...and then it was November Photo by prawika jekara, via Flickr. (License below)

...and then it was November

Greg Finney

Our Toronto-based contributor Greg Finney was a fan of our recent anonymous submission, “Audition season, or the annual Festival of Shattered Dreams.” In what he calls “an extension” of the author’s sentiments, Greg offers up some solutions to a sticky problem.

Feature image: prawika jekara via Flickr.

Hello, Schmop-Tops.

Now that the flurry of audition season is done and the majority of companies have launched their seasons and had their receptions (hiccough), now it’s time to settle in and get cracking on your repertoire for the year (assuming you’ve already been practising ad nauseum anyway).

But what happens if - after another year of paying audition fees, paying pianists, buying plane/train/bus tickets, crashing on the couches of friends and colleagues and eating more takeout than any rightful human should - you don’t get an offer?

  • "But I was so busy last year!" you may be thinking. "What happened?"
  • "Every damn time!" you may be thinking. "What am I doing wrong?"
  • "But I've never sung better in an audition," you may be thinking. "What could they be looking for?"

The answer, my friends, isn’t blowing in the wind. It’s an answer we all have to come to grips with at one point or another. The answer is, you didn’t fit the bill.

Plain and simple.

You may be the title-holder of a thousand singing prizes. You still didn’t fit the bill. You may have been the toast of the town at the end of last season - but you still didn’t fit the bill. You may be the most delightful person to work with - but you still didn’t fit the bill. You may have received nothing but glowing reviews - but you still didn’t fit the bill.

Look, it happens to everyone. The one thing - the main thing - that I think we need to remember when we find ourselves in the doldrums of perceived failure is that it’s not personal. It’s never personal.

It’s not that they didn’t like you or thought you sounded horrible (or at least it’s exceedingly rare); it’s that they have to fit you into a giant piece of work that entails not just the role you’re auditioning for, but many other facets. Maybe they’ve already cast the tenor, and you and he won’t have a great blend while singing. Or in a horrible example, the costumes are already made, and you don’t fit into the dress. Maybe they just decided to go with another singer about 20 minutes before you came in. It really could be anything.

The one thing we must remember - and I forget it all the time - is that as an opera singer, your ability to sing well and beautifully is assumed. You studied, you practised, you coached, you did it all the way your voice teacher and life coach instructed you to; but the decision rarely comes down to the voice alone.

“But it’s opera! It should be based on the voice alone!” your inner purist is yelling. I can hear the strains of “prima la musica” calling out to me from the ether. Trust me, I can.

But you’re wrong.

Opera, as much as we hate to admit it, belongs to the entertainment industry. It has since it left the private performances of patrons and palaces in the 18th and early 19th century. We can all thank Beethoven for his very notable walk through the front door to make all this happen.

No one is denying the amount of study, preparation, and finesse it requires to perform our art, but the fact remains that we’re asking strangers to pay money to watch us do something they don’t or can’t do. That’s entertainment, folks.

We can lose sight of it while we’re fighting for artistic excellence and proper payment for artists. We forget about the hypothetical “Mildred and Daisy,” who are coming to be transported away to Seville, Paris, or the Tyrolean Alps. They’re not coming to see if you executed that mordent correctly, or if you took that trill from above. They assume we know these things, if they’re cognizant of these being part of the trade at all.

Part of that entertainment model means you need to have a cohesive product. One that looks, feels and sounds as the director wants it to, according to their vision. Don’t forget, we’re in a theatre, not spinning on an LP or CD or your iTunes. Sometimes, that cohesive product doesn’t have a spot for you, or your three singing prizes from last season.

Remember that while you’re buried in your technique and breath control, there will be a LOT of people in that audience hearing this score for the first time.

So, what do you do when you find yourself scoreless until Messiah season?

Go see more opera

Support your colleagues who did get the gig, but also go to be inspired by artists doing their work. Nothing makes me want to sing more and get back to the piano or studio than hearing another singer do amazing work. Also don’t discount the other performing arts as well. My colleagues and I often derive a lot of inspiration from musical theatre, classical theatre, improv, dance… you name it. Inspiration can be lurking around the most unassuming of corners.

Look at your repertoire

What arias are you singing? Perhaps your package contains a list of five “greatest hits” arias. While this can be great (you’ll rarely find an audition panel that doesn’t know “Come scoglio”), remember, this is probably the thirteenth time this afternoon they’ve heard said classic. Try to vary it up a bit. Add a new language, try a contemporary piece. Basically what it comes down to is variety and expansion. The more you can do, the more they can hire you to do.

Take a class

…if the budget allows (and often it doesn’t). Take a dance or movement class, an improv class, take up yoga. When you don’t have a whack of disposable income for this kind of stuff, you can find a lot of various studios willing to do an “energy exchange,” where you volunteer for the studio and then get to take the classes for free or a reduced rate. This can be a great solution to those looking to expand skills, but have a limited cash flow.

Work on your languages

You could also spend time advancing your language skills. We all get to work in English, Italian and French quite frequently. Where I find the disconnect is in the lesser-performed languages, like German (yes, admit it, we see less German than we should), Russian, Czech, etc…. If you can make a name for yourself as someone with great skills in Russian, for example, it could move you right to the head of the pack.

Think outside the box

Or, you could take a different tack. Most of the smaller Canadian companies that have popped up are always in need of support from people who are “in the know” in the industry. Ring one of them up; they’ll always need volunteers, that’s for sure. This does two things: 1) it gives you an insight into some (or all) of the other insane amounts of work it takes to mount the productions you’re auditioning for, and 2) it keeps you in full view of a company you may wish to sing with - no chance of “out-of-sight-out-of-mind.”

So, does it suck that you don’t have a gig? Yes. It does. I know, I’ve been there. Can you turn it around by changing what you do or the way you think? You can.

Just keep in mind, the only guarantees in life are death and taxes - but it would be nice to add “career of your choosing” to that list.


You can catch Greg onstage with Toronto Operetta Theatre, in Waltz Rivals: A Tribute to Kálmán and Lehár, November 6 at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Click here for details.


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