Ever wanted to know exactly how a company goes about deciding who is selected for its program that year? The Audition Secrets series continues below 🙂

AUDITION SECRETS! OPERA THEATRE OF ST. LOUIS

Maestro Stephen Lord is a musical luminary with whom I had the pleasure of connecting thanks to my article on young artist program statistics. Maestro Lord commented on the article, asking why Opera Theatre of St. Louis was not included – he mentioned that OTSL had one of the highest rates of promotion into major roles post-program, including for minorities, than any of the programs for which I had cited statistics.

I could say “mea culpa” to many fine summer programs for not being included in the initial report. To include all of the high caliber programs would have taken me many more months of research and statistics gathering, so what I did publish became a representation of sorts. I was, however, thrilled at the prospect of including more companies and even better if such information could be relayed within a more in-depth look at the company’s audition process. I invited Maestro Lord to do this for OTSL, and he kindly accepted. (Cue my star-struck fan face!)

Lord has held a 25-year tenure as the music director at OTSL and has had a relationship with the company for over 35 years. As the artistic director of the company’s young artist programs, he is the ultimate decision maker in casting for each season. But far more than an administrative leader, Stephen Lord is one of the most influential operatic conductors of our time. He has conducted at some of the world’s greatest houses, including English National Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, Santa Fe Opera, and Opéra de Montréal, among many others including OTSL. He is also committed to emerging artists beyond his work at the summer program: Lord has worked as the artistic advisor of opera studies at New England Conservatory, has given numerous master classes at educational and performing organizations, and is also a frequent competition adjudicator. Before taking on the role as conductor, he had a very successful career as an opera coach and accompanist. Maestro Lord’s career is deeply connected to many of the great personalities of the opera world, and he himself is considered to be one of the greats by the business as well.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis takes in close to 1000 applications for their young artist program, and selects 33 young artists. Statistical odds of being accepted: 3-4%.

I started at the beginning, as usual – how does one get past the first stage of the application process? Lord states, “There is truly no set formula. Voice and career potential are our number one priorities.” The company doesn’t take recordings as part of its application, however. “I do not believe in recordings. If all applicants recorded in the same room with the same equipment, it might be useful. But the variations are too great to even consider, not to mention the expense the candidate has to go through. I prefer the old fashioned way.”

So that leaves an application, a resume, and a headshot. First the resume and application, which includes listing the arias to be offered – what was important, and what wasn’t?

“Well, this is where the Great Guessing Game begins. For me (and I am only one of four who separately look at all materials, the others being two chorus masters and artistic administration), I look at several things. Remembering that singers in schools oftentimes sing things they should not for whatever reasons, the roles on the resume do not have a lot of importance. However, the arias offered tell us what the singer thinks they are and should be singing. If they have been out of school for a long time and there is a large gap between jobs that have been minor, the red flag goes up. The singer whose resume includes several other young artist programs that have not led to something else is another red flag. These are not disqualifiers, but they cause one to look even more deeply. Awards of prestigious competitions have some weight, but we all know those depend as much on who is judging as the quality of the performance and singing.” For those who have had a gap of two or more years on the resume, Lord suggested putting an asterisk along with an explanation.

He also made it quite clear that more is not more: he would rather not see lots of names for master classes since these people can rarely serve as a reference for the singer, and he has no desire to see categories such as “Roles in Preparation” or “Scenes Performed.”

I understood what he meant – no extra information that doesn’t really show what the singer has actually done or information that appears to unnecessarily pad the resume to fill out the page. But no scenes at all? What about for singers who hadn’t performed any roles? “If there is only partial role experience I am ok with it provided they are young enough to NOT have done a real role. After about age 24 or 25, if they have not done a real role in school or outside, chances are a real role anywhere is more remote.”

Lord felt the same way about voice classification – keep it simple. “Voice classifications are only important in the basic groups. Adjectives such as spinto, leggero, profonda, or dramatic are all unnecessary and confuse the issue. And when a 22-26 year-old starts using such terms before their voices are even mature (rare exceptions to be sure) then someone has misguided them.” More extra info considered unnecessary: eye color, weight, and height. “It is the look and carriage and not the numbers that counts more.”

Like the resume, his preference for headshots is simplicity. “A photo that LOOKS like the singer with the face in the center. Not interested in jewelry, cleavage, fancy hair – those are cosmetics. Simple, honest, real eyes. The only retouching needed is for a skin blemish. Men with beards should have photos with and without.” He also mentioned that he’d rather do without trend-based styles, such as unusual hair colors (purple/green/blue, etc.) and/or nose, lip, or eyebrow piercings.

Now to the live audition. Are look and body type important?

“Look and size play little to no importance to us. As far as ethnicity goes, I pay it no mind whatsoever. But, truthfully, one must consider it as certain operas require certain racial types. I am not talking about operas like MADAMA BUTTERFLY – but when one does a new work about minorities, one has to look for candidates to sing or to cover that fit the bill. Does this eliminate some others who might NOT fit that? Practically speaking, yes. Morally speaking, no.” I took a look at the OTSL site, where there are many pictures of singers from the young artist programs. Indeed, singers of all body types and ethnicities were well-represented.

What about movement? “A completely staged, unspontaneous and choreographed presentation is perhaps one of the few things I truly dislike. Think back to the last golden age when the greatest singers recorded some iconic performances. Through their singing and without video, they forced us to imagine the theater and the movement. For me, there is far too much ‘acting’ and too little sincere ‘singing.’ If the singer has a message, one can be carried along quite well theatrically. Janet Baker could make a stage out of nothing but the crook of the piano.”

And the voice itself – what is important for you to hear? Are there things that you consider to be non-negotiables? “Out of tune singing is unacceptable for many reasons and indicates a flaw that can be fatal. Occasionally a note goes off – that is something else. As for the diction, here are several points of view. Good diction is much more about vowels than consonants, as vowels are what carry and make for clear sound which, of course, leads to good diction. If a singer has a clear, beautiful technique, then diction is easy to correct if it is sloppy and a clear emission means the articulating muscles are free to do their job. If the voice has a lovely timbre but is based on a univowel singing method then the text is never, ever going to be clear regardless of the consonant spitting. This is why I don’t really care much about hearing something in English, although at OTSL we sing exclusively in English! Anything can be made to work so long as the vocal production is clear. Surely, there is some butchering of languages, including English, in auditions but that is why singers are entering into a young artist program so these things can be addressed.”

Maestro Lord had mentioned the importance of choosing audition rep wisely. I wondered, did it factor into his decision making? “Yes and no. When a singer is singing an audition they’re telling us what they think they are and one has to respect that. This is why I am very against the ‘Well, I can sing the aria but not the whole role’ mentality. WE don’t know that and when you present ‘Vissi d’arte,’ you are telling us you are ready for TOSCA. Singers need to sing within their limits. And they need to sing pieces which, in their short slot, show voice right away and grab the ear. I cannot stress this enough.” [Side note: I must agree here, and from experience. Back in my day, I learned the hard way that choosing your initial aria as a way to ease into your audition was a bad idea. I assumed the audition panel would hear a second aria, since that was so common; they did not. Start with what shows you at your best and show ‘em what you’ve got – you may not get to sing anything else.]

So what do you do if you have 2-3 singers who seem to be rather equal on all counts – how do you choose? “While we don’t discriminate on age, race, size, etc., when all things are equal, and since we tend to promote people from within so often, I try to look toward the potential for future casting. In addition, after the covers have been assigned, we have a huge concert with the St. Louis Symphony where the singers are all featured on stage with the orchestra. I like to be sure the singers will make a good showing. We also try very hard to have a ‘wild card’ singer or two. These are people who are not quite ready but display something different and worth watching. In the end, truth to tell, it is all a shot in the dark but based on experience. Mistakes get made, but mostly things are on the positive side.”

For all of you who bemoan application fees, here’s a nice perk – OTSL doesn’t charge one. But if you are one of the ones fortunate enough to be offered a position in the program and you choose to accept, Lord expects you to keep your word. “One thing, perhaps a weakness of mine, is that when I cast someone I am convinced it is good to go. But then the occasional offer for something bigger or a full role in another company comes up. We are quite liberal about allowing people, once accepted, to go to the bigger opportunity (though not usually in a company that promotes on our level). But this has a domino effect for me personally as my first choice is the best choice in my mind. I have been surprised in the past when an alternative choice has been equal or better. But I would caution any young singers reading this that once an agreement, oral or written, is made then keeping it is the true professional behavior. I feel for them as they can be torn with an embarrassment of riches. But there is the moral, ethical value of one’s word.”

To learn more about Opera Theatre of St. Louis: www.opera-stl.org

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