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Monday, September 8, 2014

The Next Generation (TNG)

Opera: TNG

TNG, for those of you who are not Trekkies, is short for The Next Generation (Star Trek: The Next Generation.)  TNG was the first re-boot of the original Star Trek series from the 60s. It aired back in the 80s when I was getting my undergraduate degree in piano performance at Simpson College. That was a long time ago. Of course, now there’s a new re-boot of the Star Trek universe courtesy of J.J. Abrams.

Ah, the 80s! Such a long time ago for young singers who were born in the 90s… We’ve got a new generation of opera singers now, who if they are working hard and becoming slightly successful, are learning and growing in a wonderful world of opera so unlike opera back in the 80s!

Not surprisingly, much of the advice and mentoring being offered to this New Generation is coming from people in and out of the business who have been out of circulation – audition-wise – since the 1980s.  And let me tell you, so much has changed since then, so it’s a good idea to think about what kind of advice you might be getting from someone who’s last audition was back in 1988…  Over 25 years ago!

The business was so very different back then. Singers needed just a handful of arias, it was possible to get an audition by sending your paper materials through the mail, and there were far fewer singers in the market. There was no YapTracker to announce auditions, no Youtube to listen to arias one hadn’t heard, no sites to download sheet music for arias one couldn’t find in the library.  (Legend has it that at one point in time, like in 1986, only one Xerox copy existed for Anne Trulove’s aria and it was re-xeroxed so many times, the details of the accompaniment could no longer be discerned by pianists, thereby giving rise to the notion that one could simply “fake it” since no one knew what the exact notes actually were!) Yet, the professionals who are out there teaching, coaching, and advising young singers are sometimes a bit out of touch with the new demands being placed on this new generation.

Just recently, a young singer was advised not to sing a certain aria in their audition because it was “fringe” repertoire. The aria in question was one that I heard every day during the Glimmerglass young artists’ auditions (over fifteen years ago!). It’s a great starter aria but this person giving this advice was from a different generation, an older generation, of singers. Yes, back then it was fringy, now it’s a regular aria that gets sung everyday somewhere in NYC during the fall audition season.

I’ve decided to make a list of other outdated advice I hear given to young singers with great frequency, followed by my thoughts in italics. Here it is, in no real order:

1)   Ladies, wear your hair up to make yourself look older, more mature, and more like an opera singer. Bad idea, particularly if that’s not your regular look. We want you to look young and fresh and in touch with current trends.
2)   Gentlemen, wear a suit and tie.  No need to be so formal anymore. In fact, unless you know how to wear a suit and a tie, I’d say go with a more casual look. One of the reasons for this is because it’s hard to find a suit that’s not black, brown, blue or grey. A baritone in a grey suit is like a soprano singing “In uomini”…
3)   Only have 5 arias in your repertoire. Any more than that and you won’t be able to show yourself off at your best. Poppycock! Any singer who’s serious about getting a career better have more than 5 arias at their disposal at any given time. You seriously can’t handle holding 10 or so arias in your memory? You seriously can’t get 10 arias prepared, coached, staged, and perfected given a few months hard work? Then my advice is to get out of singing, get out now. Your musical theatre colleagues are running around with hundreds, HUNDREDS of songs in their heads. Lots of it by that guy named Sondheim – tricky text, tricky music. Don’t tell me that a couple of Mozart arias, one baroque aria, two bel canto arias, one versimatic aria, two 20th century arias, and a few pieces of musical theatre or operetta are going to kill your technique, or confuse someone about your fach, or “send the wrong message” or worse, cause you to not be able to perform them because it’s too much to handle.  Get a life. Singing opera is super, super hard. Work at it!
4)   Don’t move around too much in your audition. This one unnerves me so much. Yes, there was a time where one could stand and sing and just be at one with the text and music. Not as much anymore. Those people on the other side of the table are trying to cast singers who will net great reviews and sell tickets. They need people who can move around onstage naturally, and who can gesture and “act” (god only knows what anyone means by that anymore…) If you just stand there and gesticulate subconsciously with your arms in midair, you’re simply not going to find success easily. Of course we don’t want tap dancing during “Piangero”, I’m not saying you have to move constantly, but have some arias where you actually move your feet and your hands.
5)   Sing to show your potential. Nope. Sing who you are right now. That usually means lighter literature. Stop showing that you might be the next Verdi soprano someday. Be the great soubrette you are today. Sing “Batti, batti” better than anyone else, don’t shove your voice into “Come scoglio” because your teacher believes in your potential or because you’ve got the biggest voice at your school. 
6)   Introduce yourself, your aria, and your pianist, as if you were some famous collaborative duo. We don’t need to know that Mozart wrote Pamina’s aria and that your pianist, Helmutina Orlofsky, and you will be performing it together.
7)    Don’t sing literature that is unknown. Yes and no. What does “unknown” mean? Or “fringe” mean? That one is hard. If you are singing for a well-established opera program run by a seasoned professional, they will know the “Fire aria”, they’ll know “Things Change, Jo”, and they’ll know arias from “Giulio Cesare”.  They may not know other arias by Handel, excepting the famous ones, they may not know Janacek arias, or Walton, or lesser works by Britten. Keep to standard repertoire, but have some surprises in your list of arias too, particularly if you sing them really well.
8)    Start with an aria that will warm you up, put you in a centered place, or that you’re really comfortable with. Warm up and get centered before you walk in the door. Do not start with the long, slow, middle-voice-only arias that are 4 minutes long but seem like 6 minutes. You need to come in and knock their socks off.  You can do this with Musetta, with Figaro, with Cherubino, with Carmen, with the Duke. You can’t do it with an unknown bel canto aria from an unknown bel canto opera from Donizetti’s boring period (and I love Donizetti…) What does “comfortable” mean? To be honest, I think singing opera is not necessarily comfortable. You should sing an aria that excites you, inspires you, and makes you joyous inside. Comfortable is an old couch in the winter, a screened-in porch in the summer, and walking hand-in-hand along a beach in the fall with your love.
9)    Don’t waste your time working on or singing musical theatre. Shocking, isn’t it? That someone in 2014 might be telling young singers not to sing musical theatre? If one looks at the companies in the U.S., Germany, France, and now some in Canada, one sees clearly what’s happened to the repertoire. There’s Central City and Lyric Opera of Chicago presenting “The Sound of Music”, or Vancouver Opera planning “Sweeney Todd”, or those smaller organizations like San Fran Opera or the NYPhilharmonic presenting musicals like “Show Boat” or “Camelot”. Then there are the summer programs -- now regularly producing musicals with young artists cast: Glimmerglass Opera, Chautauqua Opera, Ash Lawn Opera.  “West Side Story” is very popular across the Atlantic, sung in German or in English. And it’s not, thank you very much, a NEW idea. Opera Memphis produced “Kiss Me Kate” way back in the early 1990s, cast with opera singers.  What’s “Porgy and Bess” for goodness sake? Don’t give me the whole opera thing. It’s as much an opera as “Trouble in Tahiti” or “Street Scene”.  Or those melodramatic Menotti operas that were first produced on Broadway: “The Telephone”, “The Medium” and “The Consul”. Musicals have been a part of the operatic repertoire ever since “Die Zauberflöte”, “Die Fledermaus”, and “Carmen” were first put together to form a, let it be said, magnificent opera season somewhere in the world. Now that I think of it, those three shows would make a very balanced OPERA season (even though the first is a German musical – a Singspiel, the second is an operetta, and the last is now presented in its original format: a French musical with dialogue in between the numbers.)  I dislike Carmen when those terrible recitatives are used. Another piece of advice: Sing Micaela’s aria without that terrible recit beforehand.
10) Do not try to engage the panel. Terrible advice. Engage the panel upon entering, while introducing yourself, while singing your first aria, while waiting for the 2nd, and especially before leaving the room!  Really show your personality as often as possible. And if you don’t have a personality, find one. Look for one, ask people for help.

Those are my thoughts. They come from someone who is 49 years old. What’s my experience you might ask? I used to hear professional auditions all the time. Tens of thousands probably, especially during the 1997 to 2007 decade when I was listening to singers for Glimmerglass, Opera Festival of New Jersey, and Florida Grand Opera.

Way back in the early 1990s I used to play auditions in NYC, mostly with the singers at the Juilliard Opera Center. My experiences playing for them while they auditioned for the Met or NYCO, for big and small opera companies, or for singer managers, certainly gave me a different insight from the piano bench. I remember playing hundreds of auditions just in that first year I was in NYC.  In my short life as a NYC pianist, I probably played more auditions than any singer will ever sing in their career.  It made me see that the singers who were the most flexible in the repertoire, in their daily routines, and who had the easiest way in projecting a fun personality to the panel, were the ones who seemed to get contracts and agents quicker.

But most importantly, the singers who had a DEEP BELIEF IN THEIR OWN TALENT were the ones who walked into an audition with an air of success about them.  Their hair might be frizzy, their shoes might be dull, their audition books unorganized, their repertoire not quite right, their high notes not perfect, their dress too short, their skirt too long, their sleeves rolled up or not, but they believed in themselves! They BELIEVED they had something special, and had something special to share. 

It was a powerful thing.

Also – few, if none of them, had special “mentors” or frankly anyone really shepherding their burgeoning careers. No one was filling their heads with advice. They certainly weren’t reading a blog about auditioning advice. It was, back then, about summoning your talent, courage, and sense of others and then walking into an audition to share yourself. The information age has made things a bit more difficult, at least a bit more daunting somehow.

During the last seven years, I’ve listened to thousands of young singers audition for McGill as well as for the Janiec Opera Company and other smaller regional opera companies around the U.S. Times have changed. What singers sing, how they look, how they present themselves, and how they actually get an audition have all changed drastically. Things have changed because the business has changed, and the business model for opera companies has changed. Make sure that when you are seeking advice, you are getting it from someone who is OUT THERE listening to the current field of young opera singers.  The older the advisee, the more likely it will be that they will be advising you based on their experiences ten, twenty, thirty, and even forty years ago. 

So am I writing a blog about “don’t listen to the older generation?”
Certainly not! Their advice is vital!

With your coaches and teachers, focus on singing. Don’t get into whether or not you should be auditioning for Santa Fe, particularly if you’ve just started lessons with a new teacher. That’s a conversation to have with someone who knows your voice really well, and might also know exactly who has been singing at Santa Fe during the last few years. Has your coach headed out to hear the young artists at Des Moines? Have they attended the last gala sung by the ensemble members of the COC? Have they listened to the Met finalists? Do they know who is currently in the HGO studio? Are they coaching or teaching singers who get into the paid summer programs? If not, then perhaps their advice isn’t necessarily current, or based on the current trends in the business.

Of course there’s great advice out there.  There are great teachers and coaches. They don’t need to travel to know how “Deh vieni” goes or if a coloratura should be singing “Un bel di”. Then there’s the old guard (please forgive the use of the word “old”, it’s just to delineate those that have been around enough to know the business) who are known by their first named monikers.  I won’t say specifically, but some of them have initials that everyone knows (an example might be “WKD”) or first names only (an example might be “Joyletha”); many run opera companies, or run prestigious summer programs. Many have been singers themselves, and so they truly understand the past and the present demands placed on singers, and so they can give excellent advice.  They also know the pulse of the business and can see trends before most others.  When one of these sorts of knowledgeable people speaks, writes, or does a masterclass, one should listen closely and take notes!

More than anything else, listen to your instincts. Present yourself in your own unique way, make musical decisions based on deep explorations, create characters that live and breathe, and show those panels that YOU are opera’s future. You are the Next Generation!

Live long and musically prosper…