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 SARATOGA
Opera Saratoga holds a special place in my heart, as I saw La Bohème for the first time there when I was a wee 18-year old pup (back then it was still known as Lake George Opera). After publishing my article on audition statistics, I had the fortunate opportunity to connect with Laurie Rogers, Director of Young Artist Programs and Head of Music Staff at Opera Saratoga. A highly accomplished pianist, coach, and conductor, Laurie and I conversed about the process of auditioning for Opera Saratoga as part of my continued research on the audition processes at different companies. Here we covered applications and auditions, including some likes and dislikes, as well as some great insider info.
Opera Saratoga was not in my original post about audition numbers, so here are the statistics:
1000+ applicants each year, with 60-70% of those being sopranos, followed by mezzos, lower male voices, and tenors having the least number of applicants. There are two program levels, the Apprentice Artist and Studio Artist, and each level holds 3 singers in each main voice category: a total of 24 singers – 6 sopranos, 6 mezzos, 6 tenors, and 6 baritones/basses – are selected. The statistical odds of being accepted: ~2.4%
KD: 1,000+ applications have come in – how do you decide who gets a live audition?
LR: We actually hear less than half of the applicants who submit materials; closer to about 1/3 of the applicant pool gets a live audition. We screen by reading resumes and listening to the audio recordings submitted on YAP Tracker. A general consensus is that it’s very easy to identify the talent you definitely want to hear in live audition (excellent vocal technique; clear communication of, and connection with, text; a sense that this person is on a good professional trajectory) – and it’s very easy to identify fairly quickly the singers we do not wish to hear (obvious intonation problems, wobble, breathiness, lack of support, bad language skills, no sense of style or phrasing or dramatic intent). The challenge is to sift through those in the middle that we aren’t immediately sure about. Lawrence Edelson [Opera Saratoga’s General and Artistic Director] and I intentionally review all the applications separately, then combine our notes and take it from there. Materials do need to look professional; resumes free of spelling and other errors, audio recordings that are of a very good quality, meaning they give us the best possible idea of what your voice sounds like, headshots that really do look like you! All of these are part of making a first impression, and if they are sub-par, you’re already starting off on the wrong foot.
KD: Is there a certain hierarchy of elements you look for in the application materials?
LR: Far and above everything else is the vocal quality (and vocal potential also plays a big part in this, especially in larger voices that are still developing). If we perceive major vocal issues in your recording, we may not want to risk taking a chance on you in a live audition. Of course we evaluate the entire resume, but roles performed in an academic situation are very different from roles performed professionally. We look at what you have been doing since you finished your education; are you starting to get some professional experience through other YAPs, or with regional companies? Including dates on your resume is important for just this issue. If we get an applicant who has been out of school for six years and only has church jobs and some local oratorio concerts on the resume, that sends a red flag. I don’t put as strong an emphasis on recommendations, although other companies do; I feel it’s too easy to find people to write letters of recommendation telling us how fabulous you are. I’m much more interested in the teachers/coaches/conductors/directors columns at the bottom of the resume; those should be people we can contact to ask about you, not just name-dropping. Same goes for master classes, which I find a pretty useless resume category – it really only tells us who your university has paid an honorarium to, who perhaps worked with you for 15 or 20 minutes max and probably can’t speak in any lengthy, knowledgeable detail as to your abilities. I’ve done quite a few master classes and residencies across the country, and it would be difficult to speak at length about most of the young singers I’ve had the privilege to work with.
KD: Do recordings only factor in after the other materials have been looked at, or do you listen and look together, or listen before?
LR: Everybody vets applications differently, but I generally open up the resume and start playing the mp3 audio simultaneously, so I can listen while I read. They are part and parcel of the same package.
KD: What are the most important factors to you in the recordings – what are you listening for?
LR: I am astonished at the number of poor quality recordings that are submitted – the biggest favor a singer can do him or herself is to have someone else they trust listen through the audio files before submitting them. Waiting until the last minute for the application deadline and then throwing a quick recording up there can backfire on you easily. I lost a good 40 seconds of one recording while the singer chatted with his pianist about tempi, cuts, etc. Another recording began an aria, then stopped, and the singer said, “Wait, I didn’t like that – let’s start again and I’ll cut this part out.” Except she didn’t. Sometimes the mic is so far away I get too much ambient noise and don’t get the quality of your sound at all. Sometimes the acoustic is so dry and the mic so close that I get no overtones. Sometimes the intonation can be so bad the singer is a quarter tone sharp or flat. Take a careful listen and ask yourself what you would think if you were listening to applications and this was submitted to you. What a good recording shows us is, of course, your vocal ability – tone, phrasing, legato, colors, dynamics, style – and how you use your text, whether you understand the language; your musicality, your intonation, the appropriateness of the chosen repertoire, etc. In the end this is one of the biggest tools we use to decide who to hear in live audition. (And I would strongly recommend against using a canned orchestra backup, such as Music Minus One – it’s usually pretty obvious that’s what you’ve done and doesn’t help your presentation in the least.)
KD: For singers who are granted a live audition, what are you looking for when you see and hear them? Is the singer’s attire important? The singer’s body type? Just the voice? Acting ability?
LR: By the time we hear singers in a live audition, we are looking for specific seasonal casting needs. At Opera Saratoga, every Young Artist covers at least one mainstage role; others in the more senior Apprentice level are offered mainstage roles as well – this year, for instance, every role in LE NOZZE DI FIGARO aside from the four main principal roles is taken by a Young Artist; all of the roles in Philip Glass’ THE WITCHES OF VENICE are being sung by Young Artists, and many of the roles and all of the covers in IL POSTINO are handled by Young Artists as well. So we have to take specific casting into consideration with every singer we hear. Many, many times we hear wonderful singers who just aren’t a good fit for our seasonal needs. Sometimes it can take several audition seasons before we finally have the right fit for a singer. We are also looking for career potential: we want to engage young singers who we believe are on the path to major professional careers. Body type and attire are less important but of course we expect you to present yourself professionally and not casually. Acting ability is a big piece of the puzzle as well – do you have stage presence, charisma, comfort in your skin? Do you understand your text and can you communicate it effectively to us? What separates you from the other singers who may come into their audition singing the same aria; what makes it uniquely your performance? Are you confident, or apologetic? Do you sing into the floor, or out to your audience? Will you smile? It lights up your eyes and draws us to you. Do you know the difference between confidence and arrogance….? Often we can tell this from the moment you walk onstage.
KD: As far as the voice goes, what qualities are important for you to hear? Are there certain things that are considered non-negotiables for you, such as language, style, musicality, etc. – in other words, if the diction is poor, is that an automatic ‘no’?
LR: There’s a difference between issues that are fixable and issues that we deem not fixable. Diction can be corrected. Musical style to a certain extent can be coached and improved. Basic technique problems may not be so easy to overcome. Singing without good support, intonation issues and a noticeable wobble all raise a flag in an audition. The level of a singer’s experience also makes a difference; a younger singer may be forgiven some of these sins quicker than a more seasoned singer. I love to ask for Mozart accompanied recits in audition (for example, “E Susanna non vien” instead of hearing all of “Dove sono”) – this is the ultimate litmus test of how you handle text, pacing, musicality, colors, and language all in just a couple of pages. Same with opera in English, which we require – written after World War II. Can you clearly communicate in your own language?
KD: How important is how the singer moves? In your opinion, should a singer use the space if appropriate for the aria or stay confined to a smaller space near the piano regardless?
LR: One of my huge pet peeves is the singer who advances further and further downstage of the piano towards the panel – as a frequent audition pianist as well as auditor, I’ve been tempted many times to tether the singer to the piano so they can’t get away. Your pianist can’t see your face once you wander off, ruining any hope of ensemble. Having said that, I don’t mean that a singer should stand on the traditional “X” marks the spot and remain motionless. Use your judgment. We want to see if you are comfortable in your body and not locked up physically when you sing. Excessive staging/choreography is absolutely not necessary and ultimately distracting, and usually falls flat. I’m not impressed if you end up prone on the floor overcome by emotion at the end of your aria – there are other ways to communicate all that passion!
KD: Does a singer’s choice of audition repertoire factor in to your decision making at all?
LR: It should best represent where you are vocally RIGHT NOW, with perhaps one “stretch” piece. But if it sounds like people are advising you poorly and the rep is way too big, that sends up a flag. You have a very short amount of time to “sell yourself” to us, and choosing the right repertoire to accomplish this is extremely important. Also it should go without saying that you need to be able to sing any combination of two arias in your package in succession, since there is no way of predicting what the panel may ask for as a second selection. Two huge arias one after another may completely do you in when nerves and adrenaline are factored in.
KD: Given all things being equal – good technique, professional demeanor, good command of the repertoire, etc. – how do you choose between two or three equally qualified singers?
LR: For our specific program, it comes down to who we think is best suited for our casting needs, and how they would fit in with the rest of the cast should a cover need to go onstage for a performance. We also look at how the rest of the ensemble is coming together, and how this person might fit in with the others; how the voice types balance each other out. We do re-engage some Young Artists from previous seasons, but this is by no means automatic.
KD: If a singer is not selected and would like feedback from his/her audition, are you open to giving that?
LR: Because of the huge number of applicants it’s impossible to give feedback on auditions, unfortunately. If we do it for one person then we have to do it for everyone, which we simply don’t have time to cover, and it can also be easily misunderstood or misleading.
Rogers also brought up the term “PFO” (Please F*ck Off), which for many has become the preferred phrase describing a rejection letter from a company.
“While it’s a popular term and used for mutual commiseration to help ease the sting of rejection, it is emphatically not the spirit in which these letters are issued. (I know there are a couple of companies who are exceptions to this, but they are well in the minority.) If we tell you we don’t have an audition slot or a summer slot available to you this year, it’s because we don’t see you as a good fit for our current needs as compared to the rest of the applicant pool. It does not mean you should immediately stop singing and go look for a job selling shoes. Last year we started adding a sentence about understanding how disappointing it is to receive one of these letters; we want to be sure you know there are real human beings at the other end of the line! There are just so many talented applicants, and a very limited number of opportunities we can offer. I think the term itself promotes unnecessary negativity. Rejection is never easy. I am in awe of the resilience of the singers I know who manage to take it in stride and keep moving forward. This tenacity will serve you well in the end.”
To learn more about Opera Saratoga: www.operasaratoga.org
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