Recognizing Talent

I drop back into the blogosphere today after a few weeks of radio silence brought to you by the post-audition-tour casting frenzy. We’re consumed with the first step of our freakishly fast pre-production process which takes us from a blank slate to opening night in 6 months. And of course, until the smoke begins to clear, I won’t be able to share any of this with you :(

Until then, we’ll take a few side journeys.

Today’s comes courtesy of this article in the Financial Times, in which Meg Wolitzer explores the murky link between talent and success. I was reminded of this piece last week, during part of the American Voices symposium at the Kennedy Center. On Friday afternoon’s panel, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Anthony Freud spoke briefly about how we are increasingly bad at distinguishing between the excellent and the successful.  And all of this came crashing down on me in the wake of the 600 auditions I heard this fall.

Ms. Wolitzer wrote,

“We profess to love talent, and yet what we sometimes love more is the anointing that follows the revelation of talent.”

There are plenty of ways to observe this in the crazy, wonderful and misleading world of reality TV talent shows. Once the public has anointed the talented performer, they feel that success and talent are conjoined. This happens so much, and in increasingly public ways, that musicians in 21st-century America are repeatedly pulled away from the art in favor of a focus on “success.” And the audience – those wonderful people who consume our product – feels increasingly less capable of trusting its own instincts and more dependent on the media culture to tell it what to think.

This parlays into the audition room in a slightly different way. Our selection process is not blind to the artist’s previous accomplishments; in fact, folks get through our screening process largely because we see that they have managed to distinguish themselves in another area – a competition, a highly-selective graduate school, a competitive apprentice program. So the tendency is to tell ourselves a story about how good we think they’ll be, since (referring back to Ms. Wolitzer) the talent has already been anointed. This is dangerous. Our task in the audition room is to allow the talent to reveal itself and to resist jumping on a bandwagon. Some of the folks we choose as finalists in our auditions are also in the select few chosen by colleagues; others are not. If we take our responsibility seriously, once we get to the audition room, we must be blind to the previous anointing.

One more quote, this one with a direct message to the singers out there:

“The evolution went from doing the thing and not caring what it was called; to doing the thing and realising there might be some measure of talent involved; to doing the thing but being preoccupied while doing it about when, if ever, success would arrive with its money, celebrity and stratospheric thread-count. And sometimes trying to game the system, seeing if changing things a bit might bring success more quickly.”

The author is speaking of an attitudinal shift within her young professional circle in the 1980’s, but this same shift happens today, but with a speed we never could have guessed a few decades ago. Yes, we all need success. We need money to pay our bills and some level of validation to give us strength when we falter. But I have one request of young musicians: Do whatever you can to stay in the first stage of this evolution. Go ahead and gussy up your résumé and give due diligence to what it means to become a young independent professional artist. But don’t let that be your main focus. Do the thing. Do it well, love it, suck it dry, share it whenever you can. The rest will follow.

Happy Thanksgivvukah to you and yours. Here’s wishing you’ll enjoy a little respite with friends or family in the next few days. I’ll be back in December with three new hunks of audition tour data for you: the list of arias offered as first choices by both of our artist tiers, and a brand new look at the university and conservatory affiliations of our entire audition pool and our finalists!

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