A Letter to Aspiring Opera Singers

Email a Friend

Dear Young Artist,

You have been on my mind a lot lately. You always are, of course, because you are the future of opera. Some people might say things are not the way they were, that there are no good singers nowadays. I disagree. I see and hear young artists all the time and can tell you that there are many fine voices out there, perhaps more than ever. What I find to be missing, and I am not alone in this, is that there are fewer teachers and managers around who are equipped to convey the great traditions of opera to you and help prepare and guide you through a career that is long, healthy, and rewarding in artistic and financial terms.

I was thinking of you on March 10, as I sat in the auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera House, listening to the ten finalists still standing from the more than 1,500 young singers who participated in 40 district auditions and 13 regional auditions. The finalists included six low male voices, three sopranos and one tenor. Of the 20 who came to New York to compete, there were eight sopranos, one countertenor, four tenors, two baritones, four bass-baritones and one bass. Alas, not a mezzo in sight.

All ten finalists in the Met Auditions had virtues and promise. Here are their names, with asterisks indicating who won. Matthew Anchel (bass); Michael Brandenburg (tenor)*; Brandon Cedel, (bass-baritone)*; Tracy Cox (soprano); Sydney Mancasola (soprano)*; Musa Ngqungwana (bass-baritone)*; Richard Ollarsaba (bass-baritone); Rebecca Pedersen (soprano)*; Thomas Richards (bass-baritone)* and Efrain Solis (baritone).

The competition was conducted by Marco Armiliato (right) and hosted by Sondra Radvanovsky, with an assist from Eric Owens, who bantered with Radvanovsky while the judges deliberated. Both artists, past winners of the Council Auditions, understood well the particular anxiety the finalists were experiencing.

Members of the audience lingered long after the results were announced to compare notes and debate the relative merits of the finalists. I am not here today to assess how the judges did. I have addressed previously the mysteries of judging at singing competitions. Some judges pick the best performers on the day they are heard while others try to surmise who has the most career potential and name winners as a form of encouragement. I think one of the singers who was not selected excelled at the competition and has great potential. I hope to see that person often on opera stages.

I want to give you some thoughts, which you may take or leave as you see fit, that were inspired by this competition. Then I will offer suggestions about things to think about as you develop your careers and personal lives.

In Competitions, Pick Arias That Suit You. When a judge hears you in a competition, he or she tries to envision you in the role the aria you are singing is from. If the character is considerably different in age or temperament from who you are, you will struggle to convince us that you are suitable for the part. Your teacher might say that the aria is right for your voice. That is good, but only a start. One of the winners, soprano Sydney Mancasola, has many gifts but sealed the deal by choosing arias by Marie (La Fille du Régiment) and Gilda (Rigoletto), both roles she will certainly be asked to sing one day soon.

Learn To Speak Languages, Not Just Sing in Them. Of the 20 arias sung in the competition, 11 were in Italian and three each were in French, English and Russian. No German! Young American singers are admired everywhere for the breadth of their training and their adaptability to many settings and theaters. What they are not always associated with (mistakenly or not) is emotional depth and insight. They show a general sense of what is happening in an aria or role because they have read a translation of the words in the libretto. They think “Rodolfo loves Mimì” or “Figaro is jealous” but don’t really know how and why.

I felt, as I listened to some of the competitors, that there was little real connection to what the arias were about. In addition, you need to work on certain sounds. The “R” in French and, especially, Italian, should not be so hard that it inevitably brings to mind the American heartland. The letter “E,” in Italian, is almost always pronounced as in “pray,” not “bee.” So amore is “ah-moh-ray,” not “ah-morree,” as even many established artists say.

Gestures Are Essential Only When They Are Essential. This might sound counterintuitive, but think about how you speak and move in real life. If you stop analyzing for a few minutes while you are in conversation, you will discover that your movements are born of what comes from deep within, from your essence (from which we get the concept of essential)--It is your being. As you develop an aria and a role, your body language will be more believable if you do not add gestures you see other people do. That is their essence, not yours.

Roles Have Arcs, But So Do Arias. To me, the weakest aspect of the singing among the competitors was the fact that most of them moved through arias as if they were going from one room to the next, sometimes going back to a room they were already in. I had little sense that the singers were aware that music and words build and change, reflecting an emotional or dramatic journey that are part of what you must convey. Breath, mood, physicality are all drawn from the notes and the words. And I don’t just mean the notes you are singing but the music the composer wrote for the orchestra. That is where you get many of your cues and insights.

Be Promiscuous. I am not referring here to your sex life, though don’t let me stop you [this is pleasure and learning too]. Rather, I want you to emulate a honeybee, going from flower to flower, drawing the best from what each has to offer. While you want to find a teacher who can teach you how to sing in healthy and insightful ways, so much of what you need to learn has to come from elsewhere. Someone can teach you about style, another about the subtleties of language, another about dancing and movement. Some of the best learning comes from people who might not be related to your profession but can impart things you can incorporate into your life and your roles.

Good teaching is about many things, one of them being to guide the student toward breakthroughs and then capitalize on them by reinforcing their worth and building on them. Sometimes the student hits plateaus before moving to the next level, which can happen when the work is put in and the teacher is able to discern where the problem is and teaches you how to overcome it.

Be Voracious. So much of what we are comes from what we learn on our own. Study poetry, not only so you can be inspired but also so you can pick up the cadences of language. Read novels written or set in the times your characters lived in. Always look at paintings and sculptures from the times and places your characters are from. To sing noble or humble characters from Spain, immerse yourself in Velazquez and Goya and you will find that your physicalization will show their influence. View foreign films in Italian, French, German and Russian to hear the rhythms of those languages as spoken by actors. Use the subtitles to improve your vocabulary.

Get Vocal and Mental Rest. This seems obvious, but many singers multi-task or push their bodies (which are their instruments) beyond healthy limits. This can take a toll and, if you are not careful, curtail your career.

Does a Manager Have Your Best Interests Or His/Her Needs In Mind? Managers come in two forms, those who represent you and guide your career, and those who run opera companies and deal with your manager. If you feel a role is not right, after reviewing the score and your connection to the character, don’t take it even if you are pressured to do so. Aïda, Amneris and Radames might be right one day, but don’t agree to do them until you are sure. The fact that your own manager wants to get a percentage of your fee or the opera manager needs someone immediately to step in to a production of Aïda does not mean that you should do it.

Identify Role Models. This does not mean you should become their friends or confidantes, but look at the careers of artists you admire and try to figure out how they made the choices they did. Some have publicly struggled while having to retool after doing the wrong repertory; Others, through sheer intelligence and professionalism, have forged careers that are products of what they understand as their essence rather than conforming to what they are told they should be. Models I might point to include Joyce DiDonato, Christine Goerke, Thomas Hampson and Eric Owens, though you should select artists with whom you feel an artistic and temperamental kinship.

There is a lot more to share, but the e-mailman is coming and I want to get this in today. Please send me questions on this page. If you don’t want to be identified, go by a monicker drawn from a role whose music and character you identify with.

Keep up the good work, Fred


Photos: 1) Marco Armiliato by Johannes Ifkovits 2) Joyce DiDonato at a Juilliard Masterclass