Volume 41, No.1 - Spring 1995
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas, University of Rochester
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1995 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

A Necessary Evil


AUDITION : A hearing; particularly, one hearing to test the abilities, voice, etc. of a speaker, an actor, a musician.

In committing oneself to the performing arts, one must resign themselves to the dreaded audition process. As a person seeks an interview for whatever business position they are striving for, we, as artists, present ourselves through the audition process before artist managers, conductors, directors and various impresarios. It all becomes a necessary evil and for many a petrifying experience in a make or break profession.

Before one presents themselves to those judges, one must be able to accept rejection more than the norm as it becomes a way of theatrical life. No matter at what level an artist is, it is always hard to accept graciously that first rejection of "Thank you, but perhaps next time" without a certain amount of personal loss or even resentment. A rejection once or twice does not mean defeat, as what one person may dislike at the moment another conductor or director may like. This has happened to me in my career as an artist on a number of occasions, mainly in the beginning, when so much was at stake. The advice that came from a number of conductors, not all, was that the potential was there, only "work on this or that," then contact them again when ready.

The advice that young artists must give themselves before continuing the process is to evaluate themselves honestly and not be led down a hopeless path by selfish voice teachers solely interested in maintaining that weekly lesson fee! One must also set a realistic time frame and evaluate their vocal progress during that period. All this can be so difficult as the years slip by, the ego pacified through some relative success, acceptance and applause - and it all started through the audition process.

The process all started in the Army where I auditioned for an Army Talent Contest and won, which led to another audition and acceptance to become classical soloist with the U.S. Army Band in Washington, D.C., which led to an audition for a national television talent show, which led to my first manager hearing me and arranging an audition with the New York City Opera. One audition after another as the process continued and all nerve wracking episodes, but gaining in that on-going audition experience.

Winning the Connecticut Opera Auditions of the Air in 1957! I had passed the preliminaries with Figaro's "Non Piu Andrai" from Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro", the semi-finals with an aria from Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra", the finals with one from Verdi's "Ernani" and as I was presented with my prize I, again, sang the spirited Figaro aria. The process never ceases as new conductors and directors emerge on the scene wanting to hear us all, no matter how good a reputation, to check if time has ravaged or treated a voice kindly.

Every year thousands of singers go through the ordeal of auditioning. A few moments in a room or on a stage bare of trappings with only a piano, exposed to a judge's scrutiny, may decide a young artist's future.

Conductors and managers agree that auditioning, though their only way of appraising talent, is torture without an alternative. Most would also agree that today with all the emphasis on well rounded presentation, this old system of conducting auditions may have become obsolete. It is, in fact, the only area of operatic mechanics that has hardly changed in generations. An applicant works on a few show pieces or arias for weeks, maybe months, only to present them with small awkward gestures or even in a frozen pose that reveals little of their personality. Impresarios, like today's public geared to records, movies and television, expect a highly developed level of vocal and histrionic projection. In short, a more total or complete performer.

The question is asked by what standards should an auditionee by judged? How can we know whether that person can feel comfortable in a tessitura (general vocal range) of an entire role, coordinate with an ensemble or chorus or adjust their acting to a big opera house or theater? How is a conductor or director to know whether the auditionee is fast or slow in grasping instructions? Simply put, how should we audition? In my travels and experiences I have discussed this tortuous problem with many colleagues, managers and some conductors, and had the opportunity to hear many auditions at close range as a judge myself. Here are a few opinions.

One very experienced conductor suggested that candidates who have passed an audition on the basis of total impression be tested by musicians for voice and interpretation, by a theater man for acting ability, by a dancer for movement. Established artists would never place themselves in such a position with these extra tests. Yet, many of my American colleagues would have welcomed that challenge early in their careers. Some European conductors said that they would not engage an instrumentalist just because they owned a Stradivarius or a singer just because they had a good voice. They would like to take the process those extra steps. However, they all concede that in the U.S., though opportunities have grown tremendously since I debuted in 1958, conductors must be prepared to bolster the auditionee's courage during auditions and offer that constructive criticism — even, the training mentioned earlier.

There have even been artistic directors who test for vocal acceptability by giving a lesson themselves, and then investigate them by seeking a confidential report from their voice teacher or coach. This is to distinguish among the hopeless, difficult, average and exceptional. One claimed that it cut down on rehearsal time by eliminating those reported to be slow in learning, even though they may sing well, an in adjusting to others around them. Naturally, time will prevent most conductors from adopting this last audition approach. Many conductors will not hear anyone until they have checked recommendations and references. The Metropolitan Studio in New York and the Chicago Lyric Center hear everyone who applies, because they may be looking for young artists to fill certain roles or simply to discover the next star.

Many seasoned judges can tell a singer's potential in the first two minutes or so, relying less on detail and more on intuition arrived at through years of experience. These judges automatically register attributes such as appearance and demeanor since, to them, they may reflect an inner poise or confidence. When a singer does something outstanding it shows their capacity to respond to direction in other areas.

Auditions need not be long, as sometimes just two sung phrases are enough to reveal the quality of a voice. It happened to me on two occasions and for about eight measures of music. The first was for the late great maestro of the Pittsburgh Symphony, William Steinberg, in an audition for the Beethoven 9th symphony. The maestro deliberately went to the balcony of the auditorium and said "proceed." I sang the opening phrase of the fourth movement "0 Freunde nicht diese Töne" when suddenly the maestro stood up and in his German accent, pointing his finger, said "see you in three months." All was over before I knew it. The second audition of limited duration was for Maestro Leonard Bernstein when he was musical director of the New York Philharmonic, and casting for a concert version of Virgil Thompson's "Three Saints in Three Acts." This time I sang just the opening of "Without A Song" when he stopped me saying "Congratulations! You're my Thesius! Have your management contact our office. Thank you!" I could not believe both occasions as I prepared extensively for those opportunities. One wishes they were all like that.

There have been times when vocal stamina came into play during the audition process when rushing from one audition to another. On a number of occasions, sharing cabs with other hopefuls, we would run from one audition to another in an hour or two - even auditioning for the same judges who were representing a number of opera companies. Such cases today are an exception.

What should auditionees sing? Naturally, they ought to choose what is best for their voices or at least nothing that is wrong for them — a common mistake by today's aggressive and talented young singers. I have witnessed svelte girls in their twenties selecting dramatic parts to audition with, explaining they were more lucrative. True, they are, but those that took that road were passée at thirty, destroyed by their own greed and misguidance. The most common and popular choice these days is two arias in different styles as apposed to one long one.

Having been affiliated with a number of universities in recent years, I was once told about the smartest auditionee this particular judge ever heard. This girl began with Barbarina's easy arietta from "The Marriage of Figaro," moved on to Rosina's joyous "Una voce poco fa" from the "Barber of Seville", and when the judge's interest was assured, finished with the show stopping Zerbinetta's aria from "Ariadne auf Naxos," one of the most taxing pieces in the coloratura literature. To me, that was remarkable for its planning, stamina and nerve. Whoever she was, I salute her, as probably the judges did after they recovered from that marathon.

For men, aside from their natural vocal quality, tenors must show their high notes, basses their low ones and baritones should sing something like Figaro's "Largo al Factotum" from "The Barber" for characterization and, perhaps, "Eri tu" from "The Masked Ball" for vocal elegance. Being a bass-baritone all my career, I have had to cross both the baritone and bass lines in my choice of roles. All depended on the quality of sound being sought by the conductors and directors.

Whenever a singer (auditions for operetta or musical theater, they should start with the refrain, unless directed otherwise, as they may not get that far if starting with the introduction. By no means, with certain exceptions, should one transpose (higher or lower in key from the original) a selection, as most voices lose character in transposition. It is a common occurrence on the stage these days and welcomed by seasoned artists who confront age and loss of vocal flexibility; so a transposition here and there allows them to hang on to the delight and acceptance of their fans. Yet, students presently do so just in order to learn how to present themselves comfortably. The question to transpose or not is in the lap of the voice teacher or coach.

A good voice teacher will try to control an auditionee's stage fright by making them realize that most judges are as eager to find new talent as the singers are to find engagements. He or she should tell them how to dress neatly and conservatively, how to enter the audition room showing personality and self assurance and not cockiness, how to greet judges or conductors with propriety, and how never to audition unless they feel at their best. Sometimes, unfortunately, one must forge ahead despite negative outside influences, such as a slight cold. It is difficult to erase a bad impression, so good health and emotional stability are important. I remember my teacher, Elda Ercole, telling me what the legendary Ernestine Schumann-Heink said: "I'm all voice from head to toe; anything that affects my mind or body affect my singing."

The question always arises whether arias should be acted out during the process. This depends on many factors, with the individual's character being their guide. There are many judges (conductors who desire to observe what a person does with text, how they color the voice, whether eyes and expression change when the mood changes. Yet others like to see some sort of interpretation rather than imagine stage presence. It is always easier to tone down histrionics than try to resurrect them. I have always acted my audition arias, but never neglecting to ask "May I take stage?" Unless the audition is for an oratorio or symphonic piece, I have always been allowed or even requested to do so. Only one conductor refused me and he has disappeared from the scene.

Then there is the question of language. There are those who prefer that a singer audition in the language which is most comfortable in order to get the right impression of that voice no matter what language the particular work was written in. These days with intense competition, one should be as proficient as possible in pronunciation and comprehension of text. Twenty years ago many of our comic operas were constantly performed in English to allow an audience to comprehend text, but with the operatic art form's growth and subtitles in most opera houses, the necessity to learn roles in the original language is without question followed everywhere.

There are all types of auditions for various jobs, but few are like the Metropolitan Auditions of the Air which are no longer held. Those auditions did everything to make the event as professional as possible. Complete evaluations of each individual's audition were filed with a copy given the auditionee. Those chosen to go to New York from regional contests were advised by the lead judge in advance on what they ought to prepare for the national semi-finals, as they were to be judged on potential growth in addition to their present state of voice and presentation. The Met regional competitions continue to this day with the finals on the main stage in New York, but the on air aspect ceased in 1958.

To decide whether to audition for a major competition or opera house seeking a contract can cast a long shadow, as some fear that not to win, place or show may mean loss of prestige. Many good singers have stayed away because of not being able to face that rejection. There is a story about a taxi driver who parked his cab, ran into the Met, auditioned in his leather jacket and went back to work. This was heart warming publicity for the audition process, especially at the Met. Of course, that taxi driver did not win, but the occurrence motivated everywhere a better selectivity in screening applicant's for major opera / concert auditions. How to exercise discrimination without missing worthwhile young artists is a problem every musical director faces.

I have been on a number of audition panels and honestly cannot help but feel that there is no better way of judging singers than in live performance, which provides the stimulation of make up, props, scenery, lights, and the illusion. We, cannot, of course, put every auditionee on stage and, perhaps, most who want solo careers fail to measure up to standards and do not belong in the profession anyway. But those with talent who do measure up we may miss simply because they cannot be tested properly.

Stage fright excitement should always be present, but not fear. I hope that no singer worth his or her salt will ever approach an important audition — or even a performance, without that surge running through them. It should be a challenge for the spirit to prepare and hit that stage with self assurance and pride to do your best and not worry about others.

Some European-born opera lovers have said over the years that "Americans may not have opera in their blood, but they have it in their hearts." This may instill assurance in any aspiring artist as they step forth into the spotlight with the right mixture of modesty and confidence.

Auditions are a necessary evil that all singers must face in order to find their proper place in the highly competitive field of music in all its glorious forms. As for luck, let me quote an equation: Luck equals preparation and opportunity through the audition process.

Arnold Voketaitis is now in his 38th year as a performing opera / concert artist. The internationally known bass-baritone has appeared with every major opera company in the United States (Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco, New York City Opera, Metropolitan National and others), Mexico (Bellas Artes), Canada (Plaza des Artes), Spain (Teatro del Liceo), Central (Costa Rica) and South America (Venezuela —Teresa Carrena). Also, he has appeared with every major symphony orchestra (Chicago, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, Minnesota, San Francisco and others). Featured on a half dozen Grammy-nominated recordings and television opera performances. This Connecticut -born Lithuanian has received the Man of the Year Award from the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, and the Distinguished Alumni Medal from his alma mater, Quinnipiac College, as well as a Rockefeller Award.

In academia, he was Visiting Scholar / Artist-in-Residence for Opera and Voice at Auburn University in Alabama, Director of Opera at DePaul University in Chicago, and guest lecturer at Northwestern University. He produces and directs opera, gives Master classes in voice, and lecturers on techniques for the musical stage. He continues to perform.