The Tough Call

A lunch hour post, for I’m feeling a bit guilty at my blogging track record this time around. Seems that I can either do things or write about them, but not both…

We implemented a callback audition procedure a couple of years ago, and it has served us well. We only have one trip around the country to sort out all of our casting, for we have no other system that allows us to do preliminaries and finals. We can’t stay out on the road any longer than we do, and I don’t believe it would be fair to ask people in whom we are interested to pay for a special trip to Wolf Trap. That means that we have to think fast and answer a lot of questions in a short audition.

Until a few years ago, we did it all within the standard 10-minute appointment, but now we have the option to ask singers to come back at the end of the day (or midday, if there’s a cancellation) to sing again. Not only does it give us a chance to discuss amongst ourselves and then hear some new material, it also gives all of us a chance to push the reset button and see each other anew. (Sounds dopey, but perspective changes, and a second, slightly removed, hearing is often illuminating.)

Anyway, the mechanics involve recording a hotline voice mail message with the names and appointment times for the singers who, based on their initial audition, we are considering seriously for this year’s roster. The flip side of that is that if your name is not on the recording, that means your resume didn’t make it into the “finalist” pile for this year.

I’m enough of a sad sack bleeding heart that it nearly kills me to record the damn voice mail. Twice a day. (No sympathy requested; if I haven’t figured this out by now, it’s my own fault.)

If you’re not on the callback list, it doesn’t mean that you sang a bad audition, or that there is necessarily anything dramatically wrong. There are almost as many reasons for not getting on the finalist list as there are singers. Completely individual. It just means that on this particular day at this particular time we don’t find you among the 8-10 most compelling singers in your Fach. (It’s disturbing math, but there it is. We hire an average of 16 Filene Young Artists, and usually pull those from about 50 finalists. Those 50 came from the initial 1,000. This is not to make you despair, just to give some perspective. There are plenty other YAPs and companies out there.)

We were talking this morning about how astonishingly revealing it is to hear this many auditions every year. My colleagues who do this regularly understand the phenomenon, but it’s so hard to explain it to others who don’t have the benefit of this long view.

It’s not that I have any supernatural ability to make sense of what we hear in auditions – it’s just that the sheer quantity itself tells a compelling story. It’s a messy story, to be sure, but its details are clear. You quickly begin to understand what’s unimportant and what’s critical. For Wolf Trap alone, I’ve heard an average of 350-400 singers each season for the last 17 years (more over the last few years because of our Studio), so I’ve clocked somewhere between 6,000-7,000 auditions. Easily 15,000+ arias. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to make deductions from that kind of volume.

I do want to stress that although I throw around numbers to make this sound scientific, it is decidedly not. It’s quite subjective, in fact. There are commonalities in good singing, of course, but once the basic parameters are met, preferences are unavoidably individual. We do our best to try to be as objective as we can, but there’s a place where art and science diverge. And many of our decisions have to be made beyond that point.

Although the WTOC is terribly proud of its record in participating in the developing careers of several generations of fabulous singers, there are terrific artists who we passed over during our auditions. If you didn’t get called back, perhaps you’ll be another one of those.

So there you have it – back to some more singing this afternoon. I will try to compile this year’s Aria Frequency List tonight and get it on the blog shortly. And I hope to be back by week’s end with a summary of how I spent National Opera Week :)



Dear Ms. Witman,

Thanks for this post. I am one of those singers who sang for you yesterday and did not receive a callback. I wasn't entirely surprised (I'm probably not yet at the level of those who get accepted into your program)…but I nevertheless very much enjoyed the process of auditioning for your company.

If there was a part of me that was disappointed not to receive a callback (and of course there was!), it's because I've been so impressed by your thoughtfulness and candor on this blog, that I hope someday to have the chance to work with you personally. How nice to sing and know one is being heard by intelligent, empathetic ears! Best of luck to you and your colleagues as you make these tough decisions this year.


I also very much appreciate this post, if for a slightly different reason. I auditioned for the Studio program in NYC on Monday, and there are no callbacks for that; however, the previous week I auditioned for Music Academy of the West, and was not called back. It was a bit of a blow at first, but after some time, and after reading your post, it is much easier to accept.

Incidentally, I was also wondering why you do not have callbacks for the Studio Artist category. Could you perhaps explain what the difference in criteria between the Filene Young Artists and the Studio is that necessitates callbacks for one and not the other? (whenever you may have time over the next several days, or weeks even)

I love the blog by the way! I've been following it for about a year, and I find it extremely interesting and informative. Thank you so much!

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