Ever wanted to know exactly how a company goes about deciding who is selected for its program that year? If so, read on 🙂

AUDITION SECRETS! CHAUTAUQUA OPERA

Back when I started my blog in January, one of my first posts contained information on statistics and the probability of being accepted by some of the most well-known young artist programs in the U.S. That post prompted some great discussions with both singers and administrators, one result of which was correspondence that began between myself and those who are directly responsible for selecting the singers for those programs. The audition process generally looks the same for each company from the singers’ perspective: one fills out an application, attaches supporting materials, and then waits to hear about getting a live audition. I wanted to know: was the selection process as similar from one company to another on the other side of the table? The simple answer: Yes and no.

One of the first companies I spoke with was Chautauqua Opera. Michael Berg, Managing Director for the company, was kind enough to allow me to inquire about the process that he and Steven Osgood (newly appointed as Artistic and General Director last year) utilize to select singers each year. The following outlines what I learned from our correspondence:

First things first – I wanted to know how Chautauqua decided who was chosen from 900+ applications for the ~500 live audition spots. Chautauqua requires a recording to be sent in as part of the application, and Michael made it clear: the recording was by far the most important component. He says, “We listen to every singer’s recordings, regardless of whether we have heard them before. We listen primarily for intonation, diction, and appropriate vocal progress. We do not have any sort of quota system by age, voice type, or any other consideration. It’s entirely based on the quality of the recording provided.”

This brought up some questions, of course. What did he mean by appropriate vocal progress, and the quality of the recording?

I was impressed with their philosophy – it was not a one-size-fits-all way of thinking. The artistic team takes the age and educational background of an applicant into consideration when evaluating a singer’s current level of progress. That means a 22-year old isn’t expected to be able to do the same things a 32-year old singer can do. Any previous applications are consulted to give a comparison as to how the singer might have progressed technically and artistically. But any applications from the past were not used to decide whether an applicant was listened to in the current year – as Berg stated, every recording is heard. In fact, for all who don’t make the cut for a live audition, Maestro Osgood personally listens to each of those recordings before approving that decision.

When it comes to the quality of the recording itself, Berg clarifies, “It’s more about the quality of the singing in the recording than the quality of the actual recording! In general, when singers are reviewing their recordings, they need to ask themselves if their voice is accurately and clearly represented. If one can achieve that without spending a huge amount on a studio recording, great; if s/he isn’t comfortable doing it outside of a fully professional recording atmosphere, great.”

For the other required materials, Berg says keep it simple – professional, clear and concise. “We want it to be ENTIRELY about the artistic product.” The thinking here is the same as it is for the recording – he continues, “Whether it is professionally done is not the issue: does it convey that you are professional? That you’re mature enough to handle the pressures of being a part of a professional Company for an 8-week contract? That’s the question at hand. The most important factor is always going to be the quality of the singing, but singers should consider what they’re expressing with their resume and headshot.”

So – if you haven’t gotten it by now, allow me to reiterate on Chautauqua’s behalf: you need to ensure that the recording you submit shows you at your best for where you are at.

For the live audition, I asked what kinds of factors were considered. What were they listening and looking for – what was going to get someone on the short list? Just like the preliminary round, the live round was about the voice. “Is there a strong and healthy core to the sound? Is the singer where we think a singer of that age and fach should be in their development? What will this voice sound like in our 1300-seat hall? In our 4,000 seat amphitheater? How well does the singer act with the voice?”

And speaking of acting, I asked about movement: “If appropriate for the aria, sure…we’re not scared of movement! The trick is whether or not the movement carries the right degree of intent. If you’re going to move, we have to believe that your movement is firmly, intimately tied to the meaning of the piece. If you’re just moving because somebody told you to move here at this point in any given aria, or because you think it will somehow look more well-acted if you walk ‘downstage’ toward the panel, it’s noticeable and distracting. Either invest in it to the degree that it feels completely integral to the substance of the aria… or don’t do it.”

Because aesthetics has been such a hot-button topic lately, I specifically brought it up – how much do looks/attire and body type count? Berg replied, “Attire and body type factor in very little, if at all. It’s not like we don’t remember these things, but they’re more identifiers (“Remember she’s the one who wore…”) than anything else. They don’t really carry any content-level consideration.” And if it comes down to 2-3 singers that are equally suitable for the program, then it becomes about casting. Whoever is the best match to perform or cover one of the available roles in the season will usually be the one chosen.

If you are someone who has auditioned for Chautauqua in the past, hopefully this sheds some light on why you might or might not have been selected for their young artist program that year. And if you still aren’t sure, brainstorm with a professional you trust – Chautauqua’s not giving feedback. As I’m sure one can understand, the sheer numbers involved make this impossible. “The answer has always been no [to feedback], and I don’t see that changing. If we offered it for any, we would need to be able to offer it to all, and we simply have far too many singers auditioning for us to make that a reality.”

Berg’s tone is incredibly supportive: “Some people seem to think that companies are actively looking for reasons not to hire them, but the opposite is true. We want every singer, when they walk in the door, to be the answer to a question on our casting sheet. ‘Oh, she would be the perfect Violetta cover!’ ‘Hey, I think he could handle singing a leading role in Norton Hall, don’t you?’ That’s what we’re hoping to say every time that door opens.”

It should be noted that it would do anyone who wishes to audition for a company some good to research the people who might potentially be in the room. The people making decisions might appear to be administrators, and they do serve in that capacity, but they are almost always accomplished artists as well. Steven Osgood has a long history as a celebrated conductor with an obvious affinity for contemporary American repertoire. Michael Berg has a background in performance and musicology and is also a published author. Both gentlemen are highly intelligent and passionate, and both have a great sense of humor.

In other words, it should be a blast to sing for them.

For more information about Chautauqua Opera, visit www.ciweb.org/opera

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