Sunday, November 21, 2004

Vienna, VA

A smooth trip home on a plane full of happy folks on vacation and on their way to visit family for Thanksgiving. I love flying on weekends – sure beats the general weary road-warrior atmosphere of the weekday flights. Happy to be home myself – I think the guys (my husband and teenage son) are tired of “batching it”, and I hope they’re glad to see me (even tho’ it means that the homework nag is back in town). And I get to pick up my daughter from college on Tuesday for the long Thanksgiving weekend.
Sometimes when the audition tour is over, the best repertoire and casting for the upcoming season come into focus immediately. This year is going to be different. We heard so many good people in all vocal categories that there seem to be an infinite number of options. Thomas and I started to talk through casting possibilities at the end of the tour, and I told him I think my brain is going to explode.
Thanks for taking this trip with us – wish we could’ve brought you along. Hearing all of these talented and dedicated musicians is inspirational, and having the opportunity to participate in the careers of some of the best and brightest is a real privilege. Hope you can join us in June to see how it all turns out!

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Los Angeles

Auditions held on the campus of the University of Southern California in the lovely Schoenberg Institute Recital Hall. Wish we had more time here. The Metropolitan Opera National Council is holding its Western Regional Finals across campus, and several of today’s singers were auditioning in both places.
Also finished our apprentice coach and apprentice director interviews today. Haven’t said much about this aspect of our process, but I don’t want to neglect it. We search for an opera coach and an aspiring opera director to function as junior members of our staff for the summer. (“Coach” is the term for the pianist who plays rehearsals and prepares the singers for roles; both Thomas and I are coaches.) Career-entry opportunities for these professionals are even rarer than opportunities for singers, and we’re happy to be able to participate in the training of these people who are so vital to the future of our business.

Friday, November 19, 2004


Some of the recent interest in how companies like us select our singers comes from the “American Idol” phenomenon. No surprise that we’re different in a lot of ways…
Getting in the door – In order to be heard on “Idol”, you just have to get in line early and sleep outside the hotel for a couple of nights. In order to be heard in an opera audition, you just have to take voice lessons for about 10 years, get a graduate degree or artist diploma, and become reasonably accomplished in a minimum of three foreign languages.
“Thank you very much” means that your audition is over – The “Idol” panel is notorious for cutting folks off after 30 seconds. In fact, in the musical theatre audition world, 16 bars is considered a generous amount of singing. We’ll very rarely cut you off. As a matter of fact, we have a particularly tolerant policy; almost always two full arias (that is, if the combined singing time is under 8-9 minutes). Even when we’re fairly sure that the auditioner isn’t ready for our program, we feel strongly that one of the things we can do for developing singers is offer them repeated experience with the process of auditioning.
The prize – If you win on “Idol”, you get a recording contract. If you win in our world, you get a chance to spend the next summer at “opera camp”.
The panel – My colleague Thomas is jollier than Randy, I’m not as good-looking as Paul, and neither of us is as nasty as Simon.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The Aria List

Interested in which arias are being offered in our auditions? We’ve compiled lists for each voice type. This year, we’re hearing 148 sopranos, 65 mezzos, 3 countertenors, 49 tenors, 60 baritones, and 20 basses.
Each singer must offer 4 arias for the audition. (For us, the list must include one aria by Mozart or Handel.) It’s incumbent on the applicant to do two things:
1) Choose arias that demonstrate his/her unique strengths
2) Include as wide a range of styles, languages, and characters/roles as possible within the limitations of #1. (Got that?)
We took the four-aria lists for each singer and compiled them to see which pieces were chosen with what frequency. You can find the lists by clicking on the links below. Editorial comments are included; opinions are purely personal and rather subjective. Remember, these lists represent the repertoire offered for audition, not the selections we actually heard.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

New York, Day 4

Last day in New York. Back in the acoustical wasteland of the Orchestra Rehearsal Room. Yesterday was spent in Rehearsal Room 1, a much livelier acoustic. What’s interesting is that while the singers prefer Room 1, it’s not always an asset for them. A few kinds of voices benefit, but because we’re aware of the flattering aspects of the reverb, it can have an ultimately negative effect as we try to mentally cancel out the acoustical enhancement. What’s surprising is that a live acoustic actually picks up and magnifies certain troublesome aspects of certain kinds of voices. The drier room is more honest for us, and we actually tend to deliberately overlook some things because we know how naked the sound is.
Random warning to auditioners: Over these last few days we’ve had a couple of less-than-acceptable responses to our choice of a second aria. To recap the process: the singer gets to choose his/her first aria, and then we choose an aria from the remaining ones on that singer’s list. Now, I’m aware that the remaining selections may be ranked in the singer’s mind, from enjoyable to purely functional (a required aria in English, or a required Mozart or Handel selection). And we may not pick the one he/she prefers. But please, practice a pleasant (or at least noncommittal, poker-faced) reaction to whatever our request may be. Disgust doesn’t cut it. I’m not a difficult person to please, but this is a business environment here, and we all have to do our best to be professional.

Monday, November 15, 2004

New York Day 3

Lots and lots of good singing. WTOC alum Jason Hardy’s performance of Claggart’s aria from Billy Budd will stick in the memory for a long time. Best alternate aria: Sventurata (Clorinda’s aria) from Rossini’s La cenerentola. 4 minutes.
After dinner, a late night meeting with composer John Musto and conductor Michael Barrett. Michael, John, and John’s lovely wife Amy Burton had just finished a rehearsal, and we talked about commissioning a new opera over pasta and wine at midnight. John’s Volpone was such a huge hit at Wolf Trap last year, that we can’t wait to get started on a new piece. Looking for co-commissioners.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

New York, Day 2

A few unfortunate incidents with printed music in the last couple of days. I always think that we do a good job of reminding singers to mark their music clearly, but I’m repeatedly surprised by failures to do so. The biggest problem is cuts. Even the best audition pianists can’t read minds (actually, they do, but that’s another story). Faint pencil marks or grayed-out Xeroxed marks won’t do it. We need huge big old black lines through the music to be cut.
Today’s aria : Je suis Lazuli from Chabrier’s L’etoile. This one is a huge winner. If you’re a lyric mezzo and you want to distinguish yourself from the pack singing Siebel’s and Stephano’s arias, you really should check this out. In addition to showing off line, agility, and fabulous French language skills, it just plain puts everyone in a good mood.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

New York City

A word to the wise auditioner: be careful about what you say “outside the room”. First of all, it’s good business and good manners to conduct yourself professionally even after the audition room door closes. And second, you never know when someone outside the room is really a company “insider”…
Advice: A rash of long, long arias (really, scenes) on rep lists today. If you specialize in one of these scenes (and they tend very often to be soprano vehicles: Anne Trulove’s aria, Sempre libera from La traviata, Regnava la silenzio from Lucia), be prepared to start in the middle! People are often willing to be cut short in a long scene, but very often, what we really need to hear is the second half. So find a logical starting point, practice starting there, and mark the optional starting point for the pianist.
One other word of unsolicited advice: Don’t Pace. I don’t want to get into a protracted discussion about the degree to which audition arias should be blocked or staged. There’s a range of opinions, and just about the time I figure out where I stand, I change my mind because someone will give a totally successful audition by doing something I didn’t advocate. But one thing is sure. Don’t Pace. Two steps left, a few steps right, pacing every phrase or two – that’s a sure way to take the focus off your singing. When in doubt, stay in one place. There are many successful ways to move during auditions, and heaven knows, we don’t want you to feel stuck. But if this describes you, until you can skillfully incorporate purposeful changes of location into your audition, best to stay put.
Oops, didn’t mean to rant. It really was a good day, really!

Friday, November 12, 2004


Some prodigious vocal talents, some precociously talented musicians, and, in a few cases, both qualities present in the same person.
What’s in the reference section of my iPod this year? Paisiello’s Re Teodoro in Venezia, lots of Handel (Agrippina, Alcina, Semele, Rinaldo), Britten/Gay The Beggar’s Opera, Rossini’s La pietra del paragone, Mozart’s Il re pastore, Cavalli’s La calisto, Bizet’s Docteur Miracle, Chabrier’s Une education manqué, and about a dozen others. (Don’t read too much into this list! If only represents those pieces we’re reacquainting ourselves with, not the short list for next season!)

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Vienna, VA

Lucky is the singer who is assigned a morning audition spot. Really! The committee is rested, ears and minds are fresh, and the day is full of possibility! Truth is that few artists love singing in the a.m. (according to one of my favorite baritones, “There is no art before noon”). Singers really aren’t a lazy breed, it’s just that their previous workdays typically extended way into the evening, and 10am can feel pretty unwelcoming to tired vocal cords. So this morning, our first candidate shared with us the perfect recipe for a “Morning Sing” – venti skim chai latte, no water, 10 pumps. (Not that I really understand any of that…)
Aria choices were fairly standard today. And that’s not a bad thing. Yes, we’re always happy to hear something different, and we love to see artists immersing themselves in new music. But a certain amount of standard aria rep is indispensable for auditions. Hearing the same several dozen arias over and over again isn’t always inspirational, but it’s a time-tested way to discern a lot about a voice in a short period of time. Think of it as the compulsories in a gymnastics floor routine. Each aria has its profile – lowest notes, highest notes, difficult phrases, linguistic challenges, important articulations and dynamics – the singer must dispatch all of those “compulsory” requirements and make music at the same time. For two seemingly distracted people typing on laptops.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Chicago, IL

I have to mention that we had one of those moments today that keep us going. A brand-new singer walked in, announced a very difficult aria as a first selection, then proceeded to stun us both speechless. Five minutes later, I looked down to realize I hadn’t written a thing. We’re hearing developing artists, and every single person is a work-in-progress. But at this moment, the beauty, the depth of commitment, and the mastery of the instrument were enough to bring tears to my eyes. It was transformative. As every singer knows, you can’t make it happen. World-class artists have days on which things refuse to fall into place. But when it all aligns, and all of the hard work allows a natural gift to shine, we’re all the better for it. And then I think I have the best job in the world.
PS – Alternate aria of the day: Inspirez-moi from Gounod’s La Reine de Saba. Tenor. Do it without the recitative. Short (2 min), lyric tenor sing. Nice chance to show legato and phrasing. Only goes up to an A. (Careful; if you have higher notes, be sure to include other arias on your list that touch the Bb at least.)

Friday, November 05, 2004

I promised a list. “What We Listen For”. As if it were really quantifiable. But because most auditors (Thomas and I included) are also teachers and coaches, it’s necessary to try to articulate some goals. Bear with me here; I’m going to give you a laundry list that’s modeled on one by actor and coach Joanna Merlin’s book called “Auditioning”. (It’s intended for actors, but its wisdom easily extends to singing actor. Find it online or at a book store.)
Concentration/focus: We want performers who can create a potent and palpable space for themselves onstage. Stay with the character! Communicate. If you lapse, even for a moment, we hear and see it.
Truth/authenticity: If you’re mimicking someone else’s performance (either vocally or dramatically or both), it won’t ring true. Your decisions should be yours, and they should be personal.
Spontaneity: It’s all about discovery. We care about what happens moment-to-moment, and you have to sing it that way. Don’t telegraph the whole aria/scene/character at once. Life isn’t like that, and art rarely is, either.
Specificity: Detail. Variety. Monochromaticism is one of my own personal bugaboos.
Energy: And never underestimate how much it takes or to what degree it needs to be focused and honed. Project the voice and the personality to the back of the hall and beyond. It will keep you from becoming self-indulgent.
Humor: Yes, there is always humor. And it’s the most important in the most unexpected places.
Courage: Performing is not an easy thing to do. All singers know that. Take it one step farther. Take chances. Base them on experience and skill, but don’t play it safe.
Skill: Ah, you wondered when we’d get to that. Technique. Simply put (and here I travel back to my pianist days), it’s the ability to put all of the tools at your disposal in the service of creating art. More easily said than done, but it’s always important to work at it until you drop, then realize that it’s a means, not an end.

Thursday, November 04, 2004


Cincinnati probably wouldn’t occur to most people as an obligatory stop on a national talent search. But we come here every year. It’s a great place for us to become acquainted with developing talent because we’re introduced to many wonderful singers from the great training programs at CCM and Indiana University.
A few really riveting characterizations today. How refreshing it is when someone starts singing, and within 5 seconds, establishes such a strong character that we can forget that we’re hearing an audition. The eternal question: How much of that can you really teach? In-depth study of the art and craft of acting is more and more frequently a part of the American singer’s training. And it always pays off. But occasionally there’s someone who appears to come alive on the stage in a preternatural way. And it’s just hard to believe that he or she wasn’t born being able to do that.
PS: A sidebar for the aficionados and the singers out there: two newish arias we heard today that we think should be offered more often –
• Volate amori from Handel’s Ariodante – a great alternative to Tornami a vagheggiar
• Invocation à la mort from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld – short lyric soprano aria in French

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Now the fun begins. 50-60 solid hours of arias in 7 cities over the next 17 days.
By last weekend we had 580 applicants. And we only have room to hear about 350 singers in audition. Simple mathematics. 30 singers per day is pretty much all we can hear and still remain coherent. The judgment calls can be tough, but they have to be made.
Flying into Ohio the day after the election was fascinating in itself. Even the two Italian gentlemen sitting behind me on the plane were talking about it. (It’s always a thrill when I get to eavesdrop in a foreign language that I can actually understand.)
And yes, the first of many tedious trips through airport security. I carry very little luggage (of the personal type), for it’s a point of pride never to have to wait at baggage claim. But it’s unavoidable that over 50% of my carry-on luggage never quite looks right in the x-ray machine. Video and still cameras, mini-disc recorder, tripod, microphone, laptop, disks and tapes. Not to mention two cell phones (don’t ask…), a PDA, and an iPod. All seem to require individual handling and scrutiny, and you know they never quite fit back into the carrying case the same way afterward…