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!