Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Meet the Volunteers: Danielle Strauss on how to prepare for the big day

To get a true understanding of what it involves to get ready for the auditions, I sat down with the newest member on the MONC Eastern Region committee, Danielle Strauss.  Danielle is an opera singer who is currently living in New York City and who is working with young singers on everything from coaching music to coaching career strategies.  Her career highlights, among many others, have included the roles of Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor, Gilda in Rigoletto, Adina in L’Elisir D’Amore, Despina in Cosi Fan Tutte and Cunegonde in Candide.  This in Opera Houses in Europe, South America as well as the U.S. 

For many singers this is the first time they are participating in the Auditions, but even for our veteran singers some sound words of advice can be very helpful.  This does not mean you need to change your ways; as Danielle emphasized throughout our talk, "Respect your routines."  Meaning, have routines in place for a sense of security in a new surrounding and amidst the pressures of a big audition.

If you have a way of preparing mentally and emotionally for the day of the auditions, respect yourself and make sure you have the time and space to do what is necessary to create the best atmosphere for yourself.  Make sure you are focused on yourself and your music, but still have a good sense of the competition surrounding you.  Be ready to see plenty of other singers and wish them well, but remember you are there to do YOUR best, not to be concerned with who else is there and what they are singing.  

  • If you are coming in from out-of-town, know where you will be staying - check out the area for places to eat and where you are located in relation to the audition site.  Make sure you know how to get to Casa Italiana.  We will have more info on this topic in an upcoming post in the next week.
  • Make sure you have a comfortable but appropriate audition outfit.  If you will be walking to the audition site, wear a comfortable pair of shoes and bring your dress shoes in a bag.  Sore feet are terrible!  
  • An appropriate audition outfit is business elegant.  For the guys, we suggest a jacket and tie.  If you feel uncomfortable singing with a tie, leave it at home.  For the ladies, a dress is a great choice.  It does not have to be a long gown, but it can be a chic cocktail dress.     
  • Begin your day aware of the amount of time you need to dress, eat, warm up and make it to the audition site so you can avoid the stress of running late.
  • If possible, set up a rehearsal time with our accompanist once his name has been made available to you (at your own expense).  Otherwise, make sure you are singing music that will not be too difficult to coordinate the tempi and that is not too much out of the ordinary repertoire so you can be sure to sing as well as possible without creating a more stressful situation.
  • If you are not meeting our accompanist beforehand, please have your music ready for him in a three-ring binder, with pages that can be easily turned and with cuts that are clearly marked.  Take a moment to go over the tempi or anything important before you begin singing so he or she knows what you need.  Remember to BREATHE and be in the piece; find your character and do your best!

Here are a few other pieces of info which came up during our conversation on how to have a comfortable audition:

  • Make a note of your audition time and number, which will be given to you about a week before the auditions.  Don’t fret if something does not go as planned the day of the auditions.  Just give us a call and we will try to resolve the issue.  If you are feeling under the weather or can’t make it to the auditions for whatever (legitimately good) reason, just let us know and we will help you to either audition another day (if possible) or transfer your material to another District. 
  • If you are bringing your own pianist, make sure he arrives at the same time you do, which is preferably one hour before your scheduled audition time.  This will give you enough time to check in and warm up if still necessary.  If for some reason something goes wrong and your pianist can’t make it, you will be able to use our accompanist.
  • Of the five arias you submitted on your application, you will only be asked to perform two.  The first one is an aria of your choice, the second one will be picked by the judges.  Make sure you see each aria in the context of its whole. Know who your character is:  be aware of who he or she is singing to and why.  If the aria is in a different language, know the translation so you know what you are singing.  The judges have many factors they base their decision on, not in the least your musicianship, your voice, aria interpretation and stage presence.
  • If you like having friends and family around while auditioning, they are more than welcome to join you and watch you from the audience.  All auditions are open to the public, and we encourage everyone to get as many people involved as possible.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Met Scene: Thomas Adès' The Tempest

As the city prepares for the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, a perfect storm already made its entrance at the Met on Tuesday. As the New York Times described The Tempest: "One of the most inspired, audacious and personal operas to have come along in years."

Reading Shakespeare is not my cup of tea, but it is no wonder his plays have inspired countless operas over the years, from Verdi's Otello to Gounod's Roméo et Juliette.  Out of Shakespeare's whole oeuvre, it seems The Tempest is one of the most popular.  There have been movies (like the one with Helen Mirren), ballets (eg. Rudolf Nureyev's) and of course operas.  The Enchanted Island, the successful pastiche created by the Met itself last year, was loosely based on The Tempest.

Courtesy of the New York Daily News - Ken Howard
The Tempest now playing at the Met is the actual story (well, almost), composed into an opera by Thomas Adès with the help of his librettist Meredith Oakes. Adès wrote the music when he was just thirty-three in 2004, and the opera has had no less than six different productions since then.  I personally found it marvelous to be listening and watching an opera which was being conducted by its composer.  How often does that happen?

The cast was stellar as well, with Simon Keenlyside in the role of Prospero, a role into which he has been cast multiple times before.  His voice has something je-ne-sais quoi, and I was immediately transported to a desert island, this time being transformed into the old La Scala by the magical hands of Robert Lepage.  Making his Met debut was Alek Shrader as Ferdinand, which you may remember from the movie The Audition.  He was a Grand Finals winner in 2007; he is just one of about a hundred National Council participants and winners on the Met stage this year.

Present at last week's Met Talk were Peter Gelb, Thomas Adès, Simon Keenlyside and Robert Lepage. Five years ago Peter Gelb approached Robert Lepage and Thomas Adès to start the process of bringing The Tempest to the Met stage.

Question 1 to Thomas Adès: Why did you choose The Tempest as an opera?

Covent Garden commissioned Adès to write an opera for them for the 2004 season.  He had been contemplating many subjects, but The Tempest stuck in his mind.  As he wrote the music, he asked Meredith Oakes to write the libretto.  The original words as written by Shakespeare would not work in an opera.  This Tempest is a new way of speaking Shakespeare; a simplified language which makes it contemporary, without emptying it or making the story devoid of meaning or character.  There is a flow to the words, mainly established through the use of couplets.

Question 2 to Robert Lepage: What is the nature of the production?

The story of The Tempest is no stranger to Lepage, who has directed many plays over the years.  However, this is the first time he was asked to direct an operatic Tempest.  He uses the old La Scala as a theatrical metaphor for Prospero's magic.  He recreates an exact replica of the old La Scala, which is of course where Prospero is from as he was The Duke of Milan.  Just as an opera house is able to use magic and tricks to make people believe things that are not real, Prospero uses his magic to shipwreck his 'estranged family' on his island and exact his revenge on them.

As the story progresses, the audience gets to see a different perspective of the opera house.  In Act I, the action takes place backstage looking out towards the audience.  It's almost as if you are watching yourself.  Act II is a view from where the audience is sitting, instead you are not watching the Met, but La Scala.  The opera concludes in Act III with a cross section of the opera house: part audience, part stage.

To Lepage, The Tempest has a colonial aspect. Prospero, the Duke of Milan, arriving on the shores of an island in Bermuda (?), takes a lot from the island but gives nothing back. Ariel is the slave who does all Prospero demands of her, and Calliban is the rebel who gets banished and has to sleep below the stage, even though he is the rightful heir to the island.

Ariel, sung by Audrey Luna, plays a major role in the opera.  Everyone who has read The Tempest has a different idea on who or what Ariel is.  To Lepage, Ariel is a man, created from air, who uses his music to do what Prospero instructs him to do.  Luna does appear like she is made of air, because the acrobatics this role demands are amazing, and so are the vocal capabilities. This is redefining the principles of what a coloratura soprano is.

Question 3 to Simon Keenlyside: What are the challenges of the role?

Keenlyside has been singing the role for seven years, but that doesn't mean it gets any easier.  Not only is it a very demanding role, but it can also be very difficult and nerve-wracking to sing in front of the composer.  However, if you have truth in your heart and you completely live in the character, it works out perfect.

Question 4 to Thomas Adès: How do you start writing an opera like this?

Adès wrote the opera in chronological order, starting with the beginning and finishing with the end. Act I was the easiest to write and took the least amount of time. Act II took nine months to write, especially since that entailed the most difficult part in his opinion: the entry of the court. How do you go from just five people singing in Act I, to a whole court/chorus on stage in Act II? Once this hurdle was overcome, Act III only took three more months to finish.

An important aspect when writing an opera is figuring out the relationship between the different characters. In order to make these relationships understandable to the public in an opera setting some changes were made to the original Tempest story. These changes were also necessary to speed the action along. Even though the opera is only about 1/3 of the length of the play, it still takes over two hours to perform. The text has to be shorter than the original because singing takes much longer than just speaking.

Calliban was one of the major changes in the opera. From a contemporary viewpoint, Calliban is a difficult character; he is usually comical. Normally, he only interacts with a few characters in the play. To make him appear more comical and integrated in the story, he becomes part of the chorus in Act II as he runs into the stranded court and decides to help them.

I find the audience is the best critic of any new opera.  If you want to know what the public thinks of a performance, you can either go to the bathroom and listen to people's reactions or you can stay for the curtain calls and watch people give their approval (or disapproval).  Prospero certainly did a trick on me, and I gave this new Tempest my most heartfelt of approvals, together with the rest of the audience which went absolutely wild.

Friday, October 26, 2012

What a judge is looking for!

Last Saturday the Wisconsin District held its auditions, and out of forty applicants three winners were picked by the judges to advance to the Region Finals.  These winners are Holly Flack, Soprano; Alisa Jordheim, Soprano; and Shannon Prickett, Soprano.

One of the judges at the Wisconsin District Auditions was Cynthia Lawrence.  She was a winner of the National Council Auditions in 1984 (coming from the Rocky Mountain Region), and she made a career all over the world ever since, performing at the Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden among others.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel featured a wonderful interview with her by Jim Higgins.  You can read the full article here.  As the title (At Met Auditions, judges look for 'it' factor) suggests, it gives singers some wonderful information on what the judges generally look for in a singer.

In the interview, Cynthia describes the 'it' factor:
"It's the 'it' factor. You're looking for something that grabs your attention.  As a singer, a technician, a teacher, I look for the color, the heart and soul of the singer.  I don't look for perfection. I don't know that there has ever been a perfect (live) performance of opera ever."
The most important thing is to tell a story, and to make your audience realize you are telling a story.  Cynthia suggests to keep the following in mind:

  • Look comfortable on stage
  • Pay attention to details
  • Think of what the composer wrote and what his intentions were
  • Communicate with music: " if you sing perfectly, but you're boring, that's no good."

In the end,
"If you were transported and brought to tears . . . I look for that as a judge." 

Stay tuned for interviews with our very own Eastern Region judges in just a few weeks.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Let your donation make an impact

The District Auditions here in the Eastern Region are just a month away, and all the details have (almost) been finalized.  They will once again consist of three days, broken down as follows:

Tuesday November 13: 12pm - 7pm
Wednesday November 14: 10am - 5pm
Thursday November 15: 10am - 5pm

So if you have always wanted to attend the auditions but were unable to do so because of work, we have the solution for you this year.  For the first time ever, we are holding afternoon/evening auditions so people can stop by as they leave the office.  To make it just a little more enticing, we will be serving snacks and drinks as well so you can enjoy listening to the new talent we will be discovering this year while winding down from a long day at work.

Last year we started the tradition of asking people for a suggested admission of $15.  As the name suggests, this amount was only a suggestion and no one was obliged to donate anything.  We understand this is a new concept for the Eastern Region, and we know times are tough and many of our visitors are students, but your donation goes a long way...even if it is just a few dollars.

Even though the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Eastern Region is a 501 (c) (3) charity that is run under the MET umbrella, we only share the name of the organization until the singers reach the Semi-Finals.  We do not share any fundraising efforts.  As one of 13 Regions here in the US, we are responsible for raising our own funds to organize the auditions.  The whole organization is volunteer based, and without the dedication of our wonderful Eastern Region committee and the generous donations of our donors, there would be no Eastern Region Auditions.

Any donation you make will go a long way.  Here are some facts:
  • Our committee donates their time and takes no fee for their services rendered.  
  • When we organize events, from the gala to the auditions itself, we try to get as much donated as possible.  At last year's gala, for example, we got dessert, liquor and food donated.
  • Most of the money raised is used to give our winners Prize Money which they can use to further their careers (The Cost of Being an Opera Singer).
  • Even singers who do not advance to the next round benefit from participating in our auditions.  Singers get feedback about their performances, which is a tremendous help.  Because we want to give them the best advice we possibly can, we make sure to get the best judges we can.  These include teachers, singers, conductors... people who know opera inside and out and who can give invaluable advice to our young singers.  Most of the judges donate their time as well, but sometimes we do need to fly them in from different parts of the country.
  • Some of the money raised is also used to pay for overhead.  The biggest chunk of that goes to the rental of our audition spaces.  Casa Italiana and Merkin Hall are both amazing performance spaces, and this helps both the singers and the audience.  This is as close as possible to attending a real opera recital.  We try to work with the venues to give us the best possible deal, but quality comes at a price.
As you can see, a $15 donation would go a long way and will make a tremendous impact in the lives of our singers.  In a mere three years from now you might be sitting in the Met watching a performance featuring one of this year's contestants and then you will be able to tell the person sitting next to you that you helped that singer realize his or her dreams.  You can make your donation at the door, but you can sign up to attend the auditions here to guarantee your spot.  Your donation will give you a wonderful day filled with opera.

So even though asking others for money does not come easy to me, I find it very easy to open my wallet and donate something to a good cause when an organization asks it of me.  I hope you will do the same.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

And so it begins

Last weekend the National Council Auditions kicked off in San Francisco and Portland where the first District Auditions were being held.

The San Francisco District Auditions were held at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and were judged by Joyce DiDonato, Eric Owens and Brad Woolbright.

Most parts of the US are run a little differently from the Eastern Region, where the Region Finals consist of only one District, and this District happens to be run by the same committee as the Region Finals.

In most parts of the US, the Region Finals in a certain area are made up of winners from several District Auditions. For example, San Francisco is part of the Western Region. The two winners of the San Francisco District Auditions (Ao Li, Bass-Baritone and Efraín Solís, Baritone) will meet up with the District Winners from LA, San Diego and Arizona to compete in the Region Finals of the Western Region.

The same goes for the Oregon District, which is sending on sopranos Lindsay Ohse and Anna Viemeister to the NorthWest Region Finals together with winners from the Canadian districts and Alaska.

As a matter of fact, this year the first round of the Auditions are made up of forty different districts, after which the winners compete in one of the thirteen Region Finals. By February all the Region Finalists will be known, and they will be flown to New York for the third stage of their audition process, the Semi-Finals.

Some ten to fifteen lucky applicants will then perform during the Grand Finals Concert on March 10, 2013 in the hopes of becoming one of the Grand Finals winners. This year's Grand Finals Concert will be conducted by Marco Armiliato and will feature Sondra Radvanovsky as host and guest artist.

Every year, about 100 National Council Aditions Alumni sing on the Met stage, and this year is no different. To name just a few:
  • Janai Brugger (2012 Winner): Met debut in Puccini's Turandot as Liù
  • Ryan Speedo Green: Met debut in Turandot as the Mandarin
  • Alek Shrader: Met debut as Ferdinand in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest and Count Almaviva in the new abridged holiday version of The Barber of Seville
  • Angela Meade: Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore
  • Amber Wagner: Amelia in a new production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera
  • Michael Fabiano: Cassio in a spectacular production of Verdi's Otello, opposite 1988 winner Renée Fleming
  • Lori Guilbeau: appearing in Don Carlo
  • Jennifer Johnson Cano: Carmen, Otello and The Ring Cycle
  • Paul Appleby: Les Troyens and Dialogues des Carmélites
  • Edward Parks: La Rondine
It is a wonderful journey to see the singers progress from winning their first round of the District Auditions, to appearing on the Met stage in a matter of a few short years.  We hope you make the journey with them.  You can support our upcoming talent by making a donation to the National Council Auditions Eastern Region or by attending our District or Region Finals.  

Monday, October 8, 2012

Applicants' Frequently Asked Questions

Below are the answers to the most frequently asked questions and concerns I get.  I will keep adding more questions as they come along.

For more detailed info on how to apply, check out our other blog posting.

Do I need to send in a head shot?

Yes, a headshot is necessary to complete the application. If you do not have a headshot, any other picture of yourself will suffice. You can snail mail in your headshot, or (preferably) you can email us a digital version of it.

Do I need to sing in more than one language?

It is advisable that you do as the judges like diversity and like to hear the full range of your capabilities. However, your application will not be rejected if you add only arias in one language.

When will I know if I have been accepted to compete?

The moment you mail in your application you are sure of a spot to compete. We do not reject any candidates, as long as you comply with the Governing Rules. This mainly refers to your age of course.

What if I applied and I can't make it to the auditions?

If you can not make it to our auditions, we can help you find another District that has space available.  It is your responsibility to contact the new district and check if space is available.  We will then forward your information to that District, along with your application fee. It is important to let us know as soon as possible if anything changes in your availability.

How do I pay the $30 application fee?

1. Write us a check made out to the MONC/Eastern Region

2. Send in your payment through PayPal

Can I apply online?

Yes, you can. The online application is available here, so please take advantage of this new feature.
Alternatively, you can scan in the application and email it, or you can send your info through snail mail.

Can I bring my friends and family to the auditions?

Yes, and the more the merrier. It makes for a wonderful atmosphere when Merkin Hall is filled with people, and it is a great opportunity to perform in front of family and friends.  Please sign up here so we can keep track of attendance.

When will I find out my audition time?

As soon as all the applications have been received, the schedule is made. We usually send out the actual date and time about one to two weeks before the auditions.  Please be aware that due to the high volume of applications, specific time requests can't always be accommodated.

I noted I would be using the official accompanist, but I decided I would like to bring my own. Is that possible?

Yes, you may decide at a later date to bring your own accompanist. Please let us know as soon as possible if you plan to do so because we like to calculate that into our scheduling. Also provide us with their name.

Who are the judges?


Can I be informed of upcoming events and next year's auditions?

Yes, just sign up for our mailing list and keep checking our website.

Can I change my aria selection after submitting my application?

Yes, you can change your selection up to the day of the audition. Let us know as soon as possible and we will change the info on your application. If you wish to make any changes the day of your audition, you must make the announcement of the change on stage to the judges.

The deadline is approaching to apply. Can I drop off the application in person?

If you wish to drop of the application because time is running out, you may bring it to the same address as you would mail it to. You may just leave it at the front desk.  However, we suggest you use the new online application to facilitate applying.

I have participated in the National Council Auditions before, can I apply again?

As long as you comply with the rules in the Governing Regulations, you are fine. This means you have not sung at the Grand-Finals concert or reached the Semi-Finals twice.

Are there any exceptions to the Governing Regulations?

No, the rules are there to be followed.  No exceptions will be made with regards to age, or any other requirement.  Please make sure to read the regulations carefully. It is your responsibility to be in accord with the rules.  All your info will be checked upon receiving your application, and any discrepancies will disqualify you.

Can I get a refund on my application fee?

No, application fees wil not be refunded, even if you do not make it to the auditions.  If, however, you decide to transfer to a different district before the auditions take place, we will forward your application fee to that region.

I feel like I do not have much experience or I have been out of school for a while, can I still apply?

Yes, you can. Even if you are just starting in your career you are welcome to audition with us. All we need is the info asked for on the application page; we do not need any references, letters...everyone is welcome to try out.