Wolf Trap Opera

The Future of Opera

October 18, 2014
by Kim

High Risk Arias!

Our Chicago week was spent in a lovely room with natural light at Pianoforte Studios on S. Michigan. The staff was terrific, the acoustics was blessedly neutral, and we were surrounded by keyboard instruments. (There’s a Grotrian Steinweg under wraps in the far right corner of the photo; it’s the twin of my piano at home!) Spending time with beautiful pianos reminded me that it was time to share the results of my recent crowd-sourcing experiment.

About a week ago, one of Wolf Trap Opera’s coaches was wrapping his fingers and brain around the aria “Do Not Utter a Word” from Samuel Barber’s Vanessa. He took a break from practicing to send me a wonderful suggestion for a blog post. The prompt? Which arias are difficult or otherwise problematic enough that they can be classified as “sing-at-your-own-risk” when not bringing your own pianist to an audition?

I polled the pianist hive mind and was rewarded with a flurry of emails, Facebook comments and texts. I guess I had the expectation that I could pretty much predict what would end up on the list. In the end, I was wrong.

The list of arias that I compiled was exponentially longer than I expected. And there was a far less agreement on what was problematic than I imagined. I heard from audition pianists with decades of experience, from people who play everything from academic to YAP to company and manager auditions. What follows is my attempt to organize and interpret the list of over 50 arias submitted in answer to my question.

“Mature” Rep

Many people listed arias from roles that we consider “mature” or “heavy.” This is a predictable trend. First, the vast majority of auditions are played for singers who are in the first several years of their careers; once they graduate to big warhorse roles, they are more likely to be cast based on prior outings with those roles rather than from auditions. And second, the percentage of voices who sing this rep is a small subset of the overall.

  • Wagner arias (typical exceptions: “O du mein holder Abenstern,” Dich theure Halle,” Elisabeth’s Prayer)
  • Arias from Berg’s Wozzeck and Lulu (some pianists include “Lied der Lulu,” some omit it)
  • Most Richard Strauss arias, notably those from Salome, Arabella and Die Frau ohne Schatten (typical exceptions: Composer’s Aria, Lieben Hassen,
  • Rare Slavic and Russian rep (a little vague; best understood by common exceptions “Song to the Moon,” Onegin’s and Lenski’s arias, Yeletsky’s aria)
  • Mefistofele’s Serenade from Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust

Hard to Read (sometimes also Hard to Play…)

This list comprises thick and thorny rep that is tough to sightread and isn’t common enough that most pianists have had the chance to thoroughly learn and retain it. Many of these arias were written in the last couple of decades, with a smattering of rep from the mid-20th-century.

  • Arias from Nixon in China
  • “Batter my Heart” from Doctor Atomic
  • “Do Not Utter a Word” and “Outside this house” from Vanessa
  • “Non monsieur mon mari” from Poulenc’s Les mamelles de Tirésias
  • Fire Aria from L’enfant et les sortilèges
  • Baba the Turk’s aria, Nich Shadow’s arias, and Tom’s “Vary the Song” from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress
  • Britten arias sit in a vague and ill-defined area of this list. Some pianists feel that almost all of these are standard enough not to cause concern, but there are quite a few experienced and respected players who feel that they should still be sing-at-your-own-risk: “How Beautiful It Is (Tower Scene) and “Miles” from Turn of the Screw, Tarquinius’ Ride from The Rape of Lucretia, Peter Grimes’ mad scene, almost anything from Albert Herring, Hermia’s aria from A Midsummer Night’s Dream .
  • Sweeney Todd’s “Ephiphany”
  • It is unfair to bring open score or figured bass arias into an audition. All excellent opera coaches can play from open score or figured bass, but this skill is appropriately exercised in the rehearsal room, not in audition when a significant part of the pianist’s attention is diverted to collaborating with a brand new partner.

Hard to Play

This is different from the previous list in that these arias are pretty straight-forward on the page – simply harmonic structure and easily read melodies and rhythms. The problem is not one of interpreting the printed page, it’s rather one of getting your fingers to execute an aria that isn’t often encountered.

  • There are baroque arias that run the gamut of impossible to slightly problematic. This rep is too wide-ranging for me to name specific arias; suffice it to say that if it’s marked something like Vivace or Allegro molto, there’s a good chance that your pianist will sacrifice some of the notes. And if the composer is Vivaldi or Scarlatti (instead of Handel), this effect is even more pronounced. :) Common exceptions: “Svegliatevi,” “Tornami a vaggheggiar,” “Arise.” (There are others.)
  • There are a few early Mozart arias that fall into this category. Examples are “Fuor del mar” (extended version) and Idamante’s “Il padre adorato”
  • And finally, we have all internalized “Mab” from Romèo et Juliette. But depending on the phase of the moon and path of Mercury (and your preferred tempo) it may or may not go well.

Borderline Arias

There wasn’t general agreement on these, but they were mentioned more than once. A mix of technically difficult things and arias that aren’t often sung.

  • Strauss – “Wie du warst,” Presentation of the Rose, Zerbinetta’s aria, “Es gibt ein Reich
  • Stravinsky – Anne Trulove’s scene, Rakewell’s arias
  • Floyd – Arias from Cold Sassy Tree
  • Starbuck’s aria from Moby Dick

Jamie_Barton_insert_by_Sean_Davis_courtesy_Wolf_TrapOff to Philadelphia tomorrow, then back to Virginia for a few days of prep for my Friday  concert with the inimitable Jamie Barton. :)

Rachmaninoff! Ives! Brahms!

Chocolate cake!


October 13, 2014
by Kim

Our Box

A silly post, to occupy us as we try to escape Cincinnati. (Booked on one flight, standby on another, delayed on both, waited on the tarmac, now have been banished back to the terminal…)

Having failed at trying to get here by plane, we embarked on a 8-hour road trip. Tried to rent a small car but were forcibly upgraded to a lovely silver Ford Flex – a vehicle which we came to affectionally call our Box.

We are wishing we had just kept a-driving the Box to Chicago instead of trusting United Airlines to whisk us there. And so, we submit this ode, with apologies to Gian Carlo, Amahl Boxand King Kaspar. Because it’s becoming obvious to us that we actually never travel without our Box…

“This is our box, this is our box.

We never travel without our box.

In the first door we keep our favorite things. One umbrella against all clouds and rainy skies. One suitcase with equipment. One rain coat to keep us warm. One video cam’ra to remember your face. One EZ Pass to get us through tolls. Three sunglasses to soothe our eyes. One GPS to protect us from b’ing lost.

This is our box, this is our box. We never travel without our box. In the second door we keep all our food. Oh, how can we love to eat great food, all kinds of food.

This is our box, this is our box. We never travel without our box. In the third door… in the third door…Oh, my dear friends!…Oh, my dear friends!…In the third door we keep…coffee…coffee… black, sweet coffee, black, sweet, coffee…

Have some!”

October 13, 2014
by Kim

‘Nati Road Trip!

Cincinnati auditions came and went, in a whirlwind 2.5 days. Our 5:30am departure for the airport on Saturday morning (following this absolutely beautiful Friday night concert that Lee Anne booked) turned into the beginning of a road trip, as our flight into CVG was cancelled, and no others were available to get us into town before auditions began. 8 hours and 500 miles later, we were seated in Watson Hall at CCM (below), getting our daily RDA of opera arias.

2014-10-12 09.41.36-1

2014 Studio Artist Nicolette Book in audition at University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music’s Watson Hall

After a full Sunday and a partial Monday, I write this at the airport, trying to get on an earlier flight to Chicago (with hopes of avoiding the delays and cancellations that are mounting with the advancing line of thunderstorms!)

Two things are on my mind as we close this Cincinnati chapter and head to Chicago.

First: Audition hall acoustics.

In recent years, we have bounced back and forth between two very different locations at CCM. Werner Recital Hall is beautiful in all ways. Visually appealing and spacious, and acoustically flattering. The result is that singers usually feel pretty comfortable and are able to turn in strong auditions, but we are always left with a bit of suspicion as to whether the truly beautiful things we hear are inherent in the voices or are partially manufactured by the hall itself. Results in a lot of internal debate, and a tendency to discount assets that may have nothing to do with the space.

The other space we’ve used recently is the black box space, the Cohen Family Studio. It is one of those halls that singers fear. Honest, dry and naked. Singers often don’t trust their instincts and start pushing for more sound. And we have to work pretty hard to extrapolate what the voices will sound like in a more generous environment. But the good thing is that I always find myself in a state of mental addition; as in, if someone actually sounds good in here, just imagine what she’ll sound like elsewhere!

So imagine our pleasure when we tried out a new hall this year (Watson, above), and it seemed to be a lovely compromise between these two extremes! We spent our two full audition days in Watson, and it was lovely. (I wanted to bust a move and try out the Bach d minor on the pipe organ, but I restrained myself.)

Wouldn’t it be lovely if each audition space came with an acoustical diagnosis? To let us know which overtones and partials are amplified and which are suppressed, which frequencies are boosted, how the bounce affects diction, and which voice types are favored. (Every hall has voice types that it loves and hates, no matter what they tell you:))

What’s the second topic? We’ve been having an animated discussion (in person and on social media) about which audition arias are so problematic for pianists that singers should offer them only at their own risk (or hire and bring their own pianist.) It’ll take another day or so for me to organize the responses I’ve gotten. It’s been fascinating so far… much less clear than I had anticipated! If you are a singer/pianist/teacher who would like to weigh in on this question, head on over to our Facebook page and tell us what you think!

October 7, 2014
by Kim
1 Comment

NYC Days 3 & 4: Short List! Food!

Today, the first look at the operas that have ended up on the first iteration of our “short list” of possible rep for 2015.

But first, doughnuts!!!

Screenshot 2014-10-07 09.56.01

These landed in our room this morning, thanks to our every-thoughtful auditions monitor. The Doughnut Plant is just a few blocks south. (I’m so sad that I know that now…) We shared them with the front desk and the singers, of course!

Now, as I promised, a list of the operas that are currently at the front of our consciousness as we listen to prospective singers for next summer. Alpha, by composer. This list will morph significantly as we continue to hear auditions; the voice types represented by the singers in whom we are the most interested will dictate which of these operas end up on the 2015 season.

Britten – The Rape of Lucretia

Cimarosa – Il matrimonio segreto

Corigliano – The Ghosts of Versailles

Donizetti – La fille du régiment

Dove – Flight

Floyd – Susannah

Gassmann – L’opera seria

Glass – Orphée

Gluck – L’ile de Merlin

Haydn – Il mondo della luna

Haydn – La vera costanza

Keiser – Croesus

Massenet – Cendrillon

Mozart – Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Mozart – Il re pastore

Mozart – La clemenza di Tito

Mozart – Le nozze di Figaro

Rossini – Il barbiere di Siviglia

Rossini – La cenerentola

Rossini – La pietra di paragone’

Sullivan – The Gondoliers

Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin

lsAnd just so you don’t despair that our Manhattan stay was completely consumed by things like doughnuts, we want to recommend Westville in Chelsea. More fresh, interesting and healthy vegetable sides than I have ever seen. I may have eaten beets, squash, plantains, broccoli, brussel sprouts and leeks all at one meal…

We’re off to the midwest this weekend – see you in a few days.

October 5, 2014
by Kim

NYC: Day 2 (Monologues!)

theater_masks_silhouetteToday, some advice for singers who are in the position of choosing and delivering an audition monologue. Our prospective Studio Artists must do just this. And we’ve had some really good ones come through the door over the last two days!

Do you ever wonder why in the world singers are required to prepare monologues? We all know that we’re not auditioning you as a straight actor. So what could our motive be, and how can you hack the situation to your advantage? In Monologues, Friend or Foe?, Lee Anne Myslewski, Director of the Wolf Trap Opera Studio, demystifies this part of the audition process and shares some of her favorite scenes.

Today was a wonderful Sunday in Manhattan, with crisp autumn air, beautiful singing, and just enough time for a walk on the new part of the High Line before dark. Tonight I’m working on the repertoire short list for 2015… perhaps it’ll be blog-worthy by tomorrow…


October 4, 2014
by Kim

NYC: Day 1

2013-10-08 18.48.09-2I am constantly amazed by how different it is to do auditions in New York now that the National Opera Center is here. A room with true acoustics, a place for singers to relax (well, as close as one can get to relaxing before a job interview), a warm-up room, a few vending machines…. It’s positively civilized, and it’s a complete departure from most of the places we’ve been over the last several years.

Today was a terrific start to the 2015 Audition Tour. A fair amount of nerves in the room, but that’s no surprise. Most folks shook them off quickly and proceeded to make music. We heard our first 48 arias, with only one repeat.

The good news? There’s a lot of talent out here. That means that some really good singers don’t end up on our short list, and that’s tough. But there are lots of summer program opportunities, so spread the net as wide as appropriate, and persevere.

Armed with the knowledge of the kinds of voice types we’re about to hear as well as the profile of the artists who are eligible to return for a second summer at WTO, we are working on the first list of possible operas for our 2015 season. It’s coming your way within a day or two!

September 30, 2014
by Kim

Audition Season, A to Z

overpackingTomorrow will be spent packing, in preparation for the WAS-NYP-CVG-ORD-PHL-LAX-SFO-SEA-IAH-IAD 8,000-mile/1,000-aria adventure that is the next 6 weeks.

As I get ready, I’m aware that many of you need to get your heads in the game for your own audition odysseys. To that end, here’s a look back at various bits of audition season advice and ruminations from the last ten years of the blog. Click through at your leisure. I’ll see you in a few days – notes from the road start on Saturday in New York!

(Above: Not my suitcase, sadly. No flip-flops and scuba gear on this trip. But a girl can dream.)

Blocking. Gestures. Staging.
The Compulsories
The Equation
In the Fach Box
Playing the Game (Guest post from Mr. Winograde when he was just Josh:))
Humor. Spontaneity. Energy. And lots more.
Introductions and Other Protocol.
Just Fix It: The Resume
Koloratur. Intonation. Text. (Three Soapboxes)
Stay Loose.
Where the Music Finds You. Poetry, Hums and Winnie the Pooh.
The Notebook
The Pianist: Your Partner in the Audition Room
Behind the Screen Door
The Toolkit
Expect the Unexpected
VersatilityBlessing and Curse.
X-Rated Raw Comments: What We Write
Fight Your Way Through It
Zen, Courage and Focus

September 29, 2014
by Kim

It’s Just the Beginning

This concludes an 8-part series of posts containing audition season advice submitted by Wolf Trap Opera alumni. I was astonished that within a few days of putting out a group email request, I received messages from almost 40 singers. Clearly, this business of auditioning is not easy, and generous colleagues are always eager to share what they’ve learned.

After all of the comments about strategies, performance enhancements, what to wear, and what to sing, a few people went beyond advice for the audition day. Here’s what they had to say:

  • Remember: The audition is only the beginning. It’s not easy, and neither is the career.
  • Start a separate fund or set money aside for application fees and travel costs. You won’t believe how much those add up to over time. In this business you have to put money in to get money out. This isn’t only for auditions, it’s for your whole career. The sooner you get a handle on that, the better.
  • Have a back up plan.  You never know what will happen in your life….injury, children or you just don’t want that lifestyle anymore… Know that there is something else that you can do to support yourself.

I’ll leave you with the postscript of an email that contained wise advice from a seasoned singer:

  •  I still hate auditions.

September 26, 2014
by Kim

Let It Go.

Part Eight in a series of posts containing audition season advice submitted by Wolf Trap Opera alumni.

It’s telling that this theme emerged more frequently than others among all of the advice submitted. Do not underestimate its power.

Let It Go: Say the Serenity Prayer. Then just sing.

  • Don’t go in expecting to land the job. You could sing the best you’ve ever sung but they might not be looking for someone like you at the time. People will talk about you though so other doors may be propped open. Auditioning is just another chance to get better and to gain experience.Take risks. If not now, then when?
  • Really make music. So what if it’s an audition? Make music. Perform.
  • It’s actually a quote from the late, great, Seth McCoy:  “Always strive to express, rather than to impress, because you don’t know what I like.”
  • It’s easier to not worry about the stuff you can’t control when you know it’s not going to be perfect.
  • Law of averages will have you get a gig maybe only 5% compared to the 95% you won’t land. This doesn’t mean you are bad. It can be frustrating but you have to keep plugging away. You get hired more through networking once you are established but people will only know you if you get out there and do auditions.
  • Do not try to be perfect.  That doesn’t exist.
  • Sing to express, not to impress. As a singer I find comfort in thinking of me and my colleagues as menu items at a coffee shop. Everyone has their coffee preferences and not everybody’s preference is the same. One day someone might want to order a small iced coffee with no cream, and the next day their ordering a venti spiced chai latte, extra hot. I don’t know if I will be a presenter’s preferred flavor that day, so I’m not going to worry about trying. That’s wasted energy that I could be putting into my interpretation and audition.
  • The more I’m ‘over it’ and the less I care, the better I sing.
  • I discovered that very often it’s not about how well you sing, it’s the vibe you’re in and the vibe you project! Of course you should try to sing your best, however, you can sing well and still criticize every little thing that went wrong…  Or you can just sing and commit and be unapologetic! This is who you are today! Basta! They like it? great! They don’t? That’s ok as well.
  • Auditions will always be weird and unnatural. Accept that.

Next and Final: Epilogue