Sunday, October 29, 2006


If you're looking for an informative post about the upcoming audition tour, go here or here. Or work backwards through last year's audition tour diary starting here. Or check back later this week for a post on the audition workshops I've done this fall.

But today's entry is a plug for my recent extra-curricular activity.

Parade had a controversially short run on Broadway, and it won 2 Tonys in 2000. I've been fortunate to be able to work on a production of it this fall at my son's high school in Falls Church, VA. If you don't know Theatre at Marshall, you probably think I'm out of my mind for spending my spare time doing a high school show. But it's a brilliant theatre program by any standard, and I thoroughly enjoy the hundreds of hours it takes to put a musical on stage there every year :) The responsibility of raising my own teenagers has filled me with humility and fear. But working with kids on theatre and music usually leaves me energized and clear-headed. Easy for me to say, because I'm not a teacher and I don't spend day in and day out with these complicated bundles of hope, despair, and hormones. But I have more tolerance for them than I do for most adults.

Back to Parade. Jason Robert Brown's fascinating score draws on all those great early 20th-century styles - ragtime, Sousa marches, parlor ballads - but it has an appealing contemporary flavor. Alfred Uhry's book has given these students a more vivid history lesson than they'll ever find in a classroom. And even though the story takes place almost a hundred years ago, it resonates more strongly with today's world than it should. It's a story about missed opportunity, mob psychology, and both the best and the worst of human nature.

I'm biased, of course, but if you live in the DC area, you should check us out. This weekend, November 2-5 - more info at

Back to Work

Off to finish the application screening for Chicago and Vienna. Then to figure out how to pack all the paperwork, the computing and electronic gear, 2 weeks worth of clothing, and the approved zip-lock-bag collection of 3-oz bottles...

This afternoon's CD screening mp3 tagging amusement (for an explanation, go here and scroll down to the bottom): Tommy the T K Cowboy sings "Memories in That Old Storage Room". (a.k.a. Vissi d'arte). Spooky.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The First Round

Ah, the paperwork phase of sorting all of this out. The information in front of me falls into the following general categories:

Academic and/or conservatory training: It's extremely rare that we'll take someone without either an advanced degree or a stint in a year-round YAP. Each year we end up hiring a few people who are still finishing their post-graduate degrees, but the majority of our folks have recently finished formal training.

Other training programs (young artist, apprentice, etc): Knowing that you've been involved in an apprentice program or had other opportunities to get comfortable onstage is very helpful. Singing small roles, doing covers or chorus, and watching other professionals in the opera business prepares singers to make decisions about what kind of singer they want to be.

Awards / competitions: Do you regularly put yourself "out there"? Not strictly necessary, but a lack of any recognition is a worrisome sign. Staying safe and comfortable inside the studio is necessary for a while, but by the time you audition successfully for us, you're ready to strut at least some of your stuff.

Full-length roles performed: We're looking for people who have a least a couple of roles under their belts. Only having sung scenes programs doesn't mean that you won't be able to tackle a role. After all, you have to start somewhere. But this isn't exactly the place to start.

Making the Cut

The résumés contain other helpful information, but the first cut is really made on the basis of these four things and where they intersect. No one factor trumps all others, but the aggregate needs to be strong. I have very little backbone when it comes to saying no to people, but weighing in on the low side of 2 or more of these factors indicates that a singer probably isn't ready for a program like ours.

I know, this all sounds more than a little cocky, but consider this. Our singers have to show up with full-length roles thoroughly learned and completely memorized. Their languages must be strong enough that they can communicate well onstage and accept very detailed fine-tuning instruction from our language coaches. The technique must be secure enough to withstand the rigors of a professional 3-week intensive rehearsal and tech period. And although we are a program that exists to help emerging artists transition to professional careers, the visibility is fairly high. Yes, it's better to premiere a role here than it would be to do so in a large company. But our performances are reviewed by metropolitan and national press, and they are attended by VIPs from other opera companies and management firms. Trust me. You don't want to jump into this pool if you're not ready.

Geography Counts

And even though this might sound kind of formulaic, it's all relative to the amount of competition for any given audition site. This is the second year in a row that Chicago is a hot property. (Truthfully, I think it's because it had the latest application deadline.) 105 applicants for one day. Last year was busy in Chicago, but it was the first time in many years, and I thought it was an aberration. It wasn't. And because the travel arrangements and the hall reservations had to be booked months ago, we can't extend it to two days. So the Chicago pool has to be cut by two thirds.

The Young Artist Dilemma

We have no age limits, but we are still a company for developing artists. Ah, you say, aren't we all perpetually learning and developing? Of course. So how to figure out whom we should serve? What is our demographic?

There's a sweet spot, right after you've pretty much absorbed and tolerated those half-dozen or so years of full-time introductory study, and before you fall into a career pattern. I'm going to take a real chance here, for I know I'll get hate mail. But here are a few descriptions of singers we feel we are not in a position to serve. Those who have already performed a series of supporting or leading roles in regional or national-level companies. Those who finished the intensive part of their training more than 3 years ago. Those who have embarked on successful careers outside of the U.S. and are looking for ways to jump-start their careers in the states. If we existed simply to grant singing engagements to performers who desired (and deserved) them, we would be an entirely differerent sort of organization.


Can you be over 30 and apply successfully for our company? Unequivocally. Although our average age hangs around 26-27, each year since we've dropped the age limit, we've had at least one 30-something in the company. If you went to school in your early twenties, dropped out of the opera scene and returned a few years later, we're happy to consider you. Likewise if you change Fach or begin a new career in music much later than the traditional student. But in these cases, even more than usual, we're looking for momentum.

Over the last year or two, do the companies who have hired you, the roles you've been assigned and the awards you've won show that you're moving forward? If you're breaking back in, and you haven't sung a role in 3 years, that doesn't mean that we won't ever consider you. But if other applicants are showing a significantly higher degree of activity and recognition, you may get passed over. But by next year, if you persevere, yours could be one of the applications that rises to the top.

I know that most performers are loath to believe this about the beasts behind the table, but there are lots of us who are painfully empathetic. We know you work hard, that you've spent a lot of money in pursuit of something that calls out to you, and that you know you have something important to offer. I wish I could take every single one of the singers reduced to these pieces of paper called résumés and grant each one a satisfying career in music. I do, perhaps foolishly believe, that for those whom it matters in the right way, there always is a life in music.

Today's CD's

I listen to CD's through headphones attached to my laptop. My computer plays the files through iTunes, and usually the selections show up as Track 01, Track 02... Occasionally, just to keep me awake, the iTunes tagging software thinks it recognizes the CD and gives it a name. Tonight's entries included "Sex Beat" by the Gun Club. It was actually "Cruda sorte" from L'italiana in Algeri. Actually, not quite as far from "Sex Beat" as one might think...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Screening CD

Took a couple of days last week to visit a friend's house in the Blue Ridge mountains. It wasn't long enough to qualify as a vacation, but it allowed me to screen the first 300 applications with the view at left.

Back home now, and just finished listening to the first 120 demo CDs. Our audition process doesn’t require audio samples, but singers who don’t clearly meet or exceed our suggested profile are encouraged to considering submitting a demo containing 2 arias.

How Important is the CD?

We treat the recordings in one of three ways.

  • 1) If someone easily qualifies based on the paperwork profile, I must admit that I don’t even listen to the recording. Why? There’s a danger that I would decide not to accept him or her for a live audition, and that would effectively penalize that singer for sending a CD. (Someone else with a similar qualifying profile who didn’t send a recording would get automatically passed through. Make sense?)
  • 2) If a singer clearly doesn’t have a high level of experience or training, but s/he has sent an unusually good CD, there’s a chance that s/he will get an audition on the strength of the audio sample.
  • 3) If there are very few spots left for an audition site (we average about 30 singers/day), and there’s a group of applicants on the borderline, a good CD will make the difference. A bad one will have the opposite effect.

What Do We Listen For?

Objective things: intonation, mastery of languages, the right notes at the right time. If a recording has a negative impact, it’s usually because the singing is not on pitch, the delivery of the languages is badly executed, or the rhythms and pitches are poorly or incompletely learned. On a more subjective level, if the previous criteria are met, then I'm listening for phrasing, musicianship, and general artistry.

One thing that’s really not discernable is vocal timbre or size. Some recordings seem to have been made in stairwells or large bathrooms (not really, but their very forgiving 5-second reverb makes it seem so), and some appear to have been made with a cheap microphone in a practice room. This variation in acoustic makes it ill-advised to do much speculation about the weight and color of a voice and whether or not the chosen repertoire is a satisfying fit.


This might seem odd, but I prefer CDs that contain two different selections recorded on separate occasions. Somehow it's easier to triangulate (well... I guess you can't triangulate without three points, but you get my drift...) and get a real feel for the voice when you can hear it in a couple of different guises. If there's a single very flattering acoustical environment (or a single raw, dry acoustic) on the CD, I tend to mistrust it. Don't know if this makes any sense...


This is becoming a bigger and bigger issue with the availability of more affordable digital equipment. I've received a few professionally issued and mastered CDs this year, and I can honestly say that it makes absolutely no difference for our purposes. It makes for a pleasant listening experience, but to be honest, the roughly 20 hours I spend with these recordings are not a predominantly aesthetic experience. I'm doing fact-finding, and I don't need extremely sophisticated sound reproduction in order to do that.

Now, having said that, please don't send recordings that carry obvious distortion. I've heard 5 so far this year that break apart entirely in the upper half of the decibel and frequency range.

Practical Guidelines

  • List your selections AND YOUR NAME on both the CD and the case. (Any kind of case is fine. I’m not that compulsive.) When the listener is swapping many CDs in and out of the player, it's easy for one to get separated from the other.
  • Check your CD – make sure it works! I always try a disc in at least 2 players to be sure. So far this year I've only come across one that won't play.
  • Listen to your recording as if you were an audition committee. Have someone else listen to it. Don't send it if you don't feel it does you justice. Make a test CD well in advance of the actual due date and listen to it critically. Don't beat yourself up about every little imperfection, but make sure the singing is in tune!
  • Read the requirements. We ask for two arias, one in Italian. It's amazing how many times we get a copy of a recital without an Italian song to be had...
  • And finally, a new phenomenon... I'm increasingly given a website URL in place of the demo CD. I think it's great that singers have audio samples on their websites, but our screening process has to stay somewhat standardized in order for us to get through it every fall. It might seem fussy and rigid for me to balk at visiting websites in order to hear screening audio, but for now, that's the way it has to stay. Fairly reviewing 600 applications in 3 weeks is a tremendous amount of work, and the process can't absorb any more steps than it already contains.

Enough. The second deadline (for Houston/San Francisco/Cincinnati) just passed, and the flurry of online submissions has slowed down. Time to get some sleep and get ready for the next wave. I'll summarize the screening process next time... my absolute least favorite part of the whole autumn. I'm such a bleeding heart that I have trouble turning anyone down - I think every year that it'll get easier, but it never does...

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Philadelphia & New York Online Deadline Extended

Well, the folks at 1&1 ("The World's Biggest Web Host" indeed) promise 99.9% "server up time." I think the 3 hours our website spent offline this afternoon blows that statistic out of the water. Murphy's Law says that the server would go down on the day of the New York application deadline.

But we're back in business as of this evening, and it looks as if most folks have gotten back on the website tonight - the data is coming in pretty steadily. Nevertheless, if you're one of those who got booted off on Friday afternoon, you'll now have an extra day. We'll accept online applications that are posted by midnight on October 7.

When I talked to tech support this afternoon (from a noisy Starbucks on 31st and 7th in New York, but that's another story*), they told me it was a "power supply problem." Wonder if that means that someone unplugged it by accident... My colleague prefers to believe the server was overwhelmed by a deluge of data from rabid, enthusiastic opera singers.

We've had a few technical challenges with our interactive application, but none were insurmountable. (So far... We still have a week and a half to go before the final deadline, so I shouldn't get cocky.) We've had about 250 people apply online to date, and all of the data is safe and sound. A few glitches with resume/headshot uploads, but we've been encouraging folks to email them as attachments if there are any problems. It's a trial run, and there are certainly things that we will tweak before next year, but the early word is that it's truly been worth it. And, from the comments and messages we've received, many in the singer community appreciate the opportunity to apply digitally.

I'll spend the weekend plugged into the first 75 audio CDs and reviewing the applications for the Philadelphia and New York sites. I'll be back here with some first impressions as soon as I can.

(*I was on a quick trip to New York today for a meeting about our next opera commission. Stay tuned.)

Friday, October 06, 2006


Here we are on Friday, October 6, the day of our first application deadline (for the Philadelphia and New York audition sites), and the server that's hosting our online application has crashed. No good deed goes unpunished, they say.

If we can't get back online very shortly, we will extend this first deadline by one day. Check back here for updates.