Casting & Repertoire: A Case Study

But first, the top 10 reasons I haven’t been posting:

10. Running around the country left me dumb as a stump. (Or, as TL taught me, dumm wie Brot)

9. I’m enjoying the unexamined life.

8. The white boards in my office are calling to me.

7. The endless variations of repertoire and casting grids have put my right and left brain so completely at war with one another that gridlock is the result.

6. Sleep or blogging. Guess which wins.

5. I have to re-memorize all those Christmas carols and other holiday songs for this weekend. If I had a memory, I’d be really dangerous…

4. My family is so happy to see me again that they seem to want me to cook. (Go figure; I’m not even good at it.)

3. Did I mention napping?

2. Did you know that if you put an out-of-office message on your email and phone for a month and a half, when you do return, all hell breaks loose?

And the main reason I’ve ignored the blog for over a week?!?

1. It’s tough to write about something that has to be confidential until it’s over. Everything I’m doing around the clock right now can’t be public until it’s done.

Hypothetical Season XYZ

Right now we have about 30 Filene Young Artist candidates who are on the final short list for the summer. (How do you know if you’re one of them? If you sang a callback and you haven’t recently received an release email that apologizes for not being able to include you in this season, then we’re still wrestling with you.)

Why don’t we just pick the 18-or-so people that we want and be done with it?

Because the repertoire isn’t final. We get closer every day, but there’s no future in getting cocky about having it figured out.

OK, so I’m going to try to write about this using a hypothetical scenario. Feeling a little guilty/idiotic for doing this when I should be spending the corresponding amount of time trying to solve this season’s actual problems, but there seems to be a lot of curiosity about how we do this. (WARNING: Do not try to extrapolate this scenario into what might happen this summer. it’s a deliberate and overt red herring.)

Problem Children

The first thing we do is identify those singers on our final list whose voice types are unusual or specific enough that there are relatively few roles that would be appropriate for them. In our Hypothetical Season, we have a Rossini tenor with precocious facility and range, a male soprano, a budding dramatic soprano, a coloratura soprano, and a lyric mezzo with unusual heft and substance to the mid- and low voice. In addition, we have a couple of light lyric sopranos, a soubrette/coloratura, a dramatic coloratura, a couple of high lyric mezzos, a light lyric tenor, a couple of lyric baritones, and two bass-baritone. These folks in the latter grouping are no less fabulous than their colleagues in the first list; it’s just that it’s easier to find good roles for them in a larger range of repertoire.

(I sure hope you’re still with me, and since I have no way of checking, I’m plowing on.)

Opera X

So we identify an opera that will accommodate the Rossini tenor, the coloratura soprano, a couple of the mezzos, a baritone, and one of the bass-baritones with a real flair for comedy. The first thing to do is to vet this choice with the tenor and soprano – the two whose roles are the most specifically challenging. This process takes a few days, for these singers must find the scores, take a look at the roles, and consult with teachers and mentors. If they get back to us in the affirmative, we then proceed with other offers for this opera simultaneously while beginning to cast Opera Y. If for any reason, Opera X is not a good fit for these specific voice types, we don’t proceed; we choose another piece and start over.

Opera Y

Let’s assume that Opera X is starting to look good, so we can move on. Opera Y has a great role for the male soprano, the big mezzo, the budding dramatic soprano, and the other bass-baritone. It also provides another coloratura soprano role and one more mezzo role. The same scenario plays out with these offers.


Simultaneous with these opera offers, we’re trying to place two multi-singer recitals (requiring balanced casting and singers with a true flair for and interest in recital work), a possible concert project with the National Symphony (which will emerge from the singers whose offers for Operas X, Y & Z are more of the supporting role rather than the featured role variety), and (in recent years) a double cast for our Instant Opera improv project for children. Not only do we have to figure out who is going to sing in these projects, we have to make the rehearsal and performance schedules line up like a damn sudoku puzzle.

Opera Z

We’re getting closer. We look at which singers on our final list haven’t been accommodated by Opera X or Y. We zero in on Opera Z, with a lovely light lyric soprano role, a lyric tenor opportunity, and a featured role opportunity for the bass-baritone whose Opera Y role was small. On the plus side, Opera Z has a big cast that allows us to bring some of the featured-role singers from Opera X and Y on for some supporting roles.

Hurry Up and Wait

Every one of these steps involves communicating an offer to a singer, then waiting a couple of days (we don’t sit around for long, but it’s rude to not give a young singer even 48 hours to try something on), then starting in with someone else. Any given singer might receive a series of phone calls or emails as we define each stage – first with a featured role, then with confirmation of a supporting role or a concert/recital, etc.

Just When You Thought It Was Safe

So, several weeks have passed, and we’re closing in on things. Time to breathe a sign of relief. Uh, no…

Remember the Rossini tenor in Opera X? He just got a call from La Scala. Seems that he might not be coming to Wolf Trap for his second season after all. Is that inconvenient? Yes. Is it equally clear that this is what we hope will happen for our artists? Of course. So, with our blessing (and a little bit of good-natured grumbling from me just so he doesn’t get too cocky), we start over.

We decide against uprooting Operas Y & Z – can’t think of a new trilogy that solves the same puzzle as well for those people. But we no longer have one of the key voice types for Opera X. So Rossini becomes Donizetti. Another tenor fits well into the new role, the soprano, baritone, and bass transfer over pretty cleanly into their new assignments. The mezzos get the short end of the stick, for we can’t find anything equally good for them. So we beef up their other assignments as best as possible, and give them the choice of accepting the revised offer or choosing to wait until the next summer.


OK, so it wasn’t hypothetical. I’m not that smart these days. It was 2002, when a planned Comte Ory morphed into Don Pasquale, then was followed by Xerxes and Street Scene.

Either I’ve shed a bit of light on what we do in December, or I’ve completely confused my gentle readers. I’ve left out dozens of corollaries, contingencies and details, and I’ve oversimplified the sequence.

This little dance we do is maddening and fascinating. I do look forward to its peculiar combination of creativity and limitation, but there are moments in the process during which the obstacles seem intractable. I go into it wanting to make everything work out perfectly for everyone, and that’s simply not possible. My persistent naiveté can’t retain that lesson from year to year, though, and I have to relearn it the hard way.

It’s the disappointments that weigh me down.

I want everyone to have the perfect role. I want there to be no crazy crunch times in people’s schedules when they’re performing one opera and rehearsing another. I want there to be no one on the short list to whom I have to write in mid-December and give bad news. But as neatly as this puzzle will appear to fit together after we’ve finished, I will see the ragged edges and glue that holds some of the pieces together. And I will regret not getting to know some of the artists to whom we had to say no.

So, here I am, somewhere in the middle stages of Opera X & Y, and playing around with options for Opera Z. The extracurriculars are resisting falling into place. Some responses are coming in, mostly in the affirmative. We’re starting to move into the less-specific voice types. It looks as if we might have between 50 and 60 assignments among all of the different projects to apportion across 18-20 singers. No 11th-hour surprises, but then again, it isn’t the 11th hour yet…



I do not envy the task in front of you now. Thanks for taking a few moments to clear the waters on the dance you do post-auditions.

Looking forward to them when the season can be revealed (and you all can breathe a little easier)!


So what do you do about the other decisions? When do you choose conductors, designers, etc? Is it difficult to get them this late in the game or do you ask them before you know what the operas are going to be? Fascinating stuff! Good luck!


We choose conductors and directors as soon as the operas begin to firm up, usually in early to mid December. Because we can never lay claim to someone’s summer by engaging them as far ahead as other summer festivals, we stay in touch with a number of potential conductors and directors, then hope that we can find a good match of artist/opera/schedule. It’s never easy, but because we’re fortunate enough to have a number of great colleagues who hope to work with us, it always works out. With any luck, designers are on board by the end of December, for costume and scenic designs are usually due by the end of March. An insane turn-around for this business, but we persist because this singer-driven repertoire system is so important to our mission.

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Blog