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Operatic ambition

BY BEN VANWAGONER
Daily Arts Writer
Published October 1, 2008

Darren Keith Woods
Masterclass: Opera, Mock Auditions
Thursday, Oct. 2 at 7 p.m.
Britton Recital Hall, E.V. Moore Building

Audition. The word alone is enough to make most performers feel a stab of trepidation. The most intimidating of tests, the audition has earned its spot in the dark corner of our minds by playing on the basic human fear of direct, personal judgment. Yet for any performer, it’s an unavoidable fixture of the career. There’s simply no way to get a role without one, whether you’re a student actor in Basement Arts or a professional soprano singing for a role in the Detroit Opera House’s production of “Carmen.” Strange then, that, according to Darren Keith Woods, general director of the Fort Worth Opera, few aspiring singers have the skills to survive the all-important nine-minute trial.

“I see almost 2,000 singers (audition) each year in competitions, classes and (professional) auditions. And the truth is, most people do it badly,” Woods said. “Even singers with graduate degrees — it’s like people are leaving grad school without the basic skills to be an opera singer.”

What he’s observed worries him. Woods has a vested interest in helping young opera singers learn to audition — after all, he needs skilled performers for his company. As both General Director of the Fort Worth Opera Company and Artistic Director of the Seagle Music Colony, a preeminent vocal training program, he faces student artists on an almost daily basis. For Woods, having performers who can audition well is vital to his company’s success — and his own peace of mind.

“I started (teaching opera students how to audition) out of self-defense more than anything,” Woods said. As he reasoned, no one wants to sit through an audition when the performer isn’t confident or comfortable with himself. So, in a bid to make his life a little easier — and help new singers while doing it — Woods began directing some of his efforts toward audition training.

“The audition is basically a nine-minute job interview,” Woods said. “It’s so important. Everything you do in that audition counts. It’s your one chance to impress me. The real purpose is to keep me interested enough that I keep asking you to sing more. Usually within the first three or four bars, I know if I’m going to like your voice, but I want to see if you’re prepared and have the energy to keep me convinced.”

Woods is convinced many opera students are simply focusing on the wrong aspects of the art, or focusing so much they lose sight of their goals as performers.

“I’m constantly astounded by the people who give no thought to the dramatic,” he said. “You’re not just there to sing, you’re there as part of a story. I want to see why you’re singing that aria. You have to be in a role even before you start singing, not just standing with your arms at your sides.”

Of course, delivering a perfect audition is easier said than done; and even then, there’s no guarantee of landing a spot in a company.

“Sometimes you just can’t control it,” Woods said. “You might be a perfect singer for the part, but you’re 5’5" and they’re looking for someone who will fit the original costume, and that’s 5’9".”

Some of the challenge is due to the industry itself. Most opera companies have painfully low turnover and lines of clamoring singers trailing out the door hoping for a shot at the company’s precious few spots. Imagine trying to get a job as a Supreme Court Justice — one who happens to be partial toward Italian arias — and you’re on the right track.

Still, the challenge of breaking in hasn’t stopped 81 University students from trying.

For most Michigan students, the opera department probably flies far under the radar. This is not particularly surprising; in fact, there is no opera department. It’s part of the School of Music, Theatre and Dance’s Voice Department, which itself has only 15 faculty members. Although much of the training is classical, only a few professors are focused on opera. The whole of the concentration’s resources are hidden away on North Campus in that stronghold of the fine arts, the Moore Building. And despite the program’s lack of presence on campus, it is one of the nation’s best, regularly sitting near Julliard at the top of the list.

That hasn’t made it much easier for Michigan students; it’s still an uphill battle, and a critical one. Unlike most degrees that allow for several career paths, a concentration in opera gives essentially one option: opera. This makes the competition especially fierce. With every opera concentrator auditioning for the same positions with almost no alternatives, the battle can escalate into an all-out war. This has forced students like Vocal Performance major Wes Mason to think ahead — way, way ahead.

“I’ve been working professionally since I was 16,” Mason said. "But I really got started with the Virginia Opera. They took a big chance with me, handing out roles to an 18-year-old kid.”

At this, Mason cracked a wide smile, and with good reason. According to him, getting roles at a young age is very important for developing as a singer.

“Working in a professional environment, you gain experience you can’t get in class, and that experience really makes a difference,” Mason said. “If you want to do well, walking onstage has to be second nature.” In this, Darren Woods agrees with him.

“The prepared singer, the one who knows the whole opera and has a feeling for the part onstage — he’s just head and shoulders above everyone else. He’s so prepared for the opportunity to sing for me.”

It’s fitting, then, that Mason was recently awarded a role with the Fort Worth Opera’s world premiere production of Jorge Martin’s “Before Night Falls.” Mason and Woods worked together at the Seagle Music Colony, and Woods’s focus on thorough preparation and dramatic interpretation must have rubbed off. Mason described the auditioning process in measured terms, like someone who’d clearly given it great thought.

“Well, you walk onto a stage — sometimes it’s a small room, sometimes an auditorium. There’ll be a panel of people, at least three. Sometimes they’re really great, like Darren. If he knows the person who’s auditioning, he’ll get up and give them a hug. Other panels never look up — that’s just the way they are.” Even speaking about it, Mason was a little tense.

“Your first song should be short and impressive,” he said. “You want the panel to get a feel for you, and hopefully they’ll ask you for a second piece, or even a third.”

On the other side of the desk, the panel is thinking the same thing. According to Woods, the panel is hoping to request another song as much as the singer is hoping to be asked.

“The people behind that table want to like you. They’re dying to like you.” Opera is a tough gig, and perhaps nothing is as naturally terrifying as the audition, but Woods urges students to remember one thing above all.

“As a listener, when you see someone come up to audition, the one thing you’re thinking is ‘Please, God, let them be the person I’m looking for.’ ”


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