Zen and the Art of the Opera Audition: Killing and Creating

Fourth in a series of audition season posts inspired by a recent re-reading of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.


“When analytic thought is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process… But what is less noticed in the arts – something is always created, too.”

How loathe we “artists” are to take things apart.

The popular notion that creativity is a mysterious and unknowable process has some basis in reality, of course. Who hasn’t looked back at a high point on her artistic journey and had no idea how and why it happened that way? There is an element of mystery… of grace… of inspiration. After all, they call talent a “gift,” right?

Thankfully, most of us have moved beyond the notion that the muse confers greatness without hard work. Your performance is greater than the sum of its parts, but it wouldn’t exist without them. Diction drilling, technical tooling, dramaturgical research – these and more are the essential building blocks of the way singers communicate. We know that, but sometimes we believe too fully in the first half of Phaedrus’ quote: “When analytic thought is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process.” Is there a little part of us that resists the drudgery not only because it’s drudgery but also because of a superstition that if we lay the art bare, something will escape?

What’s most important to remember is that in the process of taking apart the magic, something is always created. It’s almost like a chemical reaction. There are new sparks and glimmers created when the raw and diamond-polished components of your performance are laid bare. And tasting the beauty of the language in your mouth, experiencing the urgency of the rhythm in your body, reveling in the security of your vocal technique, and riding the architecture of the scene in your mind’s eye – all of these things create a new and finely-textured whole that can only be created in a process that begins something that doesn’t exactly feel like art.

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