Age, Choices and Career Paths

With a two-tiered en-semble program and four main stage productions to cast, Utah Opera receives about 1,200 “singer packets” a year. Our needs for mainstage and ensemble are different and require a different answer to the age question. That said, we operate as a company on the following guideline, based on research by our legal counsel. As long as you state either minimum or maximum age as a requirement for employment (presuming you can demonstrate a clear reason for this), it is legal to ask for age on an application.

For mainstage, we never ask age. I have decided to remove it from our young artist forms as well. People in our Apprentice Program interact daily with schoolchildren. We believe that, especially when advocating for something as foreign to most third-graders’ experience as opera, it is essential that an artist have credibility. Singing and acting well are essential, but an apparent age that is not too far from the age of the kids seems, to us, also essential in establishing rapport, which enhances credibility. Thus, we might note apparent age when auditioning singers for young artist positions.

Another issue in resident programs is the ability of the group of performers to get along under a variety of circumstances for several months. By default, the people drawn to this kind of grueling work and lifestyle, and those most likely to have stamina enough to survive it, are younger. People at similar points in their careers tend to get along better. Just as I would not be likely to hire a 12-year old, however talented, to do school shows, I would think long and hard before hiring someone clearly in their 40’s for the work we require of young artists. This may be a slippery slope, but I don’t think that constitutes discrimination.

The real issue for me is career path. Our program materials for the young artist program state clearly that this is for singers near the beginning of their careers who need time performing, additional training, and an introduction to the ropes. If singers come in and cannot demonstrate by their singing and résumés that they are on a definite career path, I won’t consider them. The audition is very important, but even when a singer gives a stunning audition, if the résumé doesn’t show consistent career progress, I have to wonder if the audition was a fluke.

For any audition though, it is better if singers are clear about where they’ve been and what they’ve done. If there is a gap in a résumé, I may ask the singer why. An illness in the family or raising a child are often given as reasons. These answers are fine with me, since I prefer artists whose life experiences are rich enough that they can give convincing performances.

Mainstage casting is different. Artists are much more carefully screened for ability before being selected for an audition, and the vocal and artistic demands of particular roles require that we cast a large net. In the really big companies, the potential audience includes enough die-hard fans that a company can present a 60- year old Salomé or Don José, for instance, and enough people will buy tickets to keep the lights on. At regional houses, audiences attend opera for different reasons: they seem to need productions which are as credible visually as they are aurally. PBS’ success with the Australian Opera video of La Bohème from 1994 certainly proves this point.

Our competition is music theater and television, where everything is cast to “type,” which everybody in that end of the business understands. Singers have yet to catch on to this trend, and are still bucking the changes. In today’s market, if you are going to hire a Mimi, you can’t put an overweight 55-year old onstage, no matter how well she sings, and expect the audience to accept that she is a 19-year old, starry-eyed girl.

Please don’t immediately level the accusation that we will compromise the music for a good body. Opera is entertainment first, and lofty art only if people are entertained. In a sense, we have come back to credibility. If people believe in the gestalt on stage, then the art is served.

It is possible that the fitness revolution will herald a new golden age…an entire generation of singers who have maintained their voices and bodies well enough to sustain full artistic credibility for a variety of roles later into life than we have come to expect.

John Wehrle

John Wehrle earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in voice before deciding to work as an Arts Administrator. Prior to becoming Music Administrator at Utah Opera, he was Company Manager at Opera Theater of Pittsburg and Assistant to the Artistic Manager at Pittsburgh Symphony