I spent an afternoon observing auditions for Oshawa Opera alongside Artistic Director Kristine Dandavino and Michael Robert-Broder. For the AD, an extra set of eyes and ears offer additional perspectives. Or as she herself said, she’s the one who makes the decisions. For me, it was a combination of education & fun.
The idea of the objective journalist might be dead, especially after the embedded journalists of the Iraq War. I don’t lose sleep worrying about objectivity as someone who sees how badly the boundaries have been blurred, between the observer and participant, between combatant & civilian. Nowadays just about anyone can carry a camera – their smart-phone—and become a journalist. A blog? Just another perspective among millions of others in every discipline under the sun.
I thought it might be fun to observe, while observing the diverse roles in play even during an audition.
The Sunday afternoon is broken into chunks of time, corresponding to appointment times for each audition. Seventeen different singers took the stage. Singers were asked to prepare a pair of contrasting arias. Once up there, the singer was asked to explain the meaning of what they were presenting: which meant an informal synopsis of the action.
Some were asked a pair of intriguing questions:
- Why would you like to sing with Oshawa Opera?
Answers varied, but were a chance to hear about the singer’s career and their motivations
- If we could produce any opera, and choosing something that you are capable of singing, what role would you choose to sing right now?
This is a great indicator of a singer’s self-knowledge. Kristine seemed especially impressed by singers whose self-understanding corresponds to their actual instrument. Or –a parallel concern—there’s a great deal of drama in singers aspiring to be something they are not, singing repertoire that is beyond them, or simply singing the wrong fach (vocal classification)
Some were asked their age. It’s not an unreasonable question, that may sometimes take a person by surprise. The thing is, some young singers are remarkably advanced for their age, so much so that you don’t recognize just how young they are, and so that info is very important to properly assess their singing. Two thirds of the singers were talented young singers still approaching their prime, being under the age of 35.
Although some of them brought their own piano player, most singers chose to use the piano player supplied by Oshawa Opera, who accompanied them on the Steinway in the Trinity St Paul’s Sanctuary on this Sunday afternoon.
I jumped up onto the stage on two occasions, to get a better sense of the experience ( and Kristine didn’t object):
- Once as a singer (to fill in when there was a no-show) I sang from “dalla sua pace”, Don Ottavio’s first aria in Don Giovanni. It was fun explaining the context and then singing. I wasn’t warmed up at all (choosing the moment on impulse), and perhaps fatigued from a very full day, when I’d subbed at the organ, at my church this morning. I stopped partway through when I cracked one of the notes and started to giggle, totally undisciplined. But while i am a church singer & a professional accompanist, i can’t pretend to be an opera singer, not by a long shot. Later I would hear a few singers go flat on high notes, making me regret in hindsight that I had stopped. I was very impressed that one of the singers wasn’t deterred by his flat notes. That’s brave, and a wonderful skill when I think about it: to persevere whether flat or sharp. We see politicians who blunder on even when they are obviously fibbing. To continue singing even when flat or sharp is a useful skill.
- Once I played the piano. I’d rehearsed this morning with Ramona Carmelly, who is a soloist at my church, and will be a soloist in the upcoming oratorio Abraham. This was enormously fun, playing first an aria from Samson et Dalila, then from Un ballo in maschera. Fun!!
From the stage you see a lot of empty seats. You hear the wonderful welcoming resonance of the space, that makes any voice sound better. Michael & Kristine are totally positive, encouraging the best of every performer. While this may not sound obvious, there are people who can be picky in auditions, who can make you feel uncomfortable in your performance. I believe –and Kristine also believes- in making the auditioning performer feel as welcome as possible. You want to find out the best they can offer. You don’t ever discover this if you make them feel inadequate.
A few of the young singers were significantly better on their second aria. If this were one of those cattle calls where you get swept aside after singing a mediocre performance, where a brusque “THANK YOU” ends your performance (thinking for instance of the charming fellow singing “a wandering minstrel I”, in his audition to play Hitler in The Producers), we would never have discovered those improvements.
Let me repeat, this is no cattle call, it’s a gentle and attentive process. With young performers this is particularly important, given that these are part of the apprenticeship of the singer, as they seek to cultivate genuine professionalism. And that begins with the artistic director & staff welcoming performers, in a collegial atmosphere. The community of art is best served by treating everyone with respect. Dandavino is a teacher so this is a perfect fit. Some of her comments after performances sound like voice lessons, as she gently comments on what the singer is doing, usually couched as a polite question about their intentions & objectives. It’s always respectful.
By the end I was profoundly exhausted, hours of listening and a little bit of performance. I emailed my notes off to Kristine, for what they’re worth as the perspective of another set of eyes & ears. It’s very exciting to have discovered a few more voices I’d never knew existed, alongside a few talents I’d already encountered. There are lots of good singers in this country. In a week when we heard of the demise of another opera company it’s good to know that people are still singing, that opera isn’t just something for the biggest cities.