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Best Aria Forward/ Choosing the right audition repertoire is an art in itself
Roger Pines, Dramaturg, Lyric Opera of Chicago
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Voices8/11/1999

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Choosing the right audition repertoire is an art in itself

The arias you choose can make or break an audition, so preparing your list requires considerable thought and more than a little soul-searching. Important issues related to aria choice are covered in these comments from Ken Benson, Artist Manager (Columbia Artists Management, Inc.); Ian D. Campbell, General Director, San Diego Opera; Neil Funkhouser, Artist Manager (Neil Funkhouser Artists Management); Gayletha Nichols, Director, Houston Opera Studio; and Peter Russell, Director, Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, Metropolitan Opera.

Variety, but Within Your Own Fach
“I try to ensure that the choices reasonably represent what the singer is capable of actually performing,” says Ian D. Campbell. Lyric singers should keep to that category, rather than showing how loud or dramatic they can be, when it is not their basic voice. I encourage them to show their artistry,” Campbell continues, “not their volume—their interpretive ability, not their quirky upper extension.”

Variety and imagination are crucial to Peter Russell. He frequently finds singers “erring on the side of music of Puccini’s era, or things that are all slow, in the same language, same style, same range.” Gayletha Nichols agrees with both Russell and Campbell, wanting variety in the character of one’smaterial, “but not Fach variety!”

Neil Funkhouser hopes for “music showing a full range of ability, including both legato and florid material. But if they sing Aida or Ballo well, I’d prefer that rather than have them struggle with a Handel aria that they think they should sing because they’re young.”

Ken Benson urges singers to assess their current abilities realistically: “Age enters into the perception. If someone looks like he’s doing something ambitious for his age, it sets up even more for him to prove.”

Other Major “Don’ts”
Benson often sees singers failing to take tessitura into account: “There might be five or six arias that they could sing well individually, but if called upon to mix and match, they might not be able to do one after the other. When someone wants to sing the Queen of the Night but then has to turn around and sing a lyric aria, the voice might already be placed too high.”

Funkhouser constantly finds arias on singers’ lists that they’ve prepared inadequately, “so they make rhythmic, language, and interpretive mistakes. They don’t know what they’re singing about, or they miss the point of the aria. A lot of arias have ‘home runs’ in them, the grand climactic phrase. They sing Yeletsky and don’t have a good high G, or they sing Norina and can’t trill: You wait for those moments in the aria, and they fumble them. I ask myself, ‘Why did they choose this aria?’”

What About Unusual Repertoire?
Campbell prefers arias the hearer will recognize. “While the singer is usually being judged on what sound is produced,” he explains, “there is also a comparative process going on in the mind of the hearer: ‘Is he or she better than the one I heard yesterday?’” Russell finds that when “the music itself is so wildly striking and it’s something that none of us have heard before, the danger is that we’ll have no frame of reference. However, I’ll welcome it if it’s something that is interesting in and of itself, and interestingly performed.” The company you’re singing for is a factor, too: Russell cites “Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, which is famous for being exploratory in their approach and might welcome this more than a company that is ultra-conservative.”

Funkhouser’s choices don’t always match those of opera companies. For example, he recalls a bass who started with a spectacular scena by Gomes, “and he was so compelling dramatically—I could understand what he was thinking. It justified itself.” Benson also values unusual repertoire: “If a lyric baritone offers Billy Budd or a mezzo offers L’enfant et les sortileges, I’ll almost always go with it. It’s interesting that they’ve chosen it. It’s great to have one or two less familiar items, while not neglecting the bread-and-butter arias.” Benson approves of briefly setting up the aria’s context, if it’s something offbeat.

Although partial to rarer repertoire, Nichols brings up the pianist problem: “If you pick something that’s so off-the-beaten-track that no one’s going to know it, you run the risk of it being unsuccessful, because the pianist is a partner here. If you have an opportunity to send the aria ahead or to choose your own pianist, fine.”

How Many Arias?
Opinions differ, ranging from Nichols’s four (“But I can get it in two—I can sometimes get it in five measures!”) to Campbell’s ten: “Fewer than ten may not give me the choices I want if there’s to be a second aria. My choice there is usually the result of a desire to test a part of the voice, or to correct for a poor first choice on the singer’s part. So, give me room to maneuver, in the singer’s interest.”

How Many Languages?
Italian, French, and German are essential, although Nichols asks for four languages, while Funkhouser likes five. Although Funkhouser doesn’t generally hear an English aria, the other interviewees often find it useful. Russell: “Are the singers going to be lazy in delivery of English, or as careful in their preparation as they’d be in a foreign language? Also, young singers may not yet have a connection to a particular language, or may not have an empathetic ear for languages, but might be able to express who they are in the comfort of their native tongue.”

How Long Is Too Long?
Remember that, in Funkhouser’s words, “The longer the aria, the more compelling the artist better be.” Benson welcomes “arias that are short but impressive—there’s nothing to be gained by sheer length.” He confesses to “an aversion to strophic arias, when time is of the essence,” and rejects the I’d-like-to-warm-up with-this attitude: “When you’re talking about a ten-minute slot, that’s a luxury you can’t afford.” With a long aria, heed Nichols’s warning: You might hear, “I would love to have heard a second piece, but your whole ten minutes is gone!”

Don’t get upset when told to start in the middle of a lengthy aria. It pleases Campbell “when a singer announces she’d like to sing Violetta’s Act One scene and then asks where I’d like her to start. It shows she understands my time constraints, and is sensitive to me as I’m trying to be to her.” That’s one reason to arrive at the audition early: “If you arrive one minute before your time,” says Campbell, “and you don’t realize that that’s what they’re doing, you might be thrown if someone says, ‘Stop there, start there.’ But if you’re there 20 minutes early, not only do you get a chance to relax, but you have a chance to hear how the auditions are handled.”

What About Operetta?
Include operetta if it reveals a special aspect of your artistry. Nichols believes it could show her “something I’m not going to see in ‘Donde lieta.’ I think operetta can be great for young singers, and I’d rather hear that than ‘Ritorna vincitor’ from someone who’s 21 years old.”

Benson looks especially kindly on Gilbert and Sullivan, “a great area of possible employment that people should explore, as long as they sing it legitimately and have a flair for it.” Some singers may lack an affinity for this material, but “comic mezzos or lyric tenors would have a gold mine there.”

Fitting the Aria to the Audition
Benson urges singers to consider the
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