The opera audition season is in full swing! I hope it’s going really well for you and you feel good about your auditions.
Singers are so often unsure about how little or how much to “act” their arias in auditions. Auditions are their own crazy animal and can seem to unrealistic. I remember hearing that quite a bit - “auditions are so unnatural.... so awkward...”. Let’s try to think differently. If you think they are unnatural and awkward, you will come off as such. It is up to you to make them feel as normal and natural as possible. It may take some time, but it is so worth it!!
Now keep in mind, I know sometimes we are asked to learn a new aria for a particular audition or have to cram in memorizing it before anticipated. Do what you can with these ideas and then go back and really hone them as you keep working on the aria.
Authentic Verbal Life
First of all, and surely I’m not saying anything new, you must have your music translated word for word and know exactly what you are saying!! If it’s part of a scene and there are some lines of another character or a chorus being played by the pianist, you must obviously have those lines translated word for word as you may still be reacting to them! Even if your character is unaware of what is being said, you, as the singer, should know! Really understand what is being said, not just a general idea. PLEASE do not just find a libretto somewhere and think it will be correct, or assume the translation in your opera score is exactly what you are saying in the exact time! Not only is that not always (if ever) possible, the translated sentences written are sometimes not even close to the original text! I know Nico Castel has done much of the work for you on a huge array of operas. This is such a gift and a time saver!! However, maybe I'm old fashioned, but I don't think it’s such a bad idea to still translate as much of the work as you can, if you don’t speak the language. It will help with memorizing as well as seeing more possible meanings and nuances for the words and sentences and helps in understanding the grammar - even if you look up words after writing down Nico’s translation.
* I once did an Italian opera in which the director showed up without having a direct translation of the opera; one day s/he actually quoted something from a house libretto (for those of you who may not know, opera houses used to sell libretti of operas before super titles became the norm). S/he tried to direct us in
a particular scene and didn’t even know exactly what we were saying to each other! I can still hear it: “Ok, let’s start from ‘that’s a good one’....” We all looked at each other... huh?? :-). But I digress....
Whether your aria is in a foreign or your native language, take the time to really talk through it - understand the accents, the phrasing, the flow of the language when spoken, the idioms as best you can - before you add the music. Your character will then have an authentic “verbal life” and it will help you look and sound like that character truly would. It is also a good idea to go back to your old arias now and again and look over them with a fresh outlook; go back over the words. Chances are, you’ll find you understand what you’re saying better than when you first learned and memorized it and you may have a better or different feel as to how it would be said. Go back and just speak through the words now and again, to keep it fresh and realistic! It’s easy to get into habits of putting ac-cents on the wrong syl-la-ble after singing an aria the same way over time. Also, your characterization and feelings may have changed over time.... as you, as a person, have changed over time. You may discover a new or different emotional choice for your character’s actions. Also, what is your (character’s) accent?! Do you have a British accent? Is it cockney? If you’re Southern, are you from Mississippi or Texas? Are you Italian American from Red Hook, NY?
Know the entire opera!
Please do not go into an audition without knowing the entire opera! That includes after your aria, as well (well, unless maybe you die at the end of your aria.... :-) HA! But it’s still nice to know what happens! :-) (There are operas, however, in which your character comes back as a ghost - so just make
sure! :-) ). Today’s generation of singers have SO much material at your fingertips with YouTube, Wikipedia, digital access to libraries, the entire web. You must know what has taken your character to this exact moment. Why are you saying what you are saying? What has happened to you leading right up to this moment? What happened to you yesterday, last month, last year, ten years ago? What is your relationship with the person or group of people with or about whom you are speaking? What is the event about which you are speaking? Is there a history of the family, clans or country of which you (your character) would have an intimate knowledge? You must know those things!! They affect everything you say and do! Just as it does in your own life. This bring us to..
Details of your character
How old are you (your character)? Aside from just your age, what YEAR/ERA is it? What country? What station? Are you nobility? A slave? A servant? If a servant, are you well respected and liked or looked down upon, or ignored? Did you have an easy childhood? Has there been any abuse? Can you read? Do you have arthritis? Or good ol’ consumption? Have you really studied the moves of a real toreador? All of these things affect the way you carry yourself.
* I sang “Frasquita” in a particular production, and the gentleman singing the Toreador in my cast was from Spain and had actually studied to be or had been a real toreador! Let me tell you, people’s eyes were just drawn to him, he moved so beautifully!
If your character is a widow; how old are you? Or you’re a Count, how old are you? Your idea of a widow or a count may be an “older” person, but he or she may very well be your age, perhaps in a different era or perhaps today. What are the nuances? What kind of clothes do you wear? This makes a huge difference in the way you would move. Are you wearing a corset, panniers, tights, a powdered wig, army boots, bib overalls, a mini skirt, are you barefoot?....)
These are things you should know or have decided upon. If something is not given to you, discuss with your coach your own ideas, you should be as complete a character/person as you can be. Not only will that help you in your acting decisions, it will help ease your nerves, as you are more, if not completely, into your character....
* Food for thought: Think about the arias with which you will be auditioning. You bring four to five arias and you can’t dress for each of them, obviously, but is there a common characteristic in at least some? With what are you opening? (I’d say that is the most important thing to consider). Is there some way you can dress that helps you be in character? Obviously pants for women singing pants roles. I always envied the mezzos. :-). (I know, I know, not only mezzos get the pants roles...). Do you have a dress that works best for your first character? Is she a young, happy, easy-going girl? Do you have something light and flowing? Is she a strict grandmother? Perhaps something with a high neck?
*One of my favorite auditions was years ago for a man known for being very kind. I forget how it even came up, but he ended up letting me take my shoes off to sing “Ain’t it a Pretty Night” from SUSANNAH!! As I’m known to do, I got chatting with the gentleman and he said, “Well go ahead and take your shoes off! Susannah is often barefoot!” I DID!! (I was hired some years later for a different role and he said, “I knew since then that you were perfect for this particular role...”). It was one of my favorite auditions!! :-).
I am not suggesting you go in and ask if you can take your shoes off!!! How I wish I could!!:-). However, don’t go in there with 4 inch high heels if you are singing an aria in which the character is either barefoot or in a flat, “every day” shoe!! I’m not saying to come in wearing a long gown if your character would be in a long gown, but perhaps a little longer, dressy dress?
Now, some people may disagree with me on this and that’s obviously fine. If your agent/manager feels strongly about dressing a certain way, by all means, discuss it with her or him! I hope you have a relationship that you can discuss things. My point is to help you “feel like” your character as much as you can. This will help you be in character and it may even send some subliminal messages to the company for whom you are singing! :-) (Ya nevah knaow....!) :-) I don’t feel super strongly about this, but it’s just something to think about. Never be dressed inappropriately! That, I do feel strongly about! However, dress in what makes you feel good, sure of yourself and if possible, helps you feel a little bit in character.
Fourth Side (and First, Second and Third....)
Another helpful skill for your auditions is to know your character’s surroundings. Where is your character at the moment of this aria or scena? Are you in an old pub? A jail cell? Outside under the stars? Knowing and feeling your (you, as your character) surroundings will help you with any kind of audition scenario, especially since you won’t always know the room in which you will be singing. Your audition may be in a recital hall with steep theatre seats right in front of you and one person listening up above you, or a small room with four to six people behind a table about ten feet from you, or the actual house for which you are auditioning. It’s helpful to know your (as your character) surroundings of the aria, even if you make them up yourself (as opposed to having been in or seen a production from which you recall the setting, or the librettist being specific with details).
In which room of the castle are you? Is it damp, dark and you don’t know where you are? Is it fire lit? Are you comfortable as it is “home” to you? Have you (yourself) ever been up to the Cloisters or in an actual castle in Europe? Put yourself in one of the rooms or in the gardens. Are you outside under a beautiful night sky? Have you (yourself) been out camping or did you grow up in the country and you can remember back to that experience and visualize it so clearly that it makes you feel calm just from the peace it brought you when you were really there? Or perhaps you’re afraid of “what is out there” and/or you are in hiding. Is it cold out? Are you in a prison cell? What’s in it? An actual cot with a toilet and graffitied walls or a bed of wet straw and perhaps a chamber
pot, with wet, damp walls that are either in the basement chambers or a cave? Have you, yourself, ever been in a cave, either hiking or on a guided tour? Do you remember how that felt?
Along with knowing your surroundings, comes knowing what is on your “fourth side”. The “fourth side” actually takes some practice but I’d like to touch on it. Without actual practice, don’t make yourself crazy. (If it seems too confusing, forget about it and just focus on the surroundings and the atmosphere). That fourth side is also a part of your surroundings I’m talking about. It’s another tool that could help you be secure in your character and give you “privacy”, hence being in the moment and be your character. It will give you something in your mind other than “who’s out there” - as in, for whom you’re singing. Not that you should be concentrating on what your mind’s eye sees, but you (your character) know where you are and what is around you.
When you’re practicing or recalling your performances, think about what is in front of you (character). What is on that castle wall? Is it one of the Unicorn Tapestries? Which one? Is it the night sky, full of stars? Are there mountains in the distance? Have that vista in your mind’s eye, whether it’s from recalling actually being in the mountains or studying mountain pictures or really engrossing yourself in a movie with mountains.
Are you in a prison cell? What do you see outside those prison bars? Is it a constantly blinking light that keeps you up? Or a lit torch that is your only light amid damp cave walls? You don’t have to focus on them, per say. They are only there for your private knowledge, not of primary importance. But if you “know” there are two torches in front of you, “place them” on the coat hook or window sill on the back of the audition room and just know they’re there.
If, however, you are singing about mountains, really see those mountains in the upper corner of the room or the back row of the theatre or that light in the front of the balcony!
* I sang a competition or audition one time in which I sang “Ain’t it a Pretty Night” from SUSANNAH. A woman came up to me after with a lovely smile and said, “I could just SEE those mountains when you were singing!! You made me feel like I was there!” I didn’t get the gig! LOL but I DID fulfill what we are meant to do: I sincerely moved this woman.
Being in the Moment
By the time you are offering your aria, you will have decided upon various acting choices. Now to keep them fresh! (Not that you don’t change your acting choices as you grow). As happens in auditions, you will do the same arias again and again. If you’ve really done your homework and feel secure in who you are (as your character), it is OK to “do the same thing” every time you offer the aria. It’s not a bad idea to have your aria staged, whether it’s by yourself or someone else - and that could be exact or just coached. Either way, know what you will do, but offer it with spontaneity! Every thought within your aria must come to you as if for the first time! You, as the singer, know what happens at the end of the aria and the end of the opera; but you, as the character, do not! You, as your character, have expectations, but you don’t know the actual outcome. This is one of the many tricky aspects of being an opera singer: to be thinking ahead technically but being completely in the moment, acting-wise. If you are not in the moment, character-wise, you will be very mechanical in your actions and “showing” that you are acting, or not doing anything at all. Again, talking through your aria helps with this immensely! Put yourself in that position, talk through your aria and practice “talking” to the person, or talking through the “thought” (since arias are often times basically thinking out loud or talking to yourself.) You talk to yourself all the time, right? Pay attention to what you do when you’re talking to yourself or thinking things to yourself. You may do things absent-mindedly that you never noticed before. Given the period of the piece, perhaps your character would do the same or similar movement? Do you play with your hair or a necklace or a ring? Do you absent-mindedly scratch your beard or rub your hand over your head and down onto the back of your neck and then hold it there? What is the natural way you touch your chin when thinking - both standing up and sitting down? Really pay attention to these and incorporate these movement into your arias when possible and appropriate.
Oh my gosh, this is a bit long. I hope I didn’t lose your interest! I’d toyed with the idea of doing this in parts, but I’m sure I’ll come up with other ideas as time goes on, anyway. I thought I should get this out before audition season ends! :-) I do so hope something in here resonates with you, if even one idea. I hope you are all able to take control of your auditions and feel fantastic about all of them! Maybe even have fun!
Toi toi toi for an amazing audition season!!
“Play the moment, not the story” -Author Unknown