Preparing the Professional Singer for the 21st Century
Rice: What do you see lacking in young singers who graduate from colleges and conservatories today?
Ashbaker: When singers come out of a degree program and have very little experience, they need to find ways of creating performance experiences, even singing at a local church or synagogue or nursing home. The other thing is to have a realistic expectation when you audition. If you are 23, you may be phenomenal, but very few people will give you the opportunity to sing Gilda.
Hossack: I travel to many panels such as this, so I hear from my colleagues, and I get to pass that information along. One of the things I hear is the lack of languages—not just diction, but the ability to comprehend what they are singing and to actually converse with European colleagues.
Nally: One of the frustrating things I find in young singers is lack of discipline. My choruses are AGMA choruses, and that means I am paying a lot of money for every single minute. I can't spend that time teaching music. It's very difficult to say to someone, "You're probably going to wind up being an excellent chorister: I suggest you hone your chorus skills if you really want to sing for a living." Nobody can say who's going to wind up being a star, but it is partly the teachers' responsibility to send those people out into the world ready to do whatever it is they are actually going to do. So, discipline is probably the biggest issue: practicing, reading, learning roles, learning musical skills that allow you to have a life in music.
Schroeder: Consider the lifestyle of the performing artist and the sacrifices that are essential. Family concerns often take a back seat. Performing artists have to think about their bodies and perhaps go home at eight o'clock at night to rest, instead of going out with friends.
Olson: We need to encourage our students to get an idea of what the voices sound like in big markets. Too often, one sees young singers who have completely unrealistic expectations about the carrying quality of their own voices, who think, "Well, I'm singing the Faust aria in my audition, so I could sing Faust," when in fact nothing could be farther from the truth.
Rice: What do you think constitutes a good audition?
Ashbaker: I believe it's my job to listen to any local singer who wants to sing for me; but I do not believe I have an obligation to hear them a second time if they have misjudged when they are ready to sing. Really know how to sing what you are singing. If you choose Fiordiligi's first aria, you'd better be able to do those jumps really well, and you'd better have the triplet figures in the final section, because if you don't, you're showing me what you can't do. I want to hear what you can do. I'm not interested in "I took my cadenza off of Sills's recording." Who cares whether I like all the appoggiaturas? We all have different musical opinions. I want to hear that you have something to say, that you can sell your piece, and that you believe it from the bottom of your heart. There is nothing more gratifying than hearing an audition and thinking, "Wow, that was great." Whether or not I have a job I can offer you becomes irrelevant. I may have a role that I'm looking at three years from now.
Hossack: Singers need to accept that there is a whole series of unknowns in the audition process. Do as much research as you can. Research what the appropriate repertoire is; know what your best arias are. Provide a variety, not just of languages but of styles, extended lines, coloratura lines — give the juror as much selection as possible.
Tiller: I'll write things down, like "track this singer," based on how they present themselves. If they are late and apologizing for being sick, and they don't arrange a pianist, then I'm a lot less likely to give them a second audition, because it says to me that they are not serious. For every young artist I hear, there were three I didn't. They need to present their best, and if they are sick, they need to call ahead, and I will give them another audition. If they don't, and I have a ten-minute slot that is not filled, I'll remember that.
Audience Member: We want to encourage our students to do auditions — to get used to doing auditions. Is that a bad idea?
Ashbaker: Do them in studio, or have an audition techniques class. Audition in a safe setting until you are really ready, because it counts. I have a computer, and if you come in with all these things wrong, I put "don't rehear." It may not be fair, but it is what it is.
Audience Member: After an artist has started to have some work, what should be eliminated from the résumé? How much information is too much? How much is not enough?
Tiller: Put dates on the résumés, because I'll ask. And do not put covers as if they were mainstage performances. It's a small field, and I'll know. And make sure you spell things properly. I don't have a great deal of confidence in a singer learning an aria if he can't spell it correctly.
Hossack: If people aren't putting dates on résumés because they've changed careers or are worried about their age, they should address that in the cover letter.
Ashbaker: If I see several big roles and at the bottom, several opera companies, I'm going to assume that all of your big roles were done where you had to pay to do them. It's much better to list a role, where you did it, and when. Opera is such an expensive industry — even with a sold-out house, the Opera Company of Philadelphia has to raise $150,000 to $300,000 to put on one night's performance. I'm not going to guess if a singer was truthful on her resume. I'm going to call my colleagues and ask, "How did she perform? How did she do after 10 shows? How was she in rehearsal?" And if you've lied, you've ruined your chances — at least with me, and probably with the person I called, and probably anyone else who ever calls and asks me, "Did so and so ever audition for you?"
Audience Member: Why is it always so difficult to get feedback from any audition panel or opera director?
Ashbaker: Why would you listen to me? I've only seen you for five to 10 minutes. You should have a group of people around you who really know your voice. I only know what you are showing me at that moment in time.
Olson: I don't think people want to know the truth. In my studio at the beginning of every year, I say, "Anyone of you who wants to sit down and have an honest talk with me about your chances of making a career, come and see me. I have too much respect for you, your energy, and your time, to mislead you in any way." No one has ever asked me.
Hossack: There are many companies who do provide feedback. Research the company's hot time. Contact them on their off season with a message saying, "I auditioned for you, and I'd love to hear your feedback." But you really need to be prepared for that feedback.
Audience Member: Does it carry a great deal of weight when someone has done a few training programs before they come to do their first professional audition? Tiller: It depends on the program. If they have been in a program where they have had the opportunity to be in roles and to be around professionals in this field, it makes a great deal of difference. If I had two artists with very similar credentials, but one had been through a really good apprentice program, I would take that person, because I know they understand what the expectations are.
Hossack: Singers should be aware that there are several different types of training programs. There are some programs whose sole mission is to train singers. There are some that are primarily outreach programs, and that's training in itself. Singers need to know their own strengths and weaknesses; then they n
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