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Wolf Trap Opera Company
Kim Pensinger
The Future of Opera
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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!

8 years ago |
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I was watching TV the other night and saw an ad for an upcoming fall series. One of the characters was talking about coming to terms with something distasteful. (How's that for specificity? I can't remember the show or the subject material...) Anyway, she said, "You never really enjoy it; you just get better at it." That, my friends, is coming to terms with auditioning.

I'm not sure that I ever met anyone who truly enjoyed it. For if you've slain these demons, it probably means that you really know who you are as an artist and as a person. That you no longer live in fear of what the person at the other end of the room thinks. And if that's the case, you're probably beyond the audition-heavy phase of your career.

A quote from the late Richard Pearlman, who ran one of the great year-round young artist training programs in the country: “Every would-be opera singer, no matter how talented… soon discovers that it’s a long, often painful road from having a beautiful instrument in your throat to being able to compete in one of the world’s most demanding and difficult professions." Auditioning is just one of the forks in that road.

Here's an outline of these next 6 weeks on the blog; your mini-course in auditioning for young artist programs this fall. Content depends partly on you, and I'll answer your questions posted below or sent to

WEEK 1 -The Mind Game

  • Making Sense of It: Where to apply? How to keep track? And what about those fees?
  • The Way We See It: The view from the other side of the table
  • Mental Preparation: Playing the game.
  • For Sopranos Only

WEEK 2 - The Aria List

  • Depth vs. breadth. Standards vs. fresh fare.
  • Fach: Zwischenfach? Pushing boundaries. Transitioning. Reaching.
  • Aria Order: Leading with your strengths
  • Cuts

WEEK 3 - The Preparation of Things

  • Recommendations & forms
  • Résumé
  • Headshot
  • Aria Notebook
  • Clothes

WEEK 4 - The Strategy

  • The Second Aria
  • Musical Preparation: Technique. Coloratura. Intonation. Language. Articulation.
  • Blocking?
  • The Forest and the Trees

WEEK 5 - The Main Event

  • Protocol: Small talk. Introductions. To shake or not to shake.
  • Logistics: Where to stand. What to say. Where to look. How to move. Props?
  • Acoustics
  • The people: The panel. The pianist. The monitor. Your colleagues.

WEEK 6 - The Big Picture

  • How to Get Good at It
  • Feedback
  • Looking Back

Tomorrow, some basic book and website recommendations, and a little more food for thought. Week 1 starts on September 14. Welcome back!

8 years ago |
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A few weeks off from the examined life has restored a little clarity. I'm resisting getting back on the blogging horse because I know how intense this next part of the cycle is, and each year brings a bit more ambivalence about documenting and engaging in dialogue about the audition process. Yet, it's unavoidable that the autumn brings the biggest blog readership of our entire annual cycle, and I know that there are lots of you out there looking for advice and conversation. So I hereby commit. And probably should be committed.

The next 6 weeks will constitute a mini-course on the audition process, leavened occasionally by corollary postings on other topics in this fall's arts news. I will try to post every week day and attack the following topics, both in new posts and in links back to previous entries:

Audition Protocol
What (Not) To Wear
Application Fees: The Controversy
Materials (resumes, headshots)
Application Screening
Choosing the "Package" - Your 5 Arias
Audition Pianists
Room Acoustics
The Audition Panel
Staging Your Aria?
Aria Frequency Lists: Who's Singing What

I'm sure there's more. And it will emerge in response to your questions. Submit them as comments here, and I will answer in subsequent posts.

See you tomorrow.
8 years ago |
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I'm staying off the interwebs as much as I can for another week. Am still completely blog/tweet/facebook/ninged out, and I need to find my center before I can be of much use here.

In the meantime, this is your first reminder that all application materials are available for the 2010 season! Start here for complete instructions, PDFs, and the ever-glorious-even-better-for-2010 interactive audition application courtesy of Bob Fincheimer.

Audition tour dates are also above on the right column of the blog. First deadline is October 2!
8 years ago |
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The perfect positive storm for the end of our season - Puccini's Boheme, Operascape production, NSO, Wolf Trap Opera, and some of the best weather of the summer. Resulted in standing ovation from just under 6,000 folks - a huge number of them new opera-goers (just under 4,000 in the house, and almost 2,000 on the lawn).

I'm hoping to dig myself out of a personal and professional backlog for the next week or two, without the adrenaline that has shepherded me through the last weeks. Wish me luck. I plan to be back by the end of August with a clear mind, posting some wrap-up thoughts on the season and the upcoming fall auditions. (Audition applications and web pages should be ready within a week.)

In the meantime, enjoy these Boheme performance photos by Carol Pratt.

Stephen Lord, conductor
Kevin Newbury, director
S. Katy Tucker, video projection design
Cameron Anderson, scenic design
Jessica Jahn, costume design
Mark Stanley, lighting design
Elsen Associates, hair/makeup design

Diego Torre, Rodolfo
Hana Park, Mimi
Ava Pine, Musetta
Daniel Billings, Marcello
Matthew Hanscom, Schaunard
Carlos Monzón, Colline
Nicholas Masters, Benoit/Alcindoro

8 years ago |
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Focusing S. Katy Tucker's projections
Opera requires an intensive "tech" period, part of which is devoted to hanging, focusing and cueing the lighting that serves functional and expressive purposes. And, in the case of our Boheme, this same period encompasses everything that's required to get projected images and video onto a hanging screen. Under "normal" circumstances, hard-working, pale-faced designers, running crew, and stage managers sit in a dark theatre all day doing this detailed work before the cast shows up at night. But in an outdoor theatre? Well, daylight isn't so easily avoidable.

The view from upstage right

That's why tech started this afternoon, kicked into high lighting/video gear at sunset, and will continue until sunrise. The theatre belongs to about 15 of us, and the overnight hours are spent in quiet productivity, to the gentle voice of the lighting designer on the intercom. The stage managers "walk lights," standing and sitting in various locations on the stage while the designer and crew write cues. It requires stamina, patience, and a good book.

Singers were at the Kennedy Center tonight with the National Symphony Orchestra, and from all reports, there was some serious music-making. Everyone ends up here tomorrow night, and we really see what we've got!

As of this morning, we were sold out in front and rear orchestra, but some held seats were released this afternoon. You should be able to find good seats on the orchestra level, at least for the first part of Thursday.

8 years ago |
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So, I don't want to be cocky or anything. Because I'm almost never even optimistic, let alone cocky. And I don't want to offend the weather gods. We all know what Neptune and Jupiter did to Ulysses. But...

See Friday, August 7.


I'm just sayin'...
8 years ago |
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There's a point each summer when folks - patrons, colleagues, friends - say, "What's wrong? You haven't updated the blog in OVER A WEEK!"

It's like the crazy Christmas season years ago when my husband and I decided we didn't have time to put the requisite tens of thousands of lights on the house. A worried stranger knocked on the door and asked if we were all OK - thought that because we hadn't decorated the house, someone must be sick.

We are all fine here at WTOC, but this last week was a struggle. No surprise - we saw it coming. Ulysses performances, Instant Opera week at Theatre-in-the-Woods, Steve Blier's residency and Pursuit of Love recital, and the approach of Boheme tech week. It was all marvelous, but it consumed all available waking hours, with no time to tell about it!

This is our day away from the theatre, ceding the stage to Pat Benatar and Blondie. We reoccupy tonight at 12midnight, and it's nonstop from there till Saturday. I offer in these few quiet minutes a catch-up posting.

SpongeBob, Princesses, Scooby-Doo, Captain Hook, and Harry Potter...

If our singers ever doubt that they've come to work in a National Park, those thoughts are erased by their first trip out to the Children's Theatre-in-the-Woods. They hiked along the stream every morning last week, and presented 5 world premiere operas written by the children of the Theatre-in-the-Woods and brought to life by the Wolf Trap Opera Studio. These amazing singers were armed for improv battle by Your Friend and Mine Jim Doyle, joined by Pianists Grant and Jeremy, supported by Super Judy and Super Amra, and cheered on by coach Eric.


Steve worked his magic (and no, that's not a euphemism) last week, and brought a slightly atypical program to The Barns. The Pursuit of Love wasn't structured like most of Steve's recitals - rather, it gave each of its four singers a chance to sing a complete set/cycle of songs (by Villa Lobos, Grieg, Granados, and Gabriel Kanahane), and then featured all of the singers in quartets. In the midst of an intense rehearsal week he also found time to chat with our donors and lead a master class with some of the Studio Artists. And, of course, the journey home (a needlessly epic 12-hour trip from Vienna to New York) yielded the annual brainstorming document with ideas for next year's recitals. Six of them. (Six ideas, not six recitals. Even though I tried:))

Joining the Bohemians

We are now exclusively on the Boheme train. A few shots from the last room rehearsal and this link to the promo will have to do for now! More tomorrow. I promise.

8 years ago |
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11:30 am Lifting Weights
A lovely late start, affording a long night's sleep after a 90-hour week. (Yes, I did the math. Not to qualify for martyrdom, but to justify feeling like I'd been run over by a truck.) The day started with a touch of weights and aerobics, setting up 150 chairs in the rehearsal hall!

Why the chairs? Well, we've been terribly fortunate to have an audience that loves its preshow lectures. We've been holding the preshow talks in our small 99-seat space, but lately we've been turning away dozens of patrons due to the capacity of the hall. So I decided to give today's talk in the Boheme rehearsal space, and setup was required!

2:00 pm Inside the Opera Preshow Talk
Being in the rehearsal hall meant that I was without my fancy-pants powerpoint presentation, but it was a good call. We had 151 patrons in attendance, and we were pleased to not have to turn anyone away.

3:00 pm Ulysses Performance #2
Packed to the gills, no house seats, no givebacks. Yikes. Nice to have a hot ticket! Fabulous performance. YouTube moments to come, I promise. As soon as I have the time.

6:10 pm Steve!
Mr. Blier himself is in the house, rehearsal with the cast for this Saturday's Pursuit of Love. Grieg, Villa Lobos, Granados, Sondheim, Kahane, and Robinson (Smokey, that is).

7:30 pm Instant Opera Dress Rehearsal
Darth Vader and Kermit steal prom dresses from Hannah Montana. To the strains of Mozart, Verdi, Donizetti and others. The real deal begins Tuesday at 11:15am!

9:30 pm At the Desk
Catching up on email, writing Boheme supertitles, and checking my RSS feed. Which is where I found that according to the blog metrics flavor of the day, we rank surprisingly high :)
8 years ago |
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It's difficult but necessary to distance myself from the music I love - to be fair and impartial when approaching possible rep for the company, and not to steer us exclusively toward things that speak to me. For no one's taste is truly catholic, and there are plenty of operas that I can barely abide (and no, I won't tell you what they are:)) that other folks adore.

But once a piece is up and running and my contribution is reduced to that of taking the blame or credit for what other folks lay at my feet, I can be selfish. In this case, that means taking in every moment - elegant, gutsy, wrenching, and bawdy. Because Monteverdi is in my top ten. Hell, top five. I'd give up a lot just to be able to hear this stuff the rest of my life. Gary Wedow has worked miracles, concocting an approach that honors both the letter and the spirit of the law and the music.

And, we've waded into doing scenic design with projections. A scary thing in a small venue with a smaller budget. But the design team (Eric Allgeier, S. Katy Tucker, Andrea Huelse & Bob Grimes) and director James Marvel have created a visually arresting and wonderfully integrated environment for this story.

Three more times in the next 5 days. It doesn't get any better than this :)

8 years ago |
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