Interview with Pianist, Conductor and operamission Director Jennifer Peterson
Many of our members know Jennifer Peterson as the incredibly gifted, professional, well-versed audition pianist who frequents the New York City audition halls, but Jennifer is also an accomplished conductor as well as the founder and director of a well-respected newer opera company around town, operamission. operamission and Jennifer have recently received praise for stand-out, unconventional performances of La Bohème and Così fan tutte that encourage audience interaction and engagement, and future projects include a wide range of repertoire: presentations of new opera, baroque opera, as well as cabaret-style evenings. She’ll share her thoughts on both the importance of the pianist and conductor in the careers of young singers as well as best practices for preparing for auditions.
Please share a bit about your background.
I’ve been in NYC since 1997 and coach out of a small studio in midtown where I also have my harpsichord. My initial training was as a violinist and a pianist (Oberlin Conservatory), and I began the pursuit of opera in graduate school (IU Bloomington), instantly hooked in by the constant challenge of never knowing how all the variables would miraculously come together, as well as the excitement of working with amazing singers every day.
My conducting and baroque training came later, as soon as I began establishing myself in the professional world of opera. On the conducting side, I was always drawn to the organizing of all the loose ends, and found the leadership side of things the most fulfilling, while on the baroque side, found that digging into harmony and historical performance style kept me more relaxed and, in the end, more satisfied. I’ve worked in over fifty opera houses, and am passionate about opera remaining a vital genre in the United States.
As someone who hears many auditions, what advice would you give singers and vocal accompanists who wish to stand out from among their peers when auditioning for young artist programs?
Always remember that the opera company needs to hear and see what you are capable of doing. This sounds obvious. But there are so many distractions from this that it is rarely achieved. Your job, if you succeed at a given audition, will be to portray a character in an opera, and do so by singing your way gloriously through the score. Your job is NOT to design the costumes or to print the programs or to market the season or rent the set or to negotiate with the unions. The person listening to you behind the table has to manage all these other jobs and more, so keep the casting part of their job as simple as you can. Give them a true sense of what your portrayal of each character (as represented by your audition selections) would sound like and feel like, were they to plunk you in their theater with their orchestra and their set & costumes. Even if your aria is not something from their season, give them a true taste of how you would flesh out each character whose text you are singing. Be direct. Know the character, know the opera, and know why that character MUST sing these words to the air at this given moment, as prescribed by the librettist and the composer. This is enough of a challenge; there is no need to worry about any other departments of the opera company for which you are auditioning. The result: if you show them clearly that you can do your job well with no distractions, then they will know their job will be made easier by casting you.
Years ago, I conducted a little experiment with regard to the audition process. I jotted quick notes in a notebook of my first impressions of all of the singers in a YAP as they sang their two audition arias the first day of the program. It was the first time I had heard any of them sing. I referred back to my notes throughout the duration of the program as I worked with the singers individually and grew to know them better. For the most part, my initial impressions were incorrect. For most I was correct in assessing their voices, but I often thought their musicianship was weak when they proved to me later that it was quite strong. The same went for other aspects of their performances. This taught me that an audition is RARELY a good assessment of a singer’s level. It is your job to tell us who you are as clearly as possible, so potential opportunities are not lost due to this confusing phenomenon.
This applies to pianists as well. Make it clear to the opera company what your skills are. If your skills match the job, it will be a good fit. If you are not the right person for the job, everyone will be better off if you don’t pretend that you are.
What are the most consistent areas where young singers could work to improve their audition "game"?
I find that singers spend quite a bit of wasted energy trying to second-guess the audition panel. My best advice is to always prioritize good healthy singing. A well-sung aria is a beautiful thing. If you feel you need to manipulate the opera company’s decision, please just do it through the music. It is the most powerful way. If you are spending more time at the computer asking advice and tweaking your CV & your website than you are studying your music and working on your singing, then you are probably not actively becoming a more castable singer. Yes, you need a ‘package’ -- but think about it… It’s an extremely competitive business in every way. Ultimately the most important element of a good audition is good singing.
For our young singers who are just entering the YAP circuit, how should they prioritize their focus and pursuits? For example, is a master’s degree required before you begin auditioning for the major companies? Do they need to hone their craft in smaller YAPs before pursuing the upper tier?
There is no one ‘path’ and don’t let anyone tell you there is. The YAP circuit has changed quite a bit from the early 1990s when I left graduate school and started out as an apprentice. We generally did one or two YAPs, but now singers do as many as six. I have good friends with successful international careers who did NONE, but paid their dues and worked incredibly hard in establishing themselves with the help of voice teachers, coaches, managers, etc., but avoided the formal training programs entirely. I think the key elements in the wording of your excellent question, Julie, are “focus” and “hone their craft.” Young singers must keep in mind that ideally, they will continue to improve the longer they are in the business. Find the best opportunities you can, for what you can handle at any given level of experience and training, and know that you will only improve with more experience and perspective. Focus, yes, and actively hone your craft every opportunity you possibly can. If the standard YAPs don’t offer you positions, find opportunities elsewhere. Opera is constantly being reinvented; there are no limits to what constitutes a production. The more you are on stage with an orchestra in the pit, the more comfortable you will be when thrown into your La Scala debut with no rehearsal, but in the meantime, soak up those skills in any way you can possibly think up.
Along the same lines, is there a general basket of skills that young singers should work to improve, and if so, what would they be?
The talent level of singers coming out of school these days is incredibly high, however I do hear a high percentage of young artists who sound like they have not been prioritizing healthy vocal training/technique in their process. When we are young, we feel indestructible. But please listen to your teachers when they advise you towards repertoire and artistic choices which encourage career longevity. As you grow and age, you will need the confidence of knowing that you know your own voice better than anyone else. You will be constantly being given advice throughout your career, but ONLY YOU will know what is best for YOU, provided you are indeed in touch with what is healthy singing for your given instrument.
As a conductor/director, what attributes do you value most in the singers you choose to hire?
That’s easy: honesty, both in singing and in communication. I value artists who are interested in performing at the absolutely highest level, while being willing to play & grow with me through the process.
Are there any reasons a singer would be considered a "do not hire" based on an audition or a "do not hire back" based on a performance experience?
I can be very forgiving and often give people several chances, but will not hire a singer from an audition if they do not sing well.
If a singer is unreliable in terms of their artistic commitment, I cannot afford to re-hire them.
What can young singers do to cultivate a strong, positive network among the conductors of today and tomorrow?
Be available, sing well, stay positive, support the process. If you like working with someone, let them know. If you don’t like working with someone, do your best, and move on to the next assignment, contributing what you can to make the experience as positive as possible.
YAP Tracker does have a number of accompanist members, so for those who want to make the leap from accompanist/coach to conductor/opera company director, what advice would you give them?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t really see it as a “leap,” rather as different specific skills. A coach is someone who is equipped to help singers sing better. For those of us trained as pianists, if we want to coach, we must be very proactive in learning musical styles, languages, details of diction and how phonetic sounds are best produced by singers of many native languages and training levels, not to mention familiarizing ourselves with the operatic canon, its history and evolution. We also must have a good handle on dramaturgy and what goes into a singer’s presentation of a role in every way. Alternatively, I hold a firm opinion that a conductor should be the strongest of musicians, and also that a conductor must have a musical message to impart. We have too many conductors doing it for the wrong reasons. It’s not just a way to boss people around, or to ‘control.’ A conductor whose ego drives them to it is doing it for the wrong reason, especially in opera.
Founding a company is something one does when the time is right. I’ve been mounting shows and organizing, founding & co-founding organizations all through my career, and each venture has felt like an obvious need waiting to be fulfilled.
And finally, any dos and don’ts to share about working with an accompanist, from auditions to coachings to rehearsals? About working with a conductor?
If you want to command respect as a singer, always treat your pianist respectfully. All the NYC opera pianists know each other and talk to each other. A negative recommendation carries more weight than most realize; it’s pretty much a done deal if an opera company asks a pianist about a singer and the pianist says, “nope.” They move on, that’s it, in my experience. And I have known a good number of singers’ careers to have taken off in major ways due to a pianist’s positive recommendation (if the singer sings well).
Always keep in mind, when hiring a pianist, that you are doing just that: you are engaging an artist for a job, and this artist has been training in their profession since approximately the age of five. Do not hire four pianists and then un-engage three at the last moment. This simply goes with being respectful. When I’m casting ‘Le Nozze di Figaro,’ I don’t cast four Susannas and then decide later who will be the most fun or the cheapest or the most reliable or the most entertaining. Can you imagine being one of the four? Please remember to think of pianists this way when you are selecting your collaborator for an audition. We take auditions seriously, and are making ourselves available to you in order to help you win a job. It is an artistic collaboration in which we take pride, just as you do when you perform anywhere.
Another tip: please don’t tell a pianist, “I’ve tried EVERYONE, and nobody is available so I called you…” -- think about it -- is it really a good idea to tell your audition pianist they were your very last choice? This happens every day, so please catch yourself if you do this; it is very bad form.
In working with a conductor: be prepared, know how you feel about the music and the character, and always communicate clearly if you have specific needs or ideas to contribute. Being a ‘blank slate’ is a skill that will empower administrators, conductors and directors more than it will empower you as an artist and a communicator, which, when you think about it, is the reason the audience buys tickets.
In coachings and rehearsals, again, be respectful, and communicate. It may surprise readers to know that some of my favorite coaching clients are those who show up with a set agenda. They tell me upfront exactly what they want to work on and for how long, down to exactly which notes I should or shouldn’t play. It is my challenge to sneak my two cents into their agenda, and I actually enjoy this game. There are many ways to use a coaching productively, even if you’re woodshedding notes. Just be clear with the coach as to your needs; they know you are there to learn, not to impress them.
This leads me to a pet peeve I have: singers choosing a coach (or a voice teacher) for purely political reasons. This is personal to me, but I feel very strongly about it. I have a ton to say about the music and about how opera can best connect to an audience. However, I am beyond lousy as a politician, and have come to terms with this fact over my twenty years of experience in the business. My solution is to keep the art above the politics. I stay optimistic in this philosophy, even though I am proved wrong constantly. Take it or leave it; these are my priorities.
A huge thank you to Julie and YAP Tracker for the inviting me to take part in this interview. All are welcome to please contact me via email or on Twitter @gaspsiagore if you’d like to discuss any of these topics further.
Like this discussion? Please share your thoughts on our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/yaptracker or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jennifer's contact information for coachings and auditions can be found on YAP Tracker's accompanist directory: http://www.yaptracker.com/more/accompanist-directory.