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It's Uphill All The Way At Met Opera's The Audition

April 19, 2009

Met documentary profiles young singers' breathtaking pursuit of victory, and a leg up on their careers, in the National Council Auditions.

Just like the stories it seeks to tell through histrionic plots, spectacular settings and virtuosic vocal lines, the world of opera is full of behind-the-scenes drama.

Maria Callas' diva-like antics have become legendary. Luciano Pavarotti earned the nickname "The King of Cancellations" for his habit of frequently backing out of performances, which strained his relationships with some opera houses. The salons of Europe doubtless gossiped for months after Hans von Bulow's wife, Cosima, left the celebrated German conductor and pianist for the even more celebrated operatic auteur Wagner.

One aspect of backstage drama that few people outside the opera world know anything about, however, is the high-stakes journey undertaken by aspiring singers as they reach for stardom. A new, feature-length documentary produced by the Metropolitan Opera, "The Audition," which debuts today in conjunction with the Met's HD screening series, provides a rare insight into the enormous challenges facing up-and-coming singers as they attempt to launch their careers in a cutthroat profession.

Shot by filmmaker Susan Froemke (the director of Emmy Award-winning documentaries about pianist Vladimir Horowitz and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, among other projects), "The Audition" follows 11 opera singers from ages 20 to 30 as they prepare for the 2007 finals of the Met's National Council Auditions over a tension-packed 10 days in New York. "The film is really about whether these young singers have what it takes to transcend their fears, walk on stage and face their futures," Froemke says.

The documentary covers the climactic final phase of one the world's most prestigious competitions for up-and-coming opera stars. Over the course of 90 minutes, we watch the finalists as they select concert repertoire; work intensively with singing, breathing and acting coaches; rehearse with the orchestra; try on costumes; and finally stride onto the Met stage to perform. The intimacy of Froemke's cinéma vérité style reveals something of the intense pressures facing the auditionees. One singer candidly talks about his intention to take three sleeping pills to get a decent night's rest before the performance. Another paces backstage just before he's about to go on, repeating the mantra "I'm a tiger, I'm a tiger" quietly under his breath. At one point, Froemke shows us a close-up of a competitor's hand emphatically crushing a paper cup.

The Met auditions evolved in the mid-1950s out of "Auditions of the Air," a radio-based vocal competition. Today, thousands of singers from all over the U.S. and Canada participate in the district and regional rounds of the auditions each year. Only about 20 make it to the semifinals in New York. Ten or so go on to the grand finals, where they sing on the Met stage with the company orchestra before an auditorium peppered with industry talent spotters. Being selected by the judges as a winner at the end of the concert (a handful of the finalists secure the competition's top $15,000 prize) can powerfully affect a young singer's future. Some of the country's most well-known opera stars -- including Frederica von Stade, Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson -- all won National Council auditions. "The auditions are the first step to an international career," says the Met's general manager, Peter Gelb.

"First step" are the key words, for the challenges facing young singers are enough to put anyone but the most focused of aspirants off pursuing a life on the opera stage. "Reaching the National Council semifinals can kick-start a career by getting you noticed," says Gayletha Nichols, executive director of the auditions. "But the road that lies ahead is extremely tough." For many developing opera performers, even making it to the National Council semifinals seems like a distant dream, owing to the overwhelming competitiveness of the landscape.

Shrinking stages

The glut of American opera talent comes as a result of the mushrooming number of companies and training programs. According to the service organization Opera America, 72% of U.S. opera companies appeared after 1960, leading to an increased demand for singers and the growth of dedicated training programs. (Before the U.S. boom, newbies typically went to Europe to hone their craft.)

But in the intervening years, supply has far outstripped demand. The recent economic downturn has exacerbated this problem, causing many companies to scale back productions or, in the case of organizations like the Connecticut Opera, Opera Pacific and Baltimore Opera Company, shutter completely.

"Thousands of singers come out of conservatories each year. There are an awful lot of talented people out there," says Dan Novak, manager of the Lyric Opera of Chicago's Ryan Opera Center young artist development program. "Getting yourself known is a hurdle."

Soprano Kiera Duffy, 29, featured in "The Audition," got her professional start after graduate school when she earned a place at the Central City Opera of Colorado's training program.

Whether taking on talented performers for the summer season (as is the case with courses housed at such institutions as Central City, Santa Fe Opera and San Francisco Opera) or for the entire year (in the case of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Houston Grand Opera and Los Angeles Opera, among others), these operatic "boot camps" provide would-be professionals with financing, performance opportunities, coaching, language training and crucial networking possibilities.

"I applied for 15 to 20 programs that summer, and Central City was the only one that accepted me," says Duffy, who tried out for the Met National Council Auditions four times before reaching the finals and recently made her concert hall debuts with the New York and Los Angeles philharmonics. "I was so excited to get into a program. Several hundred sopranos auditioned that year, and they took 10."

Sheer tenacity seems to be a key attribute of all opera artists on the make. Besides the unnerving size of the competition, the considerable artistic and financial challenges cause many a potential star to burn out prematurely. With opera companies seeking to make the art form more appealing to modern audiences through such methods as filming their productions and working with visionary directors, opera houses are demanding more from potential hires than ever before.

"First and foremost, we are looking for high-quality instruments. But we also want people who, through their acting, can communicate something to us," says Sheri Greenawald, director of the San Francisco Opera Center, the company's training wing.

The eyes have it

For better and for worse, the emphasis on presentation skills has brought with it increased pressure on singers to look as attractive as they sound. "The Audition's" Ryan Smith, a Los Angeles-born tenor with a heart-palpitating voice who died last year at age 31 from lymphoma, gave up singing completely in his mid-20s after being told he was "too fat." Smith spent three years working in an Atlanta video game store before his friends persuaded him to start singing again.

"Hollywood has come to the opera, and we now want our young singers to look like starlets," says Greenawald. "It's not that I object to aesthetics per se. But sometimes, great voices don't come in those boxes."

Certain issues are common to almost all developing performers. These include the voice- and confidence-ruining dangers of singing a repertoire that a young artist is not vocally ready to attempt and the considerable financial risk of working toward a professional career. (A conservative estimate is about $140,000 for undergraduate and graduate schooling.) Young artist programs can provide crucial financial support. Yet the system isn't right for everyone, especially those with unusual voices like countertenors or voices that mature particularly early or late.

"We can't expect a conveyor belt system to deliver polished performers," says Marc Scorca, president and chief executive of Opera America. "What really matters is that every singer has his or her own team of vocal teachers, coaches, acting instructors and other advocates to provide a steady source of advice throughout their career."

Near the end of "The Audition," Alek Shrader looks supremely relaxed and confident while swaggering his way through "Ah! Mes Amis" from Donizetti's "La Fille du Régiment." The then-25-year-old tenor apparently hits the ambitious aria's notorious nine high Cs as effortlessly as he pockets one of the competition's $15,000 grand prizes later that day. Of course the ease with which Shrader approaches his craft is the product of many years of hard work -- not to mention the careful guidance of a few deeply invested mentors.

"Stephen Lord of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis helped me to secure my vocal technique. Marilyn Horne developed my bel canto voice and the Juilliard School's Stephen Wadsworth brought out the actor in me," Shrader says. "These people are the key contributors to my success."



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