Both Sides Now
Audition Connection •
As a singer, I always hated auditions—I think they may be the hardest part of what we do. It is a stilted, artificial situation. How can you ignore the physical aspects of the process, the reality of the space you’re in? As an actress, I was accustomed to using the elements around me, and there is just no getting around the fact that in auditions, you’re on an empty stage with people sitting out in the theater (or across the room) holding pads of paper.
In my new role as director of the San Francisco Opera Center (SFOC), I have the opportunity to experience auditions from the other side of the table. This has confirmed my hunch that auditions are difficult for both the singer AND the auditioner.
Having been where you are, I am absolutely sympathetic to what you go through when you come in that door. I try to go in with a singer’s energy as much as possible: I feel that as an auditioner, it’s not fair for me to just sit back and be passive. I am right there with you—breathing, feeling your phrasing.
Ignoring the reality of the situation will not make it go away, so don’t even try. Instead, use what you have—namely, the audition panel. You put yourself and your art on the line just by showing up. Why not take the full risk, the risk that may pay off? Chance it, and make a statement. Remember, you sing because you NEED to say something. It is that need to communicate that can carry the day. If you show us nothing of yourself, then we probably won’t feel the need to hire you.
SFOC auditions are by application. We do a certain amount of pre-screening, based on the résumé and your experience. Honesty and specificity are the keys to a good résumé. Also, because this is a training program, I like to see who you’ve been working with vocally. space, and then do what a performer is supposed to do: Perform! We’re sitting there, right in front of you, so use us! Take your cue from the music, and immerse yourself in the character. I realize that it makes some of my colleagues in the field nervous when you sing right to them, but I prefer that to you staring at a spot three inches above my head. In fact, I feel you should use me as your chorus, your co-stars, and your audience: Seduce me, make me laugh, make me cry. Realize that every audition is a risk.
Again, honesty is crucial here. If you were in a masterclass with a distinguished teacher, specify your level of participation. Don’t try to pass off auditing a class as having studied with that teacher. And, importantly, don’t lie about your age! The truth will come out.
Auditioning for the SFOC is entirely different from auditioning for the main house. For example, we are all in the same room with you, not sitting out in a dark theater while you are on the stage. I try to make the atmosphere very comfortable for the singer. My colleagues, Mark Morash and Monica Vanderveen, and I will chat with you before and after you sing. Often, because this is a training program, the audition becomes a mini coaching. We are interested to see whether you are able to process rapidly, pick up on suggestions, and take direction.
There is little you can do to put me off you right from the start. Of course, you should have a neat, clean appearance, and try be friendly when you walk in, but I don’t get bent out of shape over water bottles or outrageous outfits. I would suggest, however, that men wear a suit, and women invest in a very simple, basic audition dress. Your clothes don’t have to be fancy or expensive; just make sure that they are tasteful, flattering, and fit well. Double check that three-way mirror!
At SFOC, we ask for a list of five audition arias. As a rule of thumb, at least four of those should be taken from roles that you could get up and sing today. If you are a young artist, you may choose one piece that’s a bit of a stretch, in order to show us where you think you’re going vocally.
No matter what role you’re auditioning for, you will increase your comfort level by singing your best piece first. When I auditioned, I always went in with the aria I knew I could sing standing on my head, strung out, or drawn and quartered. Start with your “party piece,” and then move on to the appropriate aria for the role. We don’t have to be hit over the head — we can hear and make the leap!
In the final rounds of auditions, we try to hold conversations with the singers, letting them know what we liked or didn’t like. We will sometimes give suggestions for further repertoire they might try. I always think it’s better for singers to get some kind of feedback at the end of the audition, otherwise you never know how to improve. To me, it’s a knife in the heart to finish that last note and just hear a bald “thank you.” This is how your auditions will usually end, however, so you have to get used to it and learn not to take it personally. Time is the enemy, not the audition panel.
Most importantly, understand the falseness of the audition situation, learn how to overcome it, and lighten up. I know how much courage an artist needs to have, and what it takes to stand up and say “This is it. Take it or leave it. Like it or not, this is me.” Remember, this is entertainment, not brain surgery. There is no chance that one of us will be dead at the end of the audition. What else do you need to know? Just come in and show us who you are, and I wish all of you the best of luck.
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