What *Were* You Thinking?

I just got back from hearing dozens of aspiring young singers in the North Carolina district auditions of the Metropolitan Opera National Council.  As is typical, I am equal parts exhausted and energized.

And, as is typical, I had the following post-competition discussion with a number of audience members.

Patron: It must’ve been such a difficult job to decide how to pick the winners. 
Kim: Indeed, it was – they were a talented bunch!
Patron:  I made my own list of winners, and I only have one question.
Kim: Yes?
Patron: What were you thinking?

OK, paraphrased, but you get the idea.  It happens again and again, and it never surprises me.  And it’s usually not confrontational but is born of true curiosity about the judging panel process.

Most of these MONC spectators are seasoned opera-goers and true lovers of the voice. And as such, they usually have pretty good taste.  They know when something is out of kilter, and they know when they are truly engaged and excited by a voice.  The kicker is that sometimes we don’t choose some of the singers for whom the audience had the most enthusiasm.  Why?

It’s too complicated a question to answer in an exhaustive fashion, but in short, we’re looking for singers whose profile (as demonstrated on this particular day at this particular moment) indicates that they possess the particular tools to distinguish themselves within their particular voice type.  Being a compelling performer is part of it, to be sure.  But having the vocal equipment and potential to rise above the norm as a coloratura soprano or lyric tenor or basso profondo or dramatic mezzo, etc. (random examples) is what matters.  If you can’t nail the exact requirements for whichever voice type you seem to be best suited (highest and lowest notes, ability to project in certain registers, flexibility and agility of the voice, etc), you will have a difficult time getting hired.

We have to take this into consideration, for the Met is looking for career potential.  But singers in their 20’s are so often (rightly so) in development and/or transition, and many of them don’t yet know what they “are” – which box they best fit inside.  (Of course, some of the best singers of all time didn’t fit in a box at all, but you’ll have a hard time selling that concept if you’re a 20-something opera singer in America…)  And every single person that comes into contact with young singers has a different opinion.  It’s a recipe for extreme confusion.  Nevertheless, in order to figure out which singers should advance, panels have to grapple with the implications of it.

So, if you’re in the audience for one of these events, and your scorecard doesn’t line up with the panel’s, don’t despair. 

First of all, you might be right and they might be wrong.  We do our level best, on the basis of decades of experience, but we are not infallible. 

Second, the judges may have had the same positive gut reaction as you, but were responding to details of the voice and its development that would indicate that it might not be optimal yet to send a particular singer on to the next level of the competition.

Fortunately, there are many opportunities for young singers to be heard – in various competitions, in auditions for young artist programs, in performance in conservatory and university.   Even the most amazing singers don’t always win, and everyone has off days.  But over time, talent will out. 



You describe an approach to choosing MONCA winners.. Is that the approach of all judges or is that how you personally go about it? In general, do you think the MONCA advances singers with the most potential or the most polish? Thanks!


This is my own approach, and it has historically aligned comfortably with that of many of my colleagues. Everyone has a slightly different take on it.

The answer to your second question is "both." There has to be large potential. And ideally, there is a level of polish appropriate to the amount of type of experience and training a singer has had to date.

Add Comment

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

Back to Blog