be done today. Review of applications for the Chicago site has taken a nasty turn. Historically, we get 40-50 applications for that site, and we accept 30. (A 60-75% acceptance rate.) Right now I'm staring down 104 applications for Chicago. And I get to pick 30. (A 29% acceptance rate.) There’s no way to avoid that some people who would ordinarily get an audition won’t get passed through this year.

In case you’re wondering, we have to pick our cities, reserve our audition spaces, and make flight arrangements long before the applications are in. We use the number of applications submitted in previous years as a guide to how many days we should spend in any given city. Chicago’s numbers have never been like this before. We’re flying in the night before (from Seattle), and we have to leave the night of the auditions to get to Cincinnati, so there's no option to extend.

The blog takes a back seat. See you tomorrow.

(I’m showing my age with today’s title. “Baby what a big surprise… right before my very eyes….” 1976? 1977? Where were you?)