It's that time of year, a time that ramps up the anxiety and stress levels for many young singers:
Audition application season coupled with beginning of school year auditions!
All around North America, singers in undergraduate and graduate programs are gearing up to audition for their schools' opera programs, hoping to get cast in a production or scenes program or training program. In addition, those singers who want to move beyond the pay-to-sing programs are feeling the avalanche of deadlines fast approaching for Glimmerglass, Merola, Chautauqua, Central City, etc. with their requisite YAP tracker accounts spouting reminders and checklists. As for the singers fresh out of school, the desperation factor starts to creep into place -- will this be my last audition season? What happens if I don't get any auditions? How am I going to pay for all the application fees, travel and hotel expenses?
Life was simpler ten to fifteen years ago. Really.
Time was when deadlines for summer programs were mid to late October (imagine!), not end of August. There's a huge difference between the two, especially for singers just starting a new grad program and/or starting in studying with a new teacher in a new city.
And yet, every year I get requests for recommendation letters as well as requests for "what should I put for my 5" from students I hardly know.
I've often thought that first year masters students shouldn't try to do summer program auditions during their initial semester at a new school with new coaches and teachers. Maybe a better idea would be to FOCUS ON THAT FIRST SEMESTER. Work on technical issues, get the hard courses out of the way, get to know the city in a casual fashion, make friends, hear symphony concerts, etc. These are things one can't really do while preparing an audition packet (especially if there are new arias in it) and flying in and out to take summer program auditions in November. I know everyone feels rushed to be a success, but there are lots and lots of singers who make it without pushing themselves onto such a fast track.
Perhaps an even better idea might be to either take the summer "off" from singing, get a job or an internship, or focus on reading literature, visiting museums, taking in plays, visiting the Glimmerglasses of North America to see what the level actually is out there. Travel and explore.
But I don't think anyone will listen to my sage advice, so I'll put down my thoughts on AUDITIONS that I post most every fall, albeit with some modifications for 2015.
TEN THOUGHTS ON AUDITIONS:
1) A successful audition is a complicated thing. It has more to do with the day, who/what the panel is looking for and why, the needs of a given season, if the panel's blood sugar is normal, if their attention span is fixed or waning, their personal taste in practically everything; in short: little to do with the singer's talent. The sooner one accepts this, the better. It helps to remove the JUDGEMENT happening constantly in those little heads of ours.
2) Attitude counts for a lot. How a singer walks in the door, how they communicate with the panel and the pianist, the body language signals before singing, between arias, and at the close of the audition. It is vital that a singer present themselves in a heightened (I don't want to say exaggerated) version of whoever they want to "be" at an audition. You can't just quietly enter a room, whisper your aria to the panel, sing like Tebaldi, exit like a mouse and expect that your Tebaldi tones will win the day. Most auditions nowadays take into account personalities and how a singer might fit in to a group of other singers. If there is a worry about confidence in how a singer presents themselves (and I mean their "self" as opposed to presenting a character from an opera), then there can easily be a worry about how that singer might function in a group of extroverted, aggressive, opera singers all living and eating together for 6 to 12 weeks.
3) The panel has no imagination. Okay, maybe they have a little. But mostly, not much. This means the singer's imagination needs to come into play in a big, big way. You need to know who you are singing to, or about. You need to know if it's day or night, inside or outside, in a furnished room or a courtyard. Are there other people in the scene that the aria takes place in? You simply can not just stand there and make pretty tones. Not any more, my friends. There must be a strong connection to the text, a huge musical mind at work making decisions and taking stands in multiple areas (ornamentation is just one example.) And if someone is telling you that it's the voice, and only the voice, that'll get you into a young artist program, then they are telling you what we all want to believe is true, but actually isn't true. An opera singer has always been, and will always be, a human being who acts with their voice. So work on the human being part, the acting part, as well as the singing part. Work on it before the audition. You can't think for a moment that your gestures will just appear and make sense, or that fixating on the wall behind the panel, staring at it incessantly, will make anyone in the room think you're an operatic Meryl Streep or Russell Crowe. They work on their characters before the camera shoots, and so should you. They live in a broad, imaginative world, and so should you.
4) What you wear is less important nowadays. Pants on a woman? Fine. Jeans on a man? Fine. Black dresses with pearls? Think that one over... Think about how you'll define yourself as a human being to a trio of strangers not really looking at you carefully. Define yourself boldly in order to make an impression -- do everything you can to not look like all those other people in the lobby waiting to sing. Color is important, absolutely. So is bling. Remember, the panel is made up of human beings who have been looking at hundreds of singers. It's impossible to remember everyone, particularly if twelve men all singing Malatesta's aria show up in a dark navy suit, with polished shoes, a blue shirt and variable ties to match. If your repertoire doesn't separate you from the pack, then your acting and singing skills need to come into play along with the rest of your "package" - which includes what you look like when you walk in the door.
5) This is YOUR time slot. Use it, invest in the moment and enjoy sharing your talents. A ten-minute audition slot is not the time to fix your technique, make dramatic discoveries, or improvise some ornaments for your Rameau aria. The audition is about YOU. Share yourself, how you are at the PRESENT moment - not how you might be five years from now. If you have someone telling you you'll be the next great Tosca, well how lovely, but don't go taking "Vissi d'arte" around to auditions if you're some young 20ish soprano who really should be singing "V'adoro pupile". Sing the lightest literature possible. Take a step back, fach-wise; especially if you're being cast in school productions in heavier, or even, dramatic roles. This happens a lot -- getting confused over "what" you are because at your school you have the biggest voice, so you get cast as the Countess or Fiordiligi, but you really are a Susanna or Despina out there in the real world. For mezzo's, it's even worse. Of course you're not a character mezzo, you're a high lyric soprano who just hasn't figured out her top, but you get cast as Miss Pinkerton instead of Laetitia... And then there are the tenors masquerading around as lyric baritones... Just be who you are. Every audition is only a snapshot of the singer you are at that moment, and this changes so quickly and dramatically. Be flexible in your early 20s. You don't have to present your future-illustrious-international career's best five arias during the fall of your senior year at college to an AGMA apprenticeship program. But you do have to present some version of YOURSELF, and be confident about it regardless of the fact that the arias might just be stepping stones to other arias in later years.
6) Prepare 5 to 15 arias for the audition season. Come on. Learn more than 5 arias. People who are pursuing other careers in the arts (just think about the hundreds of songs your musical theatre singer counter-parts have in their current rep!) make it a vital part of their training to learn AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE about their chosen fields. Walk into an audition and present 10 arias. Have "the 5" listed and then add more below as "Additional Arias". It is a terrible, terrible thing that young singers - and the people who teach, train, and hire them - think that learning an aria should take months and months OR that having more than five arias running around your head is somehow difficult or confusing to both singer and panel. My thoughts on these arias? 1) Two contrasting baroque arias (one fast, one slow) 2) Two contrasting Mozart arias (either tempo or dramatic situation) 3) One aria by Rossini, Bellini, or Donizetti (or a composer like them) 3) A German aria of some sort 4) A Slavic aria of some sort 5) An aria from a verismo opera 6) An aria in French 7) Two contrasting 20th century arias 8) Two contrasting musical theatre arias 9) An aria from G&S or Offenbach 10) An aria from an opera written since 2000. For those who were counting, that's 15 musical pieces. If most are about 3 minutes long, then we're talking 45 minutes of literature. Pianists carry more than that with just two concertos. Make a commitment to learn literature. The above 15 categories can easily fill the needed "5" for any young artist program and then you'll have another 10 arias to have wiggle room with if you need to vary one or two, or offer a piece of musical theatre, or add a couple extra arias in that represent a coming season. But if you walk around with barely 5, you are limiting your opportunities. I know singers who can learn an aria in a day, and rather well. How long does it really take to learn an aria? If you don't learn quickly, figure out how to. Then use every coaching, every masterclass opportunity, every studio class opportunity (heck, sing for friends!) to role out these pieces and get feedback.
7) Don't wear an all black anything to an audition.
8) Keep an audition journal. Go crazy -- keep a journal everyday.
9) Figure out how to breathe in stressful situations. One of the first things that seems to go in an audition is the BREATH. Getting it past your collarbone, for instance, can sometimes be a challenge during an important audition. Work on breathing outside of an audition. Ask your voice teacher about the breath. Their answers might surprise you. Seek out places to practice breathing: swimming pools, yoga, mediation, hiking up steep inclines, walking... Before your audition, have a breathing plan. Get centered outside of the room with your breath. Breathe in the audition room, too! Breathe between arias. Consciously, really, breathe!
10) Try, as best as you can, to not place too much importance on any audition. Even at the Met finals, if you listen to what the winners say, they talk about how they tried to make it "just" another opportunity to sing. If you walk into a room thinking that your whole future career (and therefore life) depends on the outcome, you are setting yourself up for failure. How about a "I don't care what you think" attitude? If you're walking into an audition feeling that what the panel thinks of you is more important than what you think of yourself, then you should turn around and walk away.
A bonus thought: Remember that what you do -- singing opera -- is something quite special. It's something that billions of other human beings on this planet can not do. It's a crazy, joyous thing to put yourself into the head-space of an 18th century peasant or a Greek God or a gypsy or a famous character from Shakepeare. Who gets to do that and try to make a living at it? It's a transcendental experience to channel the genius of a Mozart or a Rossini or a Stravinsky. While you sing their music, they live again. Their genius comes alive once more from beyond the grave through your vocal cords, face, body, and mind. Most people can't even imagine what that must be like! So live it! Do it!
And learn an aria or two...
Best of luck to all of you out there!