A Letter to Aspiring Opera Singers

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 - 03:00 PM

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


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Comments [18]

Christy from United States

What a wonderful article. Thank you for writing it. I am not a singer but love reading anything about singing. I have recently watched some wonderful masterclasses by Dame Kiri te Kanawa, Joyce DiDonato and Renee Fleming on youtube. All three are so supportive and yet impart so much. Kiri, in particular, repeatedly talked about creating an arc in an aria or song. I see that there are many more like this now available online. Perhaps young singers might find these interesting?

Nov. 21 2014 11:54 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

To all these excellent suggestions I would add and urge young singers to listen to and familiarize themselves with legendary artists who have made recordings of the operas you hope to sing. There's nothing like knowing what the foundation is of the grand profession you've chosen. That applies to any field, but especially to music.

Nov. 21 2014 06:45 AM
R Mercedes

Excellent experience taking a weeklong intensive vocal workshop with Luciana Serra at her "L'Arte Del Belcanto" studio in Tesserete Switzerland. She is as generous, precise, and outstanding a vocal teacher as she was an opera star. Google her name and her academy should pop up. Well worth the trip. Superb technical training.

Mar. 27 2014 02:01 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

PRIZE WINNING is the most sure-fire method to accelerate one's career success. The earlier one starts winning competitions the surer one's fame and financial rewards. The focus must be on improving and widening one's repertoire of possibilities to mature one's art. There must be a passion, a dedication, to constantly seek to improve. If one truly has the desire and strives with serious workouts to develop skill and stamina then success should surely be obtainable. STAGE PRESENCE and body language that reveals an interpretive ONENESS with the work performed besides a handsome or beautiful physique DO positively rate the performer. In the CLASSICAL field especially OPERA the timbre, musicianship, dramaturgy verity, projection, stamina and rarity of the voice quality SHOULD be the primal factor. In my own case, I work out daily at a gym, I run in scheduled races besides on a rubberized outdoor track, eat properly and sleep adequately. All these factors definitively affect one's appearance and stamina. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, opera composer ["Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare"] and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where vocal technique for declamation in plays and singing technique plus all the roles of Wagner and Shakespeare are taught. www.WagnerOpera.com

Aug. 27 2013 05:25 PM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

I have just seen this blog for the first time,so allow me to put some final punctuation on this discussion.Fred's advice is a good starting point,and there are correct evaluations of the MET finals as well.The absence of a German selection in a major international house is a substantial oversight.There can never be too much of an accent on good diction.Fred mentioned one error in Italian,his strong suit,but there are many more crimes committed against the French language.One caused by well-meaning coaches is pronouncing the "ay" sound of an e with the "accent aigu" as "ee".Please make sure that your French is policed by someone legitimately familiar with the language.

Aug. 24 2013 12:08 PM

I'll take Nelson Eddy any day!!

Jun. 16 2013 06:42 PM

I'll take Nelson Eddy any day!!

Jun. 16 2013 06:42 PM
Adina from Syracuse, New York

Dear Mr. Plotkin,

I love reading your articles-I check this website daily. I especially enjoyed this article and found it to be very informative. I would love to see more about aspiring opera singers! Do you have any advice on college auditions? I am a junior in high school(soprano) and will be auditioning in a few months. Thank you :)

Apr. 25 2013 05:03 PM
Fred Plotkin from Oxford, England

Dear Don Giovanni in Central/Eastern Europe. Thanks for your comments. I like your term "operatic ecosystem." Indeed, I do try to speak to every reader personally, even though there are so many of you--for which I am glad. About going into the provincial theaters in Italy, I refer you to my article from late December (I believe, or perhaps early January) about the Circuito Lombardo in 4 theaters in Lombardia. The article is called Planet Opera: Brescia. These theaters use a lot of young singers, especially Eastern Europeans, who enter their concorso (competition) and, if they succeed, are invited to take part in one or more productions and gain valuable experience. Italy is complicated, always, but more so now. But I think is a good route in to start if you are a young singer. You will gain valuable experience in language and general contact with Italian culture. Best of luck.

Mar. 19 2013 01:32 PM
Don Giovanni from Central/East Europe

Dearest Mr. Plotkin,

I really like reading here, especially when the articles are addressed to me.. :) (Well, you write so nicely, I feel it goes to every singer individually.)I'm a baritone. I apart from my learning songs and arias and studying baritone roles (and not only) and working with my professor/teacher, I try to read in here about what's going on, who has what to share and anything I can learn to build my awareness.

Where I am right now, it's difficult to have a realistic idea of the operatic ecosystem (if I may call it that), unless I am reading from you and some other writers.

I can only say a big "Thank you" to you,and recommend you to others who I know may be interested.

I am hoping that soon I can read more about how singers can move from academies/universities/private teachers in Eastern Europe to provincial theaters in Italy for example, as this is a really important consideration apart from the usual desire for and dreaming about the bigger grand theaters of the world.

Best wishes and warm regards!

Mar. 17 2013 09:33 AM
Laura Jordan from Tennessee

Thank you so much, Mr. Plotkin. It's always wonderful to see people with so much experience reaching out to the younger generation of Opera! This information has helped me tremendously. I will take this and remind myself to be my own singer/financial adviser.

Thanks again and I can't wait to read your next article!

Mar. 14 2013 11:30 PM

Wonderful words to live by, Fred, for anyone.

Mar. 14 2013 09:48 AM
Fred Plotkin from New York

Thanks, readers, for your comments. I plan to write another article to aspiring performers as my thoughts crystalize, but want to answer Laura Jordan to some degree. The basic answer to your question is that very few people can control "what's to come." We can plan and prepare for certain things. Be disciplined enough, even when you are young, to take 15-20% of every dollar earned and put it in safe, long-term investment. This is one hedge against "what's-to-come." Before investing, first build an emergency fund equal to at least 8 months of living expenses for your current needs. Then put money aside in long-term investment. You are self-employed and can create a SEP-IRA account, different from an IRA. In terms of "what's to come" I recommend thinking of time as a precious commodity. Use it richly and well. Time you give to others is a gift, as is time they give to you. Time for yourself (study, rehearsal, artistic enrichment) comes as something apart from time for others, even family. See my article from last week about singers who go it alone for more thoughts on that. Use each day incredibly well, never think of time as something to be killed and, I predict, you will never feel boredom. Even if you cannot control what other people or Nature do, you use your time enriching and deepening yourself, which makes you more interesting and appealing to others. And, in terms of rejection, I can tell you that I have been self-employed for 25 years and have worked in the arts for 40. I have had a fair amount of success, but much more rejection. You know I love baseball. Even the most successful hitter only succeeds 4 times out of 10. Most do not do nearly so well. And yet they practice and work constantly to hone their craft. That is what performing artists do too. But no matter how hard you work, you will encounter lots of rejection. People in charge can always reject others. If they have a heart, it is heavy as they do the rejection. If they don't have a heart, you lucked out by not having to deal with them in a work setting. The fact is that you will be rejected more than you are "accepted" even if you are at the top of your game. You just may not know that you are being rejected. Don't sweat what you cannot control. If you and 20 other singers audition for a role, all but one will not get it. Don't think of that as rejection. You just did not get the role. There are many subjective reasons why a conductor or casting person selected someone else, often having nothing to do with you. It might be that the height, timbre or temperament of the tenor already hired for the cast is such that they are looking for someone who will have chemistry with him. If you do not get the role, that does not mean you are not good. It means you were not deemed the right one at that time in that place on that day. (continued in box below)....

Mar. 14 2013 01:53 AM
Fred Plotkin from New York

(continued from above) But always be completely, lovingly honest with yourself. Do not try to be Carmen or Azucena if you don't have those skills. Find out who you might be right for (Cherubino, Ariodante, Charlotte?) by studying the music, reading their text, looking at the weight of the orchestration, and listening to recordings (YouTube too) to others who sing that music. The point is, every artist and creative person must work incredibly hard ever day making him or herself more talented, cultured and special. Not every person who would hire you will recognize that, but you will acquire a richness and complexity that will make you a better, more contented and insightful person. This is something you can use in an artistic career as well as any other pursuit. And this achievement is something to be proud of and something no one can ever take away from you. Finally, and what I am about to say is neither cliched, trite nor arrogant: There is absolutely nothing wrong with loving oneself. In fact, it is incredibly healthy. There will always be people who are jealous or obstructionist. Some of them have sharp elbows and are clever about getting ahead. But they are almost always insecure and self-loathing and they envy your serenity and fulfillment as a human being. Take my word.

Mar. 14 2013 01:48 AM
Michelle from Chicago

Wonderful article! As a singer, voice teacher and mother of aspiring vocalist, I appreciated your truthfulness. Concerning the lack of skilled teachers, there are many skilled teachers teaching the next generations of great singers. I am sorry to say that there are 3 times as many so called voice teachers that are leading great talent down the incorrect path. Just because you feel you have a "pretty " voice does not mean you can teach!!! This is the problem.

Mar. 13 2013 11:14 PM
Laura Jordan from Tennessee

Hello Mr. Plotkin,

I am an aspiring Opera singer (mezzo-soprano, by the way. haha!) and thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. It's surprising that people believe there is less vocal talent in this generation and I strongly disagree with them as well. I believe our generation is full of talented and possibly even more motivated singers than ever before.

I do have one question for you. As I continue my career as a performer, I find myself becoming more and more afraid of "what's to come" and even the possibility of rejection scares me a ton. Is there any advice you can give about facing rejection and moving forward from that? It's common knowledge to be a "tough singer", but sometimes it becomes difficult.

Mar. 13 2013 09:03 PM
William V. Madison from New York City

This is wonderful! Most especially your identification of the journey within each aria. (Or within the good arias, anyway.)

Yet as for the selection of music that's a good fit for the singer, I've been surprised on my few visits to competitions and auditions that very, very few young singers seem to have any idea at all which music does more than show off one or two particular vocal qualities or techniques of which they're proud. Again and again, I've found myself wondering what on earth the singers were thinking when they chose these particular arias.

This reality actually reinforces the importance of finding good teachers, managers, and advisers (and maybe even one or two good critics), because the gift of hearing oneself accurately, of understanding one's potential and one's stage persona, would seem to be even rarer than the gift of a beautiful voice.

I hope that many young singers have the chance to read your letter, Fred Plotkin, and that they take your advice to heart.

Mar. 13 2013 05:32 PM
Sarah E. from The Bronx

what, no altos? (and no, mezzos are not altos.) Why was there only one countenor(and he did not win) in the mix? one of the reasons why may be there is no outreach for the lower woman range. Altos are part of the music mix too, and not only get the short end of the stick, they get no end of it. Mezzos are sopranos who sing high G insterd of high C, altos do neither. Plese give some love to the step-sister of voice music and spotlight some great altos and countenors of the past, now, and future.
Thank You.

Mar. 13 2013 11:06 AM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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