Pianists are Key to Auditions: Weighing Your Options
Auditions are a fact of a singer’s life, but beyond that, there are few certainties about the audition process. A singer may or may not be familiar with the audition site; has little control of the audition day, time, or the timeliness of the audition; often doesn’t know who will be sitting on the audition panel; and while the singer does select the repertoire, one is never sure which piece the panel will request. Then there are the unknown factors of what the day will bring in terms of health and nerves.
What is known is that the audition will require an accompanist. Though a seemingly small element of an audition, it can be the difference between success and failure. This is an area where singers have some control. Yet, hiring an accompanist for all auditions can be expensive. How can singers balance the financial costs with the desire to make a good impression?
In the “Career Development” chapter of OPERA America’s Career Guide for Singers — 6th Edition, over 80% of the young artist audition opportunities that responded to the accompanist question indicated that an accompanist is provided. This is one way for singers to keep audition costs down. Lake George Opera is among the companies that follow this standard practice. “Accompanists are provided for apprentice auditions; however, they are not provided for principal auditions,” states General Director William Florescu. Competitionsalso frequently provide pianists. “Opera Birmingham provides accompanists for competitions, but not for other auditions,” says John D. Jones, general director.
There are logistical, as well as programmatic, reasons that companies offer accompanists for young artist, but not principal, auditions. Audition efficiency is important to companies, yet difficult to manage with the sheer number of young singers that companies want to hear and the tight schedules they must keep. Providing an accompanist minimizes delays associated with each singer bringing his/her own accompanist.
Numerous companies charge audition fees (and some charge an additional accompanist fee) for young artist programs and competitions — a practice that is rarely the case for mainstage auditions. A portion of the fee may cover (if only symbolically) the costs associated with the accompanist, but Kim Stowers, artistic coordinator of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, a company that does not even charge an audition fee, indicates it is often more altruistic than that. “First and foremost, we offer the pianist as a courtesy to the young artists, because the prospect of the audition circuit is expensive, and because young artists may not have the access to a pool of pianists from which to choose (particularly if they are from out-of-town).” Alternatively, many believe that hiring an accompanist for mainstage auditions is just part of an established singer’s business expenses.
Pittsburgh Opera’s director of artistic administration, Allan Naplan, also offers that the goals of young artist auditions are different from those for mainstage auditions. “In mainstage auditions we are looking for someone who can sing a specific role. In young artist auditions we are looking for someone we want to invest in. Our pianist has a voice in the selection process and provides valuable insights, not only about the singer’s vocal abilities, but his/her attitude, based largely on how they interact with him throughout the audition.”
Another audition opportunity that frequently provides pianists is the local or in-house audition. If you are in the neighborhood and are granted an audition for a company’s chorus, education, training program, or mainstage audition, it is likely that you will not have to provide an accompanist. Says Carol Penterman, Nashville Opera’s executive director, “We provide an accompanist if we are holding local or regional auditions at our rehearsal hall. If we are in New York, the singer must provide their own accompanist.” Many opera companies follow a similar policy. “When we hold auditions in New York, we do not provide an accompanist, but expect the artist or artist manager to supply the accompanist,”assents James Meena, Opera Carolina’s general director. “When we hold auditions in Charlotte, we do provide our staff pianist.”
While an unfamiliar pianist can be another unknown element of an audition, many companies, like Opera Carolina, have pianists on staff that play the young artist and local auditions. If not, they hire local pianists who come from other arts institutions, including universities. It is a preferred practice that accompanists are known to the company. “We hire pianists with whom we have worked with often,” says Susan Worthington, Tapestry New Opera Works’ artistic administrator. George Domby, Chautauqua Opera’s artistic administrator, concurs: “We hire local pianists, preferably individuals who have worked for us in the past.”
When using an accompanist provided by a company, how can a singer be assured of the pianist’s abilities? Companies pride themselves on the pianists they do hire. “There is an enormous range of repertoire to play. The accompanists we hire are of a high caliber,” says Dennis Hanthorn, newly-appointed general director of The Atlanta Opera and current general director of Florentine Opera Company. In theory, this proficiency and knowledge of the vast audition repertoire allows for smooth auditions with only a few moments at the beginning to show the pianist how the music is arranged and explain any cuts.
Admittedly, additional time with a pianist can positively affect an audition, yet the schedule of auditions rarely allows for quality time — or any advance rehearsal time at all. Leon Natker, Lyric Opera of San Diego’s general director, “allows singers a little time to speak with the accompanist on site,” but the majority of companies confess this is a luxury they can’t afford. Alise Oliver, Kentucky Opera’s artistic administrator, offers a common response. “There is not usually time available on site for singers to meet with the accompanists.” Scheduling the hundreds of people that companies hear is difficult enough. To schedule rehearsal time to accommodate the needs of all singers would require considerable human and financial costs.
However, there is another option. “A singer should contact the accompanist directly if they wish to make arrangements before the audition day,” says Jason LaLonde from The Santa Fe Opera. Happily, most companies are more than willing to connect singers with the pianist in advance of the audition. Professionals who can handle this request include the audition coordinator or company manager. “When the pianist agrees, singers who request it are given contact information for a preaudition rehearsal, for which the pianist usually charges the singer an additional fee,” warns Jerry Shannon, Mobile Opera’s artistic director.
“Generally, I advise the auditioners coming to Eugene to contact the pianist with a repertoire list,” states Robert Ashens, Eugene Opera’s artistic director. Singers should therefore plan carefully what repertoire they will offer and avoid last-minute changes. This will reduce unfair challenges to the accompanist that could adversely affect the audition. Many young artist auditions and competitions already request this information on the application: It serves as a resource to companies to understand your fach and vocal directions, and it is sometimes used as a resource for the pianist.
Some companies will not offer the pianist’s contact information in advance to singers. Reasons for this might be that the company does not hire the pianist until the last minute; the pianist is not inclined or able to make him/herself available to the mass quantities of singers that the company is hearing; or the company values seeing how the singer works with the company pianist.
About the Author: Managing Director, OPERA America