Classical Music Buzz > Wolf Trap Opera Company
Wolf Trap Opera Company
Kim Pensinger
The Future of Opera
139 Entries
Well, it was on Wednesday, but I missed it.

Now We Are Five.
8 years ago |
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As we prepare for our California auditions, I thought this would be a great opportunity for a guest post. Joshua Winograde, Artistic Planning Manager for LA Opera, is a great friend and colleague of the WTOC, and he spent several chunks of his career so far with us - as a Filene Young Artist, as the originator of the title role in Volpone, and as the administrative engine behind the development of the Wolf Trap Opera Studio.

I keep telling Josh he should have his own blog, but he seems to prefer sending guest posts for mine... Hmmmm

Sweating Small Stuff... Seeing Forests for Trees... Wholes Being Greater than Sums of Parts ...

There are endless adages encouraging people to see the larger point, even at the expense of detail. They are wise sayings, and apply to many situations. But believing in these morsels of wisdom too much can be a downward spiral for singers. I'd like to propose that seeing too much of the bigger picture (or at least DWELLING on it) can be bad.

You know when you learn a word for the first time, and then over the course of the following week you hear it seemingly in every newscast, radio show, and conversation you have? Well, over the last two weeks I have come across 3 situations that involve the exact same theme: "DO

SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF" (AKA "PAY ATTENTION TO THE TREES", AKA "THE PARTS ARE GREAT, TOO"). So I saw it as a sign to get this information out there ...

I offer this important disclaimer first: Nothing applies to everything or everyone across the board. So don't take this too literally ...just some food for thought.

(By the way, all details have been adjusted ever so slightly without altering the point. So don't bother trying to guess who these are about ... you won't, and you'll end up spending 10 fruitless hours on google :))

Situation #1

A young and very talented conductor friend of mine was lamenting recently about his career not being quite as important (yet) as he had hoped it would be by his age. He used the wondrous, spectacular, unreal, phenomenal Gustavo Dudamel as an example of what he hoped he would have accomplished by HIS 30th birthday. The large picture was this: "Dudamel is my age, why am I not famous? What can he do that I could not, if given the same opportunity? Why don't I have MY own orchestra? Why are LA's streets not covered with posters of ME?"

First I want to just point out that my friend is NOT an egomaniac. He is just concerned that the WHOLE seems to be LESS than the sum of his parts. So I asked him the following questions: "Well, what about the time you guested with the XXXXX Symphony last year?" "Oh," he said, "that was kind of a bomb. The orchestra hated the piece and I had a cold so I wasn't very pleasant or charismatic or inspiring." My response? "When was the last time Dudamel was UN-inspiring, do you think, even with a cold and a horrible composition?" The answer, of course, is NEVER.

My advice was simple. Don't worry about the big picture. Just be excellent. Don't think about Dudamel's explosive career. Just conduct well. Don't worry about whether there might be a chance for you to catch up with someone your own age who is doing much better than you. JUST. BE. EXCELLENT. The next time you conduct, do it well. Someone will hear it and will tell someone else how amazing you were, but DON'T think about that. The next time you are in front of an orchestra, just be excellent. They'll love you because you were excellent, and you'll get another job from it, or an agent, or a poster on the street. But you'll have gotten those things because you were excellent, not because of a larger, abstract agenda to be famous, likable, charismatic, etc. And I am sorry to say that, very often but not always, if you didn't get good things as a result of your performances, it's because they weren't excellent. Got it?

Situation #2

One of today's most famous directors just told me this story about his first big break. He had been the assistant director for many years of another SUPER famous director, and was given the opportunity to finally direct his own show. It happened to star several of the most famous singers in the world, and he was FREAKED. "How do I make sure they like me? How are they going to react to some young, unknown punk telling them what to do? How will they take me

seriously? What if I bomb?" This young director took his concerns to his mentor (the SUPER famous one), who replied with this: "Start by fixing their mistakes."

It was a revelation to this young AD (who by the way had a HUGE success). In other words, don't worry about their perception of your expertise. Just fix mistakes. Don't get hysterical about whether this will get good reviews. Just direct well. You can't control whether they have already formed an unjust opinion of you since learning their director was an unknown punk. JUST. BE. EXCELLENT.

The famous singers will tell all their famous friends about how great you were. People will ask you for the DVD to see your work. You will be hired again by the same company. But it will be because you directed excellently, not because you somehow strategized to become loved, or successful, or to get good reviews.

Situation #3

I saw a video of a cello master class taught by the most successful cellist in recent history. The student he was working with was getting flustered by his critiques, not because the teacher was impatient or unclear, but because the young cellist student said she "couldn't quite get a complete picture of the appropriate Bach style" he was asking for. His response: "Start by playing beautifully. And in tune." There was dead silence for about 10 LONG seconds before they just continued. It was as if the statement was so simple that no one could understand it.

By this point in my ramblings, you get it ...

So in summary, how does this apply to singers? Are you anxious about your career? Do you want us to like you? Are you unclear about which managers to approach? Are you confused about which YAPs might want you? Do you want desperately to understand bel canto style? Mozart recits? Handel ornamentation? Do you want to make a good impression and be re-engaged by the company you are working at currently? Do you want to get on the good side of someone important? Blah blah blah ... forest for the ... whole is greater ... too big picture ... waste of time ... yuck.

Start by singing excellently. The next time I hear you, be excellent. Sing beautifully. And in tune. Pronounce your words excellently. Is your top short? Fix it. Do people tell you that you go flat sometimes? Fix it. Make it excellent. Are your runs sloppy? Fix them. Are your recits unnatural and "un-Italian"? Make them idiomatic. The next time you sing, and the time after that, too, just do a REALLY good job. Trust me, if you are excellent, we'll like you. You'll get re-engaged. You'll get a job like Dudamel's. Your Bach style will be wonderful.

YES ... I can hear the screams from here. "Do a good job? That is so abstract and more complicated than you think! This makes no sense! If I COULD just be excellent I wouldn't need to keep studying! You can't just WILL yourself to sing in tune, JOSH!!! Coloratura is hard!"

And you are absolutely right if you thought any of these things to yourself. I have completely over-simplified the process and I myself can hardly believe some of the idealistic and intangible things I've said. But if you REALLY don't think anything I have said applies to the coming audition season and to the rest of your career, then please allow me to tie this up cleverly in a sweet little bow: maybe you just can't see the forest for the trees.
8 years ago |
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And we're off. 7 cities, 6 airports, 3 train stations, dozens of cabs and one car rental later, we'll end up back here at Thanksgiving - with any luck, ready to cast 3 operas for next summer.

I'll write as often as possible from the road - cities and dates below at right.

Tonight I try to stuff 3 weeks' worth of clothing, computer gear, audio/video archive equipment, and audition paperwork into one checked back and one carry-on. The travails of travel await, but this will make it all better this year.

See you from the left coast in a few days.
8 years ago |
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On our final expert Friday, some combined advice from Kathleen Kelly and Laura Canning of the Houston Grand Opera Studio:

Don't Second-Guess!

We like hearing you sing; we know auditioning is hard and we want you to do well. Don't try to second guess what I want you to sing, or wear, or say. Just be true to yourself. Every panel wants something different- every MEMBER of every panel wants something different!

Your Aria List

Make sure you choose your starting piece carefully. Don't choose something long just because you think you're only going get to sing one aria - that can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Know how to get from your first piece to every other item on your list. Don't presume you know what the panel are going to ask for second. Do provide contrast, as otherwise why would we choose a second aria? If on the day you don't feel up to your stretch piece, take it off your list.


Send music / repertoire info in advance if it's not standard, especially if you're planning to start with that aria. Take 20 seconds to talk to your pianist before you start. Make sure you sing at your tempo, not his or hers. Don't take your own pianist unless you're sure they're better than the one provided!


Don't presume there is somewhere to warm up / change at the venue without checking. If you're running late, phone!

Have an Opinion

Have an opinion; have many opinions, and bring them to the table. Nothing is deadlier than music managed rather than lived, performance designed not to offend. Avoid asking for permission in the moment of performance. Sometimes I feel like auditioners are painting themselves white, like apartments that could be rented by anyone. Believe that we truly want to know who you are.

In the service of the above - work religiously and scrupulously to inform yourself of everything, from how Italian vowels sound, to where the orchestra can and can't allow you to take time, to the areas in which your own voice and body are most and least capable. That work will last the rest of your life, so it won't be finished when you audition - but we can tell if you are doing it or not.

And finally, I just ran across this terrific audition advice blog from Bill Florescu of Florentine Opera Company: The Opera Audition.

8 years ago |
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First, a list from a few seasons ago, when my colleague Thomas Lausmann sat on the audition panel with me:

What Makes a Fabulous Audition Pianist?

  • Listening. The ability to put the playing in subconscious mode and use most of the conscious mind to take in all of the details of the performance and become a split-second collaborator for singers the pianist has never met.
  • Flexibility. Turning on a dime to respond to the unexpected – a mis-timed entrance, a sudden change in tempo, an ill-marked cut in the printed music, a book (or, perish the thought, a stray piece of loose music) that won’t stay on the rack.
  • ESP. The ability to know sometimes a singer grinds to a halt not because he wants to, but because he can’t help himself. The pianist must gently prod the tempo. The ability to know that a singer’s desired tempo is predicated on the length of phrase she can sustain or the very specific speed that the coloratura must move in that particular voice.
  • Tolerance. Auditioners are a nervous lot. Normally sane, pleasant people can become pretty tightly wound in the audition room. Face it – the pianist is physically closer to the singer than any of us, and some of that wears off.
  • Musicality. We notice this and are thankful for it almost hourly. Singers feel it in their bones even if they don’t acknowledge it consciously. A well-shaped phrase, an interlude or prelude that actually encourages the singer to join in the music-making – that’s what it’s all about.

Your Responsibility

We realize that the audition pianist is a variable that changes from company to company, from day to day, from location to location. Safest to let go of whatever expectation you may have. Control the variables you can. The pianist is not one of them. So, best to think slightly conservatively.

If you're kind of new at this audition stuff, you don't need a lot of curves thrown at you. Bring a pianist (preferably a good one, please...) if some of your rep is non-standard. But be sure that your pianist can play your rep better than a typical company-provided pianist. I've seen too many singers undone by their own colleagues.

If you're getting a bit more experienced and comfortable, you can always take a chance, though. Here's the most important thing: Be able to sing your aria without getting rattled even if the piano isn't helping you. Give your aria to a pianist friend who isn't good at sight-reading. See if you can prevail while s/he accompanies you. It is possible. We recognize when there is a singer/pianist problem, and generally, unless you allow it to hamstring you, it doesn't end up being a huge liability. It's a sliding scale, to be sure.

Don’t snap your fingers at the pianist to indicate tempo. Aside from being slightly irritating (don't ask me why, it just is... I've been on the receiving end myself), it's rarely functional. I have yet to see a singer indicate a tempo (by clapping, snapping, conducting, etc) that bears a real resemblance to the actual speed of the aria.

Take a look back at this post in Week 3 for practical considerations when prepping your music for the audition pianist.

8 years ago |
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Don't spend a lot of time obsessing about how to relate to the audition panel. Auditions aren't cocktail parties, and other than avoiding the appearance of being extraordinarily grumpy and crank, there's not a lot to worry about.


First of all, there's no reason to walk to the opposite end of the room to shake hands. I know panel members who are firmly against this and others who are mildly irritated by it. Almost no one thinks it's a great idea, and it's almost never not awkward. I have no strong opinion, but these kinds of formalities do slow things down terribly. You get a limited amount of time allotted, and you want to use it to sing, not to work the room.

If the panel is paying attention when you enter, it's perfectly appropriate to greet us with "Good afternoon" etc. We try to greet everyone before they have a chance to wonder what to say/do, but sometimes we get caught up in paperwork. The niceties aren't compulsory, though - it's just fine to say nary a word, give your music to the pianist, position yourself by the piano, and then speak.


Most of the time, the panel has your materials. If you need to submit a rep list change (where allowed), often the monitor can handle it. If not, deliver it to the panel with a smile, then get right to the main event.


It is always helpful for the panel to hear your name. If our system is working well, we'll know who you are; but sometimes things get out of sequence and we get confused. "Good afternoon. My name is Kim Witman" should do it.

If you know for sure that you are to choose your own first selection, announce it. But don't over-announce it. "I'd like to sing Aria Name" should be plenty. If it's a rare piece, then expand into "I'd like to sing Aria Name from Opera Name." But no need to turn it into an exercise in public speaking (as in "I'd like to sing Aria Name, Character's third act aria in Opera Name by Composer Name). We either have a rep list, and/or we're smart enough to fill in most of those blanks if we know the name of the aria. You'll probably just end up getting tongue-tied even if you've practiced it to within an inch of its life.


Be efficient and pleasant. Then sing.

8 years ago |
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The annual search for decent audition spaces in various cities across the country is a huge challenge. Some of the spaces we use are typical opera house rehearsal halls, and we're all familiar with how they feel, look, and sound. But occasionally we end up in a space at one of the two extremes of the acoustic spectrum.

1. The Bathroom/Stairwell Acoustic

Singers initially love the fact that everyone sounds huge in such a space. But quickly, some grapple with the fact that once the sound gets rolling around, it's very difficult to zero in on pitch. Simply, hard to hear. What’s surprising is that a live acoustic actually picks up and magnifies certain troublesome aspects of certain kinds of voices.

For us, this kind of environment is the aural equivalent of squinting for 2 days, trying to zero in on the core of the sound and ignore the noise around it. All of the upper partials are exaggerated, and although this can flatter the occasional muted, dark voice, anyone with any natural squillo in the sound can peel the paper off the walls.

2. Singing Into a Sock

If forced into either end of the spectrum, this is what we often choose. And I'm here to try to convince you that you actually have a better chance in this kind of environment. For in a dry acoustic, we know that we have to mentally add a certain amount of bloom and resonance to everyone's sound, and that tends to make us charitable. (As opposed to the hyper-live acoustic, where the mental exercise is one of subtraction.) We actually tend to deliberately overlook (or minimize) some things because we know how naked the sound is.

But singers have to have the technical foundation and discipline to resist the urge to push and drive the voice because of a too-dry acoustic. The biggest mistake that inexperienced singers make is to react to dry acoustics by pushing for volume because they don’t hear much sound coming back at them.

Bottom line: Get experienced in and prepared for the entire range of possibilities. For this isn't just limited to audition spaces - there's a similar range of acoustics in the performance halls you'll experience. Work with your teacher to find ways to avoid focusing on the unreliable aural feedback and to depend on other, more technically secure ways to know that you're doing your best singing.

8 years ago |
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I'm easing back into work this week, feeling fairly disoriented for reasons good and bad. But today's topic is pretty straight-forward, so I'm in luck.

We get a lot of questions about protocol inside the audition room, and we'll take a look at this topic later this week. For now, though, spare a moment to think about what happens outside that audition room door.

Trash Talk

Singers don't overtly try to get inside each others' heads the way professional athletes do, but there are mind games outside the room. Most artists are fair-minded and collegial, but you will inevitably meet people in the waiting room who think it's in their best interest to undermine the confidence of the competition. Or perhaps it's not even that deliberate - it's possible that they're just trying desperately to boost their own confidence.

Whatever the reason, if a singer in the waiting area is spouting off in a way that intimidates or unnerves you, figure out a way to silence the noise immediately. If it's possible to leave his/her vicinity and wait in another area, do so. If you must stay there, tune into your iPod or your computer. Or engage yourself in quiet conversation of a positive or neutral nature with someone else. Do not let these strutting peacocks make you think any less of yourself.


Develop one. Don't leave any distracting details to chance.

Get the packing of your clothes and your music down to a science. Be sure you have worn your audition clothes (including shoes!) before and are supremely comfortable in them.

Don't be surprised to find no warm-up rooms. We all do our best, but in most cities, the spaces we rent simply don't have warm-up space available. Develop a strategy (singing in the car, humming in the elevator, whatever it takes), for although this scenario is unfortunate, it's not uncommon.

Give yourself as much time as possible to get there, and have a plan for what you will do with the extra waiting time you will have if you're lucky. (Don't use it to worry; be thoughtful about what will relax and prepare you, whether it's listening to music, reading, doing sudoku or stretching.)

And know what degree and kind of conversation you can indulge in without losing your focus. Chit-chatting calms some folks and enervates others.

You Never Know Who's Listening

Please, whatever you do or say should play itself out as if the panel themselves were out there in the waiting room with you. Because very often, the innocuous-looking person who checks you in is closely affiliated with the company for which you're about to sing.

If you distinguish yourself in a negative way in that environment, don't be surprised if your shenanigans become part of the break-time conversation with the panel. We're not needlessly gossiping, nor are we putting you through some sort of test. But if we're considering working with you for a production or a season, it's reasonable that we would be interested in your general level of integrity and professionalism - even when you think no one is looking.
8 years ago |
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It's a good thing I'm not getting graded on the audition season mini-course, for I've fallen off the wagon in a big way this week. It was delusional to believe that we could process and review 1,000 audition applications and keep up with the blog at the same time.

In spite of (and somewhat because of) this, I am taking time off next week. I will be off the email/phone grid for the first time in several years, taking my first vacation since 2006 that isn't combined with a playing gig. (Just imagine the extra room in the suitcase without the music notebook and the black dress!) I will be back the week of October 26 to finish up the audition series posts, then on the road for just under 500 auditions starting the week of November. See you soon!
8 years ago |
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Just a reminder that if you're interested in applying for an audition in New York, Philadelphia, or Vienna, you have until 12midnight tonight (10/9/09) to do so.

Enjoy your weekend!
8 years ago |
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