As always, start here.
Need any help getting your head in the audition game? Try this.
Enjoy the weekend!
It’s been a tough day, this September 30. My Facebook feed is overflowing with grief and disbelief about the demise of New York City Opera, and my neighbors and friends here in the D.C. are are awash with anger and chagrin about the possible (probable?) government shutdown.
It’s been a maxim of my professional life never to talk politics (and to be able to steer any inflammatory partisan cocktail chatter into neutral territory in record time), so I will bypass the latter and focus on the former.
When I first got involved in this whole audition season business 20 years ago, New York City was a game-changer. Yes, of course, we heard and hired good singers in other places in the country. But the NYC auditions were a barometer of sorts; they almost always encompassed more than half of the best young artist talent out there in any given autumn. Cause and effect are dangerous to assign, but the current trend is clear: the singers we hear in New York no longer dominate the game.
Many of the 20-something singers in New York used to be at NYCO. There are other factors and other programs that have also changed or disappeared in the last decade, but this has to be the biggest. Of course, NYCO was more than just young artists; it housed singers at all different career points. But spending a formative chunk of one’s young artist years at City Opera allowed singers to live in NY to study, audition, and start careers. And many did.
The good news? Alternate career-entry paths seem to have proliferated during this same period. Big house young artist programs are (mostly) thriving, regional companies are doing some of the freshest and most innovative work in the country, and Europe is once again increasingly attractive. And the fact that you don’t have to spend a ton of time living in Manhattan in order to have an opera career is a relief to many a singer.
The tempering news? There are fewer places where emerging artists can be family. NYCO was such a place. When I was starting my career, Washington National Opera was also such a place. We had an entire winter season in the Kennedy Center’s two smaller venues, and it functioned like a repertory company much of the time. But there are tradeoffs: while WNO no longer has such an arm, it has grown immensely, offering DC-area opera lovers truly world-class performances. And while the passing of NYCO means the end of an era, I have to believe that the void will be filled. Arts organizations have life cycles, and we resist change at our peril. The challenge for the aspiring professional singer is to read these shifting sands.
My take-away? I am even more committed to the mission of our company and others like it. Young artists need a place in between the closed laboratory of the university / conservatory and the high-stakes stages of the professional world. They must be given an opportunity to take responsibility, sink or swim, learn from their mistakes, and be surprised by how good they really are.
This September Monday feels pretty gloomy, but exciting singing looms for us in this fall’s audition tour. If you’re singing for us or for anyone this fall, know that we exist because of you, and take heart. Bring your A game, enjoy the hell out of it, and take us along for the ride.
September 20, 2013
September 18, 2013
I’m a podcast junkie.* This week, I’ve been catching up on the TED Radio Hour, and today’s post is courtesy of this gem. (Don’t worry if you don’t “do” podcasts. Just click through to the web page and listen!)
TED Talks videos are amazing things, but I don’t always have the time to devote to visual media. Not only is the Radio Hour a wonderful companion on my commute, the producers do a terrific job of knitting together material from multiple talks in a way that often creates added meaning. Such is the case here.
When I tell people that I work with opera singers, they often remark on how difficult it must be to deal with over-sized egos. Now, there are egotists in every walk of life, and opera is no exception. But introversion, vulnerability and humility are surprisingly common among performers. The public often thinks that artists have to build up bullet-proof exteriors and pump up huge egos. And truth be told, some do. But not the best ones.
The best ones have steel in them, but it’s on the inside. On the outside, there’s a soft, flexible and vulnerable exterior that opens them up. It’s how they reach us and help us see the world in a new way.
And then there’s the practical aspect. An opera singer shows up for work, puts on whatever clothes and makeup someone else has decided s/he should wear, executes his duties in the context of a machine run in unforgiving real time by over a hundred other people, does it all in front of thousands of people (many of whom aren’t exactly predisposed to wish him success) and runs the risk of public excoriation in the media by someone he’s never met.
The audition season challenge in this? Strut yourself again and again and again in front of judgmental and cranky potential employers without developing a hard exterior that limits your potential as an artist and your sensitivity as a human being. Accept criticism without being defensive and view honest mistakes as the price of growth. Stay vulnerable.
September 16, 2013
Last month, the Harvard Gazette took a look at the role of visual information in assessing performance. In “The Look of Music,” the a study by Chia-Jung Tsay indicated that “nearly all participants—including highly trained musicians—were better able to identify the winners of competitions by watching silent video clips than by listening to audio recordings.” It’s kind of jaw-dropping. The article deals with instrumentalists (not singers), and that makes the findings even more sobering.
I’m now going to head off in two opposing directions with this information. Follow me in whichever direction(s) you wish.
Direction #1: Embrace the Visual
Opera is a visual as well as auditory art form, and we know that the way a singer occupies space and uses her body is a critical part of her art. I recently discussed the Harvard article with an acquaintance, and he said that he and his opera friends have taken to predicting the winners of competitions based on physical attributes and the way a singer carries himself. A bit of an oversimplification, but more applicable than you’d think.
If you’re an aspiring opera singer, this trend holds important implications. Make friends with your body. Know what it can do and be aware of the signals it sends. Communicate physically as well as aurally. Critique the visual aspects of your performances. You don’t have to be model-skinny or barihunk-buff. But you do have to move with assurance, agility and confidence. If you’re uncomfortable being on display, and the nuances of your physical presence aren’t integrated with your music-making, we sense it. And you start to lose your audience.
Direction #2: Danger, Will Robinson
From the article: “Even with professional musicians, who are trained to use sound, and who have both expertise and experience, it appeared that the visual information was overriding the sound.” That’s a strong word. Not informing, but “overriding.” And although I wish it weren’t so, I’m afraid it’s true.
I “watch” a portion of auditions with my eyes closed. (I know; you’ve all been thinking that I just don’t get enough sleep on the road and I’m catching up during your audition. Not so.)
I do it to eliminate unhelpful visual cues. It doesn’t mean that you look awful and I’m trying to divorce the awkward physicality from the sound; it’s exactly the opposite. I know that I fill in the gaps too favorably when I’m watching, just like the participants in the Harvard study. The minute I open my eyes, I will be either won over or put off by the singer’s visual presence; that’s an unavoidable and essential part of opera. But because my job is to suss out career potential, it’s critical that I don’t minimize technical flaws and look past musical sloppiness.
No clean conclusions, except that none of this is going away. It will become more and more complicated as we get increasingly visually oriented. Make your peace with it. If you’re a singer, make your technique bullet-proof, your artistry beyond compelling, and your physical presence unambiguous. If you’re an opera lover, think about the ways you consume music and experiment with how what you see interacts with what you hear. There are challenges and opportunities here for all of us.
September 4, 2013
I used to think that having a career in the arts provided some level of immunity to burn out. When I would hit bottom (as I did regularly…), I dismissed it as a sign of weakness. After all, if I am fortunate enough to do what I love, and the work is itself a thing of great beauty and a source of renewal, how could it burn me out? There are legions of truly difficult jobs in the world, and this isn’t one of them. And being grateful for good and rewarding work is enough of a weapon against burn-out, right?
I will go to my grave a naïve woman.
Can you tell that we just finished an exhausting summer season? It was wildly successful from almost any point of view. Regrets were few, blessings were many. So the fact that it’s two weeks in the rear view mirror and my psyche is still a black hole is inexcusable. Right?
Here’s the thing I believe I’m finally learning. (I’m slow. It’s only taken over 30 years.) The argument that a satisfying job should be its own reward is based on the fact that art can refresh and replenish us. Indeed it can. But if we are engaging with the work at a level that allows the well to fill as quickly (or more quickly) than it’s being drawn upon, we are slacking. If we are doing due diligence, we are putting far more into this equation than it can repay us. And unchecked, the well runs dry. Because the water in the well is filled with music, it takes a little longer. But eventually, we will scrape bottom.
I’ve come to believe that this balance is one of the things that defines professionalism. If we consistently reap more than we sow, we are amateurs. Nothing wrong with being an amateur; by definition one who loves the art. But being a professional means plowing more into it than it gives back to you, tackling the thorny parts, not shying away from the tough decisions, embracing the minutiae. In the end, we professionals love the art, too. I don’t mean to understate that. It’s just that we are servants of it. And servants need a break.
So if you’re out there slinging the art around, and you need balance and respite, please don’t be afraid to take it. You know who you are. We love our work, but we’re useless to it if we flame out.
August 31, 2013
One more reminder (because we hate the sad and frustrating discussions that ensue when folks miss the deadline…)
Applications for early/mid October audition dates in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago are due on Monday (September 2.) Start here.
August 26, 2013
LOCATIONS & DATES
We don’t know what the rep will be for 2014 because we don’t determine that until we hear who’s out there. We’ll probably start rehearsals in late May and be done by mid-August; not all of our Filene Young Artists have to be in residence the whole time, but Studio Artists do have to be available from early June (at the latest) until mid-August. Read the artist descriptions (in the links above) carefully to be sure you’re a good fit; we don’t want you to waste your time and applications fees if not!
Enjoy the last gasp of summer, and have fun brushing off those audition arias.
August 17, 2013
I am besotted with this opera written by a man in his 80th year. Verdi knew in his bones how difficult both life and art could be, yet he chose at the end to immerse himself in laughter. He had a palpable affection for this flawed knight whose appetites are laughably huge and whose self-confidence is even bigger. He makes Falstaff a creature of abundance who lives large and never looks back.
After he has been stuffed in a dirty laundry basket, thrown into the river, poked and prodded, and terrified out of his wits, he comes to terms with the fact that he’s been the object of mockery and ridicule. At that point, a lesser man might retreat into an angry and defensive posture. But Sir John is bigger than that. He pats his belly and says, “People mock me and boast about it. Yet without me, they wouldn’t have even a pinch of spice in their life. It is I who makes them seem clever.”
The creative and big-hearted people who make up the WTOC family every summer bring that same spice into our lives. God bless them; they make us seem clever. They are still learning, they are flawed, and they don’t have all of the answers. But they daily deny the stinginess, fear and over-caution that takes the joy out of life. They, like Sir John, live with a philosophy of abundance, not scarcity. They, like him, aren’t deluded about the fact that none of this is perfect, easy or simple. They are willing to take chances – to reap the benefits when the risks pay off and to be undeterred and ready to try again when they fail.
And so, after three months that seemed simultaneously very long and way too short, we send this year’s Company back into the world. A combination of pride and late summer fatigue makes me more sentimental than I typically am, but in the spirit of Falstaff, I will indulge in it for a few more hours. To the 2013 WTOC and everyone who lavished time, energy and talent on this year’s season: Bravi tutti, and ciao for now.
July 30, 2013
I thought I had caught up on July. But I missed reporting on the musical geeky goodness that was Lucky Thirteen!
Jeremy Frank, pianist and opera coach extraordinaire, pulled together a free evening of music inspired by this lucky anniversary year of 2013. He and four singers honored composers born on the 13′s (Verdi, Wagner, Britten), a song lucky enough to be Opus 13 (Barber’s “Sure on This Shining Night”), a selection from Thirteen, the Musical, an homage to the Opera Singer on the 13th Floor (Tesori’s The Girl in 14G), a madrigal written in 1613, and a series of 13 Haiku (music by George N. Gianopoulos, to haiku by Jack Kerouac) written in 2013 and premiered at this concert.
Thanks go to Jeremy, of course, and to Ying, Maya, Juan and Aaron for a most enjoyable evening. Lucky Thirteen is part of our Fine Tuning series, in which we have the luxury of digging into a treasure trove of song connected to one of the larger aspects of our season. The 2011 installment was The Tale(nt)s of Hoffmann (showcasing the creative output of the hero of Offenbach’s opera), and 2012′s performance was The Composer’s Progress (exploring the stylistic chameleon who was Igor Stravinsky.)
Below: Ying Fang, Juan José de León, Maya Lahyani, Aaron Sorensen, Jeremy Frank in Lucky Thirteen
July 29, 2013
A Wolf Trap Opera summer seems to fly by at the speed of light, and in just 10-12 weeks, there’s little time to burn. But in the middle of the swirl of early July, three of our singers (Kiri, Andrea and Speedo) and I spent two afternoons at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland doing some important and unusual work.
A few years ago, our Studio Artists began working with the art therapy program at Children’s National Medical Center, crafting concerts inspired by the drawings and paintings the children created. I’ve been wanting to create a similar opportunity for our Filene Young Artists to be involved in the larger community, and a few weeks ago, we were able to act on it.
The Stages of Healing program at Walter Reed was developed to promote a sense of community among patients, families and staff. We brought a noontime concert of light classics and popular Broadway and movie tunes to the atrium area of the America Building, and afterward we offered a few songs to some of the out-patient treatment areas.
It was a small gesture, but the four of us were privileged to be able to share some live music with folks whose days were more stressful than I can imagine. As a former music therapist, I believe firmly in the healing power of the arts; although our participation in this project was transitory, it moved us greatly to have a chance to temporarily ease a few people’s burdens through song.