Audition Pianists, Studio Profiles, and Mozart Arias

Blogging has had to take a back seat to screening as we topped 1,000 applications. I truly hate this part of our process – not just because it means saying no (something I struggle with in all its guises), but because it means saying no in a very unsatisfying and incomplete fashion.

We used to send out a fairly detailed “no, thank you” (indelicately known in the YAP trade as a PFO) letter. The intention was good – to try to explain and enumerate the reasons for which an application might’ve been rejected. Over time, though, I learned that singers resented receiving this detailed letter. That many of them found it insulting. That they felt that we enjoyed rubbing salt into wounds. So, it fell by the wayside, in favor of our current notification, which feels (to me) unnecessarily blunt.

If you’ve gotten turned down, it doesn’t always mean that something was “wrong” with your application. It more often means that more things were “right” with the singers who were vying for the same spot.

You Ask, I Punt

As I turned to addressing recent comments and questions, I was somewhat surprised to find this one:

Just out of curiousity, do you ever think about not holding auditions at all, or only auditioning people from the top programs or schools? I don’t mean to be snarky — it just seems like there’s not a lot in this process for you! Are you so thorough because you want to be fair to everyone, even at all this expense?

Is this a singer writing? A patron/opera fan? A colleague? Actually, we’ve never given a passing thought to ditching the open application process. And even though it might be nice to believe that we’re altruistic enough to do this just to be fair, truth is that if we narrowed our focus, we’d miss some spectacular people. Yes, a sizable chunk of each summer’s roster comprises singers who hail from the higest-profile programs in the country. But they’re not the only ones we hire.

I was wondering, what do you listen for in a young singer? Obviously, you’re not expecting to hear Sherrill Milnes’s voice out of a 21 year old Baritone or Ruth Anne Swenson from a 22 year old Soprano, so when casting for your opera studio what are the most important qualities in a young singers audition?

Good question regarding the studio. Singers in their early 20’s are far from finished products. We want singers whose technique is solid enough to sustain a summer away from a voice teacher. They need to sing in tune (a surprisingly rare characteristic…) and have an instrument that’s reasonably well-aligned in timbre and color (within a somewhat limited range, for we don’t expect a high degree of refinement yet at the extremes of the ranges in most Fachs). They need to have had enough experience onstage that they can function well in chorus and small roles, and they must be sophisticated enough regarding language/dramaturgy/style that they can glean knowledge from our staff members and guest faculty that work with the studio singers every summer.

Another way of looking at this is to ask which factors are red flags. As I mentioned, persistent pitch problems are a deal-breaker. Neither are we really positioned to deal with voices that are undergoing big transitions. (Not uncommon at this age; doesn’t mean that you won’t be a competitive singer, just that, at this particular point, our program isn’t right for you.) And if a singer hasn’t had a chance to perform staged opera scenes, take basic diction and language courses, or work intensively with a good teacher, then we’re probably not compatible.

Two questions, one answer:

1. When one auditions for any YAP what should one expect in terms of accompanist and how should that, note previous question, effect ones choice of literature!?

2. I’m thinking of auditioning with Peter Quint’s Act I finale aria “Miles!” from Britten’s Turn of the Screw. My only concern is the difficult ensemble aspect of the song. I’m worried that if something big goes wrong with the tricky piano part, that it may throw me for a loop or break my focus during an audition. What are your thoughts on bringing in less common arias with extremely difficult orchestral reductions? On one hand I’m worried that it could fall apart if the pianist isn’t familiar with the aria, but on the other hand I’d love to present it at auditions.

I can’t address the first part of the first question, for the answer is variable. From company to company, from day to day, from location to location. Safest to let go of whatever expectation you may have. Control the variables you can. The pianist is not one of them.

So, best to think slightly conservatively. If you’re kind of new at this audition stuff, you don’t need a lot of curves thrown at you. Bring a pianist (preferably a good one, please…) if some of your rep is non-standard. (What is non-standard? Throw me a few for-instances, and I’ll react to them.)

If you’re getting a bit more experienced and comfortable, you can always take a chance, though. Here’s the most important thing: Be able to sing your aria without getting rattled even if the piano isn’t helping you. Give your aria to a pianist friend who isn’t good at sight-reading. See if you can prevail while s/he accompanies you. It is possible. We recognize when there is a singer/pianist problem, and generally, unless you allow it to hamstring you, it doesn’t end up being a huge liability. It’s a sliding scale, to be sure.

As long as we’re all looking to you for the meaning of life.. I’m a young lyric soprano.. maybe a full lyric but it’s too early to say. I’m offering Mi chiamano Mimi, Ain’t it a Pretty Night, the Jewel Song, and probably Song to the Moon (because I can’t find a great German aria). Can you suggest a Mozart piece that fits that package?? My teacher doesn’t want me singing Countess yet.. I know the inas/ettas but they don’t fit the rest of the package.. I’m not a Fiordiligi or any of the other dramatic coloratura types.. my coach thinks Ilia might be slightly too small for me too. The closest I’ve come to a good fit is Elvira, and that’s a stretch. Any ideas?? This is my first season auditioning for things as a soprano, so I’m basically starting from scratch with rep.. and I want to choose the “right” pieces!! Thanks

Well, if dramatic coloratura isn’t in the cards, then Konstanze and Mme Herz (from Schauspieldirektor) aren’t possibilities. Elvira is a great idea – you don’t say in which direction it stretches you, though. How about something like “Ruhe saft” – Zaide’s aria? No one ever does the opera, but it’s a beautiful aria, and could be a prelude to something like the Countess later on. Just for yucks, take a look at “Al destin che la minaccia” (Aspasia’s aria) from Mitridate.

As for looking to me for the meaning of life, well if that’s the truth, then we’re all in worse shape than I thought :)

4 Comments

Anonymous

I have wondered about Ruhe sanft… I sort of fit in the category your Mozart singer was describing and I have had trouble finding a German aria that fits in my package. I know Ruhe sanft but I cant seem to find the sheet music(not just in my house, which is also true, but in a place to buy it, aside from the whole score). Now I think I will definitely track it down and use it. The fact that it’s hard to find might actually be a good thing.

Jessica

Hmmm… I’m surprised you didn’t mention “S’altro che lacrime” for that last question. It doesn’t show much in terms of range, but I figured it would be a great piece for a future Countess who doesn’t quite have a la Nozze in her yet. Would you have any objections to it?

Also, a few more questions to throw at you while you’re being so generous with your time:

I have a friend who wants to offer only the cavatina portion of what would otherwise be a long bel canto piece. A) Is this kosher? and B) how should she list it? (i.e. “Cavatina only”)

For myself, I know in an audition situation it’s only polite to start with something short or ask the panel if they’d only like to hear one verse of something, but is it also considered conversely impolite (or useless) to list any super-long pieces on your list? A friend and I have a long-standing debate about the usefulness of “Ombre leggiere” and this often is the point we get stuck debating.

Thank you so much for taking your time to enlighten us about this process! Knowing that I might have a friend on the other side of the table does a lot to lesson my anxiety during auditions. Thank you thank you thank you. :)

NeiCieliBigi

Here’s another one. Would it be appropriate to include Tamino’s 2nd area, “Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton” on a list? I sing “Dies’ Bildnis” well, but I feel it doesn’t pair well with Questa o Quella, which I like to start with. Also, the 2nd aria has a nice accompanied recit attached, to show off German, which is a strength of mine.

Anonymous

I have a general question about the studio program – I have had a teacher recently tell me not to apply to studio programs at larger companies (such as Wolf Trap) because, in her belief, if a young singer is heard by a large company before they are ready to be considered a full-fledged professional (even in the studio artist program capacity)then the singer will be “blacklisted” in a way and remembered always by the company as having a “young” technique. Obviously, you don’t ascribe to this belief or you wouldn’t host a studio artist program. Out of curiosity, what is your response to this belief?

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