The audition: A few helpful hints


It is that time of year again, not only are the school auditions upon us, but also theater auditions.  As a coach at the Dutch National Opera Academy I prepare many singers for said auditions, and because I have been training young singers for a very long time, I like to think that I have amassed several nuggets of wisdom that my serve as tips for those of you who like to keep track of my blog.  Of course, these are my own opinions and other coaches and teachers may disagree.  There is never only one way to do things, but here it goes:

The repertoire list

When you decide what repertoire you will bring to an audition, you must always be realistic: Sing what you sing well!

If you have arias that your coach, your teacher and even your trusted colleagues say you sing well, then you can probably trust their opinion.  One can talk of Fach and choices keeping the chosen repertoire within the guidlines of your Fach, but more importantly you should chose what you will sing on the basis that you sing it well.  You may have a perfect list for your Fach, and it may look great on paper, but make sure that that it is not as far as it goes.

You may be asked from 3-5 arias in different languages and style.  They should also be diversified in showing everything your voice can do.  When you are auditioning you usually can choose with which aria you would like to begin, but don’t think that this is always the case!  I have been in auditions where a singer wanted to begin with an aria and announced: “I would like to begin with such-and such” only to have the jury say: “Actually, could you start with this aria instead?”.  The reason for not hearing what your choice could be many things.  You could be the 20th soprano in the day to start with “Caro nome” and they just can’t hear one more version, or they simply would rather hear you sing something else from your provided list.  This, fortunately does not occur that often, panels are usually kind and let you sing through your first choice.

Don’t be alarmed if you only get to sing but one aria.  Generally panels know within the first few bars if they are interested or not. Sometimes, if time allows, the second aria is a courtesy.  If you sing only one aria, this does not mean that you did not sing well.  I know many singers who have gotten the job by singing only one aria in the audition.  If you did not sing well in the first aria, and the panel decides to hear you sing a second aria, it is possible to turn your audition around.  So always do your best and leave your mistakes in the past.  If you get to sing all three arias, this is generally a good sign, they liked you and they were intrigued by what you have on your list, and what you can do, but it also does not necessarily mean you have the job, it can just mean that they wanted to hear your voice in many different musical settings, or to see if you get more comfortable if you sing more.

Is there a strategy?

No…well, you can often guess what they will want to hear…but don’t count on it, it is like gambling, you win some, you lose some.

So, you have your arias picked out, and you think:  ” Well, if I start with this aria, they will most certainly want to hear this other one as a second selection,so it doesn’t really matter what the third aria on the list is, they will never hear that!”  This is dangerous. If you have a good coach he/she will tell you to only put arias on your list that you want to sing. Do not gamble.  I once was in an audition where the singer put a third aria on the list that they did not know by memory.  This was not a good plan, but the singer thought that they would probably ask for the second aria. Well, the panel asked for that aria and the singer was caught red-handed.  This is not a position you want to be in.

If you decide to put an aria on your list that is extremely long, for example, Zerbinetta’s aria, Charlotte’s Letter scene or Tatyana’s Letter Scene, be ready to sing it all!  It is not a good strategy to put long arias on your list and think that the panel won’t ask for it because it is too long.  I was rehearsing with a singer for an audition who had Zerbinetta’s full aria on her list.  In the rehearsal she told me that she did not think they would ask for it all.  I said: “Well…you never know, so be prepared”.  At the audition they asked for the full aria, much to her surprise.  Luckily she did an amazing job with it!  Sometimes auditions are running on time or they have extra time because of cancellations and the panel enjoys hearing these longer arias.  They are wonderful and show a lot.

How to deal with the pianist

If you are allowed to bring your own pianist and your regular pianist/coach is available, then by all means, please do.  Sometimes you arrive at the audition and you are pleasantly surprised that the provided accompanist is a coach at the company, or someone who you know is amazing and knows the repertoire. Unfortunately, this is not the norm.  I can’t tell you how many times my singers have come back from their auditions telling my the horror story about how they pianist could not really play the most basic repertoire.  If you cannot bring your own, or because the company or competition stipulates that you have to use their pianist, or because, lets face it, you can’t afford to have your travel pianist come with you everywhere…yet, you will sometimes have a rehearsal with the provided pianist. This is a courtesy, usually 10-15 minutes.  Remember during your rehearsal you want to be courteous, professional and friendly because you really never know what position that pianist plays in the grand scheme of things.  They may just have a say in the choice of singer as well.

On that same note:  Your audition begins within the first contact you have with the organization.  Your initial phone call or email should be to the point, friendly and please do not over contact schools or houses with a million emails full of questions.  Believe it or not, at every company, school or house I have worked for,has noticed and talked about how particular singers were just continuously contacting them with questions that they probably could have figured out on their own, or could have waited to ask in person on the audition day.  

Preparing your music for the pianist

In this day and age, it is a terrific idea to have scanned copies of your arias in your computer ready to go at any moment.  Sometimes the pianist gets a list of repertoire (sometimes not) and in this case they may look at the repertoire and see what they will have to play at the audition.  Some pianists do not bother and just go in and like to be surprised.  I, for one, like to prepare if I have the opportunity to do so.  Even if I know the arias, I sometimes like to get my fingers to remember them the night before.  So, If the organization contacts you about providing certain music (especially if it is non-standard), it is scanned and ready to be sent off…no stress!

Some pianists have very distinct preferences when it comes to the sheet music.  I only have a couple of “Do’s and Don’ts”.

  • Do tape your music or put it in a three ring binder (North America) four ring binder (Europe).
  • Don’t use The loose leaf pages as they are, in my opinion very risky.  I played an audition once where the singer had loose pages, he was singing a contemporary aria in a language that I really could not read (I think it was Swedish), there were no numbers on the pages.  Half way through (I was sight-reading quite well, I might add), it was not working anymore and he had to stop. The pages were inverted.  How was I to know?  Not to mention that loose pages could fall if there is a draft.
  • Don’t use the two ringed binder that you find here in Europe.  The pages kind of just hang there and you have to read with a crooked head.
  • Don’t use the glossy plastic covers.  They may keep your music nice and clean, but they produce a glare that makes it hard to read.
  • Do mark your music with important markings like breaths, ritenuto, rubato, accelerando,musical cuts, cadenzas….
  • Do use a copy of your music that is as clean as possible. Other than the above markings, I am not really interested in what analogy your teacher used to get you to make the space you need to sing a particular note.  For the purpouse of the audition, I just need to see the music to best serve you as you sing for your job!
  • Do use a good edition of the reduction.  Not sure?  Ask your coach what he/she would rather play from.  I have also had instances where the singer brought in two different editions and gave me the choice…Nice!! Extra points!

Remember your provided pianist has probably been playing all day long with rehearsals and the actual auditions with very few breaks, and maybe this is the 2nd, 3rd or 4th day in a row.  Put all the chances on your side, provide us with as much help as you can because we are there to support you!  When I am playing I am thinking 100% about the singer, I don’t want to split my attention between the singer and trying to read a score that is not clear.

What do you wear?

Tough one! If you’re a mezzo-soprano singing pants-role arias, do you wear pants?  What if you sing a pants-role and a feminin aria? Does it really matter.  I believe (and again, this is just my opinion, you are more than welcome to differ) that as long as you look professional and well put together, it really doesn’t matter.  If you feel that performing Cherubino while wearing a pant-suit will add to your performance, by all means! The most important thing is that you are both comfortable and appealing.  In today’s opera world, panels don’t only listen with their ears, they also listen with their eyes.  Your audition dress should be buisness casual which means a pant suit or dress/skirt for the women, and for the men a sports jacket, shirt and pants, in Europe you may even see the men in a fancy pair of dark denims, but I think that is a bit too casual.  These days it is not necessary for the men to be decked out in a suit and tie and for the ladies to have full on dresses.  I once was at an audition for a major house in Europe and one of the singers arrived late.  She was wearing a very nice outfit of black dress-pants and a very nice blue sweater.  They wanted to hear her right away because they did not want to delay the schedule, but she insisted on changing into her audition attire.  The General Manager said something to the effect:  “Why do you need to change?  You look great!”. She changed anyway.  Again, you have to be comfortable and look your best, but don’t overdo it.  They should remember how you sing more than what you wore.  That being said a little distinction in your wardrobe can go a long way when they are hearing hundreds of singers, but tread carefully.

Whatever you do, prepare yourself for any scenario.  You could arrive and there aren’t any rooms available to warm up— be innovative, sing in the bathroom, stairwells anywhere you can without bothering people around you too much.  Be sure to map out where you are going, and allow yourself ample time to get there and get lost.  In a perfect world, you arrive the day before and scout out the area.  Always have your scores with you, as well as a copy of your CV and photo. Remember you are selling yourself, believe in your product and do your very best!! Good luck everyone!