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Reflections on an Audition Season
Kristen Cowdin
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Audition Connection2/1/2006

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Since the dust has settled on the fall audition season, I’ve quit frantically counting the minutes it will take me to get from one audition site to the next and back again. Being back at my desk affords me time to follow up with opera company administrators and the singers themselves. It’s also a chance for me to reflect on the audition process, about which I learn a little more each year. As an artist manager, I’m most directly involved with managed artists seeking mainstage roles; however, there are a lot of lessons that apply to unmanaged singers, or even those seeking admission to their first young artist programs.

Forget getting the gig…how about just getting the audition?
Just getting heard can be one of the greatest challenges for the unmanaged singer. I spoke with a number of singers, and those who had the best results submitted materials to companies early, capitalizing on recent performances (including participation in some of the more renowned young artist programs), and/or the recommendations of conductors, stage directors, and administrators at other companies. Name-dropping alone won’t do it; you should mention someone who truly knows you and can vouch for your work first thing in your cover letter. Then, if you can, have your recommender call the company in question and say that you’ve recently worked with him, are sending your materials, and should be heard. William Powers, Executive Director of Berkshire Opera, agrees with these tactics. Although he states “We generally do not hear unmanaged singers for our major roles,” he is quick to add that “there are circumstances under which we would hear an unmanaged singer, such as a recommendation from a respected colleague or impressive performing credits on a resume. We might hear a singer we know who simply chooses not to have management, one who is an alumnus of our Resident Artist Program, or a singer we heard at a performance somewhere and want to hear again.” Such efforts yielded many mainstage auditions (over 20) for one young soprano with whom I recently spoke.

Do your research. Don’t waste your energy on companies whose repertoire does not match yours. If you’re a lyric mezzo and the company’s repertoire consists entirely of Puccini, it’s probably best to focus on other companies. And in the audition, sing what you sing best. Choose the aria you could sing at 3:00 a.m., with the flu (not that you should ever audition when sick), while dancing in a blizzard without shoes. Allow the company to choose the second aria, but YOU should make your first impression singing what you sing best.

An experiment this year one company, known for its willingness to hear (and hire!) unmanaged singers, tried an experiment to allow even more to be heard. Fort Worth Opera added one day of “screening auditions” for unmanaged singers in addition to its normal allotment of auditions for managed singers. (The company has always heard 25-30 unmanaged singers each year.) I was invited along for the ride and sat at the table with Managing Director Keith Wolfe as we heard four-minute screening auditions from approximately 100 singers.

Singers were informed of the process and came into the room ready to begin with an aria excerpt of their choice. After singing the first excerpt, those listening at the table chose one or two more excerpts from the repertoire list provided. The company found the experiment to be wildly successful. As Mr. Wolfe asserts, “You can definitely tell in two to three minutes if you are interested in the voice and if the artist has dramatic abilities (or as we say, they have ‘something to say’).” He also added that “having the artist sing bits and pieces of different arias will show off more variety than one aria can ever show —and will also expose flaws fairly quickly.”

Of the 100 singers heard in the screening auditions, 25-30 were asked to return and sing traditional auditions the following day for the entire Fort Worth Opera casting team. General Director Darren Keith Woods was impressed with the results, noting that his trust of Mr. Wolfe’s ears was imperative. Based on the favorable results, he’s planning on continuing the screening auditions next year, noting that those unmanaged singers selected from the screening round to sing longer auditions “were wonderful artists with good credits, and we were able to use a couple, plus recommend some of them to managers that we like to work with.” Of the singers I heard in screening auditions, I invited two young singers to audition for my roster and am happy to say that one has joined Guy Barzilay Artists.

Can I crash your party?
With the competition tough not only to be hired, but sometimes just to be heard, a little polite aggressiveness can occasionally go a long way. If done correctly, audition “crashing” can yield results. (It should be noted, however, that some administrators always frown on this practice, regardless of the auditioner’s politeness; attempting to crash these professionals’ auditions can make an indelible bad impression. Singers would be wise to ask around about specific administrators’ reactions to crashers.) While waiting in NOLA for my singers’ times, I spied many a successful crasher…and some less so. If you are of the appropriate level to audition for a company and were not granted an audition, you may decide to take your chances.

Crashing requires persistence and, more important, politeness. Arrive at the audition location with plenty of your materials on hand as well as your music, clearly marked (a given, whether you’re crashing or not). Introduce yourself to the door monitor (or the person who pokes his head out the door), but only if he does not look harried. Say you’d love the opportunity to sing if there is a cancellation and hand him your materials. If the person says that there’s no time, thank him and take the “no” for an answer. However, if he says that he’ll take your materials and let you know, get ready to wait. It’s not an optimal situation; you might have four hours between your warm-up and your audition, and you may have to occasionally — politely — remind the monitor of your existence. Remember to also be equally polite to those singers and managers who are waiting for their previously assigned slots (If I’ve noticed a gracious potential crasher and one on my roster is stuck in traffic, I’ve been known to encourage an amenable administrator to hearing the crasher). If you do happen upon a slot, grab the first pianist you see and don’t make the company wait. Without the luxury of your own pianist, you might have to alter your repertoire. The one (graciously granted) shot you get with a company is not the time to find out if the pianist you snagged in the hall can play notoriously difficult arias like your scene stealing Baba the Turk. Rather, it’s time to sing a phenomenal audition and (as you always should), thank the panel for hearing you and fitting you in. Prospective crashers take note: If you notice the day before that the weather is supposed to be dreadful, make that a crashing day since there will be more cancellations. On a particularly snowy day in which people had difficulty traveling into the city, I know a tenor who successfully crashed three auditions.

Now what do I do?
It’s been a couple of weeks since my last set of auditions in December. As a manager, I’ve been evaluating and following up on my singers’ auditions since the fall in my own way. Unmanaged singers have responsibilities during this time, too. Have you sent thank you notes? It’s not too late — and if you have an upcoming engagement or two, add that to your note! Have you followed up with any managers who perhaps approached you after hearing you through the door? Did any administrators make comments concerning your repertoire that should be brought to your teachers and coaches? Do you have an audition jo
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About the Author: Kristin Cowdin is an artist manager with Guy Barzilay Artists and a candidate for her MA in Performing Arts Administration at New York University. Previously, she has held positions at Herbert Barrett Management and in The Juilliard School’s Department of Vocal Arts.
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