Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I Should've Been an English Major

It's that time of year... when a phrase is not a satisfying arc of pitch and dynamic, but a collection of well-chosen words. Seductive adjectives, strong verbs, and lots of punctuation!!

January and February bring vast wastelands of nothing but words. Or rather, big ol' blank computer screens mocking me for lack of words. You writers know all about this. But I'm a musician. And an administrator. And for 6 weeks every winter, I beg God to make me a writer.

The curse arrives in 4 parts.

1) Copywriting 101

The dreaded blurbs.

Assignment: Communicate everything important about an obscure (yet fascinating) opera in about 4 square inches. Leave no important question unanswered, but don't stick just to the facts because they alone can't possibly inspire.

Caveats: Don't assume too much lest the uninitiated patron feel excluded from the opera subculture. But don't pretend as if it's not opera. Using descriptors that are hip and sexy but have nothing to do with the experience itself isn't helpful. Not that opera can't be hip and sexy. But it's not a rock concert or a Broadway musical, so we shouldn't pretend that it is.

2) Feeding Back

Singers ask for our reactions to their auditions. How did they do, and why didn't they get the job?

Folks who didn't get through the screening process want feedback on their applications. Why couldn't they get an audition?

We bring this on ourselves, by opening up this channel of communication. But it's hard to put truth and compassion in hundreds of emails. What exactly is the appropriate vocabulary for this?

3) Legalese

Not as much my problem these days as it is Rahree's and LaJefa's. But I share the pain (or I try to). Writing contracts for all of the people who will make the magic happen in a few months. Becoming one with indemnity clauses and force majeure paragraphs.

4) Creative Writing

Not as heinous as the short blurbs, for there's some space to breathe - a few hundred words per opera for the more forgiving medium of the internet. But writing descriptive copy for a young artist company that performs new productions of often-rare repertoire under the umbrella of an organization that presents a lot of pop/rock/jazz/alternative concerts...

What's the main message here? And who exactly is our target audience for these web pages? Will too much irreverent language backfire on us? It's one thing for the Met to err on the casual side, for the sheer weight of their legitimacy keeps the message from getting too flip. But we deal exclusively with emerging professional singers, and we self-identify as a "young artist company." One of the downsides is that potential patrons think our singers are just "students." We don't need to take ourselves too seriously, but we do have to be careful to maintain a professional sheen in our message.

January Bookshelf

Words in, words out. At least that's the theory. Here's the past month's reading list.

The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner
I always knew that the secret of happiness is low expectations. Now it's official. Love this book.

The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross
Finally. I pre-ordered it; it traveled around the country during the audition tour; and I finally got to it. Not in a linear fashion, I admit - I hopscotched shamelessly. Now I have to go back and do it from left to right.

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks
My brief history as a music therapist becomes more relevant every day.

Heat by Bill Buford
Amazing how much the kitchen of a 4-star restaurant feels like backstage at the opera house.

Opera 101 by Fred Plotkin
I'm teaching my first intro mini-course this spring, and I'm try to see the forest for the trees,

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Audition Game

Today's guest blogger is Joshua Winograde, head of our own Wolf Trap Opera Studio and Planning Manager of the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program at the Los Angeles Opera.

This is a wonky time of the blog year for me - I'm working nonstop on the upcoming operas, and because we haven't announced our season yet, I can't include any details in blog posts. Starting March 17, you'll get all the info you need about summer 2008.

In the meantime, Josh offers this spot-on advice about those crazy job interviews that singers do. Pay particular attention to the way in which he demonstrates the through-line between audition behavior and hiring potential. It's more significant than you might think. Although his message is targeted to our Studio singers, its advice holds true for the entire audition phase of a singer's career, which can last a maddeningly long time. So make friends with it.


Auditions are weird.

Let’s face it, most singers hate them! Singing an audition is so completely unlike performing a role, and I can’t tell you how many times I have heard (or said!) “I am really good on stage but I just AUDITION terribly!” Very few singers look forward to auditions. Very few singers feel they are any good at it. Very few singers feel that an audition accurately represents what one can do on a stage.

And yet for young artists, they are the only way in the door. My friend and colleague Gregory Henkel (Artistic Planning Manager, LA Opera) recently taught an audition technique class and put it beautifully: Auditions are a short job interview in which you have a limited time to demonstrate how you might function in a variety of other settings.

Totally brilliant!!! And I’d like to take that definition and run with it for a while, if you’ll indulge me.

I am writing about this because I have recently been responding to the feedback requests from our WT Opera Studio audition tour last fall. More specifically, I get a lot of letters back from people who want me to further interpret the feedback I gave them from the panelists’ notes, asking “What did you mean when you said …?” or “How can I make my auditions better in the future?” or “If I sang as well as you say, why didn’t I get in?” As a singer and an administrator, I hope to provide a unique and useful perspective. So here goes…

The Rules of the Game

I interpret Gregory’s definition as follows: Auditioning is a game, and it can actually be a fun one. Here are the rules…

You have a short opportunity to tell us as much or as little about you as you want because we only have 10 minutes to make an educated guess about how exactly you will function in 100 different scenarios throughout your time at Wolf Trap. To audition well, you must choose wisely the things that you WANT us to know about and find ways to show those to us, and conversely you must carefully omit the things that you do NOT want us to know. If you do that, you will audition well every single time guaranteed. The problem is that this is REALLY, REALLY hard.

Why is it hard? Because there are three hidden PITFALLS that are easy to fall into, I’ll come back to pitfalls later after talking more about the way you play this game.

No one expects you to perform the exact same way at an audition that you would in a performance. In a real show, we know that you would have more make-up on. We know that you would have a prop book, or poison, or catalogue, or pan-pipes. We know that it feels differently to sing with piano than it does with orchestra. We know that your voice will sound differently in a 2000 seat hall than it does in a 30x40 foot dance studio. So forget about those things. Leave those up to us to weed through.

Instead, use this as a “game” plan and be deliberate about how you play the game.

Step One: Be Yourself (But With a Grain of Salt)

Since we are going to have a working relationship with you, we want to feel like we are actually meeting you at your audition. If you introduce us to a “character” that you have created, there is almost always a sense of insincerity. So make sure you are being yourself. HOWEVER… being yourself when you go out for a beer or go putt-putt golfing is going to be a different “you” than we want to meet. We want to meet the “you” that will be showing up every day TO YOUR JOB!!! (Remember, as much as we all love our art form, it is still our job!) Many working relationships in opera also have a friendship aspect, in fact that’s one of the great parts of this business, but you are auditioning for a job, not a friendship. So make sure you are very aware of the “you” that goes to work every day and introduce us to THAT “you.”

Step Two: Make the First List (The REQUIRED Things)

So now that you are committed to being yourself, you should make a list of the things about your professional self that you REALLY want us to know. Although there are a lot of things that are completely up to you, I would really like to start your list for you with the following required things (if you disagree with any of them, I am sorry to say you are in the minority!!!):

1) I am professional
2) I am congenial
3) I am confident
4) I am talented
5) I am smart
6) I am interesting

There may be additional things that other people require, but I am guessing these cover most of it. The rest is up to you.

Step Three: Find Ways to Show ALL These Things

First I will address the required 6 things, and then try to hypothesize about the additional elements in another “step” below. There are lots of other ways to show us these 6 things, but below are some of my ideas to help you get started. The following is YOU speaking in first person.

1) I am professional. I care about this audition THE SAME WAY I will care about the job you give me. I confirmed my audition appointment promptly and was ready to sing 20 minutes early in case you were running ahead of schedule, THE SAME WAY I will at rehearsals. I brought everything you asked me to bring, and my materials are up to date and on nice paper because this is my JOB and I cared enough about it to spend an extra 20 cents for the sheet of resume paper. All the spelling is correct. The names of people and places are accurate. That is THE SAME WAY I will approach the job you give me. (Other questions for you to answer: how ELSE do you define professional? What are some other things about you that you consider to show you as professional? How else can you show us those things?)

2) I am congenial. I smiled when I entered the room and made some eye contact as I introduced myself to you. When you said “good morning” or “thank you” I said something nice back. When I said I wanted to start with an aria from “Boulevard Solitude” and you told me you had never heard of it, I politely told you who wrote it. When you asked me for my 2nd aria, I seemed happy about your selection. This is THE SAME WAY I will behave when I meet the director. This is THE SAME WAY I will respond when the conductor goes crazy and screams at me. When the costumer puts me in something that I think makes me look fat, I will go along with it THE SAME WAY. (Other questions: How else do you define congenial? What else about you shows that? Again… we are not looking for some good jokes the way we would at putt-putt. We just want to know you are pleasant when you come to work every day.)

3) I am confident. Not arrogant, just confident. I think there are special things about me as a professional, congenial, talented person that made it worth your while to give me an audition. I made myself look nice and I know how to dress appropriately, much in THE SAME WAY I would never wear flip-flops to a fight rehearsal or jeans to a donor party. I said my name clearly and spoke with confidence when I announced my selections, much in THE SAME WAY I would greet audience members who waited after the show to meet me. If you asked me a question and I didn’t know the answer, I confidently admitted that I didn’t know. That is THE SAME WAY I will be at work. (Other questions: how do I want to convey that I have confidence in my professional abilities?)

4) I am talented. I have a great voice and a great technique. I am a committed and skilled actor. I will be THE SAME WAY in rehearsals and performances. (This is the hardest part and it is also the most obvious one. Clearly you want to show that you have talent, so this one goes almost without saying. Also, it must be said that very occasionally this ALONE will get you a job.)

5) I am smart. I created a good-looking, clear resume or maybe I hired someone to do it for me because I am smart enough to know that I couldn’t do it myself! I obviously know the words I am singing and am pronouncing them right. I have done research of my arias: my ornaments and general style elements are appropriate. The selections I am offering are prepared thoroughly. That is THE SAME WAY my roles and assignments will be prepared. (Other questions: what else about you helps make you smart? Are those things you want to show us?)

6) I am interesting. I have made artistic decisions and have something unique to say in my repertoire. THE SAME WAY I will in your show. I have things about me personally that make me interesting, and (only for the ones that are appropriate to share J) have listed them on my resume. (Other questions: what is interesting that we should know? Special skills? Dance background? Double major? 2nd career? Specific repertoire interests? Should you show these things on a resume or by offering a unique aria?)

Step Four: Make the Second List (Your Choice Elements)

What else would you like us to know? Are you serious or funny? What kind of characters do you feel you should play? What are your strengths? Why else should we hire you? Are you an excellent and strong leader, or do you feel to be more a dependable worker-bee who is happy to accommodate? This is where the list starts that YOU must create. It can be one more thing or 50 more things… whatever you want! Examples may be, but are in no way limited to: I am formal. I am casual. I am versatile. I am funny. I am serious. I am in great shape. I am fashionable. I am high energy. I am calm. I am fluent in Czech. I am flexible/accommodating. I am interested in obscure rep or new music or baroque music or musical theater. Basically… whatever else you WANT to tell us, you must find a way to do that through your audition.

Step Five: Make Good Omissions

No one is exactly all those things exactly all the time. And once again, your friends accept you for your whole being, flaws and all. But you are on a JOB interview, and it is entirely appropriate to keep certain parts of yourself private. Are you impatient at times? Do you snap at people when you are in a bad mood? Are you in a bad mood right now? Do you occasionally say or do something so tremendously embarrassing that it makes you want to crawl into a hole? OF COURSE!!! We all do… but NOT AT WORK! We want to know that you will leave those things at home during the audition THE SAME WAY you will at rehearsal or during a performance.

Step Six: Avoid the Pitfalls

Remember those pitfalls I mentioned above? They are very important.

Pitfall #1) Many times singers show us something that they didn’t mean to or are COMPLETELY unaware of. This usually happens when they want to show us something but miscalculate how to do it. Most of the things that fall into this category are vocal… for example, you show us that you have no top notes, or that you sing under pitch. I won’t address those elements at all other than to say all young artists should make wise choices about selecting teachers and coaches. But there are other things that fall into this category. For example, you may WANT to show us that you are a funny, affable person but one singer came off as a smart-alec when he said to me “Uccch I can’t believe you asked for Belmonte after I just sang Romeo, what are you trying to do kill me?… no, just kidding, I’ll sing it.” You will? Gee, thanks so much!!! Another singer who I know to be in perhaps the best shape of anyone I have ever seen came dressed in something so big and unflattering that he looked like a small child wearing his grandpa’s outfit… maybe he was trying to show “I am not only about my body” which is fine, but it is NOT what he ended up showing us. Another example is repertoire choices: I recently heard an audition by a youthful, energetic, and very talented singer who offered 5 of the most depressing, slow, and painful arias available for her voice type. So when I said, “Are you interested in being seen as someone who specializes in serious and suicidal roles?” she responded “Not at all!” Could have fooled me! If you see yourself as a versatile performer and want us to know that, show us!

Pitfall #2) Many singers are not aware that there are certain things that we NEED to see, so they ignore finding ways to show them. The things I listed above in Steps Two and Three are things we NEED to see. If they don’t come naturally to you, start working on them.

Pitfall #3) Singers sometimes THINK we want to know something that we definitely do NOT want to know!!! Just a few examples to illustrate this: There was one girl who, when I asked about a conductor on her resume, said “Uccch he was awful!” Well, he was also my good friend. Oops! She thought we wanted to know that she was sassy, but we didn’t. What about the girl who started with Carmen and, presumably to show that she can be sexy, wore just a slip and no bra? She showed us things we most definitely did not want to know about her AT WORK.

My Solution?

This sounds super-dorky but it will REALLY work, I promise.

Make your lists and decide how you plan to show those things. Invite 3 (or more) other people to do the same thing. Ideally, there should be at least someone there who DOESN’T know you very well or at all so that it will be more similar to a real audition where we generally don’t know you. Friends tend to find certain things charming because they know you and love you. Then, get a pianist and a room and all four of you do auditions for each other. A full, two-aria, walk-in-the-room, hand-them-a-resume-and-headshot audition. Then afterward, go one by one and answer the following questions about each person (including yourself)…

1) Did the singer show that s/he is professional, congenial, confident, talented, smart, and interesting? If so, how? It’s fine if one thing shows more than one element… for example, a good resume may show that you are both professional and smart. Or, an excellent performance can show that you are both talented and interesting.

2) What else did I learn about the singer? How did they show each thing?

3) What did the singer show me about himself that I think he probably shouldn’t have? Were these things accidental or deliberate?

The Audition Game

So you see… it becomes a legitimate GAME. It has rules, a scoring system, and strategy. And like any game, you win some and you lose some, and you get better every time. I hope that looking at it this way encourages you to start enjoying the hunt a little bit more, and I am positive that it will make your auditions more consistent and effective.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Raw Audition Comments 2008

Not raw in the way you think. Just unedited. Excerpted from the database just the way they were spewed forth during the audition tour. Stream of consciousness and all. The good, the bad, and the ugly, sometimes all within the same aria.

Why do I post these, and why would you read them?

1. To realize that the people at the table aren't writing things that are nearly as vicious as you think they are.

2. To witness the entire range of things that go through our messy crazy minds while we're listening and trying to problem-solve at the same time.

3. To discover some of the recurrent issues that present themselves in the audition room.

4. To get over the fear of these things, move on with your life, and keep singing and improving.

Here goes.

  • raw but impressive; a diamond-in-the-very-rough

  • the recit is too stagnant

  • not exactly a stage animal

  • chewing the Italian in search of humor

  • seems to take a while to get the voice going.

  • an uncomplicated sound

  • the entire impression is of general strength and energy

  • it’s not a luxurious sound, but she manages to be fairly expressive

  • too few options at the top of the voice

  • an overriding brightness to the sound that doesn’t fit this aria.

  • lots of great flexibility with the sound and dynamics.

  • such an interesting color - a complex sound, sometimes too bright

  • an easy production, but yet the legato isn’t quite believable yet

  • unfortunately loves to hold out those final syllables

  • there’s something really exciting about this

  • the more legato the line the more difficult it seems to be

  • it moves, and this is good for her

  • not completely satisfying on a dramatic level, but getting there

  • checking out during the coloratura

  • it’s an undeniably good voice, if not a particularly large one, but the presentation is a little random

  • backing up and grabbing onto the piano much more than he should

  • not a huge variety of dynamic and color

  • lots of unfocused movement - too much

  • needs more Italian work - surprising considering her training

  • a mixed bag of strengths

  • reaching through the neck for the high notes, lots of tension in the body and head

  • weird characterization - the physicality and the voice aren’t really connected

  • how much squillo is there?

  • he’s very convincing at mp, but there just isn’t a huge dynamic range

  • a lot of extraneous sound going on that makes it hard to zero in on the sound/pitch

  • the top is shrill, and the mezzo resonance on the bottom is contrived

  • the personality is warming and opening up

  • aspirate coloratura in the midvoice; much more focused at the top

  • dramatically she knows where the beats are but doesn’t quite know what to do with them

  • vowel modification is funky....

  • sharping a bit; pushing pretty hard

  • still, static presence.

  • not an unpleasant sound, but choral in nature; really not a lot of ping

  • coloratura is indistinct

  • gets props for having a dramatic through line

  • occasionally the actorly choices get a little smarmy, but generally I really appreciate the effort and invention

  • blank and general in the eyes.

  • nice presentatation; energetic, specific

  • very vertical musicality - not all the time, but too often

  • singing this ever so slightly under the pitch… actually, it’s more than slightly

  • duple rhythm is so wrong

  • musicianship is tame, reserved; making pretty sounds, but that’s about it right now

  • I get more energy from her face than from the voice

  • I’m all about the extension, but there are unsatisfying moments in the mid-high range

  • wish she could harness this in a meaningful musical and dramatic way

  • the torso and arms lock down during coloratura

  • this is a truly big house voice

  • it’s not all glued together, but there are some really lovely moments.

  • everything is too tightly choreographed - the physicality isn’t organic

  • a slight miscalculation near the end; wouldn’t have advised it

  • I wish for more variety; it’s as if she intends it but the execution isn’t there

  • very occasionally she starts to float or shape, but it’s always a half-finished gesture

  • the stage business is very distracting, and seems very contrived

  • she’s confident, and knows the scene well; won’t quibble with the choices she’s making

  • good core to the sound. Even throughout.
    Not a particularly big instrument, but clean

  • tending to bark all the way through this

  • the voice isn’t big enough for this rep - wrong color

  • a very careful reading; not even milking the inherent humor in the piece

  • baritone claw

  • good coloratura. healthy sound. lots to like here

  • better supported when he moves his voice

  • vibrat is wides and completely obscures the center of the pitch

  • French is lazy on the dipthongs and vowels in general

  • should never sing this; exposes all of the liabilities

  • a lifting off the sound that produces a croon; not often, but occasionally

  • the talent is undeniable, but the current picture isn’t yet in focus

  • oh, please, get the whole way up to the center of the pitch. please

  • seems very very nervous

  • body language all over the place, and focus is splintered and anxious

  • has memorized some gestures, but she is kind of a theatrical mess

  • limited dynamic range - she sings soft, but at a sacrifice to intonation and basic core

  • hanging flat @ ends of phrases.

  • wants to rush or take this incredibly fast

  • either rushes or truly wants to sing this incredibly fast

  • unspeakably nervous

  • always parallel gestures with his hands

  • I get the sense that this is someone who performs significant differently that she auditions

  • Italian has American L’s, a few other oddities

  • seems innately musical; sounds healthy

  • there’s nothing in the rep list that shows whether the voice moves

  • the midvoice has an interesting combo of steel and roundness

  • sings English very well, connected to the text

  • shows great poise, even in this setting

  • very vertical - I feel every eighth note go by

  • convincing actress - mature musician

  • oozes sensuality; makes this sound easy

  • develop more nuance... visit the land of pianissimos more often and with more finesse

  • brings this off largely on linguistic and stylistic strengths

  • the cadenza a particular miscalculation

  • Mozart recit completely convincing

  • this kind of voice has to have a stellar top...

  • over-indulgent reading - no life, sense of subtext

  • needs to take a more full-blooded approach to this

  • nailed the top, but it was scary

  • it’s amazing how much more relaxed folks are in callbacks

  • it’s as if the voice doesn’t find its center until it sustains a second or so

  • this is an incomplete picture, if a pleasant one

  • sweet sound, but she sabotages herself on those initial notes...she doesn’t prep them, and then struggles through the remainder of the phrase

  • knows what she wants to do with this, but the basic technique isn’t quite there to really let her

  • a good musician making the voice conform to her ideas instead of finding the technique to support it

  • not afraid to shape the phrases and use the entire dynamic range

  • impressed with the agility of this size of instrument

  • the entire focus is on the floor between us and him

  • there’s no separation between her and her singing; this is exciting and scary at the same timeperformances have the lid on

  • a committed actress, and does a good job of conveying this character without it feeling frenzied

  • handles some of the coloratura well - and is actually the best and most in-tune singing he does.

  • very little connection to the text

  • underenergized and miniaturized in its impact

  • good musician. good evil laugh. :)

  • only sings long phrases when it’s florid - tends to chop up the rest.

  • singing this whole thing with eyes closed or almost-closed

  • I love the sound, but it’s a soprano voice with a mezzo technique

  • looked up for the interlude, then back down; when she does look up, she closes her eyes

  • it’s official, I have baritone fatigue

  • recit. is Wonder Bread

  • cycles through the same arbitrary physical gestures

  • it’s a biggish instrument inside a person that feels almost apologetic

  • terribly terribly nervous

  • really gets the style; nice starter for him, for it showcases the assets

  • the top isn’t ugly or disappointing, just not relevatory

  • lots of straight tone, scoopy, coming off the voice at the ends of phrases.
    Started the aria super fast, and is now struggling to maintain the tempo she set

  • absolutely nothing wrong with the basic footprint, but he simply has to sing in tune

  • moments of hope surrounded by acres of bad decisions

  • seems very disconnected from what’s going on with him or in the room.

  • nice character, multifaceted, interesting

  • worth following, but at this point just a strong academic product

  • Deh vieni - begins the characterization at the top of the intro - nice..

  • the pitch is really a problem; a shame b/c she has a compelling stage presence.

  • coloratura is clean but joyless

  • the voice just isn’t gathering itself in a way that allows her to make any significant choices; having to default to a singular mezzo-forte straight-ahead approach

  • sings everything very very fast; has facility to burn, but I’m missing any elegance or charm

  • on the verge of worrying about whether or not he’ll make it through the next phrase, but he just keeps a comin’...

  • monochromatic, blunt and anonymous; too bad, for handled in a different way, this voice would have potential

  • finessing her strengths and weaknesses very very well

  • being encouraged to emote in large strokes; the overall picture is a bit of a caricature

  • good energy, and there is good raw material, but she’s too fearless for her chops

  • needs to find her calling card; this extreme tessitura isn’t it, and I’m not sure luxury of timbre is either

  • often sacrifices the large gesture for a small one

  • not an insignificant talent, but simply not ready to be trusted just yet

  • just generically angry

  • diction is academic - hasn’t figured out how to make the text work for him.

  • there’s tremendous potential here, but he’s not getting the training he needs to capitalize on it

  • coloratura is executed without finesse, as if she’s just learned it

  • still a little too precious for me, but then again I complain about the folks who just yell...

  • a natural legato and expressiveness in his voice which is very engaging/interesting

  • wandering all around the middle of the room

  • the approach is anguished but nonspecific

  • pitch placement cavalier; she can center on a note, but it takes a while and it doesn’t help her in coloratura

  • doesn’t have anything below a mezzo-forte

  • recit is artistically very strong and specific; in the audition context feels overdone and histronic, but would be what’s required for a large house

  • if I’m going to complain about singers just phonating through this, I shouldn't complain about the diva approach

  • open your eyes!!

  • it’s an American opera, for he has his hands in his pockets

  • it’s so nice to hear a full voice that moves!

  • went through 4 obvious vowels on the ascending run, and it’s not even the high one... I’m ok with vowel modification, but I don’t want to hear it that clearly

  • hasn’t finished making technical choices about the midvoice

  • jury’s out on where this voice will go; it’s not behaving like a mezzo in spite of its relative size

  • so hard to lock your body in this doll position and and still support; and it’s tough to start with this because it gives us so little information about the singer as an actress

  • conducts his singing with the right hand

  • very healthy singing, but not the biggest personality in the world

  • if you’re going to bring your own pianist, be sure s/he can play your aria :(

OK. Now step away from the computer and go sing some more.

And please don't spend any of your precious time trying to guess if any of these comments pertain to you. If you want to know what we said (and mind you, I'm not encouraging you, just providing information), write us and ask.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Blog Survey Summary

Just under 300 of you lovely readers took the time to submit the survey that's been lurking at the top of the right margin for the last several weeks. I appreciate your willingness to tell me who you are and what you think, and I have indeed learned a few things!


Which of the following best describes you?
(Total over 100% because multiple descriptions were allowed.)

  • 40% - Aspiring singer
  • 30% - Professional singer
  • 15% - Other opera professional
  • 12% - Opera patron
  • 9% - Family member or friend of someone in the opera business
  • 9% - Other (descriptions included pianists, instrumentalists, avocational singers, music lovers, and volunteers)

Do you live in the Washington, DC area?

  • 81% - No
  • 19% - Yes

Are you a Wolf Trap Opera Company patron?

  • 87% - No
  • 13% -Yes

Not too many surprises here. Although the blog is read by folks who aren't in the business (or in the process of breaking into it), they are in the minority. 70% of you described yourselves as current or aspiring professional singers. This does change the way in which I think about my posts.

And the geographical stats show exactly what I expected. This kind of blog is not primarily a marketing tool. That in no way diminishes its importance for a company like ours. It just demonstrates that it's justifiable for the mission to be much broader than selling tickets.

Type of Posts

What type of posts interest you the most? (Check one)
  • 49% - Auditioning
  • 26% - The opera business
  • 18% - Opera production
  • 6% - Arts administration
  • 1% - Other (seasonal artist and rep selection, master classes)
What other types of posts interest you?
(Total over 100% because multiple choices were allowed.)
  • 84% - Auditioning
  • 84% - The opera business
  • 69% - Opera production
  • 57% - Arts administration
  • 4% - Other (season selection, aria lists, recitals, recordings, young artist development, improv, career path, any candid stories)

No wonder the readership stats spike so much every autumn. Why is this audition stuff so mysterious/intriguing? And I guess my glamorous job as an arts administrator isn't as fascinating as I thought :)


How did you find this blog?
  • 30% - Linked from Wolf Trap website
  • 30% - Referral/word of mouth
  • 29% - Linked from another blog
  • 11% - Found it while surfing or through a search engine

A pretty clean division across what I expected to be the 3 primary means of discovery. Not so bad, though that a tenth of the traffic found themselves here through search or surfing. Gotta love the internet.


How often do you check this blog for updates?
  • 35% - Less frequently
  • 28% - Weekly
  • 22% - Several times a week
  • 17% - Daily

I cannot tell you how relieved I am to see these numbers lined up in reverse frequency. Perhaps it's chicken and egg... If I'm not posting daily, I've probably driven away those readers who expect fresh daily content. But the fact that majority of those of you who cared enough to take the survey are coming here on an average of once a week is a huge relief. Yes, a blog doesn't deserve the name if the content isn't kept fresh. But if I can stick (relatively guilt-free) to the regimen that has emerged (almost daily during auditions and in season; once or twice a week the rest of the year), I may have some longevity!


Do you use a feed reader to check and view blogs?
  • 81% - No
  • 19% - Yes


This was primarily curiosity-driven. Google Reader has been a godsend. I can keep up with my 103 blogs in about 20 minutes a day. (Go to, click on "More" and then "Reader") Some people also swear by Bloglines ( Basically, you go to one web page to see if your favorite blogs have been updated. They only show up when there's new content, so you don't have to keep checking.


In case you're curious about the extent of this blog's readership, there's a distinct annual cycle breaking down into 3 trends:
  • During the mid-October through early December audition season, the readership is higher than the rest of the year, averaging about 1,500 - 1,800 unique readers (around 2,500 page loads) a week. I'm guessing that the singer readership eclipses almost all other groups during this time.
  • During the summer opera season (roughly early June to late August), the average is just around 1,000 unique readers a week (around 1,200 - 1,500 page loads). Anecdotally, I've learned that this is when a lot of family and friends of singers are checking in, keeping their finger on the pulse of whatever mischief their loved ones are getting into at Wild Times Opera Camp.
  • And during the rest of the year, the loyal core of 500-600 readers a week are checking in. I'm particularly indebted to those folks during this January-March period when we're working feverishly on this summers operas but aren't allowed to say anything about them!

Back to the Feedback!

This morning I began churning out singer feedback in earnest. It always takes me a while to hit my stride, and I hope to get caught up with existing requests over the next week. (I do have to create a little more momentum than I did today when I managed to put together 4 feedback emails in 2 hours...) If you've already asked, please be patient. If you haven't submitted a request, you have until February 15 to do so.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Making the Music Backstage

But before the stories...

If you're an aspiring performer, go now to today's brief and cogent post on Grecchinois. Excerpt: "...apprenticeships are about planning for the future as much as they are about honing one’s craft. The reality is that when it comes down to it, this is a job, just like any other, and it is the task at hand that is the priority – not my development and career trajectory. It makes me wonder how much more I would have learned as a Studio artist here had I not been so focused on the future and gave more of my attention to the tasks that were at hand then."

Jason Heath's orchestra pit post put me in an anecdotal mood last week, resulting in my previous entry about my own orchestra pit moments and today's sequel about backstage conducting. I surprise myself by being able to remember these moments at all, for my pitiful longterm memory is the stuff of legend. But they say that our memories are only as good as the stories we tell, and I guess I've called on these tales often enough to retain them. (The fact that they've supplanted all remembrance of things like my children's childhoods and my own wedding is a bit frustrating, though...)


There are princes in this Fach, but some of the prime scum of the business, too. I had the pleasure of conducting backstage during Trovatore, and the offstage tenor & harp serenade had to be performed from the lockrail. That meant that the singer, harpist and I were dozens of feet above stage right on a skinny catwalk with a cranky member of the stage crew. The harpist and I spent the whole time trying to keep the two testosterone-charged gentlemen from killing each other - one hurling curses in English, and other in Italian. Earlier in the show, offstage left, when I was desperately trying to conduct the chorus nuns, this same divo took the opportunity to whisper in my ear that "women shouldn't conduct because there are always four things moving, and you don't know which two to watch." [Insert my unprintable epithet here.]


I worked at Washington (National) Opera at a time when the company was a healthy but smaller (than now) regional company with a shoestring staff. There were seasons that three of us coaches covered all 8 shows. Looking back, I'm not sure now how or why I did it. There was one performance of Barber that was simultaneous with a board meeting across the street at the Watergate. I had to accompany a singer at the board meeting and conduct the men's chorus in the Barber Act I Finale ("La forza! La f'orza! Aprite qua!") The stage manager's score showed me exactly how many minutes into the act the chorus sang, and I sat at the board dinner watching the minutes tick by until I was supposed to be waving my arms backstage right. (This was pre-cell phone, so there was no real-time communication possible with anyone in the theatre.) Of course, the dinner dragged on, I pushed the hapless singer through her aria at what must've been an alarmingly vivace pace, and ran across the plaza with only 15 seconds to spare, breaking a heel of my only set of pumps in the process. (Yes, those guys could've sung "La forza" just as well without me, but it was my job to be there. And I was terrified of losing it.)


It seemed that the electronic organ was the last thing to be put into place during the shift before the Romeo & Juliette scene. And it needed to be played on the downbeat. Missed the cue many times in rehearsal, and of course, took the heat, in spite of the fact that I couldn't make any sound come from the damn thing when it wasn't plugged in yet. Between tech rehearsals and opening, I decided to bake up a storm every morning before work and take huge quantities of treats to the crew every evening. I have no scientific evidence that it worked (it was probably just due to increasing scene shift efficiency), but by opening, my keyboard was one of the first things to be set during the shift. (My ultra-feminist colleague was awash in horror and shame that I would stoop so low.)

Nike Ad

Sometimes, a backstage conductor is responsible for cueing an orchestra player who travels from the pit for an isolated musical moment. In Butterfly, there's a gong that needs to be played from backstage prior to the Bonze's entrance. I pleaded with the percussionist to leave a mallet backstage for emergencies, but to no avail. As I suspected, one night he arrived for the cue sans anything to hit the gong with. As he ran back downstairs, I did the math and realized he wouldn't get back in time. I told my buddy Alan Held (a now internationally famous singer, then at the very beginning of his career, singing the Bonze) to pay no attention to whatever noise came from backstage when he made his entracne. I grabbed the closest thing I could find to the consistency of a mallet - my black Nike sneaker - warmed up the gong and let it rip. Almost had a grievance filed by the union (a non-card-carrying musician playing an instrument in a union house), but it blew over. Always thought I should've been in a "Just Do It" ad:)

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Musicians' Shorthand

This image of a conductor's abbreviated note to the orchestra (referenced on Arts Addict's New Year's Eve post) inspired me to pull one of my Rossini opera scores off the shelf.

See, when you get into a Rossini finale, the piano score reduction covers about 2 measures per page. (Once everyone gets singing, and each individual vocal line is stacked on top of another, it takes up all of the available vertical space on the page.) Add to this the fact that most of these finales are moving at an Allegro-or-faster pace, and you begin to see the problem. You end up playing the piano with one hand and turning pages constantly with the other.

Hence, my shorthand version of the first act finale to L'italiana in Algeri. A thing of beauty, representing 56 pages of the score and eliminating 28 page turns!

I'm a bit of a music theory nerd. If you're lucky, maybe someday I'll pull out my Schenkerian analysis of Salome. Or not.

Happy to report that has welcomed an opera interloper. Brian Dickie of Chicago Opera Theatre will be representing all things operatic for the Inside the Arts blog portal. Check it out! (Although I have been teasing Drew that he does need a chick on the roster...!) Looks like there's a new blogger coming next week - keep the faith, ladies!