Choosing Audition Repertoire

Choosing appropriate repertoire is an on-going process that constantly changes and evolves as you progress in your technique and your career. It is important to choose repertoire that you can “sell” in any situation, pieces that give you confidence and accurately represent you. In most auditions, you are given 5 to 10 minutes (or less) to present yourself to a company. The pieces you offer will not only show the panel what you can do but also how you see yourself. Be thoughtful with your choices—and be honest with yourself throughout the process.

Choose Pieces You Can Sell

It is necessary to have pieces that showcase your individual talents. If you are still struggling to hit a high C, do not bring a piece that exposes this challenge. We are all works in progress, but the audition repertoire needs to show a complete singer who is hirable. Choose only those pieces that you can confidently and consistently sell, not just get through.

Find pieces that fit your voice now, feel comfortable, and sound great. Don’t be concerned if the piece is not showy enough or is too popular or obscure (just make certain your accompanist can play the piece). Judges simply want excellent presentations, regardless of repertoire. You can wear yourself out trying to read the minds of those hearing you, anticipating what they will or will not like. Just pick your best pieces and execute them to the best of your ability.

Ask trusted teachers, colleagues, or accompanists for suggestions. Search through aria compilation books or research operas of your favorite composers. If you find yourself in a rut while looking for appropriate roles, listen to other singers of your voice type. Listen for new pieces at competitions and auditions. Research one of your arias at Operabase.com to see who else is singing it, and then research what other roles those singers are performing. Not all will be suitable, but you may find something completely new.

If you are auditioning for a specific role, it is appropriate to sing an aria from the opera being cast, but not necessary. Again, do this only if the piece is one of your best and you can really own it. Otherwise, it is better to show your strengths in another aria—perhaps one of similar style or composer.

“Selling” a Piece

As you think about your own repertoire and if you can really sell your audition pieces, consider the following requirements:
-You have such control and mastery of the piece that you are expressive with every note, instead of just proving that you have the notes.
-You have something to say that is unique.
-You look the part—or you can convince them with your acting that you are perfectly suited to play the part.
-You embody the character so that you are not singing and acting but rather being and expressing. You identify with the piece.
-You can pace the piece so that you are not exhausted and have not lost the freshness of your voice by the end.
-You feel great singing the piece and you are consistently confident that you will succeed in presenting it the way you intend.

Prepare the Role, Not Just the Aria

It is important to know the entire role, not just your aria. Certain arias may fit perfectly in a person’s voice, but the rest of the role is too taxing. You do not want to risk presenting yourself as a character that is unfit for your voice. Audition with an aria only if you can actually sing the role. Those hearing your audition will assume you know your voice well enough to know what you can sing now, not something that you hope to grow into in the future. The goal is not simply to get the job but to do the job well enough to build a solid reputation.

Knowing the entire role is also necessary to convincingly portray your character, as well as to speak intelligently about the opera. You could be asked to sing additional arias or sections from the opera, particularly if you are seen as a possible fit for the role. If you have prepared the other pieces and feel ready to sell them, have the music with you at the audition. If you are not ready to present your best self, do not sing additional music at that time. Ask if you could return to sing the following day and take the extra time to reestablish your performance.

There are also times when companies are in a pinch and may be looking to hire someone quickly. If you already have the entire role memorized and paced, you will be ready to sing it at a moment’s notice. If it is a role you expect to sing in the future, start preparing now so that you will be ready when the opportunity arises.

Build the “Fab Five” Package

It is typically expected that you come to an audition with approximately five arias of varied style, language, tempo, and composer from which an audition panel can choose what to hear. Provide a combination of pieces that will work well together to present you. Typically you will not sing all of the pieces (although you may!), but each will be introducing you and the types of roles you sing even if you do not actually sing them at the audition. These are roles you envision yourself playing, and this helps the listeners get to know you and how you see yourself.

Stay reasonably within the same Fach system. Some pieces cross over multiple categories, but be sure not to choose pieces that are too different from each other—it will appear that you do not accurately know your voice and are still experimenting. If you are still determining your Fach, Richard Boldrey’s book Guide to Operatic Roles and Arias can help clarify the Fach system and which category your pieces may fall into.

Show a variety of styles within your pieces. For example, start with Puccini if he is what you sing best, but find other composers who also show your strengths. It is best to have English, German, French, and Italian all represented if possible, but this is not necessary. Unless specific requirements have been stated, you have the freedom to put together your package as it fits you. This also means that you need not bring five pieces. If you sing four pieces excellently and one is still in progress, just bring four. Only bring what you know will be successful.

Choose a Good Starter

It is helpful to have one piece that you consistently start each audition with. The more auditions you sing, the more confidence you will gain, and this piece will become engrained in muscle memory as a way for you to calm down and focus before having to switch to a piece of another’s choosing.

After you feel comfortable with the piece, sing it at all times of day and in a number of undesirable circumstances—while tired, hungry, late at night, early morning—in order to build your confidence and muscle memory. If you can be sure that you will sell this piece regardless of the situation, it will give you a secure place to start your audition from.

Arias that make good starters possess all of the following qualities:
-Not too long, but long enough to introduce yourself and show what you can do. (Be aware that in some auditions you will sing only one piece.)
-Something that draws attention to your unique talent—floating high notes, acting, expressiveness, comedy.Showcase first whatever you feel your strength is.
-A piece you can sing anywhere, anytime with consistency. Do not start with a piece that is “sometimes” successful. You will be adjusting to the room, the accompanist, and the panel—this piece should be second nature for you.
-Something you love to sing and feel impressive singing.

Create a Varied Repertoire

As you build upon your repertoire, you will have a number of arias that will be appropriate for different situations and houses. It is important to know how to present yourself to a company, depending on the size of the house and caliber of the singers.

Starting Out

As you start your career, you may be auditioning for minor roles in smaller, regional houses. It is still appropriate to sing arias from larger roles, but it may be helpful to master some secondary characters. For example, young baritones may consider such roles as Masetto in Don Giovanni instead of the Don himself. The title role may eventually be the perfect fit, but bear in mind that the other singers auditioning may currently be more appropriate for the larger role due to age and experience.

Present yourself where you will be successful and build from there. Singing a fabulous Masetto in an audition may prove more convincing than presenting yourself as a young Don who is not quite yet polished. Find an aria that you sing impressively, the one that will give you the most confidence. Even if the panel is not interested in hiring you for the role you present, they may have you in mind for a different character with a better fit.

Big House, Small House

A general rule to follow when starting out is to sing smaller roles for big houses and bigger roles for small houses to appropriately fit into a company. As your career and age progress, more repertoire will fit your voice and you will have greater options to be competitive with. You should familiarize yourself with the type of repertoire that a company produces and know upcoming shows.

Crossover Repertoire

You can show versatility by singing operetta or crossover repertoire for regional houses if you know a company produces light opera or musical theatre productions. But do not bring this repertoire to an audition if the company does not present these works.

Competition Repertoire

Many times, competition repertoire tends to be showier and more elaborate by nature of the competitive atmosphere. You may want to start with a piece that has more flare than your regular starter piece, but make sure to work it into your voice so that it becomes just as comfortable. The main objective still remains, however, that how you sing is more important than what you sing.

Symphonic Repertoire
Begin building your repertoire for symphonic auditions. Handel’s Messiah is a great place to start, as many orchestras present this work during Christmas or Easter, and the level of vocal difficulty varies within the work. In addition to oratorio and sacred pieces, it is appropriate to also bring one or two arias in the event that a symphony is looking for a guest vocalist for solo work. It is best to come prepared with a number of options to help present yourself.

Keep in Mind

There is no real mystery to choosing audition repertoire—and no real right or wrong answers. You will find a judge who adores the same piece that a different panel member hates. The key is to stop worrying about making the right choices for your audience and to instead make the right choices for yourself. Be discerning and honest about what roles and repertoire fit your voice right now. Prepare thoughtfully. Say something unique; don’t just sing notes. Be confident and proud of what you can do. Stand out. Find your talent and sell it!

Laura Portune

Soprano Laura Portune is a singer, teacher, stage director, writer, and mom. She has performed regionally and internationally in over 60 opera and concert productions, including world premieres in the Czech Republic, Italy, and San Diego. A frequent guest clinician and stage director, Portune is a Senior Lecturer of Voice at The Ohio State University School of Music. For more, go to www.lauraportune.com.