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Selecting Audition Arias
Wendy Nielsen
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ArtistLink12/8/2008

Editor's Note: The following article is excerpted from Making Choices: A Singer's Guide from Classrooms to Contracts, the fourth book in OPERA America's Perspectives series. For more information or to purchase these publications, visit operaamerica.org.
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I often joke with singers that we are all waiting for our letter from God that reads:

Dear Wendy,

Your five audition arias should be:
  1. Mi tradì (Don Giovanni)
  2. Embroidery Aria (Peter Grimes)
  3. Vissi d'arte (Tosca)
  4. Song to the Moon (Rusalka)
  5. Es gibt ein reich (Ariadne auf Naxos)
Love, God

Even if you're on good terms with the Almighty, don't spend too much time waiting by the mailbox. Finding out who you are artistically, while fulfilling the dreaded five-aria requirement, is challenging. We all know that a range of styles and languages should be represented. It is also important to sing repertoire for which you could be hired immediately. Struggling with repertoire that is extremely challenging for you does not impress. Some suggest that you should hint at where you might be in another few years in one selection. A realistic starting point in attaining "the five" is to consider your strengths and weaknesses.

Even if you're on good terms with the Almighty, don't spend too much time waiting by the mailbox. Finding out who you are artistically, while fulfilling the dreaded five-aria requirement, is challenging. We all know that a range of styles and languages should be represented. It is also important to sing repertoire for which you could be hired immediately. Struggling with repertoire that is extremely challenging for you does not impress. Some suggest that you should hint at where you might be in another few years in one selection. A realistic starting point in attaining "the five" is to consider your strengths and weaknesses.

Self-evaluation is no easy task. Write down your good points. These might include a warm middle voice, ability to make people feel at ease, freely soaring top notes, a great smile, a flexible body. The more difficult part, your weaknesses, comes next. Shyness in front of new people, trouble with the passaggio and confusion as to your voice type are but a few examples. Review what you have written. Upon what can you effect positive change? If you are 5'10", like me, accept that height can be perceived as either a plus or a minus depending on the situation. It is clearly not something I can change, so I embrace it as a strength.

I am often asked: "I need a ________ aria. What should I choose?" Due to the nature of many young artist programs, competitions and auditions, we all feel the pressure to conform and fill the requirements. Believe it or not, the people listening to you are not looking for versatility first and foremost. The most important requirement is that you sing beautifully with real emotional honesty. In the early stages, reality dictates that you offer those varied arias. This is a good thing, as it can help you to sift through the repertoire and determine where you fit. For many of my early auditions I offered two or three Italian Mozart arias plus an aria in English and one in German or French. It was a lot of Mozart to offer, but it was simply what I did best.

I would encourage you to listen to three advisors when trying to sort out the great repertoire questions:
  1. Your voice
  2. Your head
  3. Your heart
Your voice will tell you what feels like home when you sing. What tessitura are you comfortable with when you roll out of bed in the morning?

Your head will remind you of the feedback you have had from teachers and coaches over the years. On the page, the roles of Susanna and Sieglinde don't appear vastly different in terms of range, but these roles couldn't be more different in their demands. Don't be fooled by the "but I can sing all of the notes" syndrome. What is the size of the orchestra? Who else has sung the role?

Your heart will tell you which characters you best connect with; having said this, some of your most successful portrayals may be roles that are far removed from your realm of experience. Let's face it, most of us are not living "operatic" lives, and thank goodness for that! The basic emotions felt by every human being are what we all have in common, and this is what the audience craves — to relate and live through what they see on the stage.

In this day of increasing media scrutiny, looks have become more important than ever. Looking the part has always been in the mix and always will be. If you are auditioning for the role of Countess, you probably don't want to come to the audition in your sexiest dress; something elegant might be more to the point. The days of big hair and jewelry are gone. The important thing is to show yourself to your best advantage.

This career is not about finding the five arias, it is about finding out who you are as an artist. What is it that makes you unique? Audiences and audition panels want desperately to be transported to the world of your character portrayal. Getting it "right" or fitting the mold is not the point. Singing the right notes and rhythms with good style and language is the lowest common denominator. Bringing your unique perspective to the role is the ultimate goal. The great reality of being a singer is that no one can ever be just like you. Remember this and celebrate it.

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About the Author: Canadian soprano and voice teacher Wendy Nielsen made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1996 as Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, and has since performed numerous roles there including Countess in Le nozze di Figaro, Micaela in Carmen and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni. She has appeared with opera companies including the Canadian Opera Company, The Minnesota Opera, Opera Company of Philadelphia, Calgary Opera, Edmonton Opera, L'Opéra de Montréal and Florida Grand Opera. Her orchestral and recital appearances include the New York Philharmonic, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Lucerne Summer Festival, Warsaw Beethoven Festival, Montreal Symphony, Chinese Philharmonic and the Toronto Symphony. She is artistic director of the St Andrews Opera Workshop, a faculty member of the COSI program in Sulmona, Italy, chair of the board of directors of Debut Atlantic and a board member of Opera.ca.
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