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Audition Connection •
Editor's Note: This article is excerpted from an interview between Mr. Pearce and Jennifer Spitulnik, former Artistic Services & Fellowship Coordinator, regarding what he looks for in an audition.
The most important thing to me is how you sing. Obviously, I gain a first impression not so much from how you’re dressed as what your bearing is when you walk in. However, there are a lot of singers who have a real problem with auditions: They’re not comfortable until they get on the stage and are performing. So, while your entrance into the room gives a first impression, I really wait until I see what you brought that day and how you present it. I am predisposed positively by someone who acts like they want to be there, someone who “sings happy.” That may sound strange, but a lot of times people don’t act like they want to be there.
What grabs my attention is somebody who can sing an honest-to-God legato line. This is so rare these days. The concept of legato is more than just connecting the notes; it’s a sense of movement between those notes, and it’s a sense of life. The tone and phrase are alive if it has legato in it — true legato, not just mush-mouthing, dropping all the consonants. It’s an intent that you can hear, and if somebody walks in and sings a legato line, I’m floored because I hear it so rarely. Legato is possible in all voice types, whether the voice is bright, warm, or dark.
In Joan Sutherland’s autobiography, she talks about the time Luciano Pavarotti, early in his career, went on tour with her and Richard Bonynge to Australia. What Sutherland understood was how to support the sound, how to sing a legato line, how to support the tone, and on this tour she passed that on to Pavarotti. If you compare his recording from before he went on that trip and after, it’s night and day, from that perspective. So, legato is a learned and acquired thing. It’s just that most singers don’t understand how to do it, so when I hear somebody that gets it, I move mountains to hire them.
Young Artist vs. Principal Artist Auditions
For an apprentice artist, [the audition is] more like a cattle call. We announce the season’s operas, send out the materials, get in all the applications. Principal casting is strictly through management: We call managers and tell them who we want to hear from their roster, take their recommendations, and also hear anybody new who is on their roster.
We don’t teach singing and technique in our summer festival, but we do have coaches to work on language, style, and that sort of thing. We haven’t set ourselves up as teachers, because there isn’t time and singers have their own teachers that they’re working with. For the apprentice artists, we’re looking for people to cover whatever roles we happen to be doing that summer, so that narrows the field greatly. Obviously, I’m not going to get the same level from the apprentices and studio artists as with the principal artists, but we still look for the same thing, because eventually that’s what we’re working towards. There is a level of confidence and poise — vocal and personal — that I’m looking for to cover those roles. But as a cover, you also perform for the youth performance, which means you’re in performance for six weeks and in rehearsal for four more weeks on top of that. Over ten weeks, usually somebody’s going to get sick. Last summer, we had a cover go on in Summer and Smoke, and it ended up with her getting management as a result of that performance. She had the opportunity to make an impression and she did.
We have good relationships with some music schools and some teachers. If the singer is unmanaged and we know them or know somebody whom we respect who knows them and encourages us to hear them, we will [listen to them], but we don’t hold general auditions for principal roles, mainly because there isn’t time. We’re probably missing some wonderful people; however, most of the people that are hireable and ready to go on the stage already have management. Most of them get it either by going after it themselves or the managers come down to wherever they are and hear them in a school production and grab them. In that way, the managers do a weeding out process for us so that we don’t have to do that.
Everybody that you sing for is different. They all have gotten to their position of hiring by many different ways. Some of them were stage directors, singers, conductors, business people who happen to like opera. A general statement is problematic, because it depends on who you’re singing for. You never know that you’re going to be able to sing more than one piece. I personally always ask people for two — or to at least start a second that I pick — because one piece often will not show everything that I want to hear, or it exposes some areas that sound weak. A second aria shows me the voice again, from a different vantage point, to see whether or not there is a vocal problem. Also, people often pick a first aria that doesn’t challenge them much and then I’ll look down their list and see if there’s something else that I think does challenge them or that may be more appropriate for the type of repertoire we’re presenting that year. Yes, you should come in and do what you do best, but if you really are going after a role, for me or especially for other people who don’t have a big vocal background, you should have something on [your audition repertoire] that has to do with what is being cast.
As a general rule, I view competitions as something that I have to give feedback for, but I usually don’t for auditions, because I hear so many of them. That said, if a manager calls after an audition, I will tell them what I thought, which they will take back to the singer as something they need to work on. You have to learn how to take that criticism not as criticism of you but as criticism of how you’re doing something. Singers are so physically connected [to their instrument] that they view criticism personally. They expose their soul, or they should, every time they stand up to sing, and that makes it much more difficult to take criticism. But you have to learn how not to take it personally, not to internalize it. Some people call it “The Voice” so that it’s a separate personality that can deal with all that. However you can figure out to deal with it, it’s a good thing to do. You just have to take these “constructive criticisms” and pull out what seems to be a common thread in what people say and find someone to help you work on it.
Don’t come up and try to shake my hand. Going down the line and shaking hands with three, four, maybe five people sitting at a table just takes too much time, and it’s just not what we’re about. We’re about people coming in and presenting themselves. We thank them, they leave, and we’re left to make up our minds. It’s just a personal peeve of mine.
If anybody walks in with “Monica’s Waltz” and says, “I will sing ‘Monica’s Waltz,’” there are people who sit at a table with me who will say, “No, you will not.” And then Norina’s aria: For some reason, that can be very irritating if it isn’t sung well, so sometimes I’ll ask not to hear that. I don’t have anything that I won’t hear, but I do have things that I do like. If you’ve got any bel canto rep on your list, I will ask for it. In two phrases I can hear whether or not you can sing legato line, and that tells me everything, usually, that I need to know and how far along you are. I like a varied repertoire. There’s so much music out there now that it’s interesting for me to hear other things. Often times, when somebody comes in and sings their best aria but they’ve got something on their list that the table doesn’t know very well, they will ask them for that second piece because they want to hear what it sounds like. Other people are just the opposite: If it isn’t something that they know, they won’t go near it. But for me, the bel ca
About the Author: General Director, Central City Opera