A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Auditions: an attempt at rational thought

It's that time of year again: audition season! I made my views on the joys of auditioning known round about this time last year. I more or less stand by that, auditions still aren't my idea of a pleasant experience, but oddly enough it's the lack of auditions I'm finding hard to deal with right now. OK, I'm exaggerating, I am auditioning, I shouldn't complain, and yet...

For one thing, I appreciate that administrators must be receiving hundreds of emails and letters with CVs, and it's a logistical nightmare, but not hearing back after sending an application often has me and my colleagues walking around rather on edge. For those who don't know, auditions come up on quite short notice, so it's difficult to plan anything in Autumn (I suppose this applies primarily to the UK), because, eager as we are to please and not make waves, we feel we have to be ready to drop everything to go for that once in a lifetime opportunity (dozens of them there may be, but we all pretend that each is the one and only). You know that feeling you have when you know there's something you have to do, someone you should call to arrange something and it keeps getting put of through forgetfulness, busy dial tones, etc? It's like that, but there's nothing you can do about it, because the ball's not in your court. It's actually nice in a way to get the otherwise dreaded 'there have been so many applications that we cannot offer you an audition at this time' email, because you can tick something off the list and get on with life.

But then there's that one audition you were sort of planning your life around (with all the caveats of 'I probably won't get it' etc) and you get that very email. They heard you last year, they know you're a student (says so on your CV), so even though they didn't want you then, it's safe to assume you're not quite the same singer now... But no, actually the policy is: if they've heard you, they won't want to hear you again for a couple of years, they'd rather hear some new voices. Fair enough, but I didn't know that last year! Why did no one warn me? Why isn't this common knowledge, and if it is, why didn't I get the memo? I wouldn't have gone for it, I wasn't desperate for the job, I wanted to give it a good shot to get used to high profile auditions... Mistake. I wish someone had warned me, or at least told me to think about that being a possible outcome. To the singers out there: ask questions about this kind of thing, there are some golden nuggets of information and insight that your coaches won't divulge unless pressed. I understand, they are there to build your confidence (and improve your skills, of course), not second guess you. Still...

If I'm coming across as bitter, I'll beg you not to misunderstand. I'm still learning, and I have learnt that lesson now, and I'm glad. It took me some detective work to find out why I was denied the opportunity to even try, and now that I have my answer, I feel better. I am a better singer now than last year, and would have had a better chance than back then. But next year I plan to be even better, and you know what? I can wait. Not an easy three words for me to say, but I got there in the end.

I do have one more thing to add in terms of auditions, just based on my ever growing experience and conversations with coaches and colleagues I have had since last year. It's a thought that's not even specifically about auditions, but it's been a minor revelation for me (obvious as it my seem). As singers we are taught primarily to perform. That means sing, but also understand, interpret, act, etc. We are trained to deliver a product every time we perform, and that product is targeted at an audience. We are also told to treat auditions like a performance. That's all well and good, but is perhaps misleading in a way. Here's my revelation:

An audience, a conductor or director (the people you work with to create a show) and an audition panel - they are all looking for something different! You're free to disagree, because the differences are subtle, and the two latter parties are indeed ultimately trying to cater for the former, but here's my reasoning. Audiences are generally not interested in the mechanics of achieving what they are witnessing, they either enjoy it or not, and what they receive is the Performance. That's what they are looking for: the Performance, which is what we are trained to deliver. Creatives (MDs, conductors, directors, etc) are interested in the mechanics of achieving the Performance. They aren't always present at auditions and work with the people they're given. What they are looking for is a smooth, pleasant, productive Attitude from their singers. That means the capacity to perform, of course, to interpret, but also to be flexible and go with their vision. Our own personal Performance is most often just a starting point from which the final product will evolve.

What are audition panels looking for then? What can they hope to find in 5 minutes? Can they find a Performance? No, because that's what the creatives will be in charge of. Well, they can't really judge your Attitude, because they're not going to work with you, so as long as you don't have a bad reputation, they will assume on the basis of your experience that you can deliver in that respect. They're looking for a Voice. A nice noise. Maybe that's not all, but it's the main thing. You can give the Performance of a lifetime and not get anything, perhaps because you distracted from your Voice by overdoing the other elements of performing. Some people do deal with stress by relying on the character, thereby becoming someone else in a way. All well and good, but chances are the character isn't as good a singer as you are, gets carried away by emotion, which creeps into the Voice... Or something.

It's an odd thought, as a performer: for these five minutes I have to switch off or dial down a few of the things that I know are my strengths, not give all that I can give, because perhaps they might not want all of it (I suppose too large a menu makes it difficult to choose what you feel like eating and makes it easy to miss the chef's speciality), and just give them what they can't go without: a quality noise. Then trust them to know you can give so much more... I find that scary, perhaps because I don't quite believe my voice is enough on its own. But it has to be. Scary.


  1. You raise some interesting points about auditions, but from my personal experience, I find it more profitable to stop thinking about the processes involved in decisions because you can never guess what a panel is looking for. I've had comments of the sort "great singing but not enough character", "great character but there were a couple little things about the singing". Fortunately, I get the first one very often. Give me a stage and coach me, and I'll deliver you the character because the bottom line is I CAN SING!! The rest you can work on on the short term. If you can act but can't sing to save your life, then I'm very sorry but you shouldn't be employed (that's most frequently not the case) because you won't learn how to sing in the 6 weeks which involve a production period, whereas if you can sing, in 6 weeks of work with a good director and good coaching, you can be brilliant. This is what people at panels fail to understand most times. It's almost as if they've tired of hearing recordings of the great singers of the past and are now looking for a sort of hybrid creature which can act like a theatre actor and "carry a tune" (independently of it being a nice noise or not).

    I believe the criteria in Opera have shifted to the side of acting as far as they could, but from this point onwards, it is only a matter of time until priorities start shifting again towards spectacular singing, which is what in the end makes opera different from spoken theatre. Until then, those of us who still think that opera is about the singing and not about doing silly faces as if you were telling a story to a 5 year old (which, by the way seems to be the average mental age of the average panel in the UK. there. i've said it), have to keep improving and our time will come. We may starve a bit until it comes, but it will come!

  2. I personally don't spend much time thinking up rationalisations for a panel's decision, at the end of the day I do my best and if isn't enough, then for whatever reason I wasn't right for that company. Doesn't mean I'm bad, and I have enough successes to prove it ;)

    The blog isn't just about me and my experiences, it's also heavily inspired by those of my colleagues. We all go through tough times and quite often all we need is an alternate point of view to get ourselves out of a bit of a rut. Or to see that others have the same difficulties. Hence the blog and I hope every time I've written about auditions it has been with a different take on the subject, and perhaps some singers who read the blog find it helpful. Maybe some panel members make it here too, to see the other side :) For interested lay-people it might help appreciate what a tough journey the people on stage often take to get there.

    To that end, any comments and points of view are more than welcome. I don't yearn for the return of park & bark, and you can't really teach acting in 6 weeks any more than you can singing, but in terms of developing character, you are right.