Behind the Screen Door

We’ve finally finished reviewing all of the applications for next summer, and we’re only going to be able to hear a little fewer than half of the 1,028  folks who applied. We have 19 days of auditions scheduled over the next month, the most ever in our history, but there’s still not enough time to hear everyone.

Paperwork isn’t the best single criteria on which to decide who makes the cut, but it’s the best we have. (We eliminated CDs a few years ago when audio editing and sweetening got out of control and rendered them useless as screening tools.) I’ve gotten quite a few emails asking what singers can do to improve their chances for an audition next time. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to answer all of them personally. But in the hopes of shedding some light on it, I’ve tried to summarize our application review process.

So, if you have the stomach for it, here’s a look behind the screen door.

  • Academic Affiliation(s): Not every great singer goes through Juilliard or CCM or Curtis (please, no attacks, the list is much much longer than that… I just cherry-picked a few). But if you were competitive enough to get into (and thrive at) one of the best academic vocal programs or conservatories in the country, that counts for something. If you studied at a less competitive institution, that doesn’t necessarily reflect on your artistry, but neither does it score a point in your favor when we’re only looking at paperwork. It you don’t have the cachet of a name program behind you, I’m going to look harder for other markers.
  • Summer YAPs: You don’t have to have done other young artist programs in order to sing for us. Every so often there’s someone on our roster who didn’t take this path. But being a young artist in a professional festival company for a couple of summers usually indicates that you have some idea how the business works, have been exposed to professional practices and schedules, and won’t come here with only an academic or amateur background. (Don’t flame: Nothing is wrong with the latter. It’s just not as reliable an indicator.) You can learn a lot at Pay-To-Sings, but a series of them for 4, 5, 6 years in a row is not a good sign. You should be moving into paid apprenticeships, preferably the more competitive ones.
  • Strong Roles: If you’ve been offered featured roles at a school/company where this is possible, it indicates that you rose to the top in that environment. Conversely, if you’re only showing comprimario or bit roles on your resume, that doesn’t count in your favor. Additionally, a role isn’t a role isn’t a role. It all depends on where you sang it. A string of featured roles at the same small local company doesn’t mean the same as a supporting role at a competitive conservatory or YAP. You might be a stellar recitalist, oratorio singer and concert performer. But we need to know that you can take the stage and sing a full-length role in a fully produced opera. The fact that you haven’t done so doesn’t mean that you aren’t able. But we don’t know that if almost all of the experience on your resume is scene-length or in concert.
  • Competitions: You don’t have to have won everything. Heaven knows that competition wins are pretty random. They’re not a reliable indicator by themselves, but the absence of any external recognition of this type is another obstacle. If your other markers aren’t stellar, and you can demonstrate that you’ve put yourself out there in visible, reasonably big-name competitions (Met National Council regional or national level, Tuckers, Sullivan, London, Zachary, etc.), it’s a huge help to your chances. (NATS awards aren’t so important at the Filene Young Artist level.)
  • Big House YAPs: Selection for and participation in a big house young artist program (at the Met, Houston Grand, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Florida Grand, and others) is a huge endorsement. Again, this doesn’t mean we only hire folks from these places; there is almost always representation from a few, but there are always singers on our roster who haven’t taken this path.
  • Academic Pedigree: The absence of an advanced degree is something of a liability. I know that not everyone can afford to stay in school, but if you don’t have a MM or some sort of graduate Artist Diploma or Certificate, your resume should probably be pretty packed with young artist programs and other training opportunities. If not, applications showing graduate degrees and/or artist diplomas will take precedence.
  • Momentum: This is autumn 2010. If the only performing or competition activity on your resume ends at 2008 (or earlier), that doesn’t give us a lot of motivation to move your application to the top of the pile. We want to see the visible markers of your developing career moving in the right direction.  If your singing life is operating at the same level it was 2 or 3 years ago, the paperwork doesn’t scream career potential. It doesn’t mean you won’t have a career, just that the objective markers aren’t going to give you an edge over someone else when we’re unavoidably comparing the two.
  • Previous WTOC Audition(s): We don’t have a threshold or maximum number of applications or auditions, but we do check our history. We know that everyone has off days, and we won’t kick you to the curb if you didn’t sing your best for us last year. But if we did hear you previously, and there’s not much on your resume since then, and there are other qualified applicants who should get a chance, we may end up favoring them instead of you. Sorry. But if you are still interested in us a year from now, and you your paperwork shows that important momentum (see above), you’ll get through again for sure.

If You’re Still Here…

I hope this helped a little. It’s thorny, unavoidably subjective and not easy to articulate.

Does all of this mean that if you haven’t sung featured roles, won competitions, or gotten into a big-name YAP, you will never sing here? Of course not – no formula like this is infallible. And we’ve hired terrific people who don’t fit neatly into this box. But those external markers increase your chance of success at this point in the cruel professional singer pyramid, and we have to pay attention to them.

This Catch 22 isn’t unique to our business. You always need experience in order to get it. You may be blazingly talented and come out of nowhere, not having played this particular career-building game. People do. And there are places who can take a chance on those singers, allowing them to learn, grown, and perform at an optimal level until they are ready to take on higher-profile stuff without crashing and burning. But that’s not the way we’re set up, and it would be unfair (to you and to us) to pretend that we are.

OK, this is exhausting for all of us. We are glad to be out of this clinical, denial-filled phase of our process, and we’re ready to hit the road and actually hear some music. If you’re going to sing for us, we look forward to hearing you. If you didn’t get through that damn screen door this time, we hope you have a wonderful year, and we look forward to seeing you on a stage somewhere!

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