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Observations from the other side of the stage

A while back I was invited to be the guest adjudicator at a singing competition. This was a great opportunity for an active singer, not only to see colleagues through the eyes of those whose job it is to evaluate us, but to challenge herself and her own ideas about auditioning. Could I be fair, could I give worthwhile feedback, could I stay "on the job" throughout the day? What prejudices might reveal themselves, and could I combat them? Would it be necessary? I thought I could handle the opportunity, and that it would be very educational for me.

Some people may be angered by what I have to say. Please keep in mind that these are my reactions to a very specific situation, the very first time I have encountered it from this perspective; and I did not make any flippant decisions even though the time I had to make these decisions was very short. This was a competition, in which the contestants moved fairly quickly, each singing only one aria or song, and being rated first, second, or third place with no room for feedback in the finals (which I would have dearly loved to give). There was also a special prize awarded to the singer with the most career potential.

Some of the decisions were clear in my mind; most were hard to make because the talent level, quality of singing, and technical preparation were so high in so many contestants. One person might be a little more technically advanced, but the other person would be more polished and dramatically accomplished. It's hard to quantify which one of those things makes for a better performance, and I ended up going with a gut reaction, which usually favored the person giving the more engaging performance, even if there were one or two minor slips or technical imperfections.

Since the organizers wanted me to judge the advanced singers' finals, I had to judge beginners in the prelims. They assigned me to the high schoolers. I admit it --- my heart sank! Two hours' worth of high school kids struggling through the 24 Greatest Hits at 9 a.m.! Quel horreur!

But I was radically misinformed. These kids were GREAT. Not one of them was really bad or really unprepared. There were three or four really good young voices that were clearly on the right track. They were all technically well prepared; only one kid stumbled a bit with the words in one of his songs. Mostly, the Italian and German diction was very good (most of the French diction was poor, but French is pretty hard). There were one or two kids who really emoted and connected with their music. With one or two exceptions, every one of them was singing exactly the right repertoire to highlight their strengths. I wanted to give every one of them an award, and a big bravo to all their teachers!

When I judged the finals, however, I found myself being much more critical, and had to really make myself examine my reactions to the different performers. Don't get me wrong, there were quite a number of really fine singers, and it was very, very difficult to rate them. There was a special award to be given for the singer with the most career potential. Each of the three judges had selected 5-6 candidates by the end of the auditions --- that's how good these kids were.

Here are my observations from my first time out as a judge.

1. Presentation REALLY matters. Cockiness is not the same thing as self-assurance, and almost cost one high school kid advancement. In the end, I sent him to the finals, because he was absolutely the most polished of the HS kids and also one of the best voices; but I struggled with the decision, because he was also clearly trying to sing "too big for his britches" and will be in vocal trouble in a year or two if he continues.

One of the advanced women who really gave a very good vocal performance had no clue how to walk on the stage, introduce herself or indicate to her pianist that she was ready to start, and the second she was done singing she bowed from the waist like one of those toy birds that drinks from a glass and flounced off the stage. Also, the poor thing was dressed in a manner more appropriate for a dance club than a classical vocal performance. (I told myself sternly that I was NOT going to judge people on their attire, but it does influence you in terms of assessing their level of polish).

2. I saw too many people (mostly women, because of the heels) for whom the simple act of entering and exiting a stage gracefully remains a mystery. The voice of my wonderful teacher Mignon Dunn kept echoing through my head, because that's one thing she was always on the girls about. She was RIGHT, surprise, surprise! You cannot be a diva and lurch across the stage as if you were about to shoot a basket. Ladies, practice walking in those heels and take small steps!

3. I also saw too many people who were helpless and hopeless when it came to introducing themselves and their pieces. Since they were nervous anyway, they botched up the names of their arias. That's another thing Mignon always made us do --- practice introducing ourselves and our selections.

4. Dress is important, but maybe not in the way you think. The guys uniformly (no pun intended) did pretty well. Almost every one wore a nice, dark suit; one or two had colorful shirts and ties, which I liked (except one fellow whose wide, bright yellow tie was ill-advised considering his coloring). One of the HS boys had a very funky dress shirt made out of a shimmery material (changed colors depending on how the light hit it) which was in every other way conventional, and worn with a dark tie and slacks (no jacket). He looked great. Different is good, if it works for you. Clue: if you have to think about it too much, it probably doesn't work for you!

The women were a much more varied lot. There were too many college-aged girls there dressed for prom. (I can forgive it in high school girls, but in college you should know better). A little sparkle looks great and is appropriate; diamond earrings or some silvery thread in your blouse; but floor-length skirts and sequins just scream "I am from the provinces". Slutwear is also a definite turnoff. An afternoon competition is NOT the place to show major cleavage or super-short skirts. Actually, these are not appropriate in ANY opera audition that I can think of! Chunky shoes and boots are also out unless you really can make them look graceful --- appearing graceful and effortless is part of what is expected of women on the stage.

There were a couple of young women in funky outfits that really worked for them --- a long net or crochet duster over a summery dress, a simple black dress with an asymmetrical neckline and chunky shoes (in which the wearer still managed to walk gracefully) --- and others in more conventional audition wear. What they were wearing was only important if it didn't suit them or seemed wildly inappropriate. I definitely noticed the outfits; and even though I promised myself NOT to judge based on what people were wearing, attire gives the first clue as to whether the person a) has polish and b) is self-aware. Appearance did influence me on some level. Incidentally, almost every person who wasn't well-dressed exhibited other glaring signs of lack of polish on stage.

5. Darren Keith Woods, former General Director of Fort Worth Opera and current Artistic Director of Seagle Music Colony, said it first, but I second the motion. You really can tell within the first few measures of a piece whether you like a voice, and in not many more how accomplished the person is as a singer. After that, it's all about holding interest. By far the biggest thing missing from the singers I heard in this competition was not technical ability, not talent, but any spark of engagement with the piece, any hint that they were having fun singing, any dramatic involvement! Some were clearly trying, but had limited success. It made me think "Hmmm, I hope my face and body language are really saying what I want them to be saying when I sing! Time for some brush-up dramatic coachings!"

The people who really stood out were the ones who were dramatically involved and communicating with the audience; and who looked like they actually wanted to be there. A short list of the other dramatic sins I witnessed:

a. Stingy Emoting - one emotion per aria. If an aria is Sad, it ain't Sad all the way through. Or if it is, there are degrees of Sad. There are moments of happy memory. There is despair. There are highs and lows. And your audience wants to see every one.

b. Acting by Semaphore --- waving one's arms about like a sailor trying to land a jet fighter on the deck of an aircraft carrier in high winds. Gestures must have purpose and meaning. Less is more.

c. Robot Syndrome - coming alive like someone just plugged you in when, and ONLY when, it's time to sing. People clomp onto stage and stand there looking uncomfortable (or visibly counting their entrances!) until it's time to sing, and then it's like someone turned on a light switch. This does not make a performance.

d. Audience Avoidance Techniques --- staring at the floor or anywhere except where your audience is sitting while you're singing. Singers do this when they're nervous --- it's an avoidance technique. It makes me, as an audience member, want to wave a hand and yell, "Here! I'm over HERE!"

One more thing on the subject of drama. At one pay-to-sing I did, I was rooming with an older, more experienced singer with whom I enjoyed many Deep Thoughts about singing and the business. One night I was going on and on about how I wanted to be GOOD, I wanted to FABULOUS, I wanted to sing really WELL, blah blah blah. And she said, "You can't go out there thinking about being good and doing well. You have to entertain the people. That's your job. Entertain the people, and you'll be good." That thought is with me before every performance of any kind, whether it's an opera, concert, audition, or church service. Entertain the people, folks. That's what we're there for.

And while I'm on the subject, let me add that IMHO entertainment is NOT a dirty word in the context of grand opera. It is not lowbrow. I believe in serving the art and connecting with the audience and moving them with the experience of beautiful, great music and drama ... and I also believe in entertaining them. I believe that if I do communicate and connect and provide the beautiful music, my audience will be entertained.

2. Repertoire. (Here's the part where I become flame bait). I have always been an advocate of going out there and singing what you sing best, no matter what, but after judging my whopping one single competition, I've revised my standard somewhat. There ARE situations in which you may be better off with your second- or third-best aria, such as a competition or audition in which you only get to sing one thing. In that case, go for the fireworks (assuming you can sing your firework piece really, really well and comfortably).

Unquestionably, the people who stood out were the ones who sang sparkly or otherwise impressive pieces. There was a baritone who sang "The Vagabond" from the Ralph Vaughan Williams Songs of Travel, and sang it well. I really like this song. But it's strophic, and not very challenging, and the performance wasn't nearly as impressive as the tenor who sang a more challenging aria superbly even though his voice wasn't quite as pretty.

There was a very engaging tenor who I liked from the moment he stepped on stage. He was charming, confident, smiling a terrific smile, and I found him very appealing. He was extremely polished and offered a Verdi aria that was ready for any professional stage. I couldn't find fault with his performance, and I gave him first place in his division. He was on my short list of candidates for the career potential prize. I probably would have given him second place for the career potential prize, if there had been one.

I could not award him the top prize because he was a tenor and he didn't show me a single high note. I really worried over whether this was fair; but it came down to the fact that it's really important for any singer to show their money notes, especially when the question is who's most likely to succeed. Do I think this guy will succeed? If he keeps going like he is now, and he has a good top, yes, in all probability. But in the end I was more impressed with the rockin' mezzo who tore the house down with her Joan of Arc and the highly polished soprano who sang a near-flawless Anne Truelove --- both very challenging arias that show off everything about the voice.

Another singer I reluctantly passed over was a really fabulous lyric coloratura. She looked great. She looked exactly like a lyric coloratura is supposed to look. She sang flawlessly and with animation, but I felt she lacked sparkle, something to make her different. I really struggled with this, because she was really, really good . However, compared to Joan of Arc and Anne Truelove, it just wasn't as impressive. I thought, "This girl is definitely going to be cast for the kinds of roles she sings. She's perfect. But the other two were the ones who made me say, "WOW!" This just goes to show how terrific you can be and STILL not win, or get the part. And the more people there are in your fach, the more special you have to be. It's one of those horrible unfair things about the business, but there is no getting around it.

BTW, of the three judges, one of us REALLY wanted to give the award to the LC, and also REALLY liked the Verdi tenor. The other two of us wanted either Joan or Anne. The girl who won in the end got the prize because she was the only one all three of us had on our short lists. She was not the one who sang a perfect technical performance (OK, it was near-perfect --- a brief intonation problem on ONE run); but she was super-poised, super-professional, and very engaging on top of singing really well.

The moral of the story is, in a world where many, many people sing well, singing well is not enough. And sometimes doing everything right is not enough. It's not personal as in against you; but adjudicators' personal preferences and prejudices must come into play.

I certainly learned a lot from this experience that I can apply to my own performing (I hope). It's a great opportunity for a singer to adjudicate. I hope I can do it again!