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

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

John McMurray (ENO Head of Casting) Q&A session

One of the perks of ENO Opera Works is the time we get to spend with the main company's casting department. From the entrance auditions, where we sing to (among others) Sophie Joyce (Casting and Harewood Artists Manager), through initial consultations with John McMurray, Sophie and Jane Robinson (Head of Vocal Training and Opera Works Course Director), up to a final mock audition for the casting department. Part of this face time is a Q&A session, which for our group took place yesterday. It was (quite predictably) very informative, but what we weren't expecting was how informal, relaxed and pleasant a chat it was, with John and Sophie very quickly putting all the eager-eyed but slightly intimidated singers in the room at ease and answering even the silliest questions with good humour and understanding.

We started off by talking about the dress rehearsal of Rigoletto we'd just seen, and following a question about how this particular opera was cast, John launched into the story of putting on a big Verdi opera at the Coli. It being a tough sing for many of the roles, and the house being so big, means that it becomes problematic for a company like ENO to cast. There aren't that many people in the world who can sing the lead roles anyway (and as many articles in operatic press and blogs point out, there are fewer and fewer big voices out there, for various reasons), and of those few how many will want to take the extra effort to prepare it in an English translation? So you're left with a pretty small pool of singers from which you need to secure a cast. This does mean they tend to stick to singers who are tried and tested, preferably by ENO themselves.

This brings me to what I felt was the most valuable insight I gleamed from the session (worry not, a full list of notes will follow below): the way the casting departments think means that getting into a big company is not just a question of auditioning well once or twice. To quote John:

What we at ENO are trying to avoid is making snap decisions about people.

This makes sense, as this is a prestigious house that can't allow itself to take all that many risks with casting. They do take some risks, giving opportunities to young or untried singers who they feel are ready, or could be special. These don't always turn out as expected, but that's just part of life, and it's not the mainstay of day-to-day operations. Mostly they prefer to get to know people over time before casting them. This is done either by following their progress after an initial general audition, or seeing them perform somewhere, or by giving them some covers to see how they cope with it.

When talking about the season in general, it struck me how few people actually went through an audition process per se in order to be cast. Of course, you have to audition to get yourself on file, but when they're actually casting they seem to instantly start thinking of names and checking availabilites, rather than putting out a call for applicants. The names that stick get invited to sing or present themselves to the conductor and director , and if all goes well that's that. No 5-round audition and recall process.

The other valuable thing I learned was that CVs don't figure all that highly on their list of priorities. All they serve as is a guide for them to place you within 'the system' - ok, this is where this singer is at in their career. The nitty gritty either doesn't interest them, or in fact muddies the picture for them. All they want to know is where you are now, so they can judge your singing according to that. One page that clearly shows where you worked recently and gives an indication as to what level you'll be working at soon is enough.

When asked about people auditioning for ENO 'too early' in their career, John said it isn't that big a problem, as they judge singers according to what standard they'd expect them to be at the stage the singer is at. If you're a recent graduate of an opera course, you will be compared to other recent graduates, and probably not get cast then and there, but the impression you make will be according to your level of experience. So it isn't a question of auditioning too early, but rather being sure that you do yourself justice when compared to your peers. If you feel you need a bit more time or work to get up to the standard expected of the tier you're on by virtue of age and training, don't audition fo the big boys yet. This means you need to know what the standards are across the board, and for college students from outside London it may mean a trip to see some student shows in the capital and measuring yourself up to that, because those will be the shows that companies like ENO will be going to see and forming their opinions on.

That's enough personal insight from me for now, over to John and Sophie:

The career in general

A lot of things in this business are based on other people's taste - things you can't control. But those you can, you need to work hard at - be organised, punctual, etc.

It's unforgivable to fail an audition because of something you can control:
What you sing
How you look
When you arrive
The state of your sheet music
How you treat the pianist
The first impression you make
What your CV looks like
How you treat the stewards

Self awareness is a big deal in this business.

Your reputation will precede you - professionalism, being a colleague, etc.

A bit of bitching and moaning is fine, it's natural. But a lot - wears everyone down and mmakes people dislike you.

Being mean to stage managers is never a good idea.

Persistence is a good thing. Just know the difference between persistence and being annoying.

Make the most of every step of your education and career. Nurture the contacts you make.

If you have a relationship with an important person, they have show an interest, keep them appraised of your career.

Don't get annoyed if people don't reply. See it from their perspective (there's only so many times they can write 'well done, we may come see your show, we may not').

You can get stuck covering. It can also be the level you are and you'll never go above it, and you need to be able to deal with that. For some repertoire (the big stuff) you will notice that covers tend to be of a much lower standard than principals, because if they were good... they'd be singing it themselves somewhere.

Chorus work can be good, but in terms of furthering a solo career it depends on what opportunities you get as a chorus member, as well as if your workload will allow you time to become a better singer.

It has become very hard to have a career these days without having come through conservatoires. To get opportunities to audition, you need to fit into the system.

Mid thirties are the hardest time in your career - you're getting more established and expensive, but the young singers on your heels are comparable and cheaper.

Having an agent just for the sake of having an agent doesn't work.

Websites: You have to have a website. Aim towards having recordings on, not necessarily a huge amount. You need to be happy with them, and also with recordings of you not put up by you (youtube, etc). Keep it up to date. An up to date schedule tells companies if you're available. If it's not up to date, you may end up pissing companies off with them wasting their time chasing you when you're not available. It's better to have no information on than wrong information.

Directors tend to google their casts. Casting directors google if they are searching for solutions to problems that arise.

Social media - twitter can be useful for building profile. Be careful what you put on facebook.

Being diverse in what you do (gigging, crossover, additional careers like photography and knitting) is ok, but don't be so diverse (or look as though you're so diverse) you no longer look serious about classical singing.


You can do the best audition of your life, but if the people listening to you don't need what you are, nothing may come of it.

Sad truth - the negative impression of a bad audition lasts much longer than the positive impression of a good one.

You have to figure out how to audition!

Don't audition if you're not well, unless you can't avoid it. It usually only works when auditioning for someone who already knows you.

If you're singing an aria that you can sing from a role you may not be ready for, flag it up in the audition - show you've thought about it and are aware of it.

Acting in auditions - reduce your acting choices. Don't stand and deliver, don't act it out. You want to show you know the dramatic context of the aria. Eyes are important.

Where you look - acknowledge the existence of the panel, but don't stare at them. Judge each panel separately.

Singing down is rarely a good idea.

Say hello.

Be able to do what they expect you can do. Be sure you are the level you should be.

Audition rep - sing what you think shows who you are, not what you think they are looking for. Don't take role specific arias unless asked, or unless you think they are 'your' rep. Don't second guess yourself too much. Don't get bored with your audition package - the panel don't know you sing it all the time. Just because you're bored doesn't necessarily mean you're boring.

The whole thing about auditions - you don't want to intimidate the panel. Odd rep choices (non-standard) intimidate them, they think about what they're listening to, not who they're listening to.

Which piece you start with - it should almost always (95%) be the same one.

Your audition package - 5-6 arias (even if they ask for 3). Make sure you can sing them in various orders one after another. Especially each of the other 4 after your go to first choice. It should last you 2 years, and never bin the whole thing, change them one at a time. Be sure you can sing your whole package even if you're only 70% fit. Don't restrict language choice, but don't panic just because you have nothing in a particular language.

It can be worth doing an audition you're not bothered about just for the audition experience and to practice your arias under pressure.

You need to specialise your audition package. Don't give the impression you don't know what fach you are.

Getting the tone of an audition right. You want to suggest you're ready to work, you've put effort in, you know it's an audition not a concert, that you've thought about what you're doing and why you're there.

Audition dress: Look smart, professional, ready to work (not go out to dinner). It doesn't have to be a suit, a jacket is a good idea, you can take it off after the first piece if it's appropriate. Ties aren't necessary, nor are collared shirts if you have a smart t-shirt. Black is NOT a good idea (that's one I figured out for myself). Tight clothing can draw attention to your technique in a bad way. Practice wearing what you're going to wear to be comfortable in it. No jeans! Women can wear trousers, they don't have to (trouser roles don't necessarily need trousers). Don't wear distracting colours, jewelry, shoes, cuts, patterns, etc. No bare legs (Sophie says fleshy tights are fine ;) ).

CVs and experience

Doing a role that you don't think you're vocally ready for (say in small house) can give people who come to see you the wrong idea. Be careful.  Age-appropriateness is a different concern, especially for male voices (basses and baritones are often expected to sing older roles), and is usually less problematic as long as you can actually sing the role healthily.

CVs aren't what casting departments are basing their opinions on. You do need stage time, you need to find opportunities that give you what you need - how to pace a role, deal with touring, how to rehearse. But don't do stuff just to 'beef up' a cv.

If you include directors and conductors on your cv, treat them almost like references. Don't include people who hate you.

CVs are a rolling thing, keep them up to date, get rid of the less important stuff as more relevant things come up, keep them a page long.


Sometimes what gets you cast has to do with things other than singing - height, build, availability.

What ENO are trying to avoid is making snap decisions about people. They prefer to get to know people over time before casting them.

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