Opera for People Who Don’t Like It


If you think job interviews are the liver and Brussels sprouts on the dinner plate of life, try doing an audition sometime. An audition makes a job interview look like a triple-dip double chocolate ice cream cone topped with sprinkles. I should know. I have done job interviews and I have done auditions. When it comes to nerve-numbing misery, there is no comparison.

I’m not talking about auditioning for one of the big, international opera houses, such as the Metropolitan Opera (New York), Covent Garden (London), La Scala (Milan) or the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna). That is a whole other drama, with a different cast of characters. The vast majority of opera singers don’t make it that far, anyway.

Metropolitan Opera House(This is what the Metropolitan Opera looks like, inside the theater, from an orchestra seat way over on the left. It’s a huge place, seating about 4,000 people. Patrons are forbidden to take pictures inside the theater, but a quick one with an iPhone during intermission … who’s going to stop me?)

What I’m talking about here is the average low- to mid-level opera company audition, for local and regional companies in the United States or any one of many companies in Europe. Aspiring opera singers by the thousands head for these auditions, because this is where they will have marginally more than a snowball’s chance in Hell of being hired. The pay for these engagements ranges from nothing or almost nothing (little local companies in the U.S.) to a living wage (local German and Austrian companies) to okay most of the time, but nothing to get excited about (U.S. regional companies).

Am I confusing you? Good. We singers are confused, too.

To give you an idea of what a typical audition can be like, imagine this:

SCENE: A large, carpeted room in a studio space on the ground floor of a large, 5-star hotel. At one end of the room there is a baby grand piano. A pianist is sitting there, waiting for something to happen. At the other end there is a long, folding table with three people sitting behind it. One of the men looks hung over, a woman is reading some papers and looking bored, and another man is sitting back with his head in his hands and his eyes closed.

How Audition Panels See Themselves
How Audition Panels See Themselves
How Singers See Them
How Singers See Them
Adjoining this room is a waiting area. Someone is sitting at a desk. Several female singers and a couple of males are standing, pacing or sitting around. The women are dressed, coiffed and made up as if they were expecting to be photographed by Vogue. The men are wearing dark suits. One of them is wearing a black turtleneck. Nobody is talking to anyone else. Most of them are carrying music and looking various levels of nervous.

The door opens. Someone comes out of the audition room and calls a name. One of the female singers says, “Yes,” stands up and follows the person into the room. She tries to make a graceful entrance, but finds it difficult because she’s carrying an opera score in one hand, and her handbag and a large tote with more music in it in the other one. She flashes a fake smile at the audition panel, all three of whom ignore her. She walks over to the piano, ditches her handbag and the tote under it, and hands the score to the pianist. One of the men asks her what she will sing. She names her aria. The man asks her if she has anything else instead. She names four other pieces. The panel decides they will hear her first choice, after all.

She sings her aria pretty well, considering that she has just had her concentration disrupted and every nerve is now shaking. She ends it with a spectacular high note. The man on the panel says, “Thank you.” This is audition speak for, “You have just wasted several hours of your life. Go away.”

Everyone else gets variations of the same treatment, except for one male singer, a tenor. The panel makes him sing his first aria and parts of three others before they give him the bum’s rush.

Why do singers put up with this? Well, sometimes we get hired from auditions. It happened to me more than once. It’s kind of like playing Lotto. You play it a lot, never win anything, then one day you win something. It might not be the big prize, but it will still make you want to keep playing.

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7 thoughts on “Opera for People Who Don’t Like It”

  1. It’s really not unlike trying to get a book published, except writers have the good fortunate of not having to actually be in the room with the editors.

    1. Writers do have the lesser of the two evils.

      I forgot to mention that auditions are sometimes (but not always) followed by a rejection letter from the company. Singers refer to these as PFO letters. PFO stands for “please fuck off.”

  2. I auditioned for a few films a number of years and and also auditioned people for various bands that I played with. There’s nothing like the competition of an audition to turn a close friend into a mortal enemy.

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