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The Singer Who Performs
Jay Lesenger
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Audition Connection10/1/2002

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When young artist programs select their roster for upcoming seasons, they often engage in a process with several stages. The screening process is beneficial to the company; instead of spending time and money on an endless procession of live auditions, program directors can focus on artists who have the requisite skills for the program. But the process is also beneficial to you. Auditioning is an expensive proposition. And, more importantly, it’s not in your interest to be heard in a context in which you are not yet competitive. In this article, Jay Lesenger, Artistic/General Director of Chautauqua Opera, discusses his company’s audition process.

Do your research on young artist programs before you apply to any of them. For whom are you singing? Is the program AGMA or non-AGMA? What kind of opportunities does it offer? Use OPERA America’s Singer Career Network as well as your personal network of singers, teachers, and coaches to do your research. Take an honest look at where you are in your development. The more honest you can be about yourself, and the more you know about your program options, the better you know where to focus your audition time and money.

The Chautauqua program actually has two levels: the Apprentice Artists, an AGMA program; and the non-AGMA Studio Artists. A word of caution: wait until you are truly ready for an AGMA program. Many singers think that the AGMA programs are the only programs worth being in, and that they should do them right away. Wait until you are ready. You are only allowed two summer apprenticeships under an AGMA contract. At Chautauqua Opera, the Young Artist programs are very similar experiences. Try to take a few non-AGMA summers before you jump into the big pond, especially if you are in your early twenties. You might get in at the AGMA level, but it may not be the best program for your current level of development. It might burn you out. Besides, AGMA programs offer great opportunities for singers to get heard by the people who matter. If you use up your AGMA summers when you are very young, then you will find that you no longer have access to the networking possibilities and exposure of the larger programs when you are truly ready to begin your professional career.

Once you’ve set your sights on some appropriate programs, it’s time to put together your application, including photo, résumé, and a tape of two contrasting arias.

Be completely honest with all of your application materials. Don’t try to fool anyone—you’ll usually be found out anyway. Be honest when making your tape, when preparing your résumé, and when completing the application.

On the résumé, we are looking at your background: where and with whom you’ve studied, what performing experience you’ve had, and when. On young artist résumés, dates are important. Again, be honest and thorough. As a young artist, you have no reason to make things up. We assume that you will not have had a great deal of professional experience. Someone who sings well with little or no experience has a much stronger chance of being hired than someone with a lot of experience who we don’t feel sings competitively.

The tapes are a screening device. I’m listening mostly for breath control and intonation. Spending the money to doctor your tape in a studio is not worth it. Suppose you manage to get an audition based on false information. We usually figure it out pretty quickly on site! We don’t want you to spend your money on an audition that will not get you hired just as we don’t want to spend our time hearing singers not ready for this program.

Say your materials make the cut, and you are invited to the New York audition. Now you want to know: “What are they looking for? Who should I be in this audition?” There are so many answers to these questions. Who you are — your personality — is important in a young artist program audition. In our program, you will grow as a professional colleague as well as an artist. Therefore, we’re looking for artists who will work well with each other. The most important piece of advice I can give is to be who you are, not who you think we would like you to be. Your auditions will be more consistent this way, and you won’t feel the need to try to adapt from audition to audition to a set of expectations (which is impossible to second-guess anyway.)

The first impression at the audition is important. Within a few minutes after you’ve walked into the room, we already have a good sense of who you are as a singer and as a person. Either before or after you sing, we will probably ask you a few questions. (On a personal note, please do not shake our hands. Maybe some people like this, but in December, when everyone in New York has a cold, we don’t want 350 people to shake our hands.)

Be careful of a bad attitude. How would that work in your favor? If you are asked to start in the middle of a long aria, be flexible. We may ask you for something you didn’t expect for your second piece; we may even ask you to change the first piece for something we would rather hear. Some singers have actually argued with me in the audition! Again, be flexible. Your attitude at this point tells us so much about you, especially how you respond to direction!

Before you sing, you will have a moment with the accompanist in the hall. This is your time to give the accompanist your music, go over tempos, and any unusual cuts. Give them well prepared and clearly marked music. You would be surprised how many singers come in with illegible and poorly prepared music, and then blame the accompanist for whatever goes wrong. Our accompanists always stress that you should have a clean copy of your music (probably not the copy you’ve studied on, but a copy prepared especially for the accompanist). Make sure it’s in good shape, with cuts and embellishments clearly marked. Write out all coloratura. Make your lives easier!

Remember that when you audition for Chautauqua, you are auditioning for a program and not a specific role. Sing what you sing best. Don’t try to guess what we want to hear. Once you have chosen your repertoire, the question remains: “Who should I be in this audition?” When you come into the room, be yourself. But when you sing, be the character. Have something to say, both musically and dramatically. Focus on the character’s needs, and not yours as a singer. As a coach and as a director, I always stress the importance of both musical and dramatic comprehension. Preparation does not end once you have studied the music, done the translation, and perfected the diction. That is the point at which you are ready to start preparing this piece. I want to see your dramatic commitment to the music and the character. Singers who stand out in auditions and performances are those who have something to say, and let their vitality and personality shine through.

As an educator, I wish I could give feedback more often. I can’t always do it, for several reasons. At the forefront is the lack of hours in a day. Get a good voice teacher, and if possible, a good dramatic coach. He or she is the person who will guide your development and give you the feedback you need.

If you are sick, then you should cancel the audition. It’s better to miss out on a program for one year than to make a poor impression on someone you hope to work with in the future. Make sure you call and explain why you missed the audition. Writing a thank you note, while not necessary, is a nice gesture that will be attached to your comment sheets from this audition and kept in your file. If you come back to audition the next year, we’ll see it again. It won’t get you hired, but it might tip the balance in your favor.

We know that auditions are tough for you. It’s hard to put yourself on the line and make yourself vulnerable to rejection. We appreciate that, and try to make your audition a positive performing experience.
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About the Author: Artistic/General Director, Chautauqua Opera
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