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Posted by on May 1, 2012 in Articles | 10 comments

The Total Package: A Singer’s Guide

by John BowenProfile Pic

As General Director of Opera Vivente, I used to receive hundreds of audition applications each year, so I spent a lot of time sorting through headshots, resumés, review sheets, and recommendation letters. And year after year, I notice the same problems with all of the above materials. So, when Operagasm asked me to write an article about what professionals engaged in the hiring of singers actually look for, like, dislike, and downright despise, I jumped at the chance.

First of all, I want to go on record that, of course, the most important thing in an audition is how well you perform your audition arias. That said, however, the reality of the situation is that, in any audition environment, there will be many, many, many singers who all sing their audition pieces equally well. How do employers decide between all these really talented singers? It’s in answering those questions that those other (I’ve often heard singers refer to these as “peripheral”) materials come into play. Those other materials give us a snapshot not just of you as a performer, but of you as a professional, a colleague, and a person. And they are often far more revealing than you know. So let’s talk about the two absolute essential components to that package first.

HEADSHOTS – Back in the day, headshots used to be an investment equivalent to a luxurious week in the south of France. All the “best” photographers were in New York. No one shot digitally. No one gave you complete ownership of your negatives. Reproduction was so costly that singers often had to order literally thousands of prints in order to make it cost effective. Consequently, many singers who were unsatisfied with their headshots or no longer looked like their headshots were stuck with sending out the same unflattering or baffling headshot year after year after year. Well, happily, that is all a thing of the past. There are many excellent photographers in virtually every city in every state. Almost everyone shoots digitally now (and if they don’t, avoid them). Photographers routinely hand over a disk with all of your shots in return for the agreed upon fee and proper crediting. And with digital printing now at everyone’s finger tips, you can print yourself (or have your local Kinko’s do it) as few or as many copies as you need. SOOOOO –

So now I can hear everyone in cyberland asking: Well, what makes a good headshot? So here’s a few things you should keep in mind when having headshots taken and when choosing which shot is “the one”.

1) Go color – The industry is trending towards color headshots across the board. And while it is very simple to take a color headshot and make it black and white if necessary, it is appallingly difficult to go the other direction. And the results are never good. Think of all those dreadful colorized black and white movies where the blonds all have hair the color of a school bus. YUCK!

2) Go simple – Avoid wearing anything that is too distracting the subject of the photo, namely you. Excessive jewelry (or inappropriate jewelry like tiaras, nose rings, etc.), hairstyles that would look more appropriate on an editorial fashion shoot or a reception line at Buckingham Palace, and clothing that engulfs your face are all no-nos. Dress as you would for a job interview: something that is flattering to your figure and skin tone, put together without being over the top, and above all makes you feel attractive and confident will result in a great shot.  Also keep in mind that the more you look like your headshot when you do the audition, the more likely the company is to remember you accurately.

3) Avoid the 1-900 look – Yes, yes, yes. I know sex sells. ON THE STAGE! Not in a headshot. Avoid shots of you that you would use as a naughty “thinking of you” card to your significant other. This is particularly true for all you lyric sopranos going after ingénue roles.

4) Change your headshot as often as necessary – If your appearance changes radically over the years: weight loss, weight gain, change in hair color, cosmetic surgery, etc. DO NOT KEEP SENDING OUT THE SAME HEADSHOT. Have another one taken. Remember, there are no more excuses.

Resumes – I have to admit, as puzzling as I find the bad headshot phenomenon, I find the state of most singer’s resumes even more puzzling. Things that I would have considered self-evidently huge no-nos, i.e spelling errors, factual errors, and (dare I say it) actual lies, are all too routine. Keep in mind that the resume is the first and most immediate way we have of assessing you as a professional. A sloppy and inaccurate resume makes us wonder about your attention to detail, your integrity, and your reliability. So spend some time on getting this right and show it to a number of people in the profession whose opinion you trust before you send it out to people who don’t know you except through this resume. Here are some things to think about while preparing your resume.

1) Be accurate – Make sure everything is spelled correctly (complete with all appropriate diacritical marks for international words). Make sure you follow appropriate capitalization rules for foreign languages, e.g. Le nozze di Figaro NOT Le Nozze di Figaro. Make sure that the way you state your experience is accurate. If you covered a role but never went on stage, that needs to be indicated on the resume. This business is very small, and you will be found out even in a tiny little “white lie”.

2) Be clear – Make sure that the categories on your resume are communicative of what type of information is in them. I find the following set to be quite useful (in order from top to bottom): Upcoming Engagements, Performing Experience (if you have a lot of performing experience this can be parsed out into “sub” categories like Opera Experience, Oratorio and Concert Experience, Recital Experience, etc.), Teachers, Coaches, Conductors, Directors (these can be put in neat little columns across your resume), and finally Education.  Within the Experience categories, you want the following columns for operatic roles: Role Name, Opera title (with composer name in parenthesis if not a well-known work), Company, Year(for upcoming engagements it’s often helpful to include the month and year)

3) Care about the look of your resume – Avoid too many fonts. They make a document chaotic and hard to read. Experiment rather with one font in a variety of type styles (Bold, Italic (de rigeur for titles), All Caps, Small Caps, etc.) and a variety of point sizes. Your name should be the largest point size on the paper. Think about a bit of visual break up on the page, either by being cognizant of “white space” or by using a simple line or wing-ding to add visual interest. However, avoid anything cutesy like a smiley face wing-ding or a line made out of musical notes. Print it on nice quality paper of at least 24lb weight. NOT the white copy paper that happens to be in the Xerox machine at Kinko’s. If you feel unsure of your ability to work on this from a design standpoint, consult a graphic designer. Once again, there are many very fine freelance designers in virtually every city who won’t cost you much more than you’re paying for your headshots, and this document is every bit as important as the headshot. So why not invest a little bit of money in this?

4) Keep it current – You should update your resume on an annual basis. Some singers go a little overboard with this and update their resume every time the phone rings. I would reserve these “latest developments” for a cover letter. It gets a company’s attention to know that you are currently being offered work. A simple sentence such as “I have recently been contracted by the Metropolitan City Opera of Lower Dubuque to sing the role of Third Diva from the Left in the newly rediscovered opera Emilia di Detroit by Carlos Fiamma di Dinario” will suffice.

Since these two items are a) the ones required by virtually every opera company on earth and b) the ones that singers most often have angst and trouble with, and since this article is already probably way more than the Operagasm folks bargained for, I will hold up there. If Operagasm would like me to talk about some other components of the audition package or auditioning itself, I’d be happy to write something further at a later point. One last word of advice for auditioning:

Prepare all aspects of your audition well, and then go into the audition with the same confidence and joy you would bring to a performance. In the end, that’s what an audition is: a performance for a small audience. If it’s a pleasure for you to sing it, it will probably be a pleasure for us to hear it.


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  1. I really loved reading this. I would enjoy to hear more of your opinion on the Audition experience, such as:

    Dealing with common scenarios: The Audition Panel is talking when you walk in, The Audition Panel doesn’t seem to be paying attention while you’re singing (ie. talking to each other, looking at food menus)

    How to deal with auditioning in large rooms: the piano is next to the door and the audition panel is very far away from you, do you walk awkwardly across the room and shake their hands?

    How to answer vague questions like: How are you? What are you doing? What are you up to?

    These are just some of the things a lot of us singers scratch our heads about and I’d love to hear your take on it.

    La Toya

  2. Wonderful advise.

    I’ve wondered about color vs black and white photo, so thanks that is a good tip. I’ve had several people look at my resume for errors and format issues and no one has ever told me to look at my capitalization.

  3. This is great! Thanks for all of the information, it’s really helpful.

  4. THANK YOU! As an arts administrator who does marketing for non-profit arts organizations all over the country… THANK YOU! From a marketing standpoint, I honestly feel bad for some singers because they have simply unacceptable headshots and they are on a program book page or in a brochure amongst 10 other singers with stellar headshots. Another piece of advice: if your potential headshot photographer wants you to pay each time you use the headshots (whether digitally or in print) or wants you to pay for prints and won’t release the files you, DON’T HIRE THEM. Any good photographer will now give you a CD of your retouched photos to be used as you see fit as part of the fee.

  5. Great advice–thanks so much!

  6. Thank you!!!!! for saying what I have been preaching to my students for years. I will refer the resistant ones to your article!

  7. Here’s a resume-format question for you, John:

    In the theatre/musical theatre and flm/tv worlds, everyone’s resume is cut to 8×10 and stapled or affixed to the back of their headshots. In fact, there are printers now good enough to print your resume on the back using your home computer. Yet in Operaland, I still see people keeping their paper resumes separate from their photo, even when that resume may not have a picture on it, and things that aren’t stapled tend to get lost.

    At one audition I was at, I had my music resume stapled to the back of my photo, and the GD said, oh, what a good idea, as if (s)he had never seen it before.

    What is the current trend out there?

  8. Interesting view on the updates. I am surprised you consider an resume update less important than a headshot update. Considering the low price of paper, and the readily available word-processor (and decent printer), I don’t think there is any excuse for not having the resume updated at all times. I have rarely seen an audition panel read the cover letter during an audition, but many times reading the resume.

    I also find it interesting that you don’t even mention bios. More and more, even smaller companies prefer a bio over a resume, in my experience.

  9. John – thanks for this concise walk-through.
    It scares me we are STILL talking about the don’ts – why are singers not getting this?!?

  10. Thank you for the advice!! I’m preparing an auditon for the next opera season and I’ll definetly read this again for a very confortable audition not only for me, but also for the people hearing me.. :)


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