The Forest before the Trees

Some food for thought this weekend before we get into the nitty-gritty.

A few seasons ago on the blog I tried to quantify what we listen for in auditions. I ended up with a list modeled on one in Joanna Merlin’s book “Auditioning.” (It’s intended for actors, but its wisdom easily extends to the singing actor. Find it here online or at a book store.)


We want performers who can create a potent and palpable space for themselves onstage. Stay with the character! Communicate. If you lapse, even for a moment, we hear and see it. And if you can’t stay in the moment for the duration of a 5-minute aria, that doesn’t bode well for your ability to hold the stage for an evening.


If you’re mimicking someone else’s performance (either vocally or dramatically or both), it won’t ring true. Your decisions should be yours, and they should be personal. Yes, traditions establish themselves for good reasons, and there’s no good reason not to learn from the generations of fabulous artists who went before you. So listen to tons of recordings, study the cadenzas and interpretations of the icons of the business; but when you make your interpretive choices, really stand behind them in an organic and personal way.


It’s all about discovery. We care about what happens moment-to-moment, and you have to sing it that way. Don’t telegraph the whole aria/scene/character at once. Life isn’t like that, and art rarely is, either.


Detail. Variety. Monochromaticism is one of my own personal bugaboos. If every phrase sounds the same, and Aria #1 sounds just like Aria #2, you’re being far too generic. Sometimes this happens in the well-intentioned but misguided pursuit of safe ground.


Never underestimate how much it takes or to what degree it needs to be focused and honed. Project the voice and the personality to the back of the hall and beyond. It will keep you from becoming self-indulgent.


Yes, there is always humor. And it’s the most important in the most unexpected places.


Performing is not an easy thing to do. All singers know that. Take it one step farther. Take chances. Base them on experience and skill, but don’t play it safe.


Ah, you wondered when we’d get to that. Technique. Simply put (and here I travel back to my pianist days), it’s the ability to put all of the tools at your disposal in the service of creating art. More easily said than done, but it’s always important to work at it until you drop, then value that work by acknowledging that it’s a means, not an end.

Have a wonderful weekend – see you Monday!



I enjoyed reading your post regarding audition attributes. It brought back to me some fond memories I have of "The Trap" As Executive Director in the late 70's I ran the opera program and auditions – 15 cities as I recall. It was always a challenging – yet enjoyable task choosing the final 16 participants. It would have been great to have put in place such a character profile tool as you posted. I never did.
Good work.
Craig Hankenson

Steven Lumpkin

Fantastic list… thanks for posting this. I think it would be invaluable information for any young artist, especially looking toward opera.


15 cities, Craig?!? How did you do it? The mind boggles. We average 7 or 8, and that's about all I can take. Not sure we could ever afford to do that much traveling again, either!

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