Audition Attire: A Critical Conversation

Kerriann Otaño and Cris Frisco share their expertise from the “other side of the table” about a contentious topic: audition attire. Learn more about how to dress your best for auditions from this conversation about guidelines instead of rules for audition attire.


Cris Frisco: So, why are we talking about audition attire, Kerriann?

Kerriann Otaño: It feels like everyone is talking about audition attire if you hop on social media. Especially this time of year leading into audition season. Every few years someone comes along with what feels like the definitive rulebook on audition attire, and then we spend the next decade trying to relax these “rules.” So, if everyone is going to talk about it, let’s talk about it from the post-pandemic mindset and realize that things are different now. 

CF: We’re in this place now where we’re appropriately dismantling some of the structures that no longer work, but that does leave us in a place that’s sort of the Wild West where now no one has concrete information. And while the idea of “rules” seems like a bad one, maybe the idea of guidelines or aligning artists’ and companies’ expectations seems like a conversation that should happen. 

KO: Yes, and I think it needs to happen boldly and in a direct way. Over the last few years, these conversations have been happening in silos and echo chambers. We assume that everyone has the same shared information. I think companies should give artists every opportunity to succeed. If your organization has expectations for conservative dress, you can say that in your audition announcements. Let’s not assume that we all share the same ideals of “professionalism” in art, which is already a weighted term. 

Shannon Keegan, finalist in the Classical Young Artist/Emerging Pro division, CS Music Competition 2022

CF: We need to unpack what it means to “dress professionally.” It does have a certain connotation, and I think we need to reframe the conversation into one about making choices that convey that you take your career and artistry seriously and then presenting yourself as a serious contender in this profession—and I think that can mean a lot of different things. Lest we knock the jewel-toned wrap dress, I think that for some people that uniform is empowering. That has to be the most important part of the choice: making choices that empower you as the artist rather than giving up your power to some arbitrary rulebook.

KO: For some folks, an audition uniform is a comfortable boundary that allows them to focus wholly on the art they’re making. Other folks don’t find artistic freedom in restrictions. So, for me, wear what makes you most effective as a communicator and a storyteller. That’s the guideline. Wear what allows you to move freely and own the space. We want to see what you can do and what you have to say about this repertoire. 

CF: A mistake I often find singers making is that they wear things they feel they have to wear that are very obviously not comfortable for them. If you are a person who feels awesome and powerful in a dress and heels, that’s a great choice. If you feel awkward, meek, and off center in heels, wear flats. You can be incredibly glamorous and compelling in flats. The same goes for men.  If you feel amazing in a suit, it’s a great choice—but if you feel like it inhibits your movement and makes you stiff, maybe try a different option.

KO: Absolutely. There is also an idea that artists have to spoon feed themselves to the panel in a way that makes them palatable. We see that when mezzos are told they have to wear pants and sopranos are told the same about dresses. I think we have more imagination than that as an art form.

CF: I certainly hope we do! While I think we do have the imagination to see beyond what a person is wearing, the thing I don’t think we can see past is your giving a performance where you seem uncomfortable or that lacks confidence. So, if following the rules prevents you from bringing compelling artistic choices or feeling empowered and in control of your artistry in the audition, I do think that’s a problem.

KO: Exactly! And I have singers reach out to me to say, “I’m a soprano and I wore a pantsuit in an audition today and felt incredible.” You should feel incredible about what you’re wearing! If we ask artists to buff away their individuality and uniqueness into a version of themselves that is palatable and expected…I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember things that are just palatable. I remember choices that take my breath away. Take this moment to show us the strongest and most confident version of you. 

I also think it’s really important that singers feel encouraged to bring their preferred gender expression into the room. 

CF: Amen. We want to meet who you are, not the version of you that you think blends in with everyone else.

KO: And when we homogenize singers, we lose sight of the fact that their perspective, life experience, and unique interpretation are what keeps this art form vital. Your clothes should be in service to your storytelling. Now, how do we create a more collaborative version of what this could be without disregarding the helpful things about the past? 

Rhoby Rausch, finalist in the Classical High School II division, CS Music Competition 2022

CF: Well, isn’t that the value-of-the-Met’s-operating-budget-dollar question! This really is the question of our generation in this industry. How do we honor the history and respect the integrity and authenticity of the music making, but not get stuck with rules and histrionics in a way that prevents the artform from moving forward. 

KO: Which is exactly why something as seemingly insignificant as breaking with the rules of audition dress code—or at least reimagining them—is so important.

CF: We’d be foolish not to honor the fact that rules are comforting in a certain way. Throwing out the entire rulebook can be disabling if no one knows what is expected. What would you say are some suggested guidelines for audition dress?

KO: Something that, from head-to-toe, makes you feel comfortable, powerful, and authentically you. I will offer this caution: because you may not know the space you’ll be performing in, keep in mind that the audition panel may be above you if you’re in a hall, below you if you’re on a stage, or on your level if you’re in a rehearsal room. Keep your proportions and sightlines in mind so that you are not thrown off your game. What would you add to that?

CF: I think that’s such a good point. One of the things you can’t control is the audition environment, so you need audition wear that allows you to exist in any space comfortably. The floors may be uneven, you may have to walk up or down a lot of stairs, it could be uncomfortably hot or cold, etc.  

I do just want to say that there isn’t any clothing choice you could make that disqualifies you from the career if all the other pieces are in place, but I do think choices that make you not perform your best absolutely can disqualify you.

KO: Yes! I want to add the caveat that for a growing number of administrators, the artist’s comfort is the full extent of the dress code guidelines. Are you comfortable? Can you tell a story in what you’re wearing? Do you take your craft seriously? We want you to be your most authentic self. But there are still some administrators who have more conservative tastes, so it’s important to do your research. Find out who you are singing for, reach out to colleagues who have previously worked at that company, and check the vibe. Utilize your network. Ask questions. 

CF: Knowing who you’re singing for is the singer’s best friend. You always want to know as much as you can about the company and the people who will hear you. 

KO: Absolutely. The work, the art you’re making, the storytelling—that has to be at the center. And that’s what we keep coming back to. Anything that encumbers you physically and prevents you from delivering in your presentation has to be rethought. So, it’s not that what you wear doesn’t matter. It’s that what you wear must be in service to the artist you want to present and the storytelling you’re doing.

CF: Exactly. Now I’m getting excited for audition season!

Kerriann Otano and Cris Frisco

Kerriann Otaño is the vice president of engagement at Opera Delaware. A former singer, she performed with the Metropolitan Opera, Washington National Opera, and the Wolf Trap and Glimmerglass Festivals. Cris Frisco is the director of musical activities and director of the Handorf Company Artist Program at Opera Memphis. He teaches at the Mannes School of Music and is a NYC-based coach and pianist.