Career Advice from the Trenches : An Interview with mezzo Wendy Hoffman

Since winning the Metropolitan Opera National Auditions , mezzo-soprano Wendy Hoffman has sung more than 35 roles with the Met. She has also won the Queen Elisabeth Competition of Belgium, The Liederkranz, The Sullivan Foundation Award, the Montreal International Competition, and many other competitions. Besides singing frequently at the Met, Ms. Hoffman has performed extensively throughout the United States and Europe. She has released two solo CDs, as well as recordings with Herbert Blomstedt, Kurt Mazur and others. Ms. Hoffman’s recent seasons at the Met included L’Italiana in Algeri ,The Gambler, Die Frau Ohne Schatten, War and Peace, L’Enfant et les Sortileges , and Sly . This season includes Elektra, Jenufa, Il Pirata, and Parsifal .

CS: How did you get hired at the Met, and how have you been able to stay on there?
Wendy Hoffman:
I won the Met auditions in 1988, which was amazing because the other winners went on to stellar careers (for example Ben Heppner and Renée Fleming!). When the big earthquake hit in San Francisco in 1989, Earl’s work slowed [Wendy’s husband, coach Earl Buys]; it was really devastating for the city and us. So we put all our belongings in our car and drove out to New York with no prospects for work. I temped for about three months, did a Met audition, and two days later they hired me. I’ve been doing small roles there ever since. How I stay at the Met? I always continue to work-coaching, observing, and hopefully improving. I audition for them every other year or so. At this point, I know the way the Met works. I show up on time, and I have my music learned and memorized. I believe I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m happy and I want to stay there.

Who were your most memorable and influential teachers?
I started very late, at the age of 22. My most memorable learning experiences were one week with Dame Janet Baker as well as working with many high-level coaches, including my husband, Earl Buys, people from the Met, George Darden, Walter Taussig, Joan Dorneman, Yelena Kurdina, and Doris Jung, just to mention a few. I’m also a big believer in working with conductors. I think most teachers can give you information and feedback for breath support, placement, etc., but the greatest learning experiences come from people who are active in the field. Seek them out.

Technically, what was the hardest thing you had to learn? For me, it was my top. I had to learn everything from an F on up. I’ve still never sung a high C in public. It’s different for everyone, but that was my challenge.

How was your college experience? What were the most important things you learned there?
What helped were the basics-sight singing, theory, history, weekly seminars where you had to sing for your friends and they had to sing for you. We periodically had great singers come and speak to us, which was very inspiring. I also liked the closed, safe environment of a college-you could just work on what you had to for those few short years. I attended San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

How did you pay for college and support yourself early in your singing career?
I got through college as a waitress. I worked from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. I did research lab work at the same time, from 3:30 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. But I always got around to closing the School of Music down in a practice room, at about 10:00 p.m. By the time I left school, I was making enough money singing to support myself-mostly church work and small opera companies. I also did some temp work.

How do you feel about competitions?
I’m a big believer in competitions, because it gives you an opportunity to see where you stand in relation to other singers. Winning the Met auditions was a big boost for me. I also was a winner in the Queen Elisabeth competition in Belgium, which is a great competition. All young singers should challenge themselves with that one. I won the International Montreal Competition. I’ve won the Liederkranz and Sullivans. I really needed help then as a young singer. To win competitions you have to work hard and have an understanding of what people are looking for, and what you realistically have to offer. That gives you a basis for what it takes to make it professionally.

What about apprentice programs and Young Artists programs?
I believe they are a necessity for the same reasons that competitions are. You get to observe accomplished artists while you’re being hired to work. You get a feel for the profession. I was part of the San Francisco Merola Program. I also did Santa Fe for two years and really enjoyed it. I got paid $150 a week, but I received room and board, saw so many wonderful operas and artists, and learned how to quilt!

How do you feel about pay-to-sing programs?
I’ve never paid to sing. Spend your money on working with a good coach in order to learn more about yourself, your voice and your goals.

Have you done any recordings?
I have done a number of recordings. After the Queen Elisabeth Competition, I did a couple. I have one compilation CD out with Kurt Mazur. I also did a Peer Gynt with the San Francisco Orchestra. Earl and I produced a CD on our own and sold it at the Met Opera Shop, Tower Records, etc. It was a great experience, and I recommend it to anyone. You learn so much about yourself and the music you truly love.

Do you do many recitals?
I used to do more recitals, but who can you contact for an audition for a recital? I feel it’s a better idea to work on making a CD and recording that is in a recital format. I love to do recitals however because of the wealth of beautiful music and because audiences really still love the medium.

Do you think all professional singers need management? That is a personal issue depending on so many factors. It depends on your age, your Fach, and what you’re hoping to accomplish by having an agent. Do you want to be on a big roster or a small one? Can the agent that you desire really help you? It’s such a touchy topic. I think most successful agents seek out artists that are ready to make a profit. I believe that a good approach for the singer is, “I know I can do something for this agent.” I don’t believe in paying a retainer, but I’ve done it myself in the past. At the time it seemed like the right thing to do.

How have friendships helped you as a singer?
In my case, most of my friends are not in the music business. I feel that it’s more important to have a friendly rapport with everyone you’re with and make it clear that you will always be happy, supportive, there when others need you, and professional. Most of the people you’re going to be auditioning for and subsequently working with want someone they can count on-not just an accomplished artist, but a well adjusted human being. I think one of the best examples in our business is Placido Domingo. After all these years,, he still remembers my name, and everyone else’s. He’s always on top of his game, and he takes suggestions. A lot can be learned from him as well as many other accomplished artists in the business.

Have you been affected by unfriendly behavior, such as backstabbing?
I have one story, now that I think of it. I had been hired to perform with an opera company out west. About six weeks before rehearsal, I had my hip replaced and couldn’t fly. I had to back out of the job because of my surgery. I re-auditioned for the same company about three years later, and the general director informed me that he had told everyone in the business that I was dying of AIDS. I guess that could be considered backstabbing. Needless to say, I never worked for that company again.

How do you feel about being married to someone in the business?
I think it’s great! We have very much the same feelings and ideas when it comes to music, literature, food, comfort, fun-we know what the other one is thinking. I couldn’t do it any other way. Maybe there are people out there who like being with a person that isn’t doing the same thing all day that you are. I like coming home at night and sharing all the crazy stories, the places and people that we’ve been with.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a singer?
The advantages: You’re your own being. What you offer to the world is something you created-your voice and your persona. You can honestly say that you made it all by yourself.
The disadvantages: The insanity-but maybe that’s good for many of us who would be considered insane anyway in a more stable environment. Travel-one year I was away for 14 months (see, that’s more than a year)! But I feel everyone has their options; I choose to not travel like that anymore.

What do you do to maintain your health?
Health is everything! Health is different for everyone. I’ve seen some of the most beautiful artists on the planet drinking and smoking. Another one is a devout vegetarian. Some need a lot of sleep; others don’t. I think you really have to know yourself; know what keeps you on the top of your game and go with it.

I’ve heard it said that the first five years are critical-sort of a “make or break” time in a singer’s career. What do you think?
That’s a tough call, but I’d say the odds are against you if you haven’t made some sort of movement forward in your career in that time. It may be different for a Wagnerian or true Dramatische/Helden Tenor or Soprano. But let’s face facts. The new Baz Luhrmann Boheme heard 3500 singers, and they picked the youngest, freshest ones. It’s a question of continuously improving and being aware of what you’re realistically capable of achieving. If after five years you’re not making progress in getting hired by opera companies, maybe there are other avenues you can explore. I believe every year that goes by one loses an edge, somewhat like professional sports-look at Jordan these days-he’s good, but he’s no Jordan. But there are always exceptions. That’s another good thing about being a singer; you can sing into your 70s. I’ve seen people do it and do it well.