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The Art of Being Yourself
Francesca Zambello
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Audition Connection8/1/2006

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As a general rule, I won’t direct something unless I have a hand in the casting. You can’t do your job as a director without having a cast who you believe in.

When in an audition with a singer, there are several points I consider: a) Can the auditionee sing the role? b) Are they an intelligent interpretive artist? c) Do they have some sort of proximity to the age and physicality of the role? d) Do I have some past experience with the person? This last question is important because, as a stage director, I find it difficult to judge someone in an eight-minute audition. Of course, you can judge the technical aspects — the ability that someone has to sing something — but really, to find out if someone is truly interesting as a performer, you need to work with them. I ask myself a number of questions during the audition, such as: “Can I get up and work with them? Are they flexible and open to discussion? How will they respond to new ideas or unpredictable situations?”

Most of the questions above can be applied to acting as well as singing, but singing is different from acting because it first has a pragmatic testing ground. Can this person sing the notes and the rhythms and the pitches? What they do with those notes and pitches makes them an artist, but there is an initial musical test that happens before that. When somebody is auditioning to sing the role of Lady Macbeth, you want to see if they have the notes. When an actress is coming in to read the play, right away it’s about the interpretation. In singing, it is first about the pragmatic side of the music before you can get to interpretation and art.

Learning to be an opera singer is a difficult task that involves mastering vocal technique, acting skills, movement, musicianship, and history of the art form, not to mention general academic and social intelligence. Along the way in trying to achieve all of this, many young singers have just been wiped clean of any individuality. It’s like the system has deleted their personalities. What I’m most interested in is the individual and how the individual can interpret music, text, and a character. Much of that evolves in the rehearsal process, but I’m always encouraging young singers to be themselves and to be the people that they are. That’s what is most interesting to a director. I hate it when a singer comes in with a bad case of carbon-copy-cutout-itis!

This “be yourself” philosophy extends to every aspect of a singer’s career — what you’re wearing, what you’re singing — it’s important that you look and sound like an individual. I find so often that singers are overdressed or wearing something that everybody told them to wear. When in an audition setting, it is important that you look yourself and wear something that is comfortable, professional, and suits both your personality and the circumstances of the audition. The same is true of what you choose to sing. Make a dynamic and memorable statement with arias that show off your voice and your personality.

Entering the audition space can be just as important as your repertoire and attire. If a million people are coming in and auditioning that day, don’t waste time by going up to the panel, introducing yourself, dropping your purse on the way in, and setting your water bottle on the side of the stage. Walking into the audition room is like making an entrance onstage. You wouldn’t enter the stage with a bunch of props that you drop on some table before you go and give your music to the accompanist. You want to go onstage with good karma, so you want to enter the room as cleanly as possible — just carrying your music. Then you can clearly state your name and say what you’re going to do. After you’re finished singing, gauge if it’s the kind of situation where you should or should not go up to the panel and shake their hands. There is no real black and white, but personally, I don’t want to meet someone until after I know they can sing, so it’s better to do that at the end.

An audition is a performance where you need to know your audience. Who is out there? Is it the stage director? Is it the conductor? Is it the general director? Research the company and the people who will be hearing you before you go to the audition. That can be done by your manager (if you have one), but you can easily just get on the computer and figure it out yourself — you can go to the OPERA America Web site or Google anybody nowadays.

In the end, it’s really about being yourself and expressing yourself. When you walk out on that stage, you only have about 30 seconds to present yourself before you start singing. Although there is great merit in going to classes that address vocal and musical elements of an audition, I think it’s fantastic for singers to take an acting audition class. There, they teach you everything about walking into a room, making an impression, and making eye contact with the right people. Actors who audition for TV commercials only have 30 seconds to make an imprint on their auditioners. Singers should learn to develop that skill and explore classes that are outside the field of opera (i.e. public speaking, improvisation, ballet, etc.).

Today’s audiences have a growing array of entertainment options, and the expectation for opera singers to be engaging, interesting, and dynamic performers becomes greater every day. So learn to showcase the qualities that make you unique and set you apart from the crowd. Performers who express themselves genuinely and passionately are always the ones who grab your attention, move you, and ultimately get the job.
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About the Author: An internationally recognized director of opera and theater, Francesca Zambello’s American debut took place at the Houston Grand Opera with a production of Fidelio in 1984. She debuted in Europe at Teatro la Fenice in Venice with Beatrice di Tenda in 1987 and has since staged new productions at major theaters and opera houses in Europe and the USA, including the Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera House, Washington National Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Opéra National de Paris. Collaborating with outstanding artists and designers and promoting emerging talent, she takes a special interest in new music theater works, innovative productions, and in producing theater and opera for wider audiences.
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