Behind the Scenes with YAP Director Robert Ainsley : Cafritz Young Artists of Washington National Opera

Robert Ainsley is presenting a Masterclass and a Q&A session at the CS Music Online Convention, May 25-30. Register to attend the Zoom classes at www.csmusic.info/convention.

As the director of a high-level Young Artist Program, Robert Ainsley is always on the lookout for capable and ambitious young singers looking to launch successful careers. As both director of the Cafritz Young Artists of Washington National Opera and an alumnus of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera, he knows from both sides of the table what it takes to get into a competitive YAP and how they can serve a singer’s future. 

At the upcoming Classical Singer Online Convention, he will lead a masterclass with university and young artist-level singers as they prepare for their own YAP auditions. In this Q&A, he discusses the qualities he looks for in those he hears at auditions, shares his thoughts on the current generation of up-and-coming singers, and offers advice for building a career in a post-pandemic world. 

I hope you and your loved ones have been safe and healthy. How have you been able to stay creative during the last several weeks of social distancing?

RA: Strangely, I’ve been busier than ever! Our Young Artists have had to become the main content producers for the company, and so we’ve been churning out a steady stream of remote collaborations, remote recitals, mini musicological lectures, online masterclasses, and other material. I have played and practiced the piano more in the last weeks than in the four preceding years, and have even added a new skill to my arsenal—I’m now a dilettante video editor!

As Director of the Cafritz Young Artists of Washington National Opera, what qualities are you most drawn to when auditioning young singers?

RA: I’m looking for three things really:

  1.     Vocal raw material, because without a healthy helping of this, it’s difficult to become an opera star on the big stage.
  2.     Where the singer is on the skills growth/learning curve—technique, languages, style, knowledge of repertoire, etc. All these things can be taught and learned, but are they well ahead of their peers? Are they falling behind?
  3.     Perhaps the most important—do they have something unique and individual to say and communicate as an artist? This is more difficult to define, but you know it when it’s there!

The Kennedy Center website indicates that Cafritz Young Artists are “artists on the verge of international careers.” That being said, do you ever find yourself accepting “diamonds in the rough” into the program (singers who have something special but may still be a bit unpolished)?

RA: Oh, very much. In order to benefit fully from what our program can offer, it is important that we feel confident that we can put our young artists on the mainstage, even if it’s just in a small role initially, and that they won’t crack under the pressure or get eaten alive by conductors and directors. But bigger voices certainly are often a little unformed and raw when they arrive, and need real time and care to really blossom.

Do you notice any generational trends in singers? What characteristics (positive or negative) do you notice in current up-and-coming singers?

RA: I think young singers today are the most entrepreneurial generation I’ve encountered—self-starting, tech-savvy, worldly, gritty, determined, and realistic. One thing it is important for all of us to keep in mind, however, is that being a world-class opera singer is an Olympian discipline, physically as well as in every other way. There is simply no way around the countless hours of study, daily practice, and years of experience it takes in order to be highly successful in this field. Nowadays, we are more accustomed to instant gratification through the wonders of the internet, but opera doesn’t work that way—you have to be prepared to grind out success over many years of careful preparation and hard work if you want to succeed—there are no short-cuts.   


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What do you find gratifying about working with young artists as opposed to more seasoned professionals?

The joy of seeing them discover the magic and the wonder of new repertoire, new roles, new arias, new songs, new performances for the first time, and remembering what that felt like for me the first time I heard those pieces. Young singers are also often more flexible and willing to try new things in a way that one never quite has the chance to do with seasoned pros (mainly because the more seasoned or well-known they are, often the more expensive their time is, and the more limited rehearsal will be!).

As we all eventually emerge from the isolation and quarantine we’ve been experiencing due to the pandemic, what do you envision the role of opera and the arts will be as we return to some semblance of normalcy?

Already, we’re all relying on the arts in an even more crucial way than we have done before. Where would we be without Netflix and Hulu? I find myself regularly watching streams of opera performances, something I almost never have time or inclination to do during more normal times. I think society as a whole will realize how fundamental and important our ability to gather and to tell stories is, and how unimportant many other things actually are when it comes down to it. Our very humanity is based in gathering, and our entire heritage and identity stems from our ability to tell stories. Opera does these things in the most extraordinary and indelible ways, and has survived some 160+ pandemics already in its 400-year history. It’ll be just fine!

The path to finding success as an opera singer is often arduous. Do you think it will be an even more difficult path now, due to the pandemic? What advice would you offer singers in negotiating this changing landscape?

Certainly, things are going to be financially harder in every business, but especially in the performing arts, where they were already very difficult. For a while, the opera business as a whole will be smaller. That said, on a more positive note, I sense that companies are going to be much more reliant on local talent, and on smaller, more versatile, more guerrilla-type projects, which are an ideal way for young artists to get a foothold in the business. I am hoping there will be a resurgence of the song recital—one of my great loves—at least in the short term! For the immediate future, it is the biggest companies whose models will have to be most different, and they, too, will have to think on a smaller scale. It will be more difficult for everyone, but it will also be a time of innovation, of change, and of sheer relief as we can enjoy our craft again in person!

Tell us a bit about what you have planned for the Classical Singer Online Convention. What can attendees expect from your classes?

I have worked in most aspects of the opera profession now—as a pianist, recitalist, coach, young artist, conductor, chorus master, and administrator. This means I have a good sense of how the profession as a whole functions. For the young artist Q&A session, I think I’m fairly good at laying open the ‘path to success’ that can be such a mystery to those starting out in the business, as well as trying to contextualize what ‘success’ is. Whether it’s just talking about what a good resumé is, talking about audition technique and repertoire, or discussing the various wonderful programs that exist in the country, I hope I can be honest and helpful. For the masterclass, I’ve sat in on thousands and thousands of auditions over the years, and heard most arias hundreds of times—so I try to identify the two or three main big-picture things I think will help the singer take their work to the next level, and to help them make the most of what they already have to offer.

Is it exciting or maddening to work in Washington, D.C. during an election year? 

Ha! Washington is a great, vibrant, diverse, and exciting city, and doesn’t feel as heavily political as you might expect, at least unless you’re hanging around the Capitol or the Mall. This is a milestone election for the country wherever you live, and although I have my own strong opinions on the matter, I am most fascinated to see what the country decides at this crucial juncture.

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, D.M., is an assistant professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the National Center for Voice and Speech. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing and he blogs at drbrianmanternach.blogspot.com. Visit brianmanternach.com for more information.