The German Audition Process
by Martin Cooke
There have been several books written on how to audition the best being Anthony Legg’s “The Art of Auditioning”. Tony Legg who is an internationally renowned conductor and vocal coach is currently Music Director with Opera Australia. His book is full of insight into the entire European opera scene and is a must for the aspiring singer.
Having gone through the audition process myself as a singer and as a member of the panel for auditions for the Bavarian State Opera Chorus I would like to share my experiences and observations.
Firstly: fate again plays a major role in auditions and one should not have the illusion that contracts in opera houses are plentiful and easy to obtain in the German speaking world. This is often a major misconception of many young singers in Australia and New Zealand. I’m sure that I also suffered from this fallac many years ago in spite of the warning from my teacher Valerie Collins-Varga that I should not expect to find a job immediately. I don’t think these supposed “golden days” ever existed in Germany, maybe just after the war with the huge shortage of labour.
After the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989 the situation became far more competitive and this trend still shows no signs of discontinuing. To find any form of contract today is extremely difficult and one should be prepared for the possible reality that one’s ambitions may not be fulfilled. Some may be fortunate to find something immediately, others may have to do numerous auditions before achieving success. The first round of agent and stage auditions, should one be fortunate to be given them can generally prove to be a great deal of fun and inspiration. However one should not assume that one will receive stage auditions; these are also becoming much harder to obtain as at the current time supply greatly exceeds demand. The second and further audition rounds can become stressful, whereby a singer can begin to loose confidence and suffer from depression. The result maybe the development of vocal indisposition and colds etc. This is quite normal and I would suggest that a singer discuss such matters openly with a close friend, family member or a singer orientated medical practitioner.
A young singer on the audition trail is a long way from home should difficulties suddenly arise and often problems can be solved by talking to someone close who is compassionate and understanding. The main point is to prepare for a tough road ahead.
Normally to obtain a contract in the German house system a singer does the round of agent auditions that generally take place between September and December of each year. I say generally, as auditions are held throughout the entire year, however the main time is the last four months of each year. Should one be fortunate to make a good impression on an agent the agency may then send the singer to various houses to do stage auditions. One should be aware that in this day and age it is extremely difficult, one could say miraculous to receive stage auditions. It is always good to clarify with the agent exactly what the houses are looking for so that you can sing the appropriate repertoire. Beware that the agent is not just sending you out for an “information audition”. This can prove to be an expensive undertaking for singers on a tight budget as the rail fares and accommodation in Germany are most expensive. One must use one’s intuition in such situations. If a house calls you back for a second stage audition they will cover your fares and accommodation costs.
One should have a selection of about six mainstream repertoire arias in Italian, English, German and French that are suitable to one’s vocal abilities. An audition for an agent or an opera house is not the time to be trying out new or overly ambitious repertoire, unless one has been asked especially to prepare a certain aria or role. A singer should only present the arias suitable to their voice type that he or she can sing well in spite of a cold, sinus infection, pneumonia or any other form of vocal indisposition.
A singer should never audition when he or she is suffering from a serious respiratory infection. Again, each singer must know what he or she can perform under stressful conditions and be able to discern as to what is just a sniffle or slight head cold and what is a full infection. No one will thank you or offer sympathy after singing badly at an audition. The first impression generally speaking is the lasting impression with audition panels. My suggestion is to cancel when you are ill or see a specialist for sound and objective advice if you are still in doubt.
Generally speaking, you should never sing an aria if you haven’t learned or at least have the concept of the entire role. By learning the entire role you gain the insight and depth necessary so as to command a character. The audition panel can tell before you even open your mouth just what you can or cannot do. Somehow from the time you walk on stage you have revealed your soul to the people listening.
I have experienced this situation many times at the Bavarian Sate Opera where I have often gained the impression that some singers walk on stage with body language that says “I don’t want this job, I look terrible and I have absolutely no vocal technique, which I would now like to display to you all in my atrocious rendition of this aria, which I can’t sing.”
Of course there is the exception to the rule. I witnessed a fine singer who looking terrible then sang the house down. Somehow she was totally confident as a person and didn’t care about the opinions of anybody. Her confidence and charisma just radiated everywhere and the panel engaged her on the spot.
The main aim is to be yourself and act naturally. The character you are portraying must come from within; over exaggerated acting or emoting just looks very out of place and really quite stupid. It is important that a young singer learn to stage his or her audition arias with a good producer or teacher so one has a routine that doesn’t look too artificial or mannered. When one has worked out the basic staging one can then leave room for the spontaneous in one’s characterisation.
It is important to dress well for an audition. By this I mean that one should try to look a little like the character or vocal category for which the opera house is looking. For example a Verdi baritone should cut an elegant and commanding figure on stage and portray an air of seriousness. Soubrettes should really look bright and charming with a dress that flatters their appearance and the character they are portraying. A Spieltenor i.e., Pedrillo in Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Seral should portray a youthful character and be dressed in a smart and casual manner. Whatever the role one should wear clothes that flatter the figure and complexion, allowing a singer room to move without looking stiff or awkward. Hairstyles should also highlight the face and be open so one can see the eyes and facial gestures.
Another hurdle to watch is the standard of accompanying in opera houses. The agents on the Continent normally have good pianists as do the bigger houses however be prepared for anything in the B, C and D houses of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. I had the pleasure of watching a singer so incensed by the disgusting standard of playing that she pushed the appalling pianist to the side and accompanied herself! She happened to be an Australian and several singers then asked her if she could play for their audition at a professional rate. Auditions in the provincial houses of Germany are often not punctual. I found the audition process in England to be professional, courteous and punctual, the standard of accompanying was also very high.
The arts is often a very subjective genre and it is important not to be upset or put off by peoples’ comments after auditions. Often language difficulties can create a wrong impression if one of the panel offers you criticism in either very direct German or inferior English. One can experience the case where members of the audition panel expound their personal views and criticisms in spite of an inadequate knowledge of music, opera and the vocal art. This can happen when certain types of directors sit on an audition panel who sometimes tend to have a negative disposition towards singers.
The important point to remember is that one should be one hundred percent prepared musically and vocally before embarking on the audition trail. An equally major part of vocal education is the building of self-confidence: without this quality all is in vain. During your time of study, work out your aims and pursue your goals with conviction together with your teacher. You must radiate confidence in an audition as this will transmit itself to the panel as soon as you set foot on the stage.