Preparation for auditions and competitive examinations / Advice on how to select your repertoire:
Beside teaching singing as such, I am also an artistic advisor at the Bern Opera, in charge of auditions and the artistic budget. Hence I am in contact with many European artistic agencies. Together with my experience as an opera singer, this quality enables me to set up a personalized and targeted strategic assistance for those artists who shall request it.A comprehensive approach of the opera singer’s occupation, not only of its sole "vocal" aspect, can be an invaluable assistance and allow the vocalists who follow this approach to avoid numerous traps.
Auditioning should be a separate subject to be taught in all music academies. It is amazing to notice how some singers packed with true vocal qualities can totally fail their auditions or their presentation by lacking the knowledge and adequate preparation for this very specific exercise, which is totally disconnected from stage performance, but truly essential – at least at the beginning of the career, but actually longer – in order to have a chance to be hired.
A deep knowledge of the market, of the current trends that unfortunately tend to a kind of standardization and of the fellow candidates is absolutely necessary in order to target the best-suited repertoire that matches the singer’s ability to convince the auditioning committee in a highly competitive environment. Minor mistakes or a repertoire (especially the one selected for the audition) that does not perfectly match a timbre, a personality or a technique can have very negative and discouraging consequences.
A series of failed auditions often causes discouragement and a loss of self-confidence since the singer has neither the elements nor the hindsight to understand the reasons for his failures.
He is engulfed in a negative spiral he does not know how to escape from.
Auditioning is an act you have to train for!
My career as an opera singer as well as my occupation as an artistic advisor at the Bern Opera in charge of auditions enables me to have a clear and general overview of the current requirements of the opera singer’s job.
The Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris asked me to develop a high level program of training for auditions designed for vocal students.
This comprehensive program enables young artists to learn the skills to master this hazardous exercise, to avoid its numerous traps and to significantly and systematically improve their performance during competitive examinations and auditions.
or read here:
- Text published in the Journal du Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris, fall 2009:
by Fabrice Dalis, Tenor, artistic advisor to the Opera of Bern (SUI).
"Auditions… just a formality when you graduate from the CNSMDP?"
At first sight this exercise seems quite easy to describe: you have to show up onstage, sing one or two arias (rarely more), say thank you, leave and hope you will be hired…
… and very often you cannot understand why you were not hired…
I have quite a few years of experience as a singer - including in the situation I have just depicted – and I have moved to “the other side of the fence”. Therefore, both as an “auditionnee” and an “auditioner”, I believe I have quite an accurate and comprehensive idea of this exercise, which is rarely a piece of cake, but you cannot get away from, and of the means that exist in order to improve your performance. A young artist should be advised to look beyond his primary concern – I'm singing, I’ll be hired or not – and to become aware of the numerous factors that precisely condition the decision to hire him or not.
In a nutshell, after the end of the audition, the auditioners divide the candidates into three groups:
- the “no”,
- the “maybe-but-let’s-audition-more-people”,
- the “yes-right-now”, which is the smallest group.
Please forgive me for this cynical, brutal, poorly artistic description, but it is very close to real life!
I need not ask you which group you wish to belong to…
Here are a few classic examples:
- A general audition (the singers show up without the need to fill a specific role):
80% of the vocalists - beginners or not – sing the same extremely known arias of the classical repertoire, with all possible styles, at the maximum of their capabilities… or even over the edge!
Many – the youngest singers even more – are paralyzed by the stakes, the endless waiting time, the unknown acoustic conditions, the pianist who plays with his own tempo, the dry throat,… They just hope they can sing until the end of the aria without making any major mistake and totally forget about displaying their own personality, a consistent musicality and stylistic mastering. As a result, they only show that they have been overwhelmed by the difficulties and are far from mastering their subject.
Are you happy you have reached the end of the aria without any disaster?According to the auditioning committee, it’s not enough… thanks for coming, but no!
- An audition for a specific role in a piece of music:
The typical case is that of a young singer who shows up from one audition to the other, but either he does not master the roles well enough, or they are too ambitious for him, or he is simply not up to the other candidates’ level. For example a singer applies for the role of Mimi whereas she should sing Musetta; a tenor pretends he can sing Belmonte while he would be much better as Pedrillo; another vocalist who applies for the role of Leonor whereas she should think about singing Marzelline; and a singer applies for Philip II while he should only present secondary roles for the time being.
Do not count on the opera’s board of directors to “interpret” your performance: “We will not hire you for this part you have really made a dreadful performance of, but we would like to offer you a more modest role – would you take it?” Forget it, they will not do it and there are always enough other singers to take the part and anyhow make a better performance than the others.
The board's answer will sound snappy: no!
Beside these extreme examples (they are frequent, believe me!), you have all possible intermediary results with many auditions that are not really successful, but not a total failure, some nice voices who sing with too many vocal faults, interesting personalities with insufficient technical skills,… all these people are packed into the "maybe" category and expect answers that will never come or - if they finally arrive - are negative.
On the singer’s side, these situations are extremely discouraging and sometimes – often – hard to take since he lacks the necessary hindsight that allows self-questioning.
So how can you be among those hired?
Of course, this requires hard work day after day, like a craftsman. But I do believe that before going onstage and singing, you need to be aware of a certain number of facts that bring you to ask a few essential questions.
First of all, I think it is indispensable to understand that we are not talking about an educational exercise anymore.
This means that even if you are making progress, if such or such sentence or note "comes out" better than 3 weeks or 6 months ago, if the CNSMDP thinks you are on the right track - well, this is absolutely of no importance!
Your environment is not made of teachers and fellow students among which you can assess your level, but of other career singers who sometimes have much more experience than you, and of “decision-makers” who will judge you on the five minute performance you will make onstage. They are not aware of you past and have little interest in it anyway. Of course this may change a few years later once they have seen and heard you onstage, but actually, if you need to audition, this will not make a big difference, even after ten years of career. These guys have to distribute roles and they will take the most convincing candidates – that's all.
So we need to move from a gradual evaluation system (the years of studies) within a familiar environment to another one in which the immediate performance is decisive: you are not evaluated on the progress you have made, but on your ability to be the best at that very moment.This system is much more brutal – it is a binary system: yes or no, there is no room for “currently improving”.
The first logical consequence would be to become aware of the absolute necessity to work out a specific repertoire for auditions that is tailored to this new environment.
Maybe the arias and roles studied at the CNSM are perfect to this end.
Maybe they are totally useless.
There is indeed a natural dichotomy between the educational requirements and the real professional life. During his studies the singer-to-be needs to address and study in depth various styles and repertoires. He needs to push back his own limits as far as he can by tackling arias and repertoires that actually require skills he does not have for the moment, in order to go beyond his abilities and hence improve them. In the real professional life – in the audition the vocalist attends in order to be hired – many aspects are in total contradiction with what I have just mentioned: the singer is not requested to be “able” to sing in all styles more or less successfully, but, to the opposite, to find the narrowest, consistent and credible repertoire in which he is competitive compared to career vocalists - not only other students - in order to be hired in the end.
The aim of the studies at the CNSMDP – the diploma – requires a very broad study of the possible styles and repertoires as well as many other subjects: musical education, analysis, languages, role study, ensembles, etc.
I believe this is ESSENTIAL for the future.
A vocalist’s education cannot obviously be restricted to learning a few arias before auditioning in famous opera houses. This would be extremely restrictive and put an end to most singers' careers. When a student enters the Conservatoire, it is impossible to predict his development as a singer and towards which repertoires his work and own personality – his own life – will lead him.
Therefore the students must tackle a broad range of subjects in order not to be cast from the same mould and leave them many doors open, even the most concealed ones, as well as nonconformist shortcuts and countless ways to build a career leading to each singer’s musical and human blossoming. How can a vocalist imagine his career if he has only heard of one single track, the most common one – the mainstream – relayed by the media? We certainly do not want to put into question the richness of a general musical education.
But as far as the audition – the unavoidable performance a young opera singer-to-be needs to master – is concerned, the aim is to “reach the target” and be more convincing than the other competitors. It is almost impossible to achieve this in various repertoires and styles. To the opposite, a “rag-bag” audition (a bit of Mozart, a bit of baroque, a bit of Italian and a bit of German romanticism,...) is most often counterproductive, since the singer displays, from the auditioner's point of view, all what he cannot do – at least for the time being. The impression is always negative, even if a few positive elements show up from time to time. Unfortunately, decision-makers rarely seek to sort them out.
To take another example, the casting director will rather listen to a vocalist who sings a more targeted repertoire, even if it is restricted, provided it is consistent and displayed with a true personality, freshness and simplicity, far below the singer’s highest abilities, but without any stress – neither for him nor for those listening to him – and in full control of the difficulties, even if they are limited: that’s how the auditioning committee will say yes !
When an opera’s board of directors wants to allocate the roles for an opera, this means allocating all roles. When an opera’s board of directors wants to allocate the roles for an opera, this means allocating all roles. So there are actually other roles to take than only Violetta, Carmen, Rodolfo, Max, Posa and Sarastro. Of course I will never say that these arias and roles must always be set aside (there are indeed a few young artists who are already "ready" and can apply for these roles), but from a purely statistic point of view, it is impossible for everybody to be in a position to take over the leading roles at the very beginning of their career. The important thing is to end up among the selected singers, regardless of the “size” of the role, and to be able to improve and make progress step by step. And this is only possible by singing onstage. Of course it is possible to make a brilliant career with supporting roles, but top-level singers have most often started with modest parts. So the aim for the singer-to-be is to be able to build his career step by step, to shape his future and to lay the foundation for a long-lasting career, not a shooting-star kind. He must fit into a now global competition: even the smallest local opera you can find vocalists from the far end of the world. He needs to elbow his way into an already existing environment composed of career singers, not only other students and beginners. He shall neither underestimate nor overestimate himself, win self-confidence instead of feeling discouraged by his initial failures caused by a poor knowledge of the realities of this job. A good start is essential, all the more as names are circulating by word of mouth among opera directors and some singers can be stuck with a bad reputation after only a few failed auditions in well-known opera houses.
Beyond choosing the appropriate and “competitive” repertoire, I believe
it is important to have in mind the following short checklist:
- Where am I auditioning and why? You do not audition the same way for the Bastille Opera as for Nordhausen, for a guest contract as for a group contract (in Germany, for example).
- Psychological preparation: you need to be aware of the specific stress of this exercise and the means to handle it.
- Behaviour during the audition: how can I draw the auditioning committee’s attention, stand apart from the other candidates and display a specific, original personality?
Besides, we could also mention that it has become more and more difficult to get these auditions without having an agent. So the singer needs to know which agent he should select on in order to reach his goals. They all have strong points and weaknesses as well as different profiles.
Actually it would be best not to have to audition and to have such a reputation - most often in a very specific topic - that it would not be necessary anymore. This is the goal we all wish to achieve. Of course this is possible provided you have a clear artistic identity recognized by opera directors. Of course, this means making good auditions at the beginning of your career!