So, you’ve started singing in some houses, you’ve finished a young artist program, or you are embarking on your career. Things seem to be going well. But do you have a plan?? What types of roles do you see yourself doing next year, the two years after, in five years? What will you be known for at the end of your career? Going back to the same «what are your outstanding qualities» question — what are the things that are unique about your voice or your musicality, and what roles are going to show these off? Which of these roles do you really connect with from a dramatic perspective? You can be drawn all day to roles that appeal to your dramatic senses, but this is OPERA, not just THEATER. What not only just suits your voice but stands out in your voice is going to be the vehicle of your career.
Everyone advised me at the beginning of my career to specialize, and I resisted. In school, in competitions, and even auditions, we are required to be a well-rounded musician, showing that we can shine in EVERY type of music and style.
Once you get into a career, you need to throw away this idea that «being a versatile artist» is a great selling point. It is not, and nobody shines in everything — not Thomas Hampson, not Renee Fleming, not Natalie Dessay… Versatility confuses people who want an easy «product» to buy — it doesn’t mean anything to them. I have resisted so long in specializing that maybe it is too late now.. It is not saying that you are selling out to concentrate on one thing for a while, so you can «make your name.» It is, in marketing terms, defining your product. And in personal and musical terms, it means defining who you are, getting to know yourself and your strengths and weaknesses, and only underlining your strengths! Once you have established yourself with name recognition and reputation, and people know you as «the best» at something, you can do whatever you want to do. Then people will comment on your wonderful versatility, but not before you have established your «brand name» first. You do not want to buy diapers from Gerbers, nor baby food from Pampers, although in the long run, they are probably run by the same company.
What makes you shine?
So figure out what it is that makes you shine. Do not take it for granted that just because people say «oh you’d make a great Adina» that you will… Ask them exactly what it is in the role that they think would make your voice shine and see if it is true for you. If they can’t come up with specifics (and things in the ARIAS that will make you shine) then either the role may not be for you, or you need to be asking someone else for advice on these things. Maybe even ask YOURSELF! What a thought.
A role is the sum of its parts. Just because you like one aria does not mean the entire opera will suit you well. Make sure ALL the arias do something for your talents, or at least see if you can BEND the ones that aren’t exactly showing you off to your talents. See if there are things in the ensembles that really suit your singing and temperament. Sometimes we like an opera because we know one aria from it. But that one aria is just one moment in the development of your character. You need to be able to not only sing but to SHINE in the ENTIRE opera. ESPECIALLY your last appearance in the opera — this is what sticks with the audience the most. You can be forgiven some weaknesses early on in an opera if you make up for it with a fantastic ending. But if you kill yourself doing wonderful things in the beginning of the opera, only to fizzle in the last act, your audience will be thinking of that as they leave the theater, not that you showed great promise in the beginning.
Choose your roles well. And SAY NO in a nice way if something is not particularly suited to you. I have told many theaters the following, with total sincerity, not haughtiness or cynicism — «I just can’t do justice to that part, although I would LOVE to sing in your theater. I wouldn’t want to render that DISservice to your theatergoers by doing something for them that is not just WONDERFUL. » And it is true. I have, however, accepted some engagements either for the money or for the prestige of the theater or because someone guilted me into it, or because I just had the free time and was afraid to say no…. and invariably, I should’ve followed my first instincts. Thus, a very stinky Norina at New York City Opera, an even stinkier Fiakermilli at San Francisco Opera…. etc. etc. I would’ve been better off saying NO. I still flinch at some of the critiques of these operas! Don’t let it happen to you! Learn from MY mistakes, if you can!! PLEASE!!
Here is one example from my career: Adina in L’Elisir d’amore. It’s a really nice role, and I remembered Ruth Ann Swenson singing a beautiful Adina in San Francisco — I sang Giannetta in the production with her as a young artist there. So when I got an offer to sing this role in Lausanne at the beginning of my career, I was very excited! The role has some beautiful singing. However… The first aria is very low and does not show me off. Even though I could be heard, it never felt very present nor did I feel I had much character in that aria in the legato parts (too low in my voice) or the «Elisir di si perfetta, di si rara qualita'» etc… because the vocal writing didn’t suit my particular voice. It didn’t sound brilliant, and the top of the phrase («la ricetta») didn’t give me time to do anything with the note. Ok, so I liked the ensembles. The character is neither nice nor really bitchy, but just toying with this poor guy. I don’t really like her nor identify much with her. Now let’s skip to the end of the opera — my big aria «Prendi.» I love the first part — suits me wonderfully, and I had a lovely cadenza which showed off some soulful legato and pianissimo high notes. Great, so far. But then there’s the cabaletta. Clean coloratura, musical lines: impressive right? Uh… but what is the big high note at the end? I’ve gone to ALL this effort and sung my you-know-whats off all night and what is the big high note at the end? It’s in the key of F. So, a high C. A high F would be horrible in this context, and extremely out of place. And a high C is not «big» in my voice — that’s where my high notes START. So it is not a big, loud culminating high note — it is the stop-off point as I go up to something else. In my voice, a high C sounds like an A above the staff for most lyric sopranos. No biggie. And this is supposed to be the brilliant thing to cap off the excitement of the whole evening for my character? It just doesn’t sound that impressive in my voice because it doesn’t go up high enough. And the writing in the middle tends to be «sharp» rather than lyric, with brilliant singing ringing up to a G or A suddenly and then going back down — something that just makes me sound a bit acidic instead of brilliant. Although I have all the notes and did a «good» job, it is not something where people walk away saying «WOW — that Laura Claycomb is really something, isn’t she?» Whereas there are other roles by the same composer, even, that elicit those kinds of responses. I think it’s better for me to stick with THOSE kinds of roles (Lucia, Giulietta, Gilda…) and forget the rest. Just because people think you should be good in ALL the -ina and -etta roles doesn’t mean each one suits your particular bag of talents.
I don’t think it is so ridiculous to concentrate on two or three roles, and do those all over the place, so that THAT role becomes associated with you. Jennie Larmore — Cenerentola, Barbiere; Denyce Graves — Carmen, Dalilah; Natalie Dessay — Queen of the Night, Olympia; Susan Graham — Mozart; Dawn Upshaw — modern, innovative, Mozart; Ainhoa Arteta — Violetta; Bartoli — light, fast coloratura; Eva Marton — Turandot; Thomas Hampson — the Count; Carol Van Ness — Mozart and now Verdi. The list goes on…. But what is the common denominator? They concentrated on a small, select group of roles in the beginning and branched out LATER. Even Dawn Upshaw, who’s now known for her innovative choices, started out doing Mozart at the Met. Then she got a following for her distinctive sound, and moved into different repertoire. The sooner you can decide and divine what are «YOUR» roles, and hone in on them, the better chance you have to shine. It sounds simple, but I’ve been somewhat resisting for 10 years now! Wow. I hope I can save you 10 years of «versatility» which is actually just scatterbrainedness.
Work your patootey off
You need to be SEEN, not only on stage but in print. It sounds elementary, but this requires you to work a lot. You should try and intersperse American and European engagements, so you don’t end up on one side of the pond or the other exclusively for years on end. In the early stages of a career, you just need to BE WORKING. You need to just be out there so people can hear and see you. And so your name gets put in print, so people will begin to say, «Well, who IS this Laura Claycomb?»
For example: People didn’t know who I was in the U.S., even though I was doing work with American companies every now and then, and working with great companies in Europe. I was mainly working in Europe. And I wasn’t getting enough national coverage when I sang in the U.S. I had a huge success in Los Angeles Opera in I Capuleti e I Montecchi , but only the local newspapers raved about it. You would’ve thought it was a fart in the wind. Of national and international reviews, it got ONE — in Opera News, and that was the one person who was pissy about me! Americans didn’t see my name in THEIR print, and they weren’t able to see ME in the U.S. All that changed with Houston Grand Opera’s interest in me, and in the press that came with it. After a huge success in one show, I made myself available for interviews, etc… by talking to HGO’s public relations person. HGO alone has upped my exposure amazingly simply by their attention to details and by putting me forward for interviews or articles. It is thanks to their publicity person that I was on the January cover of Britain’s Opera magazine! People in the U.S. were finally waking up.
What else seems to be an element of a big career? Recording contracts. The recording industry is going through colossal change the past 15 years, because of buy-outs by huge companies and the «bottom line» is becoming more of a goal than recording things for posterity. And classical music, for all its beauty and artistry, is not a big money-maker. When you have a «great» record sell 500,000 records in the classical sector, it pales in comparison to the millions Brittney Spears can sell. So they are not keeping a «roster» of classical artists like they did before.
They have also shot themselves in the foot by this same roster system, in which they have artists signed up for something like a 5-record contract in 5 years, and end up using their stable of singers for a generic reading of an opera so they can fulfill the contract obligations, other than using the best or most suited singers for that specific piece. So they have flooded the market with recordings of questionable overall merit. The result is that the confused consumer just goes ahead and buys that vintage re-issue of the Callas version. In addition, many of the big orchestras and ALL of the orchestra unions still have in mind the bloated «good old days» and insist on unrealistic, exhorbitant fees in this dismal financial climate. It makes it nearly impossible to record with orchestras in the U.S. and Western Europe. Luckily, some few orchestras are wisening up and including some recording work in their contracts, and including rights to record concerts that will take place anyway.
Nevertheless, all of the big recording companies have had to tighten their belts, and the first thing to go is classical. If you will notice in the MINUTE classical section of your local record shop, if it has a classical section, more RE-releases of «historic» recordings (read: already brand-known names) are being done these days than new albums by the handful of singers that are left doing new solo recordings. I dare you to name 5 singers who will come out with more than one album this year. Or 1, at this point. Frighteningly enough, many classical sections in music stores still exist today thanks in a great part to ilk like Andrea Boccelli…. Because he sells volume to the unknowing masses, we are allowed to keep our classical section! The only thing that can be done is to popularize classical music, but somehow do it without cheapening the product. No one seems to have found a way to do that yet. I think they are underestimating their audience! AND I think that we have forgotten that classical music needs to go forward, instead of sitting on its laurels. New compositions are not supported or pushed, and thus we lose touch with current audiences. But that’s another discussion entirely, for another day!
Niche recording companies
So it seems the hallmark of this next century is going to be the smaller, niche record company. Ironically, they can afford to do the artistic kind of work that the big company can not afford with its bottom line and shareholders, etc… So maybe this will bring in a new era of more interesting music on disk. Or maybe it will just mean you get more insipid crossover «Kiri sings Andrew Lloyd Weber with Boccelli» and «Charlotte Church’s favorite Puccini heroines.» Let’s hope not. One interesting movement in all this is a renewed interest in Baroque music, which used to be done stylistically incorrectly by big names, or stylistically correctly with compromised voices. Now that there is a renewed interest, this repertoire is being re-discovered, and more interestingly, recorded for the first time in many cases, and with great voices. This is due to the great Baroque conductors doing this music, and probably due to people like Bartoli, who have shown the listener that it is exciting, beautiful, listenable music.
Check out the names of labels of albums you like. Do some research. See where they are based. See if your agent knows anyone in the company. See if you know anyone who works with that label a lot (esp. conductors, accompanists, orchestras). You may be surprised that someone you know has a link and would be glad to refer you for a project. CD’s are not only fun to make, they make it easier for audiences to get to know you. They can have something to carry home with them and listen to when you’re not in town. Someone who’s only read about you can hear you by going to his corner music store, peering past the Boccelli albums and finally special-ordering the damn thing in frustration. Er, I mean he can buy an album of you at the music store…. I am being pessimistic, am I not? Anyhow, it is a great way for people to get to know you even before you’ve sung in their town. At this juncture, I would not advise trying to make your own album or label, though, as it is very expensive and the main problems are distribution and P.R. The channels of distribution are the main problem in this business. In a shop where they have VERY little shelf space to begin with for classical, it is doubtful that they will stock your cd unless it flies off the shelf. And it’s hard to get ANY classical cd to fly off the shelf. However, check out archival articles in Classical singer to find out more about recordings.
One rather unpleasant by-product of the «economic slowdown» has been that theaters are booking MUCH later, and fees are not going up as much as they did in the past. There is also new competition from Eastern-block singers on the market since the fall of the Berlin wall. As a result, fest contracts in German-speaking countries are even harder to find, and guesting fees in German-speaking countries are even more dismal when compared with «latin» countries’ fees. With taxes for foreigners as they are in Germany, and the dismal fees, you would be lucky as an American guesting there to make ANY money after paying for your housing and eating while you’ve been there. Not so, if you are a fest singer, though, so I hear… Late booking can be a blessing for a young singer, though, as this may mean you get an opportunity to sing because the more seasoned singers are taken already. I hope you’re a quick study, or have learned lots of roles!
Italy’s fees, which used to be astronomical (most likely because you have to put up with so much gross disorganization and craziness) are now down to what a lot of other European countries offer. No more cash cow. But they do still cast extremely late, so if you have gaps coming up in your schedule, Italy might be a great place to try and fill them.
I have found that persistence with auditions can actually get results. I know that most medium-sized theaters in Europe will audition people if their experience and resume looks promising enough. … Even if they don’t have a European agent. All it may take is persistence and a will to make the phone calls, faxes and letters necessary. «I will happen to be in Paris in the month of May — are you doing any auditions then, so that you may hear me?» Also, if you have any connections with any conductors, try and get a «working session» — a type of coaching with the conductor, if you will. That way they can see how they like to work with you, and it’s a bit more relaxed atmosphere. You could feasibly pay them for their time without feeling weird, although no one has ever permitted me to pay them. To ask for auditions yourself for an opera house (you don’t have an agent, or don’t have an agent in Europe, for example):
- Send out your press packet with a request for audition, or to know if there is any interest. Ask when their general auditions are. Tell of your availability when you will be around the vicinity. Ask if they hold auditions during that time, and if not, if it would be possible to hear you nonetheless while you’re around.
- Wait for response for at least two weeks or so. (More if there’s been a recess, such as summer or Christmas vacation) Try not to send stuff right before a break, as things pile up on desks over the holidays and nobody ever sifts through those things thoroughly after a holiday! Send them stuff about a month AFTER a break, so they’ll have gotten back in the swing of things and cleared their desks a bit.
- If no response, send a follow-up letter (on letterhead or personal stationery) asking again if they would be interested, or if they received your earlier packet. Assume they didn’t get it, instead of the reality that they probably didn’t read it and then misplaced it. Give them that ready excuse to use if they hadn’t responded already. Provide email as a possible way to contact you.
- If you still haven’t heard from them, send an email to see if they received your packet. Be as sweet as possible to the secretary — she is your gateway to the the administration. Make sure you have been sending the materials to the person who makes decisions about casting and to the person (if it’s different) who sets up auditions. You may need to re-send the packet to another person in the house. Find out when they hold auditions! She may know! Secretaries or the assistants to the casting director usually will tell you all the poop if you are nice enough and willing enough to ask them for their help in understanding the organization at the house. Ask what is the preferred or best way to get through to the casting person or the person in charge of setting up auditions. Ask them if they might be able to help you by telling you the best way to set up an audition.
- Follow up with an email or a fax, thanking them for their time on the phone, that you look forward to hearing from them when they have received and looked at your materials.
- They probably won’t call you. Call back in two weeks.
- If you are told «we are not holding auditions right now,» don’t be discouraged. Make sure they have seen your materials. Ask when they WILL be doing auditions, as you would be keen to sing for them. If they are still resistant, make sure they have seen your materials, ask if they had the time to listen to your cd, and ask if there is something that they find lacking on your cd, or in your resume that is a requisite to sing for them. See if you need to have sung more lead roles in other houses first, if they are confused about what your exact repertoire is, they didn’t like the cd, etc…
- At this point, most houses will probably just LISTEN to you in a general audition to get you off their backs.
- Always be polite, always wait at least two weeks before bugging them again in any form, always thank them for their time, and always try to understand that they are very busy and have to be reminded about you. Be as quick as possible to explain what you need, so you’re not always wasting their time.
- If all of that fails, at least you have tried, and hopefully gotten some feedback in the meantime!!
- If the answer is yes, find out when your audition can be, if they will be casting for anything in particular (upcoming things in your fach they might be looking for) and if you need a pianist. If you can’t get a house pianist, find out from them if they recommend anyone highly, or if a house pianist could be available for you to pay to play the audition. Get phone numbers from them right away and call the pianists to set it up yourself. You may have to set this up a few weeks before the audition, and have two different possibilities for pianist, in case there is a last-minute problem with yours. Always have a contingency plan. Be as LOW-MAINTENANCE as possible. Do not make things complicated or start demanding things from the Opera house, or call them incessantly once you have an audition, to «check» things or to figure out the pianist. Make it as quick and as painless as possible for them. They have other things to do.
For auditions/working sessions for conductors, it is also a matter of sheer persistence. Target your conductor. Sing for him because there is an affinity in your repertoire, etc… so there is a reason he can use you in the future. Find out the conductor’s schedule. Somehow. Look at his website, look him up on Operabase.com, talk to his agent if you can about where he will be in the coming months. See if you will be anywhere near there in the coming months and try and get an audition with him then. If he is in the same town as you, make sure and go to a concert. Wait afterwards to meet him, and tell him how much you loved the concert (if you did) and your desire to sing for him, if ever possible. Tell him briefly why you want to sing for HIM, and briefly what you have been doing important lately that might interest him in your work. Talk to his agent, if you can. Be your sweetest self ever and try and find out from the agent if there is anything he’ll be doing in the future (that’s not cast) that you might be able to sing for him. Send his agent your press kit «for him.» Find out if it’s best to contact him directly or through the agent for this sort of thing. Most of the time, the agent will not know exactly what his schedule is, so if you can be flexible and stay in contact with the agent without being overbearing, and he might be interested in hearing you, you may be able to set something up with him. It is usually between rehearsals, etc…, so you need to be loose with your schedule as well in order to jump in when he can hear you. It is tricky to set up, but can be a great introduction to a conductor who may be casting for orchestral concerts, and even operas.
ALWAYS MAKE SURE YOU BRING ALONG YOUR OWN MATERIALS TO AUDITIONS!
I barely ever do auditions anymore, but any time I have sung for someone, especially a working session with a conductor, they invariably did not have my materials. Their agent had them… You also want to stay on top of what your agent is giving out to theaters. I was horrified when I got these awful different colored photocopies stapled together from my agent — this was the promotional packet that they were sending out. Yuck. If they’re not willing to make it look nicer, make up your own (with their logo and contact info on it) and ask them how many copies they want of it. I know it’s their job, but you would probably rather have them working on making phone calls and meeting up with people than compiling your PR materials, if this is what they’re sending out. Make things as easy as possible for your agent to do their job, and they will oblige you by doing a lot for you. Make sure you ask them periodically to send you a packet, so you can see what they’re sending out, and correct anything you don’t like. (or ask them why they’re doing something a certain way — perhaps there’s some rhyme or reason to it.