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Sunday, October 7, 2012

Talents of Christmas Past ossia Audition advice

I know, odd title for October.
Okay, so maybe not Christmas Past. I'm writing about talent I've come across in the past. Once you get through that, there's a few thoughts on auditioning (for those out there getting ready for the Fall Audition Season!)

Talent - hard to define. For me, it's certainly not "God Given", as my sainted mother used to say. She'd yell from the kitchen, "Pat, are you going to practice today or waste your GOD GIVEN TALENT?"! I've been around enough to have heard that phrase used by way too many.

Frankly, we all have talent. Some find the ability to access it easier than others. Many simply allow their talent to unfold, unfurl, or become present with little to no effort. Others strive, work, seek, follow, build, force, or pray their talent into existence with a great deal of blood, sweat and tears. The majority of those I think of as "talented" singers seemed to have opened their mouths one day and tone was released with very little thought or effort. They might disagree with me.

During my time running the young artist program at Glimmerglass, a very talented singer once asked me (through copious tears) why they were "still a young artist" while a peer of theirs (and a good friend, which made it even harder) was a "guest artist" complete with a leading role, guest housing, a new agent, and invites to the exclusive parties. I sat in silence for a minute because, actually I thought the young artist quite talented (the American use of that word...), perhaps more "talented" than their peer. Obviously I didn't want to give a flippant answer because the emotions were running high, plus I'd never considered the question so specifically.

My answer? I think I said something like "they aren't trying to fix themselves, they release." My meaning? The singer with the leading role "released" their voice, not caring what others thought. More importantly, not trying to FIX their voice while singing. The young artist still thought something was wrong with their voice and kept it close to themselves in order to be able to FIX it somehow - through the right teacher, the right role, the right repertoire, the right coach, etc.  In other words, one was bent on being Effective, the other one on being Correct.

Too many programs, I'm thinking both academic and professional ones, focus on Correctness with an impossibly huge capital C. I tend to focus on Effectiveness because, after my many years working with young singers, it's the most empowering way to go about being successful. We want CPAs to be correct, we want the "best before" labels on our food to be correct, we want our tax forms to be correct. However, I don't want ART to be CORRECT.

All of the great art out there is imperfect on some level, and usually on many levels. All of the great performances I've witnessed were imperfect in some way as well. The great "perfect" building, the Parthenon in Athens, was made to look perfect by building in some major imperfections into its design.  Singing is the same. Being a singing artist requires a great deal of flexibility and creativity - two things that can be suffocated in an attempt to be CORRECT.

Recently, a former student I worked with at Ithaca College was nominated for a Tony Award as a Lead Actor in a Musical (Newsies). He was an extremely talented young man when he arrived at IC to start his studies in musical theatre. I remember his first audition; being taken aback by the sheer force of his presence onstage. Other students had the same effect on me, from the very first moment they opened their mouths to sing; some have had some huge recent successes on Broadway and I often wonder if it's because they allowed themselves some kind of freedom where letting their talent "release" was concerned. I know they all worked really hard on their vocal technique, their acting, their dancing, etc., but I, at least, never questioned their ability to be sensational from the get go.

Some of the talent I came into contact with at Glimmerglass around the turn of this century was beyond extraordinary. Often times when I think of those I considered to be the most talented singers, I have to go and google them to find out what's happened. For you see, more often than not, those uber-talents never ended up being the biggest stars - and oftentimes they ended up not singing professionally at all.

Now I am all about finding alternative careers to singing opera! I have been so pleased that many former students and young artists of mine are no longer either pursuing a singing career or are happily and gainfully employed doing something they love and are fulfilled by doing. Don't get me wrong here - this blog is not about why people stop singing.

The Glimmerglass young artists that I worked with who are now out and about singing all over the world - from Strasbourg to Covent Garden to the Met to San Fran to Fort Worth to Virginia Opera to Lyric Opera of Chicago - all do have something in common: they were open to working with others, on all sorts of music, and with little to no judgement - beyond looking for their version of truth.

Truth -- that's an interesting word. It can get caught in the net of correctness for sure. The word "Correct" is often defined as the removal of errors, or punishing so as to improve; certainly something that is correct can be thought of as free from mistakes. Well, the human voice - and especially the talented ones I've known - is certainly full of errors. Those with perfect pitch can attest that most of our great singers from the last 100 years sang out of tune. If you simply listen to the "greats" (Sutherland, Callas, Sills, Domingo, Pavarotti, Freni, Fleming, Ramey, Horne, can I stop now?!) you hear their foibles, their vocal problems and imperfections. Yet, each had/has something special and unique to offer - their artistry and humanity blended and conveyed through those fragile vocal folds.

So -- for those young singers out there entering into the operatic audition season: A word or two of advice:

1) You can't fix your voice in an audition, so don't try. Let it out and who gives a damn?!
2) Those panelists are human beings you have no control over. They're not there to punish your imperfections, they are sitting there because they love opera and opera singers AND they are hoping you are the solution to their problem: i.e. they need to cast singers!
3) Stop judging yourself like you are a problem. Try, TRY to allow yourself to be as wonderful as you possibly can be given your current process.
4) Breathe before, during and after your audition (I know, this one gets said often but really -- BREATHE!
5) Give yourself another goal for the day beyond your audition. Perhaps it'll be nabbing a TKTS discount price on a Broadway show, or meeting up with friends for a dinner or movie. The day can't JUST be about your audition.

That's what I've got for now. Sorry it's been awhile since I last wrote. The past 6 weeks have been from Hell and I'm hoping the rest of the Fall gets a bit better SOON!