Opening the Screen Door

This is my least favorite part of our annual cycle, bar none. We’ve received about 1,000 applications for next month’s audition tour, and we need to pick fewer than half of those singers for our audition tour.

Why?

First (and least controversial), it’s sheerly mathematical. We (I) can only really hear about 30 people a day and still be really thoughtful and functional about what I’m hearing. Although most Studio Artist auditions consist of a single aria (and occasionally a monologue), each of our Filene Young Artist (FYA) auditionees get to sing 2 arias (or whatever fits in 10 minutes). We can hear about 6 FYAs an hour and about 8 Studio Artists an hour. We are on the road for about 3 weeks, hearing auditions for 15 of those days. Can’t cram 1,000 people into that container.

Perhaps sometime we’ll have enough money and time to hear everyone. Wouldn’t that be fascinating? We wouldn’t have to spend most of the month of October sifting through everyone’s paperwork to try to figure out who should get in the door this year. But an audition tour that long would take a pot of cash that we don’t have. In spite of the fact that some singers rail against the application fees and believe that we’re getting rich off them, those fees don’t cover the cost of the existing tour. Airfare, hotels, space rental, pianists, monitors… it adds up. Expanding it isn’t economically possible.

The screening process has another, more controversial aspect, though. There’s a certain percentage of FYA applicants (I’ll go out on a limb and put it up there at 15%) who just aren’t in the right place in their careers and training for a program like this. Yes, we’re a “YAP,” and in some ways it does feel like opera camp. But the expectations are high, and the scrutiny (from visiting VIPs, critics, colleagues) is pretty intense. Singers have to show up here knowing themselves, their instruments, and their craft quite well. And that generally means having done a smattering of substantial-length roles, participating in and winning a high-level competition or two, and being in other semi-professional environments (generally YAPs in high-profile companies). When I see these markers on an application, I know that the singer in question is reasonably well positioned to do well here. These comments, viewed through a certain kind of lens, sound cocky and exclusionary. They are not meant to be so.

Does that 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. 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 some bigger 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. All of that said, I’m going to walk you through what happens when I screen a pile of Filene Young Artist applications. Tonight’s assignment is Chicago. 111 applicants to fit into 2 days. In this case, the screen door is open just a little more than 50% of the way.

First Pass

The first time through the stack I pull out folks who meet one or more of the following qualifications:

  • A previous WTOC audition during which we noted in our internal comments that we would like to follow this singer.
  • 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 a few others).
  • A recent attention-getting big win at a recent competition (Met National Council national level, Tuckers, Sullivan, London, Zachary, a few others).

So far, I have 22 people. Can pick a maximum of 38 more.

Second Pass

Now I’m looking for confluence of factors. A single outlying marker from the list below might be enough to propel an application into the “yes” pile; more often than not, though, it’s a combination of positive items from a few of these requirements:

  • Academic Training: 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.
  • 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 in the company 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 academic or amateur background. (Don’t flame: Nothing is wrong with the latter. It’s just not as reliable an indicator.)
  • Strong Roles: If you’ve been offered featured roles at a school/company where this is possible, that indicates that you rose to the top in that environment. (Note that I saw “where this is possible” – we know that not all schools and organizations offer full-length leading role opportunities.)
  • Competitions: You don’t have to have won everything. Heaven knows that competition wins are pretty random. But we need to see that you are putting yourself out there, not just hiding in the studio. (Hiding in the studio is a completely defensible and wise thing for a while; but if you hope to do well in our environment, you need to be past that point.)

After the second pass, I have 8 available slots and 51 resumes on my desk. This is where it sucks most.

Final Cut

Up to this point, it was all about enabling. Picking people to whom we are able to say “yes.” But now the dynamic turns ugly, and I have to start deliberately eliminating. Not surprisingly, this process is the photographic negative of what I just described above in the “Second Pass.

  • Academic Training: 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 artist diplomas will take precedence.
  • Summer YAPS: 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.
  • Roles: 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: Not a reliable indicator by themselves, but the absence of any external recognition of this type is another obstacle.

Really, this phase of the screening really comes down to momentum. Over the handful of years that you’ve been singing, are the visible markers of your career moving in the right direction? Or is your singing life pretty much operating at the same level it was 2 or 3 years ago?

This hasn’t been the most pleasant post to write, or to read, but if you’re still with me, consider one other factor.

Another Kind of Door

This kind of opportunity is a revolving door. We don’t set a maximum number of applications or auditions, but whether or not you’ve auditioned for us before does play into the screening process. All other things being equal (well, equivalent), if we have to make a decision between two singers whose histories with us differ, we will probably default to the one who has never sung for us before. Not always the optimal decision, but ultimately the fairest.

OK, I’m back to work. And you should get back to singing. If we shut you out this year, I’m sorry. But there will be other years, other companies, other opportunities. If we’ll be hearing you this year, I’m looking forward to it. In a day or two I’ll get back to answering the repertoire and other audition questions that you’ve submitted via the comments section.

2 Comments

Anonymous

Wow, that’s fascinating. Knowing how the screening process works will make rejection sting much less, because I see that it’s not personal. Thank you for walking us through it!

Anonymous

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?

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