Audition 101 for Opera Singers

As young performing artists, we’ve all been there.

You’ve finally been granted a shot at a program that would align perfectly with the goals you’ve set for your artistic development or the role of a lifetime. You’ve selected your five arias, along with the perfect wardrobe. You’re feeling confident, well prepared, and in good voice.

You arrive at the location with plenty of time to spare and begin watching as singer after singer rotates through that mysterious door. You listen as each voice flows outside the hall. The singers are incredible. And, as fate would have it, they’re singing your arias. As you’re called into the room, a wave of terror washes over you. Suddenly, everything you were feeling secure about is called into question.

“How do I look? Should I offer a different aria? That last singer sounded better than I do. What if the accompanist doesn’t take my tempo? Why is the director looking at my shoes? Ugh, I knew I should have worn different shoes! Oh, shoot! I forgot the title of the aria I was going to start with. Who was the composer again? What do I do with my arms? Whatever you do, don’t mess up! There are only four slots they’re going to fill. If I don’t get this role, it will mean I’m not any good. They’re probably not going to pick me anyway.”

This internal dialogue rushes through your brain like a freight train, derailing your confidence—and all before you’ve even opened your mouth to sing the first note.

Welcome to the audition!

Despite being an important component in a performing artist’s livelihood, it is perhaps one of the most intimidating words in their vocabulary. But does it have to be?

“Auditions are a necessary evil,” says Jerry Tietz, general manager of Chicago Opera Theater. “Many singers hate them. In fact, many conducting the auditions hate them. It’s an imperfect system. But how else can you get to know a new singer? Until someone comes up with a better system, we all have to make the most of the system we have.”

And to do that, Florentine Opera General Director William Florescu, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, advises singers to pair auditions with preparation and a healthy perspective.

A singer prior to taking the helm at Florentine, Florescu understands all too well the pressures that singers can put on themselves when standing before the audition panel. But being on the other side of the table has given Florescu some valuable insight.

“For singers, you might audition 10 times, and out of those 10 auditions, get one job,” Florescu says. “But if you think of yourself as a business model, it can be a lot easier to separate yourself from the emotional aspect of the audition process so that you’re going in there focused on delivering a good performance rather than thinking, ‘Please accept me.’”

It can be easier said than done, especially when considering the amount of time (and money) invested in preparing for an audition, with lessons, coachings, travel, clothing, and more.

“[Keeping it in perspective] isn’t something I did well,” Florescu admits of his days as an opera singer going through the audition process. “I saw my success in an audition as more of a statement of my self-worth. And you just can’t do that. It’s not a life-or-death thing.”

Following are some tips Tietz and Florescu offer to help keep preparation and perspective in mind when embarking upon your next audition.

So, You Were Granted an Audition. Now What?
One of the most glaring elements missing from many young artists’ auditions, according to Florescu, is combining physical acting with an aria, in addition to being able to sing it well.

“As a director, I’m looking to hire a singing actor,” he says. “A singer can come in and sing well. But what I’m looking for is that thing that makes them different and sets them apart. Singers often get fixated on the way their voice is perceived and nothing else. But the challenge is in knowing that it’s not just about the voice—it’s about the acting. I’ve hired singers who have made mistakes and who have cracked on notes. But they engaged me. They had something to say with their voice. And that’s the whole reason many became singers in the first place.”

When it comes to physicality, some singers will move too much or gesture unnaturally, Florescu says, while others won’t move at all. “There is a big difference between standing still and selling an aria and not doing anything.”

Tietz narrows down a successful audition to three important elements: demonstrating skill, personality, and a certain je ne sais quoi.

“A certain undefined ‘it’ factor is the cherry on top,” Tietz says. “You might be one of the best singers we’ve heard in an audition, but we hear many great singers. You can be wonderful but maybe not as well suited to the role. We can’t tell you why we might have liked another singer better. It’s just a certain something about them that stands out, and it’s not always the kind of thing that can be cultivated.”

Regardless, there are several things a singer can do to ensure a strong and successful audition.

In addition to providing the vocal goods and acting skills needed by an opera company, young artists also are serving as company ambassadors, frequently participating in education and outreach components as well as galas and other fundraising events.

“It’s hard to imagine a good audition without confidence, character, and courage,” Tietz says. “You have to be willing to put yourself out there. And it starts the moment you walk in the door. With young singers especially, opera companies are feeding them to their donor crowd and their board of directors. We aren’t just looking at your skill base as a singer but how you engage an opera company and what kind of person you are. Are you someone with confidence and class that can smile, shake hands, and help gain support for an opera company?

“There are many great singers that we audition that we’d love to hear and that our audiences would love to hear in a role,” Tietz adds. “But we’re also looking for that person that lights up a room when they walk through the door, with an infectious laugh and a great smile. That’s the kind of personality and sense of fun your board of directors will want to be around—as well as, I suspect, the colleagues working with that person.”

Although it might seem mundane, Florescu also urges singers to practice saying the title of the aria as part of the audition. “Auditions begin the second you walk in the room and end the second you leave,” he says. “There are so many that will mangle the title of an aria. Make sure you know how to pronounce it correctly.”

How to Pick Your Five Arias
You might eventually have the Queen of the Night’s act 2 aria from Die Zauberflöte, Tonio’s “Ah! mes amis” from La fille du régiment, or Cunegonde’s shimmering “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide solidly in your vocal future. But that doesn’t mean you should necessarily count it among your five audition arias now.

And rest assured, Florescu warns, that if you include more virtuosic selections among your audition list and don’t offer them as your first arias, they likely will be requested by the audition panel. “Your five arias should reflect the singer you are now—not the singer you hope to be or the singer you’ll be five years from now,” he says.

Tietz agrees. “Your five arias have to represent you at your very best,” he says. “What you offer opera companies doesn’t need to be as rigid as what might be required in competitions or college auditions. We don’t necessarily need to hear one German, one French, one Italian, one Baroque, and one 21st century piece. In fact, there are very few wonderful singers I know that can sing all of those well. I think it usually indicates a lack of understanding their vocal Fach and their strengths, or that they have really learned anything else since college. I think many singers believe that variety demonstrates being well rounded, but you have to sing to your strengths.”

Florescu notes that when auditioning singers, he notices a vast difference in someone auditioning with an aria from a full role they’ve performed versus someone who might audition an aria only performed in the studio.

“They’ve already won the battle having performed the whole piece,” he says. “The understanding of the piece within the context of the whole opera is there, so it’s usually performed better and more confidently.”

Tietz cautions, however, to avoid singing an aria that is newer to you just because you’re aware the opera company is casting a specific role for a production.

“Chicago Opera Theater does a lot of operas that aren’t as well known,” Tietz says. “Every now and then, we’ll have a singer who will come in and say that they learned we are casting a certain role for a production and that in the last week, they learned an aria from it. There is an allure to that. But those selections usually don’t go as well. How can they if the singer has only had it for a week? Trust that based on the repertoire you’ve provided us to choose from that we’ll be able to make a good casting choice based on that if you’re appropriate for a role.”

How to Work with the Provided Accompanist
Accompanists often are provided for singers in live auditions—meaning that your first opportunity to run the piece will be the audition. It can be unnerving. But a little front-end preparation can help make the collaboration a smooth one.

When selecting your five arias, Florescu recommends not picking something too far outside the spectrum of known repertoire. “You don’t want to pick anything that is too new or too unfamiliar and too challenging for the accompanist,” he says. “Most accompanists will know and will have played most of the more familiar repertoire.”

He also says to clearly communicate the tempo to the accompanist. “Sing the first line of the aria rather than trying to conduct it,” Florescu says. “That will give the accompanist a better idea of the tempo that you’re taking.”

Also, be sure that the score you are providing the accompanist is clean, that the pages are easy to turn, and that any cuts you might be taking are clearly marked. Even better, Florescu adds, is having a cut version of the aria copied for the accompanist to avoid unnecessary page turning, as well as quick and complicated jumps. Time is of the essence. So, the more organized you can be up front, the better.

Tietz also reminds singers to avoid stapling musical selections together. Instead, he recommends having clean copies of your pieces in a three-ring binder. “The longer you work in your craft, the better ensemble member you become,” Tietz says.

If the accompanist does make a mistake that throws you off your game, whatever you do, don’t call them out on it. “Usually, the accompanist knows that they did it, and the audition panel knows that they did it,” Tietz says. “A singer calling an accompanist out for botching something is very petty. You’ve just got to have trust.”

What to Wear
When it comes to audition attire, neutral is best.

“What you’re wearing in an audition setting should not distract me from your voice,” Florescu says. “I’ve seen women come in that are very underdressed for the occasion, as well as those that look like they’re making their Carnegie Hall debut. Dress appropriately for the environment. You don’t want to be too casual or too dressy. You want to dress with respect for the situation, with class.”

For women, pencil skirts for an executive look can work, as well as classy and appropriate short gowns. For gentlemen, a clean and pressed pair of pants can pair well with an open collar, no tie, and a sport coat.

Before the audition, try on articles of clothing to not only make sure they still fit since the last time you wore them, but that they don’t constrict the voice.

“I’ve had men come in who put on a suit, and since the last time they wore it, had gained weight,” Tietz says. “The tie impeded their singing. Your attire needs to be a balance between comfort and respect to the situation. I’ve auditioned singers who have come in wearing a $200 pair of jeans that looked better than someone else wearing a sloppy suit off the rack.”

Most Importantly—Don’t Worry about What Those Auditioning You Think
It can be easier said than done, but Florescu says if singers can let go of worrying about what those behind the table are thinking, it can lead to a better audition.

“The organ we worry about is the voice, but we need to start a little further north of that,” Florescu says. “When a singer is in a performance, they usually aren’t worrying about what the audience thinks by that point because they’ve already won the audition. They worry more about satisfying the role.

“Make sure your goal is on giving a good performance,” he continues. “Every audition is a part of the performance process and is a part of your story in your life as a performer. If singers can learn to treat auditions in that respect and not concern themselves with what people think of them, the audition will usually go a lot better. And they’ll feel better about it, whether they get the role or not.”

It’s also important to remember that you win some and you lose some.

“I have had singers give wonderful auditions, and I haven’t hired them because they just weren’t quite what I needed for that particular opera,” Florescu says. “There are other elements to consider when casting.”

Tietz sums it up in a single word: empathy. It’s something both singers and those casting must have when it comes to auditions, he says.

“If you consider the person on the other side of the table—who you might be thinking could make or break your career—think about the fact that they’ve been hearing hours of auditions, that they are probably tired and hungry, that they’ve traveled to New York, and that maybe they only get an opportunity to audition in New York once a year and that they, too, are artists trying to make the best decisions and cast the season for their company. It’s about finding the right fit, with the right company, at the right time.”

Megan Gloss

Megan Gloss is a classical singer and journalist based in the Midwest.