There are hundreds of singers currently just starting summer programs, or getting ready to head out to one. From the west coast to the east coast, from huge cities to teeny-tiny one-stoplight towns (shout out to Cherry Valley, NY!), from large opera companies that spend millions to small companies that wish for six figure budgets; singers, pianists, assistant directors, stage managers, administrative interns, orchestral musicians -- all are arriving fresh as a daisy, with a smile on their faces, anxious for that first musical rehearsal to happen, all the while hoping no one sees their floppy sweat, or notices they've lifted all of their ornaments from the same YouTube video featuring a certain mezzo named Joyce.
Yes -- the beginning of the summer is all about optimism and energy. It's about sexual attraction developing during staging rehearsals, it's about discovering that perhaps your vocal "technique" may or may not be holding up during 9 hour days. Summer programs are unique - no summer is the same, and no program is the same from summer to summer. It's all about the chemistry of those involved. Some years, the "yaps" are a fantastic bunch, really supportive, talented, energetic, on time, prepared. Other years you get a bunch of whiners, cliques, and singers who can't imagine that they'd be asked to sing the tenor 2 line in a "Libiamo" chorus being sung that night for some patron's event ("but I'm a baritone!").
I look back so fondly on my time at Des Moines Metro Opera as an apprentice coach being mentored by the likes of Stewart Robertson and Robert Larsen while discovering the wit of a Buck Ross or Reed Woodhouse. I pine for the 9am to midnight work days at Glimmerglass where I'd get to coach amazing singers, attend mind-altering staging rehearsals, sit and puzzle out the next day's schedule, eat a gourmet meal at Alex and Ika's, and then spend the evening at a piano dress rehearsal in the theatre, freezing to death in late June.
I have, over 30 years, discovered that there are some truisms I can summarize about young artist programs:
1) The singers who arrive with their chorus music learned are the singers who have the best chance of creating a professional career. Those who arrive super prepared, even if they're not the star voice or the Met winner, are the ones who end up getting managers and making it. It's called a WORK ETHIC. Makes all the difference!
2) The pianists who bitch, gossip, and moan about singers really don't like opera that much and they'll not be very successful down the road. (Well, with the exception of a few spectacular non-talents who do okay for themselves.) Go ahead and ignore the negative pianists, especially the ones who can't play the shows they aren't assigned to. Truly, they get weeded out.
3) Some assistant director or assistant stage manager at your program will, in about three to five years or so, have their own opera company somewhere in the world. Treat these people, who are working longer hours than you, with the best of all possible gloves. Bring them treats, or if you can't afford that, bring them smiles and kind words of thanks.
4) Bitchy, gossipy singers seem to be the core of the populace of young artist programs, but they are not. They're just really the most vocal and only seem to be "in the know". Walk away from them, go practice or go on a nature walk. Don't fall into their energy. It's infectious. The people who run these programs have seen this year after year after year. Gossips are kinda fun to have around, but no one really takes them seriously. So you shouldn't either.
5) You are not your casting ossia don't assume that just because you've been given a Rossini duet you're being told by the higher ups you should consider leaving the bass-baritone repertoire and become a bel canto baritone. In the same vein, if you've always been a Ferrando and all of a sudden you find yourself getting a Don Carlos duet, or being cast as Bacchus, you shouldn't consider moving into a heavier fach. Your casting is not your fach! Casting in a summer program is all about using the singers at hand who happen to have filled the various repertoire needs of that summer. I can not stress this enough! It is a rare program that really takes into consideration the individuals' vocal needs or current abilities.
6) You'll learn the most and network the most if you GO TO REHEARSALS THAT YOU ARE NOT CALLED TO. This means that when you'd rather head back to take a nap on an afternoon off, or spend the morning learning your chorus music (see number 1...), what you truly need to be doing is going to the staging rehearsal instead. Sit in on the show you're not in -- even if it's only for 30 minutes. Go up and connect with the principal artists. Get them to know your face. Introduce yourself to the production team. Ask them if they'd like a donut cause you're going out for a bite. Talk to the conductor and director! The singers who do these sorts of things network so much easier than the other yaps. It's hard to standout in a large program. It won't be your talent alone that gets you noticed. In fact, for many, there's no real chance to get noticed (unless you're a problem child and arrived ill-prepared, or you show up late day after day to chorus rehearsals.) You can learn so much by observing. Put away your smart phone. Don't sit and get text neck. Sit, watch, listen, observe, learn.
I was thinking about the most important part of my learning process in my early career. It was during the two years I played for Donald Palumbo, then the chorus master at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. I played 15 operas for two summers of intense rehearsals with the god of opera, Maestro Palumbo. His was an artistic spotlight that seared through every piece of diction, every rest, every nuance, every fucking note of every fucking page. We'd spend what seemed like weeks on the opening entrance of the guests in La Traviata in order to get it right. I was in sheer terror of the man and in total awe. In two hours I could learn more from him than a year at Juilliard. I hung around those two seasons at the Lyric, sometimes in staging rehearsals, sometimes at the back of the opera house, sometimes offstage right listening and watching. Soaking it all in like a sponge.
It got me thinking about what I heard those two seasons, who I heard, who I saw direct and who I saw conduct. The list, off the top of my head and from memory, is staggering...
Donald Palumb, the great
I mean, what was I doing there?!
I wish, I wish, I wish, I'd walked up to these people and talked to them. I would give anything to spend another two hours with Palumbo. Just to be in the same room with him. I learned so much watching Dimitri H breathe through Germont's lines, I began to understand about the different levels of sonic boom hearing Zajick, Marton, and Guleghina (not to mention James Morris, Sam Ramey, or Leonie Rysanek!). I heard Renee Fleming struggle to be heard at the end of Susannah (don't get me wrong, she was radiant in the role), I saw singers ignore conductors and watch prompters instead, I listened as Eric Weimer played rehearsals of Wagner and Strauss with an ease that was jaw-dropping, I witnessed arguments between singers and directors that escalated to yelling fits, and I saw clearly that I needed to leave and go out into the world to learn more about what I didn't know (which was a lot!) about opera.
Summers are a great time to write a new chapter in your operatic life. Each day offers new opportunities. It might seem like a summer is a long time, but it is a blink in your lifetime of learning.
Keep you eyes open, sleep after the program is over, worry less about getting to the gym, and head into where opera IS -- in that holy of holies called the rehearsal space.