Sunday, November 11, 2007

Inside Wolf Trap Opera Casting

A guest post from Joshua Winograde

ossia A Semi-Outsider Perspective on an Amazing System

ossia Why You Might Want To Take It All Slightly Less Personally

CHAPTER ONE: What You Maybe Didn’t Know About Wolf Trap

Wolf Trap Opera Company gave me my first job … three times. First, when I was a grad student transitioning into a year-round Young Artist Program I became a Filene Young Artist and sang in five operas and four recitals over the course of two summers. Second, when Wolf Trap commissioned the world premiere of John Musto’s Volpone I was given my first guest artist contract to sing the title role. Third, when I decided to give the exciting world of Young Artist training a whirl as an administrator, Wolf Trap gave me my first “desk job” which was to help create and manage the Wolf Trap Opera Studio.

It would be redundant and a profound understatement to say that I am eternally indebted to this amazing place. Not just for the career opportunities Wolf Trap has given me on every level, but for shaping the way I view this incredible art form. As an artist I was always aware of the good vibe going around the Wolf Trap Opera Company. It’s one of the reason people love coming back: it just feels good to work here. And having now been a staff member, I am floored to see what a well-run and progressive place it is on every level of the whole Foundation. It is traditional where tradition works best, yet can be cutting edge where tradition no longer applies. It is reverent to art and music that has survived the centuries, yet is always willing to expose Monteverdi and Mozart for the rude (lewd?) little devils they could sometimes be. The entire Wolf Trap Foundation has achieved this wonderful balance, and you can see, feel, and hear that special quality in every department. I would venture to say that calling Wolf Trap’s modus operandi “revolutionary” is only a little bit dramatic. (“Progressive” might be more on track, but hey, I’m an opera singer and I tend toward the hyperbolic :)

This is all background information that I felt you should know before I get to opera casting.


CHAPTER TWO: WTOC Casting - Why It Is So Much Harder Than It Needs To Be (In a GOOD Way)

One major example of Wolf Trap’s revolutionary – ok, fine! – progressive approach to the performing arts is the way the Opera Company casts and programs its seasons. To be precise: the Wolf Trap Opera Company works backwards.

Most opera companies choose repertoire, then cast that repertoire with the best matches they can find for each role. That system definitely works, and what’s more, it allows companies to hire directors, conductors, and designers WELL in advance. It also allows companies to start fundraising for specific shows, to plan marketing and outreach strategies, and to get the word out to various target audiences. Wouldn’t that be easier on so many levels? YES!

What I mean by “backwards” is this: WTOC hears hundreds of singers and chooses the repertoire based on whom they’ve heard. That means that the entire season plan can shift on a dime as late as the final singer at 6 PM on the very last day of auditions. And this kind of rollercoaster happens EVERY SEASON!

The following is a slightly fictionalized re-enactment, and any resemblance to actual events is only partially coincidental.

Last year, I remember how beautifully the casting seemed to be falling into place for Hansel and Gretel. KPW heard the perfect Hansel, the perfect Gretel, the perfect Witch, the perfect Father… and then who walked in but Mr. Amazing Bass #1 and Mr. Amazing Bass #2 – basically back to back! Basses are, quite simply, a rare breed and you can never count on hearing very many in any given season. One a day would be a lot!

These TWO fantastic basses walked in, sang the heck out of a couple of arias each, and KPW turned and said, after spending thousands of minutes figuring out how to produce, cast, and market a Humperdinck opera to sell up to 12,000 seats: “I guess we’re doing Magic Flute this year!”

WHAT??? What happened to how perfectly the Hansel could also sing Hermia opposite the Demitrius who would be such a great Guglielmo with the Despina who could sing the heck out of Sandman AND Dewfairy??? And now you wanna do MAGIC FLUTE???? Is it possible to offer Hansel the 2nd Lady, and Gretel the role of Papagena, and 3rd Lady to the Witch? Maybe, but you get my point.

On one hand, choosing rep for a particular person is not a new idea: most major companies like, let’s say HGO, will plan, let’s say, a Traviata around someone like, let’s say, Renee Fleming, who may decide that it is a role she would like to add to her repertoire two or three or six years down the line. But that leaves a LOT of time to find the perfect Alfredo, Germont, and Doctor Grenvil (did I mention I was Doctor Grenvil in Renee’s first Traviata at HGO?). But at Wolf Trap, these decisions are happening in any given January for this coming summer only 5 months away!!!

Now that we have added the Wolf Trap Opera Studio to this casting equation, there is a new piece of the puzzle to fit in. The Studio Artists are cast in small roles and in the chorus of the Barns operas. First and foremost, the Studio Artists as an ensemble MUST populate a wonderful and repertoire-specific chorus. Any small roles or role-studies are perks based on the current readiness of individual Studio applicants.

Let’s use the comparison example of the Cosi-Midsummer-Hansel season that became Volpone-L’Etoile-Flute basically overnight, here is how it all affected the Studio Artist casting:

STUDIO CASTING EXAMPLE #1

Cosi
Studio Artists must sing chorus, so we know we need more or less 3 sopranos, 3 mezzos, 3 tenors, 4 bar/basses
Possible Despina and Alfonso study-roles if a perfect match presents itself

Midsummer
no adult chorus
Puck: smallish guy, lots of acting and dance experience, good rhythm
Snout and Starveling: tenor and baritone

Hansel
Nothing

So you can see that in EXAMPLE #1 we have the freedom to choose the Studio Artist with very few limitations other than by voice type.

STUDIO CASTING EXAMPLE #2

Volpone
Soprano Judge, tricky to cast
Baritone Judge, strong high F
Bass Judge, sits on a low G for DAYS
Epicene, funny mezzo who needs to imitate a bass for one page
Castrato, soprano or male-soprano
Nano, bass
Police Capt., baritone, tricky rhythmically
NO chorus

L’Etoile
SATB chorus that is much more demanding than Cosi: the women sing REALLY high and the men sing REALLY low … a lot!
Patacha and Zalzal, tenor and high baritone

Flute
Nothing

So you can see that when Mr. Bass #1 and Mr. Bass #2 walked in, the equation shifted dramatically not only for the Filene Young Artists, but for the Studio Artists as well. Now we need to make sure that there are very specific voices in the Studio. Now that we need two baritones and two basses for Volpone, for example, we may no longer be able to offer a spot to a wonderful bass-baritone who would have been a perfect Alfonso study-cover. Also, now that we have the role of Castrato, we can seriously consider a countertenor that we would not have been able to in EXAMPLE #1. I mean, who would ever know that the reason they did or did not get in to the Wolf Trap Opera Studio was because of those two awesome basses?


CHAPTER THREE – Why Am I Writing This?

Having heard about a hundred Studio auditions in the last week, and having another hundred more scheduled for next week, I felt compelled to get these thoughts out. For some reason recently I have been asked the same question by several singers, voice teachers, and administrators: “How does Wolf Trap Opera choose its singers?” which to me translates to “Do you think I/my student/such-and-such singer will get in to Wolf Trap”? The answer can be as short as “I have no idea.” But as you can see, it is nowhere near that simple. I think it does singers good to know some of the insider perspective. In fact, now that I reflect on every time I didn’t get, let’s say, a Figaro that I really wanted, I can just let go of so much frustration, because how would I know if it came down to something as simple as being too tall for the 5’3” Susanna and the 5’7” Count? Or maybe they wanted the Figaro to also sing Escamillo in the same season (a role I am just not right for).

Knowing this about casting in general, and specifically about Wolf Trap Opera Company and Studio, whose repertoire is so tailor-made to each season’s artists, just might help a few of you to let go of what it essentially out of your control. Having said that, what IS in your control is developing the skills needed to audition and perform as best as you can.

Steve Smith, a fantastic New York City-based voice teacher, just wrote a book about what he calls “Whole-istic Singing” which is modeled after holistic medicine. The focus of holistics is to address the small, internal components of any issue rather than to simply treat the symptoms. In other words, DO the right things and the right result will HAPPEN. For example: rather than taking decongestants, cough suppressants, and an anti-inflammatory to mask the symptoms of a cold, the focus should be on sharpening the immune system through nutrition, rest, and stress-reducing. The RESULT will be that the cold doesn’t get you next time, or at the very least that your body gets rid of it quickly. In the long run, it seems to me to be a much more gratifying solution than being hopped up on Theraflu every few months. The same can be said for singing: rather than worrying about the RESULTS – i.e. Did they like me? Did I sound great? Will I get a role? – you should think only about the small things: excellent language, good breathing and vocal technique, connection to the text, having something to say, presenting yourself professionally, etc. Those things are very much IN your control, and I bet you’d be surprised at how much faster the RESULTS roll in.

Has this made any sense? If not, just think of it as five minutes of your time wasted reading the 4 AM ramblings of someone who meant well but got caught up in a tangent.

If it did make sense, cool.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

That was an amazingly insightful post. Thank you.

Kim said...

See, Josh... We told you that you should get your own blog! :)

Anonymous said...

Well one thing's for sure.. the casting decisions are in the hands of people who are not only extremely competent, but also apparently caring as all heck! Would that every company could have such a positive attitude towards young singers!

Anonymous said...

thank you so much for the fantastic insight :-)

Mme A said...

Josh, what a great post!

You should definitely get your own blog - I would even sign up for the blog feed.

Thanks again!

Sarah Stickney said...

I loved this post! You really should get your own blog!