Today’s contest on Wolf Trap’s Facebook Page (go ahead, click it, like it, you know you want to…) asked patrons to submit their favorite Wolf Trap memory. The Wolf Trap Foundation is our parent organization, and it presents hundreds of concerts every year across a dizzying array of genres. We love opera, you and I, but our beloved art form doesn’t have the pop culture power that can compete with the likes of Riverdance, James Taylor, Aretha Franklin and Train. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw the following entry in today’s contest:
I think there is one moment that changed me forever. On August 24, 2011, I went to “Opera’s Greatest Hits from Wolf Trap Opera’s Alumni Stars” not because I really wanted to, but because I had to write a school assignment for my music appreciation class. I sat towards the back, just trying to get it over with. After a few minutes, I became immersed in the music. At the intermission, I asked if I could move to one of the seats in the pit since it wasn’t totally full. That night changed me completely. I had an all-new appreciation for a new type of music. From that moment on, I started trying to sing as much as I could and improve my own singing ability. Now I’m studying music in school and learning to sing opera myself! I think that if I hadn’t been forced to write that paper, I would never have come to appreciate that style of music, which is what I primarily listen to now.
I needed a little boost, and there it is.
Tomorrow, here on the blog, we get all nerdy. The aria frequency lists are now updated with the first choices of this fall’s singers, and tomorrow we’ll do some sexy data analysis. I know. You can hardly wait.
I drop back into the blogosphere today after a few weeks of radio silence brought to you by the post-audition-tour casting frenzy. We’re consumed with the first step of our freakishly fast pre-production process which takes us from a blank slate to opening night in 6 months. And of course, until the smoke begins to clear, I won’t be able to share any of this with you :(
Until then, we’ll take a few side journeys.
Today’s comes courtesy of this article in the Financial Times, in which Meg Wolitzer explores the murky link between talent and success. I was reminded of this piece last week, during part of the American Voices symposium at the Kennedy Center. On Friday afternoon’s panel, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Anthony Freud spoke briefly about how we are increasingly bad at distinguishing between the excellent and the successful. And all of this came crashing down on me in the wake of the 600 auditions I heard this fall.
Ms. Wolitzer wrote,
“We profess to love talent, and yet what we sometimes love more is the anointing that follows the revelation of talent.”
There are plenty of ways to observe this in the crazy, wonderful and misleading world of reality TV talent shows. Once the public has anointed the talented performer, they feel that success and talent are conjoined. This happens so much, and in increasingly public ways, that musicians in 21st-century America are repeatedly pulled away from the art in favor of a focus on “success.” And the audience – those wonderful people who consume our product – feels increasingly less capable of trusting its own instincts and more dependent on the media culture to tell it what to think.
This parlays into the audition room in a slightly different way. Our selection process is not blind to the artist’s previous accomplishments; in fact, folks get through our screening process largely because we see that they have managed to distinguish themselves in another area – a competition, a highly-selective graduate school, a competitive apprentice program. So the tendency is to tell ourselves a story about how good we think they’ll be, since (referring back to Ms. Wolitzer) the talent has already been anointed. This is dangerous. Our task in the audition room is to allow the talent to reveal itself and to resist jumping on a bandwagon. Some of the folks we choose as finalists in our auditions are also in the select few chosen by colleagues; others are not. If we take our responsibility seriously, once we get to the audition room, we must be blind to the previous anointing.
One more quote, this one with a direct message to the singers out there:
“The evolution went from doing the thing and not caring what it was called; to doing the thing and realising there might be some measure of talent involved; to doing the thing but being preoccupied while doing it about when, if ever, success would arrive with its money, celebrity and stratospheric thread-count. And sometimes trying to game the system, seeing if changing things a bit might bring success more quickly.”
The author is speaking of an attitudinal shift within her young professional circle in the 1980′s, but this same shift happens today, but with a speed we never could have guessed a few decades ago. Yes, we all need success. We need money to pay our bills and some level of validation to give us strength when we falter. But I have one request of young musicians: Do whatever you can to stay in the first stage of this evolution. Go ahead and gussy up your résumé and give due diligence to what it means to become a young independent professional artist. But don’t let that be your main focus. Do the thing. Do it well, love it, suck it dry, share it whenever you can. The rest will follow.
Happy Thanksgivvukah to you and yours. Here’s wishing you’ll enjoy a little respite with friends or family in the next few days. I’ll be back in December with three new hunks of audition tour data for you: the list of arias offered as first choices by both of our artist tiers, and a brand new look at the university and conservatory affiliations of our entire audition pool and our finalists!
We’ve spent the last month or so listening and writing, thinking and writing, analyzing and writing. So much writing. 89, 425 words, actually.* A novel-length output just north of Orwell’s 1984 (88,942) and south of Tolkien’s The Hobbit (95,022).
A lot of words for sure. But how else to keep track of 590 singers?
We don’t use a form or checklist or any other external organization tool. I learned long ago that if I’m trying to categorize my responses in real time, I do not listen well. Oddly enough, our stream-of-consciousness remarks provide an amazingly helpful and detailed picture of our 20 days in the audition room.
Now the real work begins, as we make sense of what we’ve heard and try to translate our 55 Filene Young Artist finalists into repertoire that showcases 15-20 of them. Wish us luck.
*Yes, I’m a data geek. The beauty of our database is that with one gesture, I can export all comments to a text file and do a word count. :)
Last day of auditions. Just enough time and brain cells to let you know that Aria Frequency lists for all voice types are now here.
Back at you later, when people stop singing arias at me.
I’m told that typical casualties of Mercury in Retrograde are travel problems and mechanical breakdowns. Houston is typically one of the happiest stops on our audition tour, but this year it seems that Mercury had other plans for our Texan trip. I can’t say I wasn’t warned.
It started with a 4-hour mechanical-difficulty delay flying out of San Francisco (complete with a takeoff that was immediately turned back around), which resulted in our missing the connecting flight in Austin. By the time we arrived, the airport was shutting down for the night. So Thelma and Louise rented a car and hopped on the highway, singing along with Billy Joel and Journey all the way to Houston.
The 14-hour travel day was followed by a series of technical malfunctions – the computer broadband card decided to give up, and I broke both my phone Bluetooth headset and my lovely analog watch. There were flash floods and tornado warnings, and we got lost in the underground tunnels trying to avoid the deluge after we lost our umbrellas. (And after it was over, luggage was lost on the next travel leg.) All in all, a hot mess.
Thank heaven for the singing.
There was beautiful music making by the 78 singers who auditioned for us, and some terrific Verdi delivered by the cast of Houston Grand Opera’s Aida. There was also a uniquely entertaining audition monologue by one of our 2013 Studio Artists, a chance to catch up with former Trappers in our Houston Meetup (at left), and opportunities to meet colleagues both old and new. Houston was redeemed, and Mercury was blamed.
An Arizonan Interlude…
Since there were three days before we were due in Cincinnati, I somehow decided that was just enough time to head to Arizona for a recital and a master class. On Sunday, WTOC alum Ryan McKinny and I rocked the matinee performance at Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum, in Arizona Opera’s Voice Lab series. And on Monday, the Pullin Opera Studio artists and I explored audition arias for some of Arizona Opera’s donors and supporters. All of it was a ruse to have a chance to visit Ryan Taylor, former WTOC Manager of Community Development and current Arizona Opera General Director. (The weekend also included a reunion with Ollie the Wonder Dachshund, rattlesnake brats, human-sized Jenga, and a brisk Sunday morning swim.)
Cincinnati and Vienna remain; 5 more days of arias. The short list is beginning to telescope a little more, and we’ll see how it morphs and responds to the inspiration of the 153 singers we’ll hear between now and next Tuesday!
Auditions in LA got us off to a marvelous start for our west coast leg. (My own Pacific sojourn had already started with a brief personal trip to Seattle, where sadly, the lack of a Young Artist Program at Seattle Opera now means that it is no longer a must-hear stop on our audition travels.) Today, we fly to San Francisco, with any luck… Right now we’re in a holding pattern at LAX.
While a delayed flight is usually bad news, today it bears unexpected fruit. Extra quality time at AA Gate 46B means that I got to finish and upload the 2014 Soprano Aria Frequency List!!!
Our auditions day in residence in Rehearsal Room 1 at LA Opera was like a crazy family reunion, with visits from WTOC staff members, singer alumni, and dear colleagues. Add to that a Saturday spent with friends in the out of doors, and little things like airport delays don’t make a dent.
Above: The singer’s view. Well, almost. Typically the Rock Star “Pow” Pianist is on the other side of the room. :)
We’re at the halfway point of the audition tour (10 days down, 10 to go), and certain operas in the future repertoire database are beginning to edge out others. Of course, anything can change (and does…) right up until the last day of the auditions. (Last year’s casts for our Verdi operas came together on the last two days of the tour.) But at this point, we begin to narrow our rep focus, based on inspiration from the singers we’ve heard so far and the voice types on the lists for the upcoming 10 days. We started the tour with 32 operas on the list, and now, we’re spending more time with these 14:
Britten: The Rape of Lucretia – Hasn’t been at The Barns in 26(!) years. Nice vocal distribution, with 6 nicely featured roles. Chamber orchestra fits comfortably in our small pit. Downside? No ensemble to showcase our Studio Artists.
Gassmann: L’Opera Seria – This one surfaced a couple of years ago, and it’s working its way up the rep possibilities ladder. A satirical take on the opera seria tradition, written by Leopold Gassmann, a Viennese composer a generation older than Mozart. Downside? It’s a sprawling, large-cast vehicle, probably not ideal in the wake of last season’s Viaggio a Reims.
Gluck: L’île de Merlin – One of the few Gluck operas whose orchestration will fit in our pit. 7 featured roles. Downside: Nothing for Studio. And French dialogue.
The Handel Parade (brought to you courtesy of the disproportionately large and excellent group of countertenors and mezzos we’re hearing) – Rinaldo, Giulio Cesare, Agrippina, Acis & Galatea, Flavio, Orlando. Currently teasing out how the vocal distribution of a bunch of these titles best intersects with potential casting.
Keiser – The Fortunes of King Croesus – German baroque. Amazing array of voice types (3 sopranos, 1 mezzo, 1 countertenor, 3 tenors, 2 baritones, 2 basses) Downside? Daunting array of voice types, sprawling cast…
Mozart: The Abduction from the Seraglio – Absent from The Barns since 1998. Amazing piece. 5 fabulous roles. Great chorus. Downside? Requires finding the right people in two rare voice types (dramatic coloratura soprano and basso profondo), a speaking role, and no mezzo or baritone representation.
Mozart: Lucio Silla – The only one of Mozart’s “mature” operas that we haven’t ever done. Requiring virtuoso opera seria work from sopranos, mezzos/countertenors and tenor. Political intrigue-based plot a natural fit for D.C. :) Downside: hard to justify including an opera with absolutely no low voices in a year in which they are well represented on the audition tour.
Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro – Ooh, wouldn’t it be nice to do a new Figaro at The Barns? Since 1986(!) we have only done it at the Filene Center. Downside: Only top-ten-type operas can sell in the big amphitheatre, and we usually reserve Figaro for that space…
Paisiello: Il Re Teodoro in Venezia – King Ted is an annual audition tour companion who will never make the cut, but we’d miss him if he weren’t along. He comforts me.
Poulenc: Les mamelles de Tirésias – I don’t think this has been done in our region in recent years, and it’s been enticing us for a while. Challenge? The orchestra almost fits in our pit… and at only an hour long, it needs a double-bill companion, and we haven’t found the right one.
What will we program for 2014? Is there a chance it’s not even on this list? A small chance, but yes. The roller coaster ride isn’t over yet.
Three days on Wabash, in a dry orchestra rehearsal space with no coffee. Purgatory for opera administrators? Nah. Some truly lovely singing, a few nice surprises, and a couple hundred arias closer to figuring out summer 2014.
Singing in the Inside of a Sock
The dry acoustic we dealt with this week is worth a word of caution to auditioning singers. In short, don’t allow the amount of (or lack of…) sound coming back at you in a new space to alter the technical foundation you’ve built with your teacher. Don’t push. If you’re relatively new to this whole auditioning thing, be sure to seek out opportunities to sing in different acoustical environments to test your resolve. This is one skill you don’t want to be learning in front of a panel.
Do I wish we could hear all of our auditions in more vocally flattering spaces? Of course, but those kinds of space are limited, particularly in a city whose professional and academic halls are booked around the clock in the fall. And truthfully, we’re probably actually kinder to you in this kind of acoustic, in which we automatically add resonance to what we hear, than in the stairwell/bathroom type of space where we have to constantly subtract in order to drill down to the real sound.
A Shout-out to the Mighty Monitors!
We learned a few years ago that the best people to monitor auditions are those who know what it’s like on the other side of the equation. Therefore, we almost exclusively hire WTOC alums to work for us in the hallways of our audition spaces. They understand and can surf the nerves and free-floating anxiety of the singers, they aren’t afraid to help keep the audition panel on track and on schedule, and we adore seeing them. This week, Shannon held court over the narrow hallway (left) at Classical Symphony Hall.
Aria Frequency Lists… Get Excited!
We’re on a 5-day hiatus between Chicago and LA; the main event is screening the final 341 applications for Cincinnati and Vienna and then scheduling singers for the available 164 spots. But if that gets done, I promise to churn out the data that shows the frequency with which arias are represented on this year’s singers’ rep lists.
Oh, and as I looked up these figures, I was reminded that I wanted to say a word about this year’s numbers. Seems that quite a few summer YAPs are seeing a record number of applications for 2014. We ended up at 1,077: a 10% increase from last year, and an all-time record. I don’t want to make too much of this, for I don’t think we can attribute causality, positive or negative. Is it potentially good that more singers are taking advantage of possible summer training and performing opportunities? Sure. Is it potentially troublesome that some of these singers should probably be moving on to professional engagements with companies that are down-sizing or disappearing? Food for thought. Bottom line: Don’t be seduced by the numbers.
What Happens in the Audition Room When You Leave?
It’s not nearly as exciting as you think. Or maybe it is. Our backs may survive this tour. Or they may not.
A guest post from Lee Anne Myslewski, the Director of the Wolf Trap Opera Studio
The Wolf Trap Opera Studio is a program for students who are exceptionally talented but who are still trying to gather the skills and experiences that will support an operatic career. Studio Artists are typically undergraduate seniors or first-year grad students. Their auditions differ a little bit from the Filene Young Artist auditions, in that each Studio singer is allowed to include both art songs and arias on their list, rather than limiting themselves to operatic literature. It’s one way that we try to make sure that they can bring rep that shows them off to their best advantage.
The other piece of their audition is a monologue. It doesn’t need to be longer than a minute, and it needs to be in contemporary language. It’s a way for us to see a little bit past the singing technique. Now, we’re aware that it scares the bejeezus out of many Studio applicants to prepare a monologue – speaking, instead of singing? TERRIFYING! But the choice of piece can be a huge help, both in preparation and in the acing of your monologue. Here are some general guidelines, and some pieces that we’ve enjoyed so far:
Some of the pieces that we’ve heard thus far on the audition tour that have been successful?
And some that have been less-than-successful?
We had one gentleman use a speech from Scandal, season 2 to great success, as well. And I’m leaving you with one of my favorites – an oldie AND a goodie.
We’re already 252 arias into our audition tour, and I’m finally checking in with the blogosphere. I still love you, honest I do…
The New York week was jam-packed, as it so often is. We sat down for 5 days at the National Opera Center, in a place that makes performers and auditors alike feel like actual human beings. (You’d have to spend some time at other NYC audition space options to understand how rare this is…) It was a strong start; the singing seemed to settle in at a higher level than in some recent years. The hours before, between and during auditions were spend meeting with prospective directors, conductors and designers, catching up with colleagues, going to the opera (my Russian week at the Met: Shostakovich’s The Nose and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin!), catching a Juilliard master class with Richard Bonynge, and enjoying the NYC meet-up with former Wolf Trappers who are in town. (above left)
We spent yesterday in Philadelphia at the Curtis Institute, hearing another really exciting group of 31 singers. I write this morning from Gate 32 at DCA, waiting for our flight to Chicago.
More intriguing singing from mezzos and countertenors… enough to throw a pile of Baroque operas back on my short list. In the first 45 minutes of the first day, we heard three Handel arias, two of which were new to me.
One soprano aria surfacing more frequently than ever before: the title character’s arioso (“?????? ??? ?????? ?? ?????”) from Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. A few characters haven’t shown up at all in the audition room yet… Norina (Don Pasquale) and Rodolpho (A View from the Bridge) have forsaken us entirely so far, and Mozart’s Figaro has only gifted us with “Se vuol ballare” (no “Non più andria” or “Aprite” yet, sadly.)
I normally don’t spend a lot of time on audition attire, but there are trends there, too. In general, I’d have to say that the clothes are far less formal than they were just a few years ago. If I have to make a qualitative judgment, I’d say that’s a good thing. Yes, there were a few outfits that felt underwhelming in the care that was taken with them, but in general, the attire is simpler and allows us to focus on the person and the singing. Mostly for the ladies, that means less fussiness – fewer scarves, less bling. One cautionary word, though: if you’re wearing one of those beautiful (and easy-to-travel-with) jewel-tone clingy dresses, please invest in some foundation garments. Look at yourself in a full-length mirror and sing coloratura. Even if you’re not zaftig, things bounce. It’s TMI.
OK, back to the music.
Since we don’t pick our repertoire until we hear the singers, we’re researching and vetting possible 2014 operas while we’re on the road. Right now, the short list has 27 operas on it; give me another week or two, and I’ll share the trimmed down version as we begin to gravitate toward some pieces and kick others to the curb. The Chicago update will follow this in a few days. Have a great week!
The Audition Recital Hall at Opera America’s National Opera Center
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