THE BLOG

Five Minutes to Stardom

11/16/2012 09:43 pm ET | Updated Jan 16, 2013

In the fall of each year young opera singers appear in New York and other artistic hubs to audition for opera companies and summer programs.

In a nutshell, each singer is normally given five whole minutes, ten, if lucky, to show what they can do. Sometimes an accompanist is provided and other times the singer has to pay for someone. You are to sing your strongest piece first in case a second choice is not in the stars. Finding the right first choice takes some trial and error. Most singers do not have a good sense of what they do best. I learned this the hard way by singing pieces that were emotionally satisfying for me but not necessarily impressive to the listener. In the long run I did better with perky arias, much to my chagrin.

I cannot remember my last audition. If I had known it would be my last I certainly would have made note. At sometime in my early career and to my great relief, I eased out of the process.

Having only lived in New York while I was at Juilliard, I would fly to New York from my then home in Houston to sing at events my manager had arranged. In the '80s they were usually held at the beef Wellington Hotel on 7th Avenue (as opposed to the Salisbury steak Hotel on 57th). Beyond the lobby to the right was a room for these auditions that each company would rent.

There is nothing more nerve-wracking than sitting in the hallway outside of the room, hearing other singers. Moreover, hearing singers boast about whom they know and where they have sung was extremely annoying. It is a game that is played to psych out the competition. Some people would vocalize right there or hog the bathroom. I tended to separate myself from this. I found I did well the more I saved my energy.

Thinking of those dreaded auditions, I thought I might share some tales from the trade.
It also might encourage those who may feel rejected or that they didn't do so well, since I still was able to make a great career in spite of myself.

When I had just finished with Houston Opera Studio and was on my own, working temp jobs to pay for voice lessons, I flew to New York to audition for Maestro John Nelson who was looking for someone to sing the role of Béatrice in Berlioz's Béatrice et Bénédict with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. I had one, count'em, one audition dress that was a purple knit number. I flew in the night before to be sure I was rested. The morning of the audition I donned my purple knit dress and went for breakfast. (Both the hotel and the breakfast were way over my budget.) You know those little half-and-half individual creamers? I managed to splatter myself with one. With no time to return to my room to tidy up, I headed to the audition in self-disgust. When I walked in I blurted out my breakfast story, then sang, knowing I would never get hired. Lo and behold, I was!

Another favorite memory is when I was asked to go to Salzburg to sing for the great Herbert von Karajan. At the time I was making my Vienna Staatsoper debut as Cherubino. My manager flew in and we took the train three hours to Salzburg. I checked in at the Hotel Eléfant then met with a pianist the Salzburg Festival had provided.

Much to my chagrin, he could not play the Richard Strauss aria I had brought and could hardly play Mozart. This struck me as very bizarre considering that the works of these two musical giants are frequently performed there. At any rate, I was led to the Grosses Festspielhaus -- the large festival theater -- where the Maestro was in the rehearsals for Don Giovanni. I watched the quite celebrated cast -- Samuel Ramey, Kathleen Battle, Julia Varady and others. Von Karajan took a break and most of the artists sat in the front seats. These were icons of the opera world. Gee, nervous?

I went onstage -- the piano was down in the pit -- and I attempted to sing the composer's aria from Ariadne auf Naxos (a role for which I later became very well-known). The pianist was definitely lost and Von Karajan yelled, "shtop!" from the rear of the theater. He then said my voice was too big and I needed to move upstage. As I went he would say, "Further... further back," until I was basically in the upstage right wings. I vividly remember the bass Sam Ramey passing me asking why I was standing there. Next I knew I vaguely heard my Cherubino aria accompaniment and started to sing. About half way through I heard another booming, "shtop!" I was then told that I had no sense of rhythm. That was the end of the audition.

Even with all that, I made my Salzburg Festival debut in the summer of 1989. I had to cancel my originally scheduled debut in 1988 since I was giving birth.

My career really started to take off after I sang in Cologne, Germany in a production of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, originally directed by the great, late, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. The assistant who was putting the revival together recommended me Ponnelle, so I took a train to Swetzingen where he was in rehearsals. I sang for him on a stage where Mozart had played as a child. It gave me chills. The role I was hoping to get was Cherubino, so I sang the arias from the opera. At the end, Ponnelle ran to the stage (a good sign?) and told me in a very blunt fashion that I had a good voice but my Italian was merde. I had the wits to respond by asking his suggestions for improvement. Apparently this sealed the deal as he requested that I travel to Paris to sing for Daniel Barenboim who would be conducting the production in 1984 being mounted by the Orchestre de Paris.

A few days later I found myself on a train to Paris. I had to squeeze these auditions into the days between my Cologne performances so there was not a lot of time. I had to travel, sing, sleep and travel back over two days. Having never been to Paris I asked for a cheap hotel at a station kiosk. I was sent to one nearby that was basically a no-tell-motel, filthy with carpeting on the walls and a barely recognizable bed. As the clock was ticking I schlepped back to the station and got another place near the orchestra hall. After checking in I had maybe 10 minutes to spare to I quickly changed and ran to the audition. There was one other singer there. I sang first. Monsieur Diamond, who was the chief administrator, was there with Daniel Barenboim. That night I walked all over Paris thinking I might never be there again.

I got the job.

Years later, I ran into Mr. Diamond at a reception in London. He came over with the usual twinkle in his eye and said:

I have to tell you a story. Remember your audition for Daniel at Salle Pleyel? We were very pressed for time and quite distracted because Jesse Norman had cancelled the concert for that evening and we needed to find a replacement. You basically got the job because you were the first one to sing.

My jaw dropped. The once in a lifetime opportunity in the very opera that made my career was an accident. I suppose I owe Jesse Norman big time.