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Voices4/1/2004

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“Ultimately, the best feedback is the call offering a job,” says Susan S. Ashbaker, director of artistic administration at Opera Company of Philadelphia. But what happens when that call does not come, and a terse rejection letter comes in its place? Or no response comes at all? Can or should the singer seek additional information? Can or should the company provide that information? OPERA America asked a number of auditioners about their policies and preferences regarding audition feedback. Many professionals — for a variety of reasons — do not generally respond to such requests. Others feel that their feedback can be important in young singers’ development, but only if they are prepared to hear it and use it in a positive way.

The most common reason for a “no feedback” policy is lack of time. “I hear between 250-300 singers a year, many of them at repeated hearings,” says Henry Akina, general and artistic director of Hawaii Opera Theatre. “Generally, I am appreciative of singers who do not ask for feedback, as it shows that they respect the situation of the opera company. There are hosts of professionals who are paid to give feedback: coaches, voice teachers, heads of young artists programs, etc. General directors are focused on casting seasons, have a limited number of roles to cast, and are generally strapped for time as they are not only casting but selecting repertoire, dealing with boards, dealing with artists already contracted, etc.”

This can be true of both training program auditions and company auditions. “I don’t think training programs have any more responsibility to give feedback than companies,” says Diane Zola, director of the Houston Grand Opera Studio. “It is not possible for us to give feedback, as we hear 300-400 singers in a month.” Likewise, Canadian Opera Company (COC) tends not to give feedback, unless it’s a singer with whom the company already has some sort of relationship. “Generally, we do not give feedback to general or chorus auditions, primarily because to do so would be overwhelmingly time-consuming — we have well over 1,000 auditions per year,” says Philip Boswell, artistic administrator of the COC.

Some companies worry that frank comments about deficiencies may impact them negatively: “I rarely give open feedback anymore,” says Leland Kimball, producing artistic director of OperaDelaware. “I have been ‘burned’ several times when I felt I was doing someone a favor by telling them what I thought was the truth, only to be hounded, pestered, and challenged to define what I meant.”

In addition to the time-consuming nature of feedback, some administrators have a philosophical opposition to feedback. “My policy is no feedback,” says Ashbaker. “There are several reasons for this, including that I think that singers should beware of the feedback that they hear. My impression is based only on a 10-minute audition.”

On the other hand, some professionals believe that audition feedback can be an important part of a singer’s development process. “I will give feedback whenever it is solicited, or when I’ve heard a singer several times and I think they have potential but are having a problem that can be fixed,” says Leon Natker, general director of Lyric Opera San Diego. “I do believe it is part of the responsibility of companies that feature younger singers to give them feedback.

How does an individual find out what a company or individual’s policy is on feedback? Certainly, this article provides insights into the policies and procedures of several companies and individuals, and helpful information to keep on hand. It is also appropriate to ask someone from the company: Perhaps the audition monitor can shed some light. Absent these methods, most respondents indicate that they only provide feedback upon request, and many prefer to speak with management on this subject.

“At Opera Omaha, we give audition feedback whenever it is requested, and those requests most often come from artist managers immediately following a round of auditions in New York,” says Shannon Stoddard, Opera Omaha’s director of artistic administration. “In general, I try to give feedback in a positive way, with comments that can constructively help singers further their potential. Although it takes time to look up each person and respond to the request for comments, I think that part of our job and obligation as adjudicators of young talent is to give them honest responses to their work, and guidance on how to improve and grow as performers.”

“I do find it helpful to offer audition feedback to artists and artists managers, when possible,” agrees Joseph Walsh, Virginia Opera’s assistant artistic director. “Generally speaking, it helps to clarify for artist managers the level of artist our company seeks for its productions. More specifically, it lets managers know what qualities we look for in artists and gives them guidance in submitting artists in future rounds. It prevents managers from resubmitting artists for subsequent rounds when they may have given a weak initial audition in a first round. It offers artists a checklist of strengths and weaknesses for them to consider and work on, which often produces fine results when hearing them several rounds later. That said, offering audition feedback is time-consuming. It is absolutely impossible to offer feedback on all auditions, especially considering that companies often audition a hundred or more artists in a single round. For this reason, I do not consider it an obligation to offer audition feedback. I do as much of it as I have time for.”

Singers should understand that different settings yield different types of feedback. In an audition, according to Fort Worth Opera’s general director Darren K. Woods, “Feedback is different from a masterclass, where you are in the mode of being helpful and analytical. In an audition, I am in a “buying” mode, and my comments are often brief and along the lines of whether or not I liked the artist and whether or not there is repertoire for them in the coming seasons. I do not write long comments about the quality of the voice, what they need to work on, etc. I am simply not in that mode.”

Armed with this understanding, singers should always be respectful of a company’s time when requesting feedback. A prompt request for feedback can sometimes be helpful: “I have sometimes been called weeks, even months after an audition and asked to comment,” says Timothy Vernon, artistic director of Pacific Opera Victoria and music director of Orchestra London. “The implicit attribution of omniscient memory is flattering at first, finally a mere annoyance. If the singer calls within a few days, I might still be of some use.”

At the same time, singers should not expect that companies will be able to respond to their requests immediately. Many companies prefer requests in writing, so that they can respond at their own convenience. Even then, there are occasions when a company simply cannot make time for audition feedback. “We do our best to give feedback, but the truth is, running an opera company with limited staff and mounds of money to raise, it is definitely on the back burner,” according to Woods. “I do not ever recommend an individual singer calling our office asking for feedback. It always interrupts grant writing, donor soliciting, or strategic planning. The best way to get a response from our company is to have your manager contact us via e-mail; we will answer when we can. Unmanaged artists, likewise, should e-mail us. As this is low priority, it will take us a while to respond. It is not a company’s obligation to give feedback.”

Time is consistently a factor among all respondents. Cincinnati Opera has a novel approach to address this situation: “We have developed a system in which singe
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About the Author: Kelley Rourke, Newsline editor and Diana Hossack, Managing Director, OPERA America
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