Next week, at NYC's Symphony Space, Portland Opera will hold its yearly auditions for the Portland Opera Studio Program. The ears listening from behind the table will be Christopher Mattaliano, General Director; Clare Burovac, Director of Artistic Operations; and Rob Ainsley, Associate Music Director.
A fact sheet about the auditions:
-- Of 368 applicants, we will hear 50 in New York, and another 35 at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music (CCM)
-- The auditions take place in two rounds. The first round of auditions takes place Monday and Tuesday, November 28 and 29; callbacks are the morning of November 30.
-- As with most vocal auditions, singers will perform two arias, one of their choosing followed by one of the panel's choosing. For those who have never had the experience of a voice audition -- that's just about all of us, right? -- a singer brings in a rep list of arias he/she is offering. A good rep list has arias of varying styles, often from several different periods of music (unless you're a Baroque specialist or something of that ilk), in several different languages. You get to pick the first thing you sing, and then the panel looks over your rep list and picks the next aria.
-- While the preliminary round is mostly about how you sing, the callbacks are often a chance for the panel to get a feel for your personality. Are you pleasant? Do you have a personality? Are you a good fit for our company? In the callback round, singers probably will just be asked to sing something off their list, without getting to choose.
-- The panel will hear all voice types, regardless of what we're casting for. Many of you are probably wondering, "Why hear all those singers when almost all the current studio artists are in their first year?" We hear the full range of singers for several reasons. One: although our studio artists are typically in residence for two years, sometimes they leave after one year to pursue other opportunities. If we didn't hear other singers, we might be left without, say, a soprano. Bad times. Two: even if our studio artists DO stick around for both years, hearing the whole gamut of voice types means potentially hearing someone we might want to hire in the future. Often singers get frustrated at us when we hear, for instance, a light mezzo, only to find that the next year's season doesn't include a single role for the voice type. We aren't wasting your time: we're thinking ahead. We've also kept track of some singers over the years; we might hear a singer one year who's not quite ready, only to hear them the following year and see drastic improvement.
-- What is the panel looking for? Firstly, we want singers whose technique is already rock solid. While there is always room for growth and change, we want our singers to already know how to use their instruments from the start. Consider the studio program a finishing school -- not a training program. Secondly, we want them to have some degree of musical intelligence. Are they making good decisions in their arias, about phrasing and emphasis, about those tiny musical details that take a performance from acceptable to exciting? And lastly, we want them to have some sort of spark. You can sing a flawless Doll Song, but is it interesting?
I attended the auditions my very first year at the company, in 2006. I acted as the proctor, sitting outside the audition room, meeting and checking in the singers as they arrived. It was an interesting place to be. That year, we ended up holding auditions in April, but in New York there was a freak snowstorm; folks were arriving late, flustered and covered in snowflakes. Because companies often hire local musicians -- typically students from the nearby music schools -- most people didn't realize that I was a Portland Opera staff member. And while 99% of them were very kind (I particularly remember meeting Sharin Apostolou and Jeff Beruan, both of whom were unfailingly polite), there was one notable person who was such a raging you-know-what that later that afternoon, when auditions were over, I went into the audition room and made sure the panel knew.
Singers, take note: although I won't publish it, I still remember her name. BE NICE TO EVERYONE INVOLVED. It says something about you if you aren't.
Clare Burovac will be bringing us a dispatch from the auditions next week, so I'll have more to tell you then. If you are interested in more of the inside scoop on young artist auditions in general, I HIGHLY recommend Kim Whitman's blog for Wolftrap Opera. Kim and her crew travel all around the country looking for their singers, and listen to an almost unfathomable number of arias (over 1200 this year). She has some terrific insight into the process -- including a recent note about being nice to the person at the table.