Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A View from the Top: Discussion with MONC's Gayletha Nichols and Melissa Wegner


by Sylvanna (SVP) and Stefanie (SVS)

Monday February 27, 3.45pm - I meet with Opera Idols blog co-editor Stefanie in the lobby of the Met, on the benches off to the side of the ticket box office. We discuss the article ahead that will result from this interview with Gayletha Nichols and Melissa Wegner from the Met. Gayletha on one hand has twelve years of experience and Melissa is just finishing her first season once the Semi Finals (Sunday March 11) and Finals (Sunday March 18) are concluded and the winners are crowned. This is also the current MONC ER Committee's first season together, having taken over from previous Chairwoman Mary Hobart and her crew. Now feeling confident regarding our ability to help pull off successful District and Region Auditions and a Benefit Gala, but eager to learn how to improve our performance behind the scenes, and wanting to see our involvement from a different perspective...a view from the top as we head into the central nervous system of the whole competition.
We agree that the purpose of this blog has been threefold for MONC ER: 1) to promote our singers; 2) to promote our activities and operations; 3) to promote young, amateur artists in general because it's a magical thing to help young talent find its way in this big world so that they may brighten and inform our lives. The unspoken mission of course is to have fun, and we agree once again that this has definitely been an enjoyable initiative - with so much ahead of us.

half expected to be led to this room
3.55pm - after reviewing our questions, we head down the elevators, down the hall, through the stage door, and to a security counter where we ask for Melissa to come pick us up. Melissa shows up shortly thereafter and guides us through the Met's lower lobby (which was empty and irksomely serene) and around a corner, past the bar, and through a door labeled "the atrium" that reveals the hustle and bustle back office operation of the Met. With the underground nature of the back office and its 1960's staircase and finishes, plus having recently seen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I really felt like I had walked into a secret world of sorts.

Along the way, Melissa explained that all the Semi Finalists are staying at the Hotel Empire just steps from the Lincoln Center (and for those Gossip Girl fans, yes, that would be THE Hotel Empire, less Chuck Bass and company) during the Semi Final weekend. They will have the opportunity to practice in the Met warm up rooms, and for those who qualify for the Finals, spend the next week also at the Hotel Empire as they receive vocal training from Met staff. Not to mention have a thrilling time in New York City.

Our Eastern Region winners, Will Liverman and Ricardo Rivera will both be taking advantage of the invitation and so will be joining their fellow contestants and competitors. I would just love to join this hotel party myself; I can imagine the banter, the singing, the nerves, the friendships that will form and the memories that will be carried in the singers’ hearts from this point forward.

Gayletha Nichols: So, is this for the blog?
SVP:  It is for the blog. Thank you so much for meeting with us. We wanted to get what I call "A view from the top" kind of thing. You have been involved for...

GN: This is my twelfth season.
SVP: The twelfth season. I would be curious to find out from you how you have
seen it change, if at all, over the years.

GN: Well, the numbers are still extremely high. The people that enter that first
round, that has not diminished at all. So for all the other things that are going on
in the world, fewer jobs to be had when they get out, there's no lack of people
who still want to try and do this. They will pursue it a long time.

GN: They are still signing up to be music majors as undergrads. And they are still going on to graduate schools hoping to advance their training. They are still looking for young artist training programs and still searching out summer festivals. They are trying to hit all the phases of training and development that is available to them so they can become opera singers.

SVP: That's wonderful.

GN: I think it's amazing.

SVP: It is not a dying art at all.

GN: Not from that standpoint, no.

SVP: How did you get into judging? Are you a judge for multiple regions or is it just the ER that you judge for?

GN: No. By my job title I go to as many as I can. We have more auditions on one weekend than any one person can ever do obviously. We have forty Districts next year and I am clearly not going to go to all those, but between Melissa and I we are probably going to cover a good ten or twelve of the Districts. I will also probably judge about half of the Regions too. It is a lot of travel. I mean, it falls into my responsibility. I have a small posse of people that I can count on absolutely to know what we are about, what we are looking for and to make good choices and to bring this year just nineteen singers to the Met.

SVP: How many typically have you seen?

GN: Twenty to twenty-two is the average number of semi-finalists.

SVP: (to Melissa) How are you finding it? Where did you come from before this?

MW: Before I was freelancing I had gone to school as a singer so I understand that side of things and very happy to be on this side of it now. Even though we are in this crazy busy time I am so happy to be on this side of it.

SVP: You don't like performing and that kind of thing.

MW: I just really like being on the other side of the table. There is a different set of preparation that needs to be done that is much more comfortable for me right now. I would have said something different ten years ago, but when I walk backstage at the District and Regionals and feel those nerves and that sense of just...oh. I don't miss that at all.

MW: I don't. So I am very...This is nice, this is wonderful. With the nineteen coming I am excited. Very excited.

SVP: So what challenges have you encountered adjusting into this role?

GN: She has to put up with me first; and that's the hard part.

MW: That's my favourite…I don't know; I think that this year I have been learning so much that it has just been about getting a clear picture of how, it's a nationwide program, how that works and meeting as many of the people as I can throughout the country. And then also getting to learn how the Met works. So it is two very big and very different systems. We are the lynchpin between them and it is really Gayletha, Camille and I who are the liaisons between all of our volunteers and the Met.

GN: It is a big job.

MW: It is fascinating. I love to learn how things work, so that has been great. And as a singer coming up I have been hearing all that stuff of the dying art form and there is only people over the age of sixty at the opera. I have to say, especially since I started working here, and I was at City Opera doing supertitles before that, but especially here because it is a little more traditional fare, I am absolutely inspired by how many people come to see the opera and how many people spend their hard-earned money here. And especially with National Council, that you have people even in North Dakota who care enough about opera to support young singers and host the districts there. It's amazing and I think that this program is a testament to how much  volunteerism and spirit there is.

SVP: I feel like there is a bit of a mystery about this. I was reading the history and how they started to build up the regional volunteers. What compelled people to kind of do it?

GN: In the first place?

SVP: Yes.

GN: Prestige and money.

MW: It was like the social clubs from the fifties and sixties.

SVP: And opera really occupies, I would imagine, that and art galleries.

GN: You must remember sixty years ago the generation of let's say, over fifty and under seventy, was still a group who might have been first-generation Americans but their parents were Europeans. So that European tradition of “we grew up with classical music in the house.” And what were their options for some of them?
The Texaco Saturday Afternoon Broadcast for some places in the country was the only option for opera fifty years ago. So it started with those kinds of things in place and then of course, Mrs. Belmont with the aid of Howard Hook. Howard spend a lot of time going around the country literally identifying the most important people in the community and the people with money and saying "Would you like to host in your community a level of the National Council Auditions?" So it started with one and then of course Auditions of the Air being its precursor. It was decided that since Auditions of the Air was only getting a few people on the East Coast participating in it, that the National Council was formed. And it took a few years to get that all going and we celebrate the birthday of the National Council, which was 1952. 1954 was the first year we had auditioners from around the country.

SVP: It comes down to whom you know.

GN: Absolutely, just as it was for Mrs. Belmont and Howard. Who do I know in Seattle? Mrs. Gothrocks, she will probably do this for us. It is like that. The difference now is I go to people who are passionate about opera rather than have a lot of money. It is great if they have a lot of money, but what is even more important is that they want to actually organize it and do the work and they are connected enough in the arts community to have a friend who has a friend who has money. You know how the whole fundraising thing goes that way.

SVS: Are you a judge on the semi-finals as well?

GN: Yes.

MW: And the finals.

SVP: All the way through.

GN: All the way through. I see them all the way through.

SVP: Who are the other judges?

GN: For the semi-finals, the ones from the Met Artistic Staff will be Jonathan Friend, Lenore Rosenberg and Brian Zeger. Andrew Davis is conducting the next week so he will be there for the semi-finals and will be one of the judges as well. Alexander Neef from Canadian Opera Company and Diane Zola from Houston Grand Opera are our other guest judges….and then for the finals, Jonathan joins me again and we add Sarah Billinghurst and Craig Rutenberg from the Met Staff. Our guest for the finals is Joshua Winograde from LA Opera.

SVS: Do you help the finalists and the semi-finalists with their preparations or is that left to someone else here?

GN: We organize it and they come in on a Thursday and by Friday they are already coaching.

MW: They coach with the Met music staff and then the ones who become finalists... they will get dramatic coaching from as well as work with Sir Andrew Davis, the conductor.

SVP: Makes me want to get into it; I wish I could sing.

GN: It's a great opportunity for them.

SVP: Absolutely. So what are your backgrounds?

GN: I was a singer first.

SVP: An opera singer? Soprano?

GN: Mezzo most of the time.

MW: I sang as a soprano and I also have a degree in music business so I have
always sort of done both.

SVS: That must help; obviously having a background like that must be very helpful.

GN: Immensely.

MW: It is.

SVP: Looking at the different regions, how are they similar and... Well, obviously it is all about opera for starters.

GN: It is all about opera and that is as similar as it gets. We have, as you have probably seen, a sort of extensive handbook on how to do the auditions. Everyone is given that guideline, but it really is then molded to how their community wants to handle the auditions. There are certain rules that they follow, but really, when you go to them they are all so different. A lot of our volunteers go to each other's to see how someone else does it, especially if they are really interested in either trying to do it better or changing it up in some way that makes it more interesting for the audience. They will say: "Where should I go, who should I look at it?" I can make a suggestion "So and so does a really great job; go look at them." They travel to each other’s a little bit.

GN: Most of the regions now have their own website which is really great.

SVP: Are there any changes that you would like to see happen in the whole audition process?

GN: In terms of administratively, structurally? No. Whenever it comes up we just change them.

SVP: I guess what the various regions could do to improve or help you guys out.
Other than just getting really great talent, because it all comes down to…

GN: And they can’t really be responsible for that. That’s a hard call, but we certainly network with all the opera companies and young artist programs and schools and festivals to try at least let everybody know where it’s available. It’s something they might do. I will say that in these areas our volunteers network with their local groups. In a way they do involve themselves a little bit with quality issues because they work at making sure that these institutions know that they are there and making it very easy for their people to get there and have the access. You can bring your own pianist if you want, but we always provide one, every audition.

MW: I think we are also, in general, almost all on the electronic bandwagon.

GN: Almost, we are ninety-five percent there.

SVS: Do a lot of them come to the finals?

GN: A lot of them. I should look up percentage wise how many, but I am always surprised how many do because it is hike from Seattle and Los Angeles. But both of those places always have at least half a dozen if not more from their group who come.

SVP: You work so hard towards it.

GN: I really encourage the volunteers to come because I want them to see how important they are.

MW: A lot of them really take a vested interest in the singers that they send on and they become lifelong fans.

SVP: As we doing this blog, we are asking ourselves: “How are we going to focus this? What are we going to focus on?” We are not going to become agent for these singers; we can’t do that, but at least just support them and promote them as much as we can. At the gala, a couple of them came up to me and said it was far-reaching, the articles that we did for them, and that they could have people look to it, proof that they had this experience there. It helps them out.

GN: If you can keep in contact with all of them and they send you updates.

SVS: We have it on the website as well, ‘Where are they now?’ So I said they could always let me know what they are doing.

SVP: To me that is the point of it. It really is what keeps you going, because they are such great groups of people, they really are. They have hearts of gold.

GN: You get to know them (the singers) and you think: “Wow, how can I help you make this happen?”

SVP: And when you see them advance and see how happy they are and how satisfied they are to be doing what they love to do.

SVS: It is fun to see when I am watching an opera and I am looking through the program, I like to see if they came through the Grand Finals and I love it because there are so many of them. We are doing something.

SVP: You are not just doing stuff that isn’t having an effect…it is adding up to something.

GN: So often, it comes up, is this the way we should be doing it still? I mean it is sixty years now. Should we have found a different way of doing it? Well, we have found a different way because we keep improving it and we keep making it better. In terms of an outreach, almost like a blast, we could never afford to do this just from the Met without the volunteers and all of these District levels because that’s the first level. When someone says now: “What is the screening?” The screening is the first audition, the District Audition.

SVP: Was there any particularly good year for singers? Does it go in waves?

GN: Yes, it is a roller coaster, a little bit. Before I came everyone pointed to the year of 1988 as a great year. I heard about 1988 I don’t know how many times.

MW: I have a picture of the winners in my office.

GN: It’s the RenĂ©e Fleming year, the Susan Graham year, Ben Heppner, Heidi Grant Murphy… and even those who did not advance are big stars like Pat Racette, Denyse Graves. We’ve had several big years in the recent past.

SVP: It’s nice that you have more than one winner. That’s the frustrating thing in like, say American Idol, where you only get one winner.

GN: Every so often somebody wants to do that. Let’s just have one winner and then have a second, third, fourth… The judges will kill each other first. We would never agree on that in a million years, partially because we are not looking at a finished product either. Even that is so subjective. No two people will ever agree on their favourite opera singer. Even if it was a finished product and it was just best performance that day, you wouldn’t get seven people to agree on one person. So take away that it is not finished and that this is about development and you are listening with ears of what is possible for this person, who is the big investment, whose got the biggest gifts, the biggest package of possibilities… If I didn’t make them just list: pick your favourites one through eight and we’ll do the math we would be there forever.

MW: You know Will is going to the Ryan Center in Chicago. And with the Education Fund, any of the singers who get to the Semi-Finals get to come back and sing for Gayletha or other members of the Met staff to be heard for that money. It is great that they stay tethered to the Met even if they are not in the Lindemann program. When Will goes to Chicago, he can still call up and make an appointment to be heard by Gayletha or maybe Lenore or someone. It’s great.

GN: The Ed Fund auditions we try to make sure Lenore is there because she is the one who casts the small roles and the covers. A lot of times our people are ready in a year or two to do that kind of work here. So we keep track of them.

MW: The story of Angela Meade.

GN: The story of Angela Meade, which is now all over the paper and we are happy to be a part of it. I got an email from a colleague saying: “I am listening to the Ernani broadcast this afternoon thinking when you and I were in Seattle listening to Angela Meade and she won that year and how cool…” That was cool.

MW: Everyone has days at work where you just throw up your hands and you can’t believe all the emails and phone calls you are getting. We had our monitors on and they were rehearsing Ernani and I said: “But Gayletha, just listen to Angela.” She said: “What we do matters.” I was just downstairs at lunch and I saw Michael Fabbiano and Lisette Oropesa and these are people who have won in the last eight years. They are here.

GN: They are working all over the world now.

MW: This is one of their homes. You can see that they are comfortable here and it is partially because of the National Council.


~ many thanks to Gayletha and Melissa for their participation