Recent Winners of the Met National Council Auditions Tell All

Each year, singers across the nation prepare for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Many aspiring young opera singers are currently putting the finishing touches on their arias, choosing the best concert attire, and squeezing in final rehearsals with their pianists for what is arguably the most prestigious and highest profile vocal competition in the country. Classical Singer sought the advice of the five winners of the 2008 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, who share their experiences, their outlooks, and the keys to their success.

Last year was the first time tenor René Barbera entered the Met Auditions and he did so without strong expectations of how he might finish. “I certainly had high hopes,” he says, “but no expectations.”

Barbera spent this summer with the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program and is currently a member of Florida Grand Opera’s Young Artist Program. No stranger to competition, he has previously earned first prize in the 2007 Charlotte Opera Guild Competition as well as the 2006 Heafner/Williams Vocal Competition.

“I felt the [Met] auditions were a wonderful experience and definitely put some things into perspective for me,” he says. “I personally didn’t feel like there was much pressure. Everybody I encountered throughout the process was supportive, helpful, and encouraging.”

During the auditions, Barbera followed a regimen that has become standard for his performance days. “I woke up early daily, drank loads of water, steamed with a personal steamer, and did the usual warming up routine.” He made relatively few changes to this preparation throughout the auditions, except when early audition times made him vary his routine. “I made it a point to be up six hours before any singing had to be done, so this often meant waking up at 5 or 6 a.m.”

Despite his young age (23), Barbera credits much of his success in the auditions to being comfortable in the situation. “I didn’t think that this competition—win, lose, or draw—would ultimately define who I was, so I really just went out on stage and had a good time. How often does one get to sing on the Met stage at the age of 23? I just went out and enjoyed the surreal experience.”

In addition, Barbera says, “I was happy to discover that all the singers were very kind and honest. The atmosphere seemed to bring a little more pressure to the table, but that is natural, being that the stakes were raised by getting to that level.”

Looking back, Barbera feels he would change little about his experience.

“The Met competition is and will always be one of the most memorable points in my life. There are few things on the earth that will measure up to the fun, joy, and excitement of performing on the Met stage and competing at such a high level. Thanks to the auditions, a number of opportunities have been presented to me.”

Unlike Barbera, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson was familiar with the competition.

“I first tried the Met Auditions when I was 21 and in my senior year of college,” she says. “I knew I had five arias of contrasting style, so I thought I would give it a try and see how I stacked up to singers with whom I didn’t attend school.

“My greatest hope then was to not make a fool of myself and just make a good showing.”

Johnson certainly achieved her goal. She advanced to the regional level, where she earned third place. Johnson was pleased with her success her first time out, but, she admits, “The second time around, I had a lot more pressure on myself. I really wanted to do better than I had two years prior—and once you make it to New York you don’t want to go home.”

With degrees from Webster University in St. Louis and Rice University in Houston, Johnson made her principal artist debut this past summer with Opera Theatre of St. Louis as Nicklausse in The Tales of Hoffmann. Currently, she is in her first year of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.

Johnson approaches competitions as she does any other performance, which she says “tricks my brain into not thinking about who may be in the audience.” In her pre-audition routine, she says, “I try to sleep as much as I can, eat a big meal a few hours before I have to sing, and review all of my music and mentally perform it.” When she is able, Johnson takes time to sit at a piano to play through her scores, an activity that provides additional focus.

The only part of her “performance package” that required adjustments between the different levels of the auditions was her attire. Each venue and performance time called for something different, but Johnson took it all in stride. “I was always comfortable with what I wore and loved each outfit.”

As the auditions progressed, Johnson brought her arias back to her coach for additional attention and fine-tuning between rounds. Even so, she was careful to keep from overworking.

“I also made sure to find some time to rest from the stress of the whole process,” she says. “Taking a day completely off, I found, saved me.”

Johnson calls the atmosphere among the singers “extremely cordial—but it is a competition and everyone wants to win,” she continues. “Those of us who stayed for the Grand Finals concert got to know each other a little better and I still keep in touch with many of them. We had more of a chance to be friendly because our time together was longer.

“I always want people to sing their best, no matter what the circumstances, and I think everyone in our group felt the same way.”

Reflecting on the auditions, Johnson says, “The experience surpassed my expectation in terms of what I learned from so many wonderful people. I don’t get as nervous in auditions as I used to because I know that if I do all of the ‘leg work’ prior to the audition and just do what I know how to do, I will be fine. I might not get the job, but I will know that I did the best I could on that given day.

“Kathy Kaun, my teacher at the time, actually gave me the best bit of advice before I left for New York,” Johnson continues. “She said, ‘Now Jenn, you are going to get to New York and you are going to feel like everyone is judging you. Don’t worry, they are! So the sooner you can get over that and just do your thing, the better off you will be.’”

Mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas has also participated in the Met Auditions in previous years, earning an Honorable Mention in the Gulf Coast Region and an Encouragement Award from the West Coast Region.

“I was able to learn what repertoire I should sing for my voice type and age,” she says about the experience, “and was confident in my ability to impress the judges.”

Karanas is a first-year Adler Fellow with the San Francisco Opera, where she recently made her mainstage debut as Mamka in Boris Godunov. She has previously appeared as Vierte nackte Jungfrau in Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under James Levine, and as Tisbe in the Merola Opera Program’s La Cenerentola under Martin Katz.

“The auditions were definitely a worthwhile experience,” says Karanas. “They met and exceeded all of my expectations.”

“The pressure was immense,” she continues, but she credits the auditions for helping her learn “how to consistently be at my best under the extreme pressure of each round.”

Karanas used “centering techniques” to maintain calm, especially late in the auditions.

“For the finals my family was there, my friends were there, the competition was top notch, and I didn’t want to disappoint myself or anyone there supporting me.”

Karanas readily identifies “experience and determination” as the keys to her success, traits she learned from earlier years in the auditions. “From my previous attempts, I knew what the judges were looking for, as well as how to best present myself. I felt I was prepared and chose appropriate repertoire to best show off my vocal assets.” In doing so, Karanas adjusted her repertoire between the regional and the semi-final rounds. As she points out, “Song length was limited in earlier rounds, but later I could sing longer arias to showcase more of my strengths.”

In the future, Karanas hopes the auditions will “open doors to future engagements with the Metropolitan Opera and other companies around the world,” so she can continue “making a living doing what I love to do.”

Soprano Simone Osborne is another newcomer to the competition.

“I had never participated in the auditions before because I had never been old enough,” she says. “I wanted to apply the year before, but my 20th birthday fell too late in the year.”

Osborne was the 2007 winner of the International Czech and Slovak Voice Competition, but she admits that in the Met Auditions, “I never expected to move past Vancouver! Being a girl from a small music school on the west coast of Canada, I just wanted three new opinions about my singing to take back to the practice room.”

A recent participant in Ireland’s Wexford Opera Festival, Osborne is currently completing an artist diploma at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where she studies with Nancy Hermiston. This past summer, Osborne spent two months at the Music Academy of the West, where she had the opportunity to work with Marilyn Horne, of whom Osborne says, “She taught me to not only strive to be a great singer, but to be a great artist.”

While she was in New York City for the auditions, Osborne’s pre-audition routine began with a morning walk.

“I’m not a fan of singing in hotel rooms,” she says, “so I would usually go to the theater to warm up. My routine doesn’t change much between a performance and a competition. For both, there is a lot of time devoted to doing my hair and makeup, and [to] a good warmup. I also like to get to the theater quite early.

“One difference for competitions,” Osborne continues, “would be that I turn the monitors off in my dressing room. As much as I would love to listen to my colleagues, I need to focus on the task at hand and try to forget that it is a competition.”

When asked about her career highlights, Osborne quickly mentions, “Every single time I stepped onto the Met stage during the competition last year. Those are entrances that I will never forget!”

Baritone Edward Parks is a previous winner of the Marilyn Horne Competition, but he had not entered the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions before last year.

“I had thought about it in previous years but just never felt ‘ready,’” he says. “Even last year I almost didn’t enter, but Doris Cross—head of the Yale Program—called me and said, ‘I really think you should enter.’ Boy, am I glad I did.”

Parks holds degrees from the Oberlin Conservatory and the Yale School of Music and is currently in the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.

Parks’ pre-competition routine is not unusual. “[At] some point during the day I sit and speak through my arias, just to ease my mind. I try not to eat [for] at least two or three hours before—I sing better on an empty stomach. I stretch and drink lots of water. I usually look at a competition like a performance: I’m still a man trying to convey an emotion.”

Stomach flu complicated the first round of the auditions for Parks, but he was able to give a convincing performance despite not feeling his best. “I pulled through it,” he says.

Once in New York City, Parks noted that the singers were all “very focused, but we still were all very friendly to each other. I mean, we had all made it to the finals of the Met competition. It was a new experience for all of us.”

As one of the keys to his success in the auditions, Parks credits “being confident that I could win.

“Walking on stage (whatever stage it was),” he says, “looking out at the judges, smiling, and in my head say[ing] to them, ‘Just wait [until] you hear this.’

“One thing that I really remember well,” he continues, “is [the time] after the finals and all the craziness. I went back to my hotel and just sat there in the quiet. I just started laughing. I laughed so hard it was almost like crying. Up until then I didn’t have a moment to really take in winning or anything. I was just taking in the realization that one of my dreams had just come true. It was a moment that I will never forget.”

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /