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Auditioning Today Or Desperately Seeking Singers Who Have it All
Nova Thomas
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Audition Connection12/1/2006

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In October of this year, I attended my first OPERA America meeting, a congregation of opera professionals dedicated to singer training. It was indeed fine company to keep — around the table were representatives of some of America’s most important opera companies, apprentice and young artist programs, and universities and conservatories. While many important topics were discussed, auditioning — specifically, how auditioning has changed in the past few years — held center stage.

As our marketplace demands have evolved, it only makes sense that auditioning would evolve as well, and it has. The sooner we acknowledge that fact and decide, with fervor, to meet these demands head-on, the better off we’ll be. The days of argument, debate, or revolt are long past. The proverbial “total package” is here to stay. And while we’re all a bit overwhelmed by the many demands now placed upon singers, I think the marketplace, our sacred art form, and even the singer will ultimately benefit from this shift. Opera companies and young artist programs are desperately seeking singers who “have it all.” Not so many years ago, a beautiful voice with relatively adept musical skills put a singer on the short list for casting considerations. A young artist who sang expressively, acted authentically, and “humanized” any role was a rare bird — and immediately thrust towards stardom. Now, these attributes are simply, and perhaps only, the foundation of skill sets needed to succeed as a singer. No one around the table at the meeting really argued against vocal technique as a first priority, but even the die-hard “oldschoolers” readily acknowledged that today’s singer must ultimately be responsible for much, much more.

The “much more” we discussed can be summarized as follows (in no particular order of priority):

Voice — Is the voice itself beautiful,interesting, compelling, expressive, pleasant, etc.? Does the artist possess an instrument that is truly capable of meeting the vocal demands of the role (range, size/type of voice, color, dynamic demands, etc.)?

Musicianship — Is the artist intrinsically musical? Does he or she understand the needs of the score? Does he or she have the skill sets to consistently and confidently meet those demands?

Style and Performance Practice — Is the singer well-schooled in the styles and traditions of the arias they are presenting?

Language — Can the artist clearly and expressively communicate the text? Does use of the language represent understanding beyond the mere pronunciation of text?

Acting Ability — Is the artist skilled at the art of “inhabiting” a character? Can the artist be compelling and truthful under the imagined circumstances of the play? Can the artist “personalize” the character in an authentic way?

Physicality/Type — Does the artist look the part? Is the singer a fit and attractive person who is physically capable and believable in the role?

Intelligence and Preparation — Is this an artist who is obviously well prepared with all necessary materials? Has the singer made wise choices that are appropriate to the parameters of their talent, as well as the specific needs of the house or company they’re auditioning for? (Today, preparation for and knowledge of the specific needs and preferences of the company or program one is auditioning for is expected. With the Internet, it is relatively easy to do one’s homework; but more about that later…)

Maturity and Ease within Varied Circumstances — Directors and conductors generally prefer working with artists that they know. While even the briefest audition might adequately capture one’s ability to sing, adjudicators want to know that an artist they hire will be mature and easy to work with. Renowned director Francesca Zambello, in a previous Audition Connection article asks, “Can I get up and work with this person? Are they flexible and open to discussion? How will they respond to new ideas or unpredictable situations?”

Personality and Individuality — With the increasing demands for the skill sets, preparation, and attributes listed above, one can hardly believe that there’s room for anything else — but make no mistake, a question that kept coming up around the table at our meeting was: “Where are the singers with personality, individuality, and something unique to say?”

Whew… overwhelming is not an overstatement. BUT there is good news. Training institutions (conservatories, universities, and even young artist programs) are answering the heightened demands of our marketplace with decidedly heightened training. In a recent effort to create an overview of curricula from the major universities and conservatories for young opera singers, I found that most academic plans include courses in acting, studies for increased and advanced language skills, workshops with directors as overseers or teachers, classes in auditioning, workshops in preparation skills, and even semester-long efforts in putting it all together. Master classes with recognized and respected artists who have conquered the demands of the marketplace are in abundance, and readily available to most aspiring singers (at least those singers training in the more reputable conservatories or universities I’ve researched).

And then there’s the internet. A manager is always an artist’s best friend in surveying the plans and preferences of a given opera company, but with the advent of new technologies and the wealth of information available at the click of a mouse, anyone can go online and (with a little curiosity and ingenuity) find out a great many things to aid in preparing for a particular house, company, program, or role.

Even in the face of this hurried evolution, some things, as the old adage goes, never change. Auditioning remains an intrinsically flawed process and all-too limited snapshot of a singer’s true talents and abilities. At the mere mention of auditioning, eyes still roll, pulses still quicken, stomachs still churn, and general groans of dread and doubt still fill the air. But there’s another thing that hasn’t changed — and that’s the indefatigable spirit of the singer. We are among the most intelligent, creative, resourceful, imaginative, malleable, and resilient “tribes” society has to offer. So my message to the marketplace is to bring it on. My advice to aspiring singers is to seize the day. There is really nothing the marketplace demands that we can’t ultimately supply. There are resources available out there and untapped sources within ourselves. Ultimately there’s something comforting about knowing that no one aspect of our craft (even the singing itself) holds the totality of our talent hostage. We are much more than our voices…and we will win the day.

My money’s on the singer.
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