Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Notebook

Let's talk about the printed music that comes in the audition room with you. Just a few guidelines - no rocket science here, but you'd be surprised how many folks create stumbling blocks for themselves by ignoring this basic advice.

Music That Stays Open
If you bring actual scores (anthologies or piano/vocal scores), please be sure that they stay open easily. My library science friends cringe when I break the spines of my scores, but that's one of the things they made us do in Piano School to toughen us up. If the book won't stay open, the pianist can barely play, let alone collaborate with you on a higher musical/artistic level.

Hide & Seek
Regardless of whether you bring a book or a notebook, please mark all of the pages carefully - with easy-to-read and clearly marked tabs. If the panel asks for the Donizetti aria, you don't want to have to retreat to the rack to thumb through the book for the pianist. You want to use those precious seconds to prepare yourself for the next aria.

Page Turns
All copied music should be double-sided.

Sheet Protectors
Generally, avoid sheet-protectors. Strictly, if they are non-reflective, they should work, and some pianists don't mind them. But it's always dicey to know which plastic is going to be reflective in which light situations.

Mark your cuts extremely carefully. There can be no ambiguity about where a cut begins or ends. Cover cut material with white paper. (Then don't change your mind about wanting to sing what's covered up.)

Please write in your cadenzas (or at least an approximation of how they end) so the pianist doesn't have to guess about when to meet you at the finish line.

Don't use a copy of the music that has every single note that you or your teacher has ever written in it. It's hard to read past all of that stuff, and some of it is downright misleading.

Missing Music
At least once every season, someone offers an aria that's not in his/her book. Or sings something that's missing a page (usually the last page.) It sounds so basic, but it's alarmingly easy to do. The notebook does a lot of work for you during the audition season, and it requires careful, thoughtful attention. It's the most basic stuff that'll get you every time.

Short and sweet today. We'll talk about the pianist him/herself in week 5.

Tomorrow, another highly subjective discussion: audition attire.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs."

Ansel Adams offers consolation as I try to figure out what guidance we could possibly give about headshots. In preparation, my colleague and I surfed through all of the photos that have been submitted to date (about 420), trying to get some sense of current trends and articulate some caveats that we could share. It was surprisingly difficult to draw global conclusions, for the range of acceptable shots was quite wide. We share these observations - take them or leave them, as you wish. (Most of the good stuff is Rahree's. This is not an area in which I have any expertise - the fact that I have opinions about this at all is scary...)

Highly Subjective Random Headshot Advice

Your headshot should bear some resemblance to what you actually look like. Simple. We're not always as well put-together in person as we are in our headshots, but you shouldn't make yourself over so completely that we don't recognize you at all.

Makeup should accentuate, not overpower. The first impression should not be all about the makeup.

Solid color tops, no patterns. Or very gentle ones. They overwhelm facial features so easily.

Here's a weird one: It's actually somewhat useful to have your facial expression telegraph something about your Fach - in a general sense. I find it reassuring to know that the soubrette looking out at me from the computer screen can radiate energy in her headshot. Or that the dramatic soprano or bass-baritone can throw out some intensity. But not too much intensity... see next...

A level of "pleasantness" (yeah, I know, that's probably not a legit word, but I can't come up with anything better) is appreciated. If when asked to write a caption for your headshot, the first things that occur to me are unprintable, this is a problem. And truly, a few photos look like they would spit nails if they could. Angry, pissy, people. Some look as if they were caught in the split second after they smelled something really bad. You don't have to show all your teeth or look as if you're ready to start a clown act, but it's helpful if you look like someone of whom I shouldn't be afraid.

Technical photographic things:

  • Shoot for sufficient contrast to reveal your facial features. You don't want to look like you've had some unfortunate plastic surgery.
  • Shadows shouldn't obscure your features.
  • No need to do extensive artsy post-production. I'm not sure that sepia or an extreme soft focus gradient is helpful.

We want to hire you, not be seduced by you. Yes, your headshot can be too sexy.

Completely subjective on our part, but photos shot looking into the camera seem more communicative. I guess aloof has its place, but as a default headshot, I get far less of a feeling for you than I do when I can see your eyes.

Environmental settings and extra context are great, but be sure that you - and not the gak around you - are the primary focus of the shot.

Above all, please try not to radiate craziness. When you have a satellite headshot taken to use in the Playbill when you sing Elettra, you can trot it out. But for a general audition, it just makes me scared.

The quality of the headshots we see these days is exponentially better than it was just five years ago. There are two sides to this scenario, though.

The good news is that due to digitals formats and the availability of good equipment, even dedicated amateurs are doing some fabulous work. And it costs far less to get yourself a good shot - easily down into the mid-3-figures, where it used to be well over $1,000 just to start.

The tough thing is that the bar is being raised for everyone. I used to see an unfortunate shot and shake my head, suspecting that the aspiring singer probably simply didn't have the money to get a decent one. Now that's not necessarily the case. It's still not terribly cheap, but it's within most people's reach. And you tend to be judged a bit more harshly if your shot isn't competitive.


Since my own most recent headshot session was not a rousing success due to the 30 extra pounds that have crept back on my frame, I am forcing the entire fall fulltime staff of the WTOC (well, that's Rahree and me...) to take the October Eat.Sweat.Blog challenge. 20 days of workouts, 10 Feats of Healthy Eating, and opportunity to whine about it online! (Not here, of course.) Looking for a kick start for a healthier you? Join us. We'll be the ones on the audition tour with stinky luggage reeking of gym clothes.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Get Your Left Brain Ready

Inspirational pep talks and creative problem-solving on the shelf for the next few days. Get your left brain in gear, and let's tackle:

The Preparation of Things (Audition Mini-Course Week 3)

  • Monday - Résumé
  • Tuesday - Headshot
  • Wednesday - Aria Notebook
  • Thursday - Clothes
  • Expert Friday - We hear from Darren Keith Woods of Fort Worth Opera and Seagle Music Colony.

Your Résumé

We care about this on two levels - one functional (format), and the other less tangible (professionalism/accuracy).


We need to be able to find information fast. If something is buried or not represented cleanly, I may miss it entirely or misinterpret it.

  • Color: Dark/black only. If your résumé gets printed or photocopied, the sexy light lavender text disappears.
  • Font: I don't really care about sans serif etc, but don't get too creative. Save the faux cursive fonts for personal correspondence.
  • Columns: Please please use columns! In addition to reading the information horizontally, it's extraordinarily useful to scan vertically for companies, roles, etc. Putting the role/opera/company/date in an unbroken line of text is most emphatically not a good idea.
  • Abbreviations: When you list the venue/organization for a role you've performed, please don't write "Opera Theatre." It may be apparent to you which Opera Theatre you mean, but it's terribly confusing for us until we match it up with the name of your conservatory, etc. Find a better way to abbreviate so that it fits in the column.
  • Order: Most recent things first within categories. Put performances, degrees, etc in reverse chronological order.
  • Photo: The presence of a thumbnail photo on the résumé itself is fairly new - we've only been seeing it a lot recently, since it has become easier to include a small sharp-resolution image. Personally, I like it. Not enough to urge everyone to do it, but enough to appreciate it when it's there. I'm sure someone out there disagrees, but I haven't heard from any detractors yet.
  • Length: Resist the urge to tell us everything you've ever done. One page please. A 3-page resumé is hardly ever to your advantage. If you desire to be inclusive, get a website and put everything there. (Oh, and while we're on the topic, get a website as soon as you can. Manage your online identity. This isn't really an audition-specific topic, but an increasingly important one. Will try to remember to discuss on the blog this winter.)


  • Roles/Operas/Arias: We want you to sing well, first and foremost. You’re not applying to be a writer, editor, or any other sort of wordsmith. If you don’t know how to spell the name of the role you performed or the opera it occurred in, it’s not unreasonable for us to wonder about the level of care with which you prepared the important details of that role. So please please please ask a handful of people – professors, teachers, coaches, highly literate friends – to proofread your paperwork. Spelling may not be your thing, and if you sing well enough, eventually I won't care. Indeed, if a company hires you to sing, they won’t ask you to edit copy. But you don't want your first impression to be diluted by messiness.
  • People: Look up the names of coaches, directors, conductors, institutions. My name ends up misspelled on résumés with alarming frequency. If your contact with me wasn't long or detailed enough for you to figure out how to spell my name, it begs the question as to how much impact I could've had on your development.
  • References: When you list mentors and colleagues who might be able to attest to your work, please be sure that those folks will remember you. If you worked once with someone in a master class, chances are s/he might not be able to speak eloquently on your behalf.

On the Other Hand...

Some singers are so busy being their own publicists that they forget that their main task is to learn to sing. When you're just too tired or frustrated to deal with one more practice session, I know it's far easier to tweak the fonts on your résumé, write glowing prose for your bio, or photoshop your latest production shots for your website. These things are important and useful, but they don't take the place of those long hours in the practice room or with a score. Don't spend an inordinate amount of time polishing your image instead of your singing.

Back tomorrow, with a brief discussion of headshots.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Expert Friday: East & West Coast

Part of a weekly series, in which my colleagues responsed to an email request for anything (or 2 or 3 things…) in the way of advice they would like to give to auditionees.

First, Don Marrazzo, Director of Casting & Artistic Operations at Glimmerglass Opera.

I have always felt that audition “do’s and don’ts” can be somewhat tricky, as one person’s ‘do’ is very often another person’s ‘don’t’ and vice versa. Even when listening to auditions with my Glimmerglass colleagues, while we often agree as to how we feel about a singer, there are also definitely times when we strongly disagree!

While there are several universal truths with regard to audition ‘do’s’ (do make sure that your music is legible for your audition pianist), as well as audition ‘don’ts’ (don’t be late for your audition) any adjudicator's response to the entirety of a singer’s audition (their singing, stage deportment, attire, personal interaction with the audition panelists, etc) will be every bit as subjective as how an adjudicator may feel about someone’s voice and artistry.

I really want singers to be themselves in an audition. I would much rather be given an honest impression of the person standing in front of me singing, than get an ‘ironed out’ version of that individual because they are trying to employ someone else’s list of audition ‘do’s,’ which might be, in actuality, audition ‘don’ts’ for me. An individual’s idiosyncrasies fascinate me the most, as they often help determine whether or not the singer in question might be a fit for our program – not only vocally and artistically, but personally as well.

Rather than focus too much on audition ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts,’ it would be wonderful for young singers to focus on what is perhaps the most important audition ‘do.’ Do give a committed, intelligent, well-sung audition which makes the listener sit up, take notice, and offer you a contract!

Today's double-header also brings comments from Joshua Winograde, Artistic Planning Manager at LA Opera. Josh is also a Wolf Trap alum, and he spent the summers of 2007 and 2008 with us as an administrator, developing the Wolf Trap Opera Studio. His observations come largely out of the over 400 auditions he just heard this past summer, and they focus on the topic of this past Monday's post: versatility.

Versatility is overrated.

Before you freak out, let me explain.

I would like to create two hypothetical, admittedly extreme audition packages, although I must say these are more common than you would think.

Singer #1 offers Pinkerton, Boheme, Cavaradossi Act 1, Cavaradossi Act 3, and Forse la soglia attinse (Ballo)
Singer #2 offers Chi il bel sogno, Mein Herr Marquis, Piangero' la sorte mia, Manon's gavotte, and I Want Magic.

Singer #1's package is obviously of a very narrow focus. All in the same language, only two composers represented, two arias from the same opera, etc. This singer could be possibly the most successful audition of the day, however, if he shows that he knows EXACTLY what his marketability is, what his voice is good for, how his temperament and vocalism are ideal for his rep, etc. However, in the event that he sees himself differently than we do, this will be a major problem. If he is a light lyric tenor or character tenor stuck in the mindset that Verdi and Puccini are the only "real" opera composers, and the only exciting tenor roles are the impassioned romantic lead, he could set himself up for failure.

Singer #2's package is extremely diverse. 5 composers, 4 languages, 4 centuries (technically 3, but Previn is still composing, of course), some fast, some slow, some high, some low, and very diverse character types. First of all, anyone that could make it through the whole role of Magda (not just the song) has no business singing some of these other roles. Chances are, however, that the singer has never really looked at the rest of Rondine or they would realize it is a BEAST of a sing. That possibility is not something you want us to speculate on. Also, if you look at the professional singers who are making these roles successful at major companies around the world today, they generally don't overlap on lots of rep. If the singer in question really can represent themselves flawlessly across this broad board, that is a major accomplishment. But more likely than not, it simply reads as trying too hard to show us you can do ANYTHING. Versatility, in this case, verges on schizophrenic.

So the questions I pose are:

How can versatility be demonstrated (if that is in fact something you wish to demonstrate) while staying more true to what you do best, or in what genres you would be most convincing? Especially at the YAP level, you may be told very specifically how many languages, centuries, and styles to represent. But I would suspect the average singer can be more successful choosing repertoire that fits the application's requirements while still appearing more authentic and appropriate. For example, if you really ARE a Magda, you are probably a more convincing Rosalinde than Adele. If the character of Adele fits your youthful, bubbly personality, you are probably NOT a convincing Blanche DuBois. Cleopatra is cast all over the map these days, so this one COULD fit, I guess. Still, she is a young girl, right? If you give off a serious Blanche DuBois vibe both in terms of personality and vocalism, and are required to sing Handel, consider an aria from Alcina, who is equally, um, nuts, and also of nebulous age.

Some advice: follow the careers of historic singers and current singers whose voices resemble yours. Also consider the historic and local trends... Liu in Europe is cast much heavier than here, for instance, and tweety-bird Gildas are common today although in the past they were cast with very much the same singers as, say, Violetta. And remember, when you are Angela Gheorghiu, you can start singing Traviata and Carmen and Rondine wherever you want. But if you aren't, consider that her repertoire is more allowably varied while backed with major star power than yours will be in the early stages of a career. Ask your coaches and teachers to recommend some singers to you if you can't think of any. See what they sang when they were 25, 35, 45 ... also, where did they sing them? Did those roles become signatures, or were they disasters? Do YOU like them in those roles? Obviously every voice and singer is different, so don't be too literal with this. I do suspect, however, this search will provide food for thought about expanding or contracting your own versatility.

Something to chew on over the weekend. And...


One week from today (October 2) for LA, Chicago, Cincinnati & Houston.

Two weeks from today (October 9) for New York, Philadelphia, & Vienna.

Don't wait until the last minute! I sure hope our internet servers can handle it, but I don't want to find out...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Cutting Corners

There are some really tremendous (and useful!) potential audition arias that share one huge disadvantage: They're too long to be really functional in the typical audition situation. We schedule our appointments in 1o-minute intervals, and I know some companies who are forced to schedule shorter blocks. If you want any hope of singing a second piece - heck, even if you want to be able to finish the first one - please don't start with a 7-minute scene.

Lest you feel deprived, consider that you could be working in musical theatre, searching for your best 16 bars. Pity party over.

I wish that the audition were an artistically satisfying, purity-driven experience, in which nothing but the composer's true and complete intentions were acceptable. But it's not. We are so lucky to work in the arts, where the stuff of our regular days has the potential to fill our souls. But we can't get all hung up in what will happen to the architectual structure of a scene if we hack a big chunk out of it in audition.

My colleagues in symphonic, chamber, and choral music are far less barbaric. They usually gasp when I take out my scissors. (Real or metaphorical.) And perhaps I am too willing to sacrifice for the sake of practicality. But I still think it's best to think of it in cost-benefit terms. If you sing this cabaletta/aria/scene better than almost anything else in your rep, and it can be brought into play by trimming it to a "highlights only" version, you'd be foolish to walk away from it entirely.


Mark the cuts in your music so that they can't possibly be misinterpreted. Cover over the parts you don't want with white paper. (Then make sure you don't change your mind and want what's covered up...) Check out the standard cuts for a scene before you get too creative. If the standard works for you, consider using it. (It got to be traditional for a reason.) It makes life easier for everyone.

Be clear in the list you offer to the panel. If you are offering the cavatina only (or the cabaletta only, for that matter), be clear in the way you list it. If you really feel good about the whole scene, list its components and indicate the ways that you are willing to excerpt. ("Ah non creadea / Ah non giunge: aria only, cabaletta only, or entire scene") Singers 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 midpoint, practice starting there, and mark the optional starting point for the pianist.

If you list a long scene in toto, you take your chances. Be prepared for the panel to ask for it to be sampled in chunks, even if you don't offer it. If it throws you off to have to start in the middle or to be stopped before the ornamented repeat in the cabaletta, then don't set yourself up for heartache.

The weekend looms. Tomorrow is Expert Friday, bringing tips and observations from Glimmerglass and LA Opera!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Putting Yourself in the Fach Box

This week, I've been warming up with posts about simple, childish things like rare arias and versatility. Now we get to the really adult stuff.


Such a difficult subject for so many singers. Kind of ranks right up there with sex and money in its untouchability. A very personal, complicated decision - really best left to you and your teacher. We as an audition panel really try to keep our second-guessing about Fach to a minimum. We can have our opinions during an audition, but we'd be fools to believe that we have the definitive answers based on a 10-minute hearing once a year. Nevertheless, it's an unavoidable part of the landscape.

A brief sidebar in case you're lost. Fach is just another word for vocal category: what type voice you have, and therefore which roles you should be singing. In a choir, you have 4 basic choices - soprano, alto, tenor, bass. In musical theatre, a few more options - ingenue, character, baritenor, etc. In opera, it's out of control. Dozens of subcategories, and the various authorities and sources don't even agree exactly what those categories all are, let alone what they contain. And the whole thing is a sliding scale. (I was going to link you somewhere on the interwebs for a definition, but I can't even find a source that makes complete sense to me. So you're on your own.)

I developed a checklist for a course I taught last year, and it may be helpful to you. It's just a list of vocal characteristics that come into play when we're trying to slap on some sort of label:

  • Range – actual singable notes at the extreme top and bottom
  • Tessitura – most common/comfortable range
  • Timbre – color, quality
  • Weight – loudness or thickness
  • Agility – scales, trills
  • Flexibility – ability to change dynamics and colors
  • Registration – strongest area of the range
  • Passaggio – location of the transitions between registers
  • Character types – buffo, Kavalier, Spiel
Don't Try This at Home

Like any good organizational device, the Fach system has its limitations, and if either taken to extreme or ignored wholesale, it can be dangerous. You must strive to find its middle ground and not be too intimidated by the fact that it seems to be made up just to alienate you. (There's a silly semantic thing that I do to keep it from having too much power: use Fach to describe a selection of roles/characters, then describe yourself as singing roles within that category. Somehow it's less extreme than putting yourself and your voice in the Fach box.)

I feel a bit like I'm practicing medicine without a license by discussing this stuff in general terms, but indulge me.

Usually, within a vocal category, some of the distinctions are clear. If your voice moves extremely well, you can traffic in coloratura territory. If your large instrument can sail through a huge orchestra to the back of the hall, you may grow up to be a true dramatic, spinto, or even Helden- person.

It gets really tricky, though, when it crosses over the basic large categories. It's one thing not to know if you're pointed toward light lyric or soubrette roles. But it's far more disorienting to not know if you're a soprano or a mezzo. (Ladies, how did we let the guys get ahead of us on this? Face it, that's how bass-baritones came to be. They didn't want to pigeonhole themselves in either camp, so they made up a whole new name. And now it's legitimate. Damn. Let's make up a new Zwischensoprano category and move on with our lives.)

(I'm just kidding. Don't get me in trouble here.)

The Soprano/Mezzo Debate

Let's talk about it. (And guys, you don't need to tune out. In many cases you can substitute tenor/baritone for soprano/mezzo in the paragraphs below.)

There are plenty of successful mezzos out there who are considered by some to be sopranos-in-disguise. It's a combination of the relative size and projection of the voice in its various registers, where the natural breaks lie, the subjective "color" of the sound, and the way in which it handles the extremes of the mezzo tessitura. And, to an extent, it's about your chronological age and whether or not the voice is close to its mature profile.

The sopranos that I believe are legitimately passing for mezzos during the young artist phase of their careers are those who will ultimately mature into bona fide dramatic or spinto voices. There's a certain heft, depth, and color of sound in the midvoice that is easily mistaken for mezzo color. And once the voice develops and the top is opened up, there's still an undeniable vocal footprint in the midvoice that has more to do with traditional mezzo "color" than it does with a soprano timbre.

This isn't the most common scenario, though. More often we hear sopranos whose vocal color and weight are light lyric (or even lighter) singing mezzo material. Remember, this is still rather subjective, but these folks don't have the kind of midvoice that will carry through any orchestral texture designed to surround a mezzo role. They often have to dip into full raw chest for anything at or below the lower break. And where a traditional mezzo voice begins to gather excitement at the top of the mezzo range, this faux mezzo voice will do nothing but begin to thin. Everything just feels out of focus.

When we hear Filene Young Artist auditions, and the roles/arias don't really seem to match up with the profile of the voice, there's a bit of concern. Again, we don't necessarily know better than the singer and her teacher, but if someone singing mezzo rep doesn't have the heft and color in the midvoice to be heard above an orchestra, or if someone singing soprano rep doesn't have enough control and nuance in the top third of the range to be reliable up there, it's confusing.

During Studio Artists auditions we try not to get too bound up in this. But because our Studio does sing chorus roles in our operas, we need women to sing the mezzo line. All we care is that these ladies are self-described mezzos who are singing comfortably, effectively and healthily in that register at this moment. What they will become, and whether or not they are emergent lyric or dramatic sopranos doesn't matter. While they are at Wolf Trap, they will work on their own rep with our coaches and staff, and can continue to explore an entire range of options.

(Well, actual questions from previous seasons)

How can you tell in an audition if mezzos are shirking soprano competition or insecure about high notes, or if we truly are working through it with our teachers?

Actually, we can't really tell if you're shirking the competition or in the process of working it out with your teacher. And (sorry, but this is coarse and blunt), on a certain level we don't care. If you're putting yourself out there to sing roles (and although we work with emerging artists, we only do it in the context of full roles), you need to have those problems solved.

Is it ever acceptable to put "zwischenfach" on an application? I personally am teetering on the lyric mezzo-lyric soprano line, but i'm not ready to audition for things as a soprano.

It's a little odd to put Zwischenfach on a piece of paper. But there's nothing wrong with explaining that you're in transition from A to B. Many people do it. Knowing that is very useful, and it really helps fill in some puzzling blanks.

I know that I'm in transition. Does that mean i shouldn't be auditioning for things at all?

As for whether one should audition during a transition, well, it depends on what you're auditioning for. There are plenty of programs that can easily handle such a scenario. It's really between you and the program in question. As I said, it's a little wonky for us because we assume that the work you're going to do at Wolf Trap is in the context of a particular role. While there are roles that will accommodate this, they are not plentiful. And it's a huge risk to take because we have to assume that you're in relatively stable technical shape, at least enough to sustain a month-long rehearsal and performance period.

Wow. Thanks for staying on the train. I hope this gave you some food for thought. Things get much lighter for the rest of the week :)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Something Old, Something New

I often refer to the "standard" audition repertoire as having a useful analogy in gymnastics compulsories. There's a checklist of things that the panel needs to know that you can nail, and the most efficient way to do that is to attack the warhorses. Yes, I know everyone sings them. And because of that, you have to work harder to distinguish yourself from the pack. And they're so hallowed that you can't possibly sing them as well as the generations of phenomenal artists we've heard on recordings. Still, they are the best way for us to get a glimpse into your basic command of the craft and the depth of your musicality.

More on the athletic analogy: Think of it this way. 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. Just like the best floor routines aren't just a checklist of tools, but examples of how to impose your own artistic stamp on standard territory.

But we are always happy to have the chance to hear something different, and we love to see artists immersing themselves in new and different music. We don't always have the time to hear these rare gems, given the exigencies of the audition tour schedule, but sometimes just seeing something uncommon on the list makes me smile. Occasionally we'll get to hear a bit of it. Its presence is an indication of a healthy artistic curiosity.

So yet again, it's all about proportion.

Let's assume you're shooting for your optimal 5-aria package. Allow one of these to be quirky - maybe 2oth/21st-century music, maybe a rare aria in an historic idiom. (Just be sure the accompaniment isn't impossible to play - and if it is moderately difficult to play, be sure that you can sing the spots off it even if the pianist struggles.)

The remaining 4 arias are probably going to have to be dedicated to fulfilling requirements. We need to know that you can sing in Italian and at least one other language, that your voice is capable of both lyricism and agility (on a sliding scale, as appropriate for your Fach), and that your characterizations aren't all monochromatic. (No, I'm not really asking you to be all things to all people, just to show enough differentiation that I don't get bored in 10 minutes.)

So go ahead and stretch your artistic boundaries a little. Try to make the offbeat arias short ones, so they have a fighting chance to ever be heard. And revel in the chance to make them truly yours, in a way that's intimidatingly difficult to do with Caro nome. :)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Just How Versatile Can You Be?

Getting down to some brass tacks this week. The outline:

  • Monday - Depth vs. breadth
  • Tuesday - Standards vs. fresh fare
  • Wednesday - Cuts and alternate versions
  • Thursday - Stretching
  • Expert Friday - Don Marrazzo, Glimmerglass Opera; & Joshua Winograde, LA Opera

Jack of all Trades? Master of One?

Depending on when you ask me to address the issue of versatility vs. specialty / breadth vs. depth, I'll give you a slightly different answer. If I've just been treated to a series of superficial and glib performances by artists who know a little bit about everything and really not much about any one thing, I'll rail against spreading oneself too thin. If I've spent time with a young singer who refuses to show any interest in anything except the one genre/composer that speaks most easily to him, then I'll go on and on about how important it is to immerse oneself in all of opera history and styles.

Here's the good news: American singers are the best-trained, most versatile singing actors out there. Having wide-ranging interests and a smattering of training in a broad range of styles is a wonderful thing. You avoid the trap of specializing too soon, possibly before you have a chance to discover your unique strengths. And to an extent, everything you learn - no matter how far afield from your core knowledge - has the potential to make you a more vivid performer and a more interesting artist. This acquisitive spirit is the essence of liberal arts education, and it has its place in the development of a performing artist.

But, at the age of 25 or so, when you hope to move beyond the classroom, can you really be good at everything the YAP industry expects you to demonstrate? Italian, French, German & English at a minimum. Maybe Russian, Czech or Spanish, too. Baroque improvisation, Mozartean elegance, bel canto fireworks, lush Romantic lyricism, and contemporary 20th- and 21st-century musicality and stagecraft. And on and on.

We on the other side of the table demand versatility. The specific requirements vary across different companies, but we invariably ask for multiple languages and styles. And face it, you're going to be better at some of it than the rest. So let's think about it critically and do some triage.

In my brief stint in the mental health field, we would think in triage terms on a daily basis. It seems cold and clinical, and it probably is. (It's of medical origin, and Wikipedia tells it pretty straight if you're interested in learning more. Not strictly necessary, so feel free not to link.) Triage helps any time you have to face what seems to be an overwhelming task.

Divide what's in front of you into 3 categories:
  • 1) Your undeniable strengths. What speaks to you. What you're intrinsically good at. The music that will continue to grow and improve because the pursuit of it is intrinsically rewarding. This is probably where your bread and butter will lie once you get past the point in your development where you have to be all things to all people.
  • 2) The challenges within reach. A step removed from #1, these roles and styles will form the periphery of your career. If you open yourself up and work honestly, this music can become a part of you. But it won't be as comfortable as the first category, and it will take longer to find a level of familiarity. You ignore it at your peril, though, for stretching in this way keeps you sharp, and it just may give you enough diversity to make a living.
  • 3) Music that makes no sense at all to you. Don't bother. Really. For every singer there is a subset of the repertoire that is a bad fit. There is no shame in this.
Now, the dangers of this approach are not insignificant. This exercise is not static, nor is it ever really over. You will grow and change, and these three lists should be allowed to fluctuate. Something that makes absolutely no sense to you right now may smack you upside the face in amazing clarity in two years, and you should be open to it when it does.

What's important is that at almost any point in time, you should have a decent instinct for which music lies at which point in this spectrum. At this moment. Then craft your aria list accordingly.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Expert Friday: Audition as Strip Tease

Today, a few words from Sheri Greenawald, Director of the San Francisco Opera Center, in response to my email asking for anything (or 2 or 3 things…) in the way of advice SFOC would like to give to the folks who will sing for them this fall. (Merola's audition application info is here. They're heading out early this year, and one deadline has already passed.)

Be sure to dress appropriately, and by that, I don’t mean ball gowns. How would you dress for a formal master class with Marilyn Horne, for example? That’s the standard that you should set, in my opinion.

Have your music organized well for the pianist. Nothing is more boring than to have to wait as you scramble to find music for the pianist in your own binder, or if your scores aren’t well marked as to cuts and cadenzas.

Aria Selection Strategy
For the first aria, sing what you sing BEST, not what you think you should sing because you’re worried that we might not ask for a second aria. If you sing “Deh vieni, non tardar” fantastically, more than likely I’ll want to hear more, but if you come in singing “Regnava nel silenzio” only half-baked, that is not a good strategy. I’m often asked about this, and I always say that during my whole career, I basically had the same audition rep. I knew what sold me well, so that’s what I sang.

Enjoy Yourself
Have fun!!! If you’re not enjoying it, neither are we, probably!

Keep in mind Matthew Epstein’s theory of the audition: It’s like a classy strip tease! Don’t start with the most complicated and hardest aria, but start with a sure thing….the first glove to come off. If they don’t ask for a second, at least you haven’t the embarrassment of having taken off too much!

Have a great weekend - see you Monday for the beginning of Week 2: The Aria List. Depth vs. breadth. Standards vs. fresh fare. Fach. And more!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

S = (R + T) x LF

Yes, it's the equation. Again. A recycled post from 2005, but still one of the organizing features of my approach to the audition season.

My son is the mathematician in the family. But even though my fling with math is decades in the past, I can still appreciate the eloquence of a beautiful formula. Yes, it’s dangerous to reduce difficult and messy things to a simple equation. But the clarity it brings is worth the risk.

S [Success] = (R [Raw Materials] + T [Tools]) x LF [Life Force]

Success. I'm not happy with the product side of this formula, but “Success” is the best I can do for now. Use whatever word works for you. Or define success wisely.

Raw Materials. The stuff you were born with. That gift from God. Good pipes, strong constitution, a body that is tooled for singing.

Tools. The things you learn. Your craft. Vocal technique, language mastery, musical acumen, dramatic chops.

Life Force. [With apologies to Martha Graham] That essential energy without which the first two factors are brought to their knees. Soul. Guts. Sheer force of personality. Determination. Desire. Notice that the effect of this element is exponential, not additive.

Every artist exhibits his/her own variation on this equation. And for each person, the strength of each element is different. Some singers with breathtaking raw talent somehow manage to skate by with basic tools. Others whose natural gift is more modest make fabulous careers by fanatically developing their ‘tool kits’, becoming consummate linguists, compelling actors, and innovative musicians. It's wise to know how these two elements balance out in your own professional life, but not useful to obsess about it.

What’s critical is that the sum of these first two – raw talent and refinement of craft – are dangerously susceptible to the strength of the third. The “Life Force” either brilliantly magnifies everything else, or brings it all to a halt. Worse, it registers on the negative side of the ledger. And it doesn’t take higher calculus to figure out what that does to the equation.

Can a singer have a superhuman degree of this life force/dedication/enthusiasm/magnetism and overcome a lack of raw material or tools? Highly unlikely. And we see quite a few aspiring singers who fall in this category. It’s heartbreaking, actually. Desire is critical, but it’s not capable of standing alone.

Conversely, can a successful performer have excellent raw materials and a high level of craftsmanship yet lack drive? Just as unlikely. This scenario will get you through school… maybe… if you’re coddled…. But it won’t sustain a career.

Tomorrow, the first Expert Friday, when my colleagues in other YAPs weigh in with their advice!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Are You Ready?

A blog question and answer from last season:

Q: I had a teacher recently tell me not to apply to studio programs at larger companies (such as Wolf Trap) because, in her belief, if a young singer is heard by a large company before they are ready to be considered a full-fledged professional, then the singer will be "blacklisted" in a way and remembered always by the company as having a "young" technique.

A. I guess I may be kidding myself (possible), and I could be naive (likely). But companies like ours are in the business of monitoring singer growth, and we are pretty well acquainted with the general state of a young voice. We're unlikely to forever saddle a developing singer with the characteristic rough edges of a developing technique. Do I believe that this approach is common to all panels for whom a young singer might audition? Well, I guess not. So I suppose a bit of caution is prudent.

So, are you ready to audition?

If you have been studying seriously for several years and are making progress, then the answer is a qualified yes. Unless you are going through a particularly rough technique re-building patch, it's almost always wise to get out of the studio occasionally. There are times when we need to retreat into the safety of the practice room, but don't let that become your default mode. "Ready" doesn't mean "finished." It's all about choosing your opportunities wisely.

The resources I mentioned on Monday are helpful, for training programs and YAPs often describe their ideal artist profile in a way that will help you determine if you are at an appropriate level. But don't let it stop at that. Ask your friends and colleagues, check with coaches and teachers, and do a little sleuthing yourself.

If a program/company in which you are interested posts former or current young artist names and bios on their website, spend some time taking their profiles apart. Have they finished grad school? What kinds of training programs (if any) have they already participated in? Are they active yet on the competition circuit? These kinds of questions will keep you from prematurely applying for a program or company for which you aren't yet ready.

Tomorrow: S = (R + T) x LF

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Audition Season: Forms & Fees

I'm supposed to talk about paperwork (audition applications) today, and I will. But before we shut down our right brains, I want to call your attention to this blog post by Seth Godin. One of the great things about Seth's posts is that they are rarely long, typically under 500 words. So visit the link. You have time.

Welcome back. Think about Seth's hierarchy of success as you approach this audition season, and focus on the top two as he suggests:

1. Attitude. This permeates everything, in surprising ways. More of it than you think is telegraphed to others, and it has unavoidable implications for your staying power and the quality of your work. Yes, working your way up in any business is tough, and the entry level in almost any field has its peculiar challenges. But if you find yourself bitter already, this doesn't bode well.

2. Approach. No amount of careful attention at the 11th hour will save you if your beginnings are thoughtless and haphazard. Care about the details. Which brings us to....


Look at it this way. If you were pounding the pavement looking for a "real" job* right now, you'd be writing dozens and dozens of customized cover letters and tweaking multiple versions of your resume. So cranking your way through a modest number of YAP applications is not hardship duty.

Pay attention to the instructions. If it requires you to regurgitate things already on your resume, just do it. Do not say "refer to resume" if the instructions say not to. It sounds petty, but if I'm looking at 700-800 forms, I need to be able to compare apples-to-apples, not sift through resume columns.

Don't send materials that aren't requested. If you already have a press kit with audio, review clippings, professionally written bio, etc, then good for you. We just can't pay any attention to them right now, though. Although it makes me cringe to toss them, I will. For years I would set those things asidebecause I couldn't bear to trash them, then still have to toss them months or years later. Don't waste your time and money sending them to us. (More discussion of résumés and headshots in a couple of weeks.)

And finally, reconcile yourself to paying the fee if that's what's required. You don't have to like it. I don't like spending money either. And I know how little money you have. (A few years ago I found the ledger in which I kept a record of our expenses while my husband and I were in grad school. 25 cents entries for every newspaper or Diet Coke, meticulously accounted for.)

So if there were ways for us to avoid charging, we would. We've been looking for audition tour underwriters for decades and will continue to do so. We could hold court here in our own theatre and make everyone come to us, but that would be neither fair nor fruitful. So until we find a way to pay for the travel, lodging, space rental, pianists, monitors, staff time and server space, we'll have to charge a fee.

As to application fees vs. audition fees, well, that's a bit more volatile a subject. There are regular rants on this topic in singer forums and chat rooms. Every so often we discuss upping the amount and returning fees for those who don't get scheduled for an audition. So far we've not moved in that direction, and this is why.

First, we know (anecdotally) and believe (based on other models) that we would get many more irrelevant applications from folks who aren't really in our target demographic if application were free. And we'd get a lot more incompletely and inaccurately submitted materials. But I don't want to overstate this, for it isn't the big reason.

The real reason? It takes time (and therefore money) for us to seriously consider every application. Data entry isn't a big problem now because most of our stuff is digitally submitted and goes directly into the database. But we do have to pay for server space to receive and manipuate the data. We track submissions and match them up to materials (resumes and headshots) and recommendation letters (Studio only). Then at least two of us look at every single resume and form. In detail. We make remarks about our decisions. So that, if we turn you down (and yes, take your money), and next year you apply again with some significant progress being made in the meantime, we'll know that we should really consider your application in a new light. This process consumes most of our work hours for over a month.

So go ahead and flame if you like. We can take it, and we know you mean it in the best of all possible ways. :)

* Just kidding. Find yourself a sense of humour. It will be more useful than you can ever imagine.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Young Artist Programs: Where to Start

If you've figured out your way around the landscape of YAP opportunities, you may want to skip this post. But if you're looking for a place to start, read on.

We're finding that more and more singers are using YAP Tracker: There is a $50 annual fee for the service, but as far as I can tell, it's worth it for the couple of years during which young artist opportunities may consume you. If you're handy with your email inbox and a spreadsheet, you may not need its audition tracking features. But at least for the first year, this is a straight-forward way to orient yourself to the range of programs out there.

If you're a singer who uses YAP Tracker regularly, and you'd like to help your colleagues by weighing in on its benefits and caveats, please do so by submitting a comment.

By all means, become an Opera America Member ($75) and subscribe to the Opera Source (an additional $25 for students; this is where all of the YAP info resides on their website.) I know that this all adds up, but if you're serious about your career, you can find a way to pay for it.

In addition to having access to Opera America's website resources, you can also participate in events like this one coming up in a few weeks (particularly useful if you're New York-based): Making Connections: Audition Advice for Singers

And if you're not in New York, Opera America has begun archiving audio from such sessions so that you can listen to it online. Check out this podcast: Choosing a Training Program

By subscribing to Classical Singer, you get the monthly magazine and access to premium content on their website. They have listings of summer training and pay-to-sing programs ( and a young artist program database (

I will say that in checking out these resources, I discovered that our WTOC information on the Classical Singer website is woefully out of date and incomplete. No mention at all of our Studio program, and some basic factual errors in what information is there. From the company perspective, I'm not sure if it's incumbent on us to submit new info to Classical Singer, or if they are culling info from companies. If it's the former, then we're lax. (Although I can't imagine that this wouldn't be the norm for most companies.) Either way, I'm not sure I'd trust all of the details, but rather use the URLs to go to the home web pages for the programs themselves.

That's a start. If you're an experience YAPper, feel free to amend/embellish via commenting below.

Tomorrow, a discussion of application fees. Get the flame throwers ready.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Forest before the Trees

Some food for thought this weekend before we get into the nitty-gritty.

A few seasons ago on the blog I tried to quantify what we listen for in auditions. I ended up with a list modeled on one in Joanna Merlin’s book “Auditioning.” (It’s intended for actors, but its wisdom easily extends to the singing actor. Find it here online or at a book store.)


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. And if you can't stay in the moment for the duration of a 5-minute aria, that doesn't bode well for your ability to hold the stage for an evening.


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. Yes, traditions establish themselves for good reasons, and there's no good reason not to learn from the generations of fabulous artists who went before you. So listen to tons of recordings, study the cadenzas and interpretations of the icons of the business; but when you make your interpretive choices, really stand behind them in an organic and personal way.


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.


Detail. Variety. Monochromaticism is one of my own personal bugaboos. If every phrase sounds the same, and Aria #1 sounds just like Aria #2, you're being far too generic. Sometimes this happens in the well-intentioned but misguided pursuit of safe ground.


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.


Yes, there is always humor. And it’s the most important in the most unexpected places.


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.


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 value that work by acknowledging that it’s a means, not an end.

Have a wonderful weekend - see you Monday!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

You Never Really Enjoy It; You Just Get Better at It

I was watching TV the other night and saw an ad for an upcoming fall series. One of the characters was talking about coming to terms with something distasteful. (How's that for specificity? I can't remember the show or the subject material...) Anyway, she said, "You never really enjoy it; you just get better at it." That, my friends, is coming to terms with auditioning.

I'm not sure that I ever met anyone who truly enjoyed it. For if you've slain these demons, it probably means that you really know who you are as an artist and as a person. That you no longer live in fear of what the person at the other end of the room thinks. And if that's the case, you're probably beyond the audition-heavy phase of your career.

A quote from the late Richard Pearlman, who ran one of the great year-round young artist training programs in the country: “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." Auditioning is just one of the forks in that road.

Here's an outline of these next 6 weeks on the blog; your mini-course in auditioning for young artist programs this fall. Content depends partly on you, and I'll answer your questions posted below or sent to

WEEK 1 -The Mind Game

  • Making Sense of It: Where to apply? How to keep track? And what about those fees?
  • The Way We See It: The view from the other side of the table
  • Mental Preparation: Playing the game.
  • For Sopranos Only

WEEK 2 - The Aria List

  • Depth vs. breadth. Standards vs. fresh fare.
  • Fach: Zwischenfach? Pushing boundaries. Transitioning. Reaching.
  • Aria Order: Leading with your strengths
  • Cuts

WEEK 3 - The Preparation of Things

  • Recommendations & forms
  • Résumé
  • Headshot
  • Aria Notebook
  • Clothes

WEEK 4 - The Strategy

  • The Second Aria
  • Musical Preparation: Technique. Coloratura. Intonation. Language. Articulation.
  • Blocking?
  • The Forest and the Trees

WEEK 5 - The Main Event

  • Protocol: Small talk. Introductions. To shake or not to shake.
  • Logistics: Where to stand. What to say. Where to look. How to move. Props?
  • Acoustics
  • The people: The panel. The pianist. The monitor. Your colleagues.

WEEK 6 - The Big Picture

  • How to Get Good at It
  • Feedback
  • Looking Back

Tomorrow, some basic book and website recommendations, and a little more food for thought. Week 1 starts on September 14. Welcome back!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Fall 2009 Audition Mini-Course

A few weeks off from the examined life has restored a little clarity. I'm resisting getting back on the blogging horse because I know how intense this next part of the cycle is, and each year brings a bit more ambivalence about documenting and engaging in dialogue about the audition process. Yet, it's unavoidable that the autumn brings the biggest blog readership of our entire annual cycle, and I know that there are lots of you out there looking for advice and conversation. So I hereby commit. And probably should be committed.

The next 6 weeks will constitute a mini-course on the audition process, leavened occasionally by corollary postings on other topics in this fall's arts news. I will try to post every week day and attack the following topics, both in new posts and in links back to previous entries:

Audition Protocol
What (Not) To Wear
Application Fees: The Controversy
Materials (resumes, headshots)
Application Screening
Choosing the "Package" - Your 5 Arias
Audition Pianists
Room Acoustics
The Audition Panel
Staging Your Aria?
Aria Frequency Lists: Who's Singing What

I'm sure there's more. And it will emerge in response to your questions. Submit them as comments here, and I will answer in subsequent posts.

See you tomorrow.