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Friday, April 19, 2019

Audition Evolution!


Opera auditions are dinosaurs - remnants of an out-of-touch 20th century-based business practice that worked when there were a smaller number of singers who sang a smaller amount of repertoire, especially when compared to our present day opera world.

The world in which today's singers navigate is basically unrecognizable from the previous generation's world. We've all recognized that the opera world has changed - the repertoire, the physicality, the social media demands, etc. - but few recognize that the way in which singers get jobs has changed, or that the way auditions happen should be, and could be, changed for the better.

The traditional young artist audition: A singer applies to get one audition through a series of online hoops - both bureaucratic and financial, then hopefully gets a live audition at a venue not of their choosing, often with strangers in a room sitting silently (and, hopefully, attentively) behind a table. A typical amount of time, ten minutes, is allotted per singer which gives them maybe time for a quick hello and introduction, then two medium-length arias, and a perfunctory "thank you". Weeks later (oftentimes, though, never) an email arrives with either a PFO (known in the business as a "please fuck off"), or an offer of employment. To find employment as a singer, they must apply to dozens and dozens of companies and programs, while facing almost the exact amount of rejection as their number of applications. An actual casting or job offer is a rarity for most. 

Currently, even the ten-minute slot style of auditioning seems to be falling by the wayside, being replaced with one aria only auditions. As well, the financial demands on singers trying to get a job is causing many to question the business practices and models of opera companies and young artist programs. Some of us are openly wondering on social media if the less privileged stand any chance of "making it" when singers of greater socio-economic backgrounds have it much, much easier; from application fees, to pianist fees, to high lesson costs, to travel and accommodations, to paying for audition workshops and consultation fees, etc. Many singers are dropping thousands of dollars each fall for the chance to walk into a room where it is not clear how they will be measured or judged. Most of the time, it is not clear if they will get the chance to sing more than one aria.

We should be rethinking this whole process entirely!

I'll leave the business discussion for another time, however, last week I embarked on a deliberate change in how to conduct an audition, using Opera McGill students auditioning for our fall production as an experiment, along with my co-conspirator, Stephen Hargreaves (Opera McGill's principal coach and conductor for the production.)

We called them "Working Sessions" instead of auditions. We set aside 15 minute slots. Right away, you see the first challenge: TIME. Normally, one can hear six or more singers an hour, so over the course of a 10am to 6pm day - with a lunch break and a few washroom breaks - the maximum number of singers one can hear in a seven-hour day is about 40 singers (if you give them each ten minutes.) Moving to 15 minute slots, the number becomes far less - about 24 singers. Instead of one day of auditioning, Stephen and I did two days.

But Time wasn't the only thing that had to expand. Our Listening had to expand.

Let me explain.

First an honest confession: those of us behind the table have been known, from time to time, to tune out after a singer starts in on an aria and we judge their voice, or technique, or acting, or something, to not be to our taste. It's easy - all of us who audition as part of our job know this - it's easy to jump to a judgement after a few bars. Singing and performing opera is a subjective experience. There are voices you immediately love, some you are intrigued by, some - though rarely in an audition situation - grow on you, other voices just grate on your nerves and you want them to stop singing "Monica, Monica dance the waltz..."

However, all of us have worked, rehearsed, coached, taught, and seen performances by singers with voices we might not initially "like", or think are suited to their role. This happens all the time in opera. I've just returned from a gig in Virginia where my initial thought about a cast member's voice was negative, but then during the rehearsal process, I grew to love their performance. Love takes time. Loving something happens over time. Why do we expect to love voices in five minutes? Is the traditional audition style simply looking for "love at first hearing"? When you rehearse with someone over weeks, you get to know them, hear different things in their voices, see them act, talk with them at the break. Many singers with great voices are much less interesting, and sometimes problematic, after getting to know them as artists during the rehearsal process. Treating singers like Olympic divers - judging them on their technical difficulties and subsequent splashes upon entry - during one aria, truly obscures their talent, their full artistry, and who they might be as people.

Revelation: Our working sessions changed how I responded to every singer. Instead of jumping to a casting conclusion, instead of dismissing a singer because they weren't ready, instead of haphazardly listening in order to pass the time, instead of pouring over a resume to look for details I might already know and details that might not have any pertinence to being cast, I actually listened like I do in a coaching; I also watched like I do in a rehearsal. These working sessions were like an exercise in operatic mindfulness. I was fully attentive, even though we were going to hear more than one selection and some students were obviously not ready to be cast in an opera like La Clemenza di Tito. Instead of sitting their judging about who to cast, I was sitting there really listening.

Why the change in attention? 

Because I knew, as did Stephen, that we were going to ENGAGE with the singers, at least for a brief time, afterwards. As a coach, you are listening attentively while the singer sings - for details in diction, style, musicianship, vocal technique, etc - because you know that the minute they are done singing, it's your turn to start in and work some part of their artistry you deem should be the focus of the coaching. These auditions were a lot like that. I found myself thinking, "what can I say to help them?" and "how can we make this easier for them?".  It was exciting and exhilarating, and in no way difficult or more taxing on our energies. 

In fact, the opposite.

Sometimes, we listened to one aria and then decided to work on it from some aspect - usually musical, sometimes dramatic or physical – for the rest of the session. The singers relaxed and, almost to a fault, sang better the second time through. If we heard two selections, we would choose one of those to work on. Sometimes we stayed behind the table, often we moved to the piano. Sometimes I played, many times Stephen played (from his full score of Clemenza, as one does.) The students got 5 to 10 minutes of double-teamed coachings from the two of us. We were giving back something to each student who sang. They walked out, from all reports, feeling that they'd had a much more positive experience.

It was terrific to hear or see an issue during their audition, but then actually talk to the singer and see if they could do something about it. (Traditional auditions are like diagnostic sessions with a physician but not getting any diagnosis communicated to the patient!) Often, our singers were able to successfully change their musical ideas regarding tempi or address a physical tension issue. It was also interesting to see if we could get their musical and vocal imagination flowing better because they were feeling less judged. Often, the arena of judgment that surrounds auditioning easily kills imagination and stifles creative flow.

I ended each session with the same question: "What are your goals for next year?"

The answers were thoughtful and ran along a similar theme: To be more consistent in their performances and auditions. To learn more repertoire. To put into practice what they are learning privately in a public forum like an Opera McGill production.

More singers should be ready for that question. What are your goals for next year?

In my humble opinion, more companies should move to working session auditions, particularly Young Artist Program auditions where, as they are so proud to say, they are searching for the best talent. Can one do that in a traditional audition? Probably the answer is yes. I found remarkable talent during my years running the YAP at Glimmerglass, and I think I've had a great run in casting both here at McGill and elsewhere where I've been actively casting singers. The people running opera programs represent the best of the experts in our field, so they too find great talent. But I know, without a doubt, that we have missed great singers.

I think it's time for the professionals out there to acknowledge that times have changed, rep has changed, and the singers in front of them are different with different expectations about how they want to be treated. Work with them, if only for a few minutes, allow them to relax and sing better. Ask them a question about themselves, see them think and breathe while they answer. 

Most of us in opera love being in a room where opera is present – either the rehearsal room or the theatre. We love opera because our singers, pianists, orchestras, and production teams all collaborate, communicate, and connect in ways that are magical. Yet we still audition singers like it is 1955, expecting them to dress for business in a way that no one dresses like anymore – outside of Wall Street, banks, or high powered law firms. We make them get letters of recommendation from people saying that they are good enough to merit an audition while offering bits and pieces of information that may, or may not, be true or current or pertinent outside of the world of the writer. Theatre people laugh out loud at these letters – no actor must ask their former acting teacher for a letter saying they are a good actor in order to gain an audition with a theatre company. It is an antiquated remnant form the Victorian age where Privilege Persons kept their doors closed to those who did not have the right letter of introduction from the right person.

I could go on and on about why our current situation of auditioning is not what it should be. But I will leave you with one comment from a student as they were leaving: Thank you, I enjoyed that tremendously!

And I replied: So did I!

Imagine if all singers walked out of auditions saying the same thing, and those behind the table mirrored the sentiment!


Monday, March 18, 2019

Loud Silence


Pauses. Breaths. Internal waits. Inaudible sighs. Delays in thinking.


Silence in our lives is becoming increasingly impossible to find. I type that sentence at a cool cafe in Lynchburg, Virginia called the White Hart. Wonderful espresso and looks like great breakfasts as well (I'm intermittent fasting, so...) There's the ubiquitous hipster music playing - not too loud, thankfully - as I sit in a window seat feeling and hearing the traffic bounce by on Mainstreet USA. The frothing milk whining in high pitches while being steamed, the electric pulse of the espresso grinder, the high energy of a cute little SuzieQ excited to see her dad, the many sounds of glasses, forks, plates, and light discussion in that very congenial Virginian drawl...

All in all, most people would find it all pretty calming and not, in anyway, loud.

But there's no silence here.

Where do you find silence -- not just aural silence, but silence in the mind?

If there's a smartphone in your hand, or a keyboard underneath your fingers, then sorry - no mental silence happening, even if you're in bed late at night and there's silence around you.

To really understand silence, it has to be around you and in you. Bathing in silence is a rarity for any of us. Even for seasoned meditators, the internal silence of the mind comes infrequently.

And so, when one turns to music, to the billions of rests placed into scores or the millions of fermati sitting over silences, we see how much silence should be in the score. When one thinks about the silences inherent immediately preceding any downbeat or following any final climatic moment, one starts to see how profound silence is to the structure of music. Yet hardly any thought - or more importantly training in creating silence - happens during our every day music making (during rehearsals especially.)

Silence helps to define a composer's textual intentions, their architextual structures per se. Actors use silences - between sentences, between character interactions, between words and syllables sometimes.

Musicians tend to observe rests. And then move on to the important part, the music.

But ignoring silence in music destroys one of the more powerful tools at our disposal. Silence creates contrast, immediately so. It sets apart that which is in focus with the ears listening.  I wish more singers would use silence in their auditions. Giving a few seconds before beginning a piece. Allowing all of those thousands of rests and fermatis in their recitatives to really sit in space. Make those attending look up and wonder, "are they going to continue?"

Silence is a superpower, and people should wield it more often.

In life, listening is all about silence. Silence before speaking focuses a room. Silence within sentences forces the listeners to continue to listen. I think it also allows the collective minds in the room to take in what is being said, instead of only surface-listening to the tone and big words/ideas being presented. Details are getting lost, people are hardly listening, and then jumping to conclusions about people and people's ideas.

And then there's another kind of silence -- silencing others.

I might call it political silencing -- Taking the power of silence and slapping it onto people we've decided not to listen to, or allow them to continue to think their thoughts because we don't agree.  This silencing of others also silences ourselves, as it denies anyone involved the ability to think critically, examine through inquiry, or have a dialogue that runs two ways. It is the new political weapon of both the left and the right; a powerful weapon because silence is so massively powerful.

Musicians understand silence, so we should understand its power. Perhaps if more of us took silence into our everyday lives - turning off our phones, pulling out our earphones, stopping our comments on every and all subjects, driving with the windows down and the radios off, sitting in cafes listening to conversations, or asking our friends how they are and then actually listening to the answers. Perhaps that sort of training might allow us to really begin to interpret our musical silences in a different manner. Use them tactically, empower them to focus the audience upon something that has just happened, or something that is about to happen.

Really let the silence fall upon a room and feel its power to unite people.


Friday, January 25, 2019

Are we really listening to music?

People are becoming way too literal.
Certainly on social media it is no longer possible to hear the tone in anyone's verbiage.

Lately, I've noticed many musicians seem to have stopped listening to the very music they are making, or are wanting to make.  At the very least, this is something I've been slowly adjusting to, almost unknowingly, during the last five years or so but only recently has it started to become clearer to me why the "how" has overtaken so much of music making.

So many seem lost in finding the "how" in order to recreate music, while no longer searching for the "why" in the music itself. The "how" is found in the score, the "why" is found by listening to the score and pondering the billions of questions that arise from all those sound waves entering our ears.

[The two words, "how" and "why", will be used quite an awful lot in this blog. In order to stay off some people's nerves, I'll just let those two words sit in sentences from here on without the quotes or italics to push home my points.]

I see this everywhere, not just in classical music. But since opera is what I know and what I most work in, I'll focus on my wonderful experiences trying to recreate these immense scores.

How something is sung - the duration, the articulation, the dynamic choices, whether trilling from above or below, following tempo markings, etc. - seems to be the point of most musical discussions for so many of us. Yes, this is important. I feel it is actually quite important, yet I'd describe these notions as artisanal, or part of our craft at creating musical moments. Artisanal craft is vital to keeping opera performances at the level of expertise needed and expected so that our audiences continue to enjoy these amazing scores.

But how is not the point.

Last year, during rehearsals for Bernstein's Candide, I was struck by the subtleties of his score. From the illusionary loss of one 1/8 note during the text "proving that this is the best of all possible worlds" to Cunegonde chasing her own laughter a few beats behind the orchestra in "Glitter and be gay", Bernstein subtly gives us deep meaning via musical notation into the subtextual lives of his characters. The same, of course, holds true for other great composers - like Mozart in Così fan tutte. The sisters should be sad that their fiancés have departed for war, but the major key and cut time signature in their act one duet suggest something altogether different. One finds connections to sexual frustration simply in Mozart's employment of the key of E-flat major throughout his works: Cherubino's "Non so piu"; Countessa's "Porgi amor"; Dorabella's "Smanie implacabile"; Elvira's "Mi tradi"; even the Pamina/Papageno duet singing about wanting marital bliss is in E-flat. These are just quick examples.

What gets missed in so many rehearsals (mostly because there's so little time to talk about the why) are discussions about why the score happens in its specific way. Why did the composer choose this key? Why did the composer place fermati here and not there? Why are we all feeling profoundly sad during a C major section? Why one measure in 7/8? Why these rests in the middle of this sentence? Why? Why? Why?

We get bogged down, entirely too much, in the how questions. How long are you okay with me holding this fermata? How fast can I take this? How will you be conducting this section? How should I pronounce this bit of text? Endless, endless Hows.

What we need are more why questions that lead to the how responses: Why the shift in tonality at precisely this point and what does that do to how I sing it? Why did my character drop out of the score's vocal lines and how can I create character choices while silenced? Why does this tempo feel slow to me but not to others and how can I continue to sing through this tempo?

The why leads us into arenas of opinion, into areas of subjectivity. Both places are no longer seen as the safest places to be. We want things to be correct. We want the music making to be comfortable and understandable. Many of us are very uncomfortable making musical choices that are hard to explain or come from some non-objective or instinctual place. Music making shouldn't have to be defended if it is honest and attuned to the why. If others aren't understanding your intentions in your music making, perhaps those intentions are not clear, not honest, or - at least in the moment - not specific enough to warrant understanding from others. The why can inform us and leads us towards the artistic creators' original mindset. Or at least, it can allow us to peer into those minds, as if looking through a keyhole of a door into a vast ballroom. We can only see bits and pieces, but at least we are looking.

The Why and the How. Both integral to making music.

Listening to music, really listening to it, should help us all to start to ponder both with equal excitement and humility. And while we are listening to the music, it's important to acknowledge that it's being made by human beings. If one wants to listen to the music, one has to listen to the people making the music and not just our own sounds and ideas up in our brains.