Turning acquaintances into career allies
We all probably know on some level that it’s not wise to walk into every audition without having made any personal connections to those hiring. Certainly before shelling out fees and other expenses for every regional or local audition each year, it pays to have someone recognize one’s name, face, voice or reliable reputation. Knowing as much as one can about what a company is looking for is also much more meaningful to a singer’s development than simply peddling the same aria package on repeat. The question is, what are some practical ways of doing this? What are some of the ways a singer can make meaningful relationships that garner lasting prospects?
Years ago, when speaking to a room full of Boston Opera Collaborative members, then artistic director Andrew Altenbach stressed the advantages to having some connection to audition panelists. Given his insights on the topic and his work with many young singers as a conductor nationally and as the Music Director of Opera at Boston Conservatory, I spoke with Altenbach about this very topic.
Do your intel
KH: Given you work with many young singers, with regard to casting for YAPs, apprenticeships, and companies, how has the environment changed in the past dozen years or so for singers out in the professional world?
AA: I often think I have my finger on the pulse of things and then they shift, but I think that shows that the expectations are always shifting. Companies and young artist programs are constantly having to react to a lot of forces- many of them outside their company. Suddenly they may need to cover more main stage roles with a young artist or they might need to ramp up their outreach program in a different way. Sometimes grant funding will come in late and they might need to have someone sing a not completely vocally appropriate role for 8 am school performances.
There’s a relentless flexibility that’s asked of young artists and often the business forces us to mistakenly create our own sense of value by the types and quantity of gigs that we’re getting. That’s understandable because we all are, in some ways, commodities for these companies and we’re selling ourselves -our voices, our personalities – so we are vulnerable to that. But some voices and personality types are better fits for certain companies.
You have to find a balance of looking at your network and continually trying to expand who you know. And this will go on for up to twenty years. What is in a company’s path and what is in your own path? Are there any crossovers? It could be you lived in the same city, went to the same school or studied with the same teacher as a general director. There are prominent agents and artistic administrators now who used to be Clerk #4 for an opera company. That goes to show that you have to treat people well all the time.
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The balance with the intel of figuring out what someone wants is to not get too frustrated sometimes when things don’t make sense. Some decisions are illogical. There are plenty of companies who know what they want and there are people who might be in a position of power and they don’t know what they want. Someone might be in a position of power but they don’t really know the voices, they don’t know the repertoire, sometimes they don’t even understand the range of the role vocally or where the voice hangs out.
For example, I know a mezzo- really a baby spinto contralto- with a really good top and the voice is solid all the way through, but she’s not someone who’s going to sing Cherubino and some of these light roles that you find in children’s operas. The voice just might not be as attractive to some companies. For her, that means she has to find other ways to keep her spirits up instead of focusing on the letters that she receives from companies about their interest.
Write to people directly
KH: What can singers do on an individual basis to help make and keep professional connections?
AA: Email the agents of your local professional company. You can look up the singers in the performance and see who manages them. Often managers will stop through town to see their artists. This is obviously less of a shot in the dark if you happen to be based in New York, where most agents are located. But it’s also important on this basis to take performance opportunities in New York when they present themselves.
Certainly, the first few times that you write to a manager or to an artistic administrator, you usually should not expect a response. The purpose is just to get your name across their desk or their inbox. You want to be polite and respectful. You don’t write a big long email. Emails are best if you can start by saying “So-and-so recommended that I write to you” and you hope that “so-and-so” resonates with the recipient of the message so that they’ll keep reading, because they get letters like that all the time. I don’t think it’s possible to make your email “pop” in a way that someone else’s can’t, so don’t use all caps or fancy colors. Just be polite, respectful, and brief.
Post-show events: etiquette
KH: Aside from more obvious gestures like meeting for coffee, what are some other ways to create career connections?
AA: You want to strive for as much actual facetime as possible – not the app – actual face-to-face time with somebody. This will give people the most acknowledgement and trust. You have to respect people’s time, of course and you don’t want to be a vulture, but the people who are a little bit pushy in any industry are often successful. It’s just a part of it. You want to try to be at the right events. It takes a proactive stance and there are going to be times when it might not work out.
Sometimes you might meet up with some people at an after-show event and it might lead to a gig. This isn’t the type of event that you pass out your business card at the bar, but you’re trying to have contact. It’s worth emphasizing that when you’re talking to people, yes, you can talk about yourself but listening and asking questions that you think are interesting to them is more appealing.
If I am going to talk to a company that is doing two to five productions a year, I would probably try to know what those are and think about which of those pieces strikes me as more interesting. What artists have come in that are more unusual? Have there been orchestrational differences? I would use these to ask them what their experience was like. What did they find out about this piece? You might say; “You worked with this composer. Did you find that interesting?” or “I saw you do this very unusual Bellini piece. Where did you get the parts to that?” You’re expressing interest in what they are doing rather than saying; “I’m really good at this and you really should hear me!” If you’re going inward, it probably won’t sit well with most people. And if you really love this art form for the right reasons, you want to talk about the art; the music itself and the stories and the way those are produced in compelling ways. But if you just want to talk about yourself doing the gig, then you almost should re-evaluate if this is what you should be doing. I really strongly believe that; the art is what’s important, not the idea of doing the art.