- OnStage Opera Columnist
Anyone who has ever been gearing up for a musical theatre audition knows the eternal struggle - finding that sweet spot of sixteen bars, in a ballad and an uptempo, contrasting styles, making sure they hear the true best of you. Will they hear your range? Will they see how well you emote? What monologue should you choose? What if they want a different sixteen bars?
GOOD NEWS, EVERYONE! Choose opera, and you'll never have to worry about choosing sixteen bars ever again!
Thats right, ladies and gentlemen, for the low, low price of a career in classical music, you too can be expected to have ready, for every audition, five to six full arias in the original language. Usually, at least one of these would have attached the accompanying recitative, which is basically the opera version of a monologue. At most auditions for competitions or young artist programs (YAPs), you have the first choice of aria, and the judges or audition panel will pick a second. Now, if they pick a second depends on a lot of things, only one of which is "Do they like me?"
Opera arias can vary vastly in length; we are talking as short as three minutes, to full arias and scenes between twelve and fifteen minutes long. You have a multitude of variables WITHIN each aria - whether is has cadenzas (extemporized elaboration at the end of a section or phrase; some singers write their own, some hire out the writing, some choose from 'traditional' variations); whether it is a baroque aria with an A-B-embellished A format; a bel canto aria with a cavatina and cabaletta (basically, a ballad section and an uptempo section, which is repeated with embellishments!); a 20th century aria, which can be long and notioriously difficult for your pianists; a...well, you get the point. An opera singer walking into an audition has to carefully choose their first piece with two thoughts in mind - "Will this show my best abilities if they don't ask for something else?" and "If they choose something else, will this be a sufficient contrast to my other offerings?" Often, these competitions or YAP auditions are also requiring your five arias to be in at least three of the major operatic languages - Italian, German, French, or English - so you are also grading on your diction and clarity of language.
And that is just for competition or general auditions! I asked Kathleen Berger of Berger Artist Management her thoughts on this topic. She had a very different viewpoint from the other side of the table. She says, "I don’t think that audition arias for mainstage, as opposed to young artist programs, need to show large amounts of contrast (five arias in 13 styles and 12 languages...). A mainstage package should focus on the two or three things the singer does better than anybody else. For example: let's say a lightish soprano's best things are high, arching lines and legato. I would want to see Sophie (Rosenkavalier), Giuletta, Pamina, maybe Susanna on her list. Not much contrast, but all playing to her skills and all things I can cast her in right now." So in this instance, your management (full disclosure - Kathleen is mine!) would want the arias that show YOUR PARTICULAR STRENGTHS, for roles you could sing onstage tomorrow (I call these your 'back pocket' arias)."
In a nutshell, the point is to highlight the fact that while opera and musical theatre increasingly share so much in the artistic and music world, the behind the scenes difficulties for an artist prepping audition is VERY different for both genres; each has their own difficulty, and their own benefit. I've only done three musical theatre auditions in the past several years (not counting operetta), and each time I found the challenge of cherry picking 16 bars MUCH more difficult than being able to offer a full piece! I have insane amounts of respect for actors and actresses in musicals who pack so much into such a short audition section.
There is one MAJOR benefit to opera auditions, though. 90% of the time....we don't have a dance call.