Casting table

Wesley Chinn

Herewith some thoughts on the casting process, in which I pull back the curtain of mystery, slightly.

Opera companies do casting in a lot of different ways. At the highest level, they don’t hold “auditions” as such, mostly casting people they know, or who the decision-makers have heard in other companys’ productions, or who have been proposed by an agent with whom the company has an ongoing relationship (presumably, part of the appeal of appearing in a production for a small but relatively high profile company like ours is that you might come to the attention of someone who wants to cast you in something else). Most of the rest of us hold some sort of auditions.

Opera Omnia has held auditions for each of our shows, and we’ve recently been hearing people for our upcoming production of Ulysses. The classic audition panel might listen to people in 5-minute auditions for hours at a time. Hearing a lot of auditions tends to make you a pretty good judge of what you’re looking for, and your decision-making tends to get pretty quick if you let it. There is a tendency, I think, for people who have been at this long enough to decide that you can judge someone’s abilities as a singer within the first thirty seconds or so after they open their mouths, but I would make the case that this is a situation where you shouldn’t put too much faith in your quick instincts.

We have so far had the luxury of holding rather long auditions (almost never shorter than 5 minutes, and often as long as 10 or 15, which may not sound like much, but is an eternity in audition-land). The unconscious assumption behind the 30-second judgment (which, I must say, often seems to work out) is that what you hear is what you get. It’s very much in line with traditional vocal training at the conservatory level, which teaches that there’s a single correct and healthy way to sing, and that the singer should always strive for this ideal sound.

We like to take longer with people for two reasons. First is that we don’t like to count someone out for making an artistic decision that isn’t the one we would have made; most singers I know (especially the kind we like to work with) make choices about how to sing, and in some cases would be willing to make other choices if asked. These choices might be ones of phrasing, acting, or even vocal production, and as the (alleged) experts in the style we’re working in, I see it as our job to help people explore what might be most effective. This is especially true because what we’re asking people to do (sing 17th-century rep in English translation) is pretty idiosyncratic in its demands, requiring different choices about diction and style to be effective than almost any other rep.

The point is that I’m not so interested in who walks into auditions having a great idea of how to sing our rep (although it’s great when they do). I’m interested in predicting who, after a month of working with Crystal and Avi is going to give a great performance, and I strongly believe that working with someone for a little while in an audition is a much better way to predict that than just listening to what they bring to the table.

Just as importantly, we are very interested in the working relationship itself; I believe that having a smooth rehearsal process (not that anyone can put on an opera without some bumps, stumbles, and arguments along the way!) has been very important to our success, and asking people to do various things in auditions is a good way to explore what our working relationship will be like. Fortunately, most of the auditionees respond really well, and we have fun asking people to do things a few (or sometimes lots of) different ways. I like to think (and conversations with singers support this) that it goes both ways and our audition process is both more informative and fun for the singers as well. If not, then they’re probably not going to enjoy working us anyway.

In any case, I continue to be humbled by the caliber of singers who are interested in working with us, and we’re all very excited with our casting choices . We are just working out the puzzle of which singer goes with which part (more on that later, I hope), and hope to start making offers in the next week or so (so hang tight if you auditioned for us and are waiting–sorry it’s taking us so long!).

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