Find out what a general and artistic director is looking for in your auditions and his advice for singers post-pandemic.
Alan Held is one of the world’s leading bass-baritones. In May 2020, he took over as general and artistic director of the Wichita Grand Opera (WGO). What is it like to transition from singer to administrator, and how does he envision guiding the next generation of opera singers during a pandemic?
What is it like for you on the other side of the audition table?
There is more stress to be on the singer’s side of the table. Having said that, there are still pressures on both sides. I know the anxiety of the person auditioning. I know that they want to make an impression, to show me what they can do.
I wish they wouldn’t sing to impress, only to express. I want singers to know, however, that there is great pressure on those hearing the audition, too. I feel a tremendous responsibility to this art form and to each person that is attempting to have their niche in it. It is an honor to represent an over-400-year-old art form and to help nourish it during these extremely difficult times.
I’m also still singing. I know the pressures of auditioning and performing, of having a life both on and off the stage, of wondering where the paychecks are coming from—and if there will actually be any. All of that anxiety is brought into an audition. If I can do anything to help ease some of that anxiety and just let the singer know that I’m on their side for the next 10–15 minutes, then I’m going to do it.
Hopefully, something will come out of the audition. Each one is a learning experience. I want it to be the best learning experience that will hopefully lead to even more.
You are not going to find many people who are a bigger advocate for young singers and for opera. Anyone hearing an audition must know exactly this: whatever the condition of the auditionee’s talent, they are still artists. They deserve respect.
Did you always know you’d move into administration?
I never set out to be an administrator but did have the inspiration of some great administrators over the years. I saw how some of these excellent men and women of the arts cared for the people working for them. I saw how they were attentive and nurturing while at the same time provided the correct amount of business savvy, creativity, and resourcefulness. I took a lot away from the relationships that I’ve been fortunate to have built into my career.
I’ve drawn upon all of that and I will always depend on those 34 years to continue to do what I can to make sure opera is visible, invigorating, and for all. I have done just about everything possible within an arts organization over the years: singer, director, conductor, stage manager, you name it. Gesamtkunstwerk is a big deal to me, not only in production but in how the entire process, from the first audition to the closing night and beyond, transpires. It also is a major part of what I try to do in my positions at Wichita State University [associate professor of voice and director of opera], the Wichita Grand Opera, or as an opera singer.
How does being a performing artist inform the types of things you look for from singers during an audition?
I listen for the things everyone hopefully listens for: quality of tone, intonation, sense of rhythm. I also listen for character in the voice and body. I want to hear unique voices as well as those that are more traditional, but I wish so many didn’t often sound the same. I want to be able to hear a bit of the individual in their singing.
The voice is the only internal instrument. All other instruments produce their sound from outside the body. This makes us truly special. That individual nature often makes singers feel exposed. Good! Be exposed.
Share exactly everything that makes you who you are—what makes your voice unique. Don’t shy away from that. This is what I’ve often tried to bring to my own performances. I don’t want my roles to look like somebody else’s performance.
I certainly don’t want my singing to sound like anybody else’s. I truly want to hear that which makes a singer want to be a singer. I want heart and soul. I want all of the joy and all of the pain. I want singers to be themselves.
What do you like the most about being on the administrative side of things?
To quote “Hannibal” Smith from The A-Team: “I love it when a plan comes together.” Putting together productions is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. But, in some ways, it’s even more difficult. In a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces come already picked in one box.
With planning a production, you have to go out and find the various pictures and then hope that they can all fit together. Most of the time, with the right evaluation, you can get the right pieces and a great picture is then painted. There are times, however, when it just doesn’t quite come together. That’s fine; I own a heavy hammer and usually get things to fit one way or another.
Many companies are moving toward a resident artist model, such as the Atlanta Opera and the Atlanta Opera Company Players. Do you rely heavily on local talent for WGO?
I think the resident artist model works well in a lot of cases, but I find that it is also shutting out a lot of singers who may be just past that stage. We need to provide opportunities for singers at all levels. The transition from young artist or resident artist to a full-time principal singer is tough.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve done a lot of work with young singers. There is some amazing talent just waiting for the next stage of YAPs or a resident artist program. The problem comes when they are finished with that. Then what? They need safe places to try out their repertoire.
We are trying to be that place. And, yes, we do rely on local talent for the WGO. Some of that local talent comes through our universities. Wichita has always been a hotbed for young operatic talent—or at least it has been for Sam Ramey, Joyce DiDonato, me, and so many others.
What do you envision for the partnership between WGO and WSU in the future?
How our partnership works out is still in the planning stages. Right now, I’m already using WSU students for various things at the WGO. I want to broaden that. We also have an outstanding opera chorus at WSU that is ready to just slip in along with our regular chorus members at the WGO. And, even better, they get paid to do it.
But I’d like to see more opportunities to coordinate with individual singers as well. There is no reason why some of our fine graduate students can’t sing smaller roles with the professional company. Coordination and communication are the key. Since I am heavily involved with both entities, we’re setting up something that works fairly seamlessly.
Many companies have pivoted to providing online content during the pandemic and some are calling for reform in the opera industry in terms of providing “unconventional” listening and viewing opportunities for patrons. What does WGO see for its future in terms of the type of content it produces?
I’m sure we will have some components that are online. However, I am of the strong belief that we need live singing and live audiences. We have a lot of good weather here in Wichita and some fine outdoor venues. I want to utilize those.
I also am not against reducing, for now, the size of our audiences and then do more performances so that we can reach people live and in person. The voice needs to be heard unencumbered by electronics. Only then can you get the real effect. Opera singing has never been about viewing it from a few inches away. The voices and artists need space—and the audience as well.
What advice do you have for singers who are holding on through this economic crisis in the hopes that they can launch a career post-COVID-19?
It is very hard to give advice right now. If anyone says they know what this will all look like on the other side, they aren’t telling the truth. The best advice I can give now is the best advice I could give at any time: be diligent, don’t despair, work hard.
This is not the time to shut down and not sing. This is not the time to think that singing will never return. This is the time to prepare. This is the time to make yourselves the best singers and actors you can possibly be.