Considering a training program as an option for the coming summer? Programs abound both in the US and abroad with a wide array of features, faculty and potential. How can one discern the good from the bad from the downright ugly? While many opportunities may offer a positive experience overall (where others don't), choosing the one that is right for any one singer at their particular career stage can be the key to a summer (and your dollars) well spent.
We spoke with Ann Baltz, Founder and Artistic Director of the nationally acclaimed performance training program OperaWorks, about choosing the right training program. Ms. Baltz has been recognized as one of the leading opera educators in America today. Her diverse background ranges from leadership of master classes, workshops and residencies on performance training and improvisation; roles as assistant conductor, coach, and chorus master; and Director and Music Director of numerous venerable institutions. She has also enjoyed a career as an accomplished pianist. Ms. Baltz is a regular contributor to various publications on topics of interest to emerging singers and a frequent adjudicator for national competitions. She is on the opera faculty at California State University-Northridge.
What are the important factors that singers should consider when choosing to apply for a particular program?
Every singer should define where they are in their development and career, and what they need to improve. For example, what kind of performance experience do you have? How solid is your vocal technique? What is your level of fluency in a foreign language? Do you have acting training? Answering these questions will help you target the types of programs that can fulfill your needs.
When considering different programs, investigate what each program offers and whom they accept. The opera business requires much more than a beautiful voice – it also requires a tough skin and a strong sense of who you are. Look for programs in which you will grow artistically and personally.
Young Artist Programs: With some summer YAPs you could be cast in a leading mainstage role or featured in a scenes program, while in others the young artists serve as the chorus for mainstage productions with the possibility of a smaller role. There are also opera companies that establish a YAP to provide outreach services to their communities. To determine if you are ready for one of these programs, log onto their websites and read the bios of the singers they have chosen.
Training Programs: These types of programs usually have a particular focus such as vocal, musical, linguistic, cultural, audition preparation, or the “total package”. Look at websites to compare course offerings, daily activities, instructor-singer ratio, and the faculty’s teaching as well as professional experience in the field. As with any program, your should also research what past participants say about a program through online forums, colleagues, and teachers.
Pay-To-Sing programs: Some of these programs have good reputations for quality productions and some do not. Some programs require their faculty to provide a certain number of paying students regardless of their readiness. Research carefully to determine the realistic opportunities for performance. Would you be considered for a leading or secondary role? Is the production double/triple/quadruple cast? If you didn’t get cast in a role, what performance experiences would you be paying for? Chorus? Concerts? And finally, what are the qualifications and experience of the artistic staff?
Once you have narrowed your choice of programs, you should determine the time and financial commitment each one would entail. You should also consider that there are different kinds of “currencies”, meaning that you might be paid, while in other programs the “currency” could be the contacts you make, performance opportunities, or a particular type of training that has a dramatic effect on you and your artistry.
How can a singer best prepare for their audition at a top tier training program like yours? Are there any differences to how they prepare for young artist programs, for example?
Any audition is a performance for which you need to be completely prepared. I expect singers to know their music cold and have the courage to go beyond singing the notes to create a flesh and blood person. The more honest and real you are when you perform, the more involved I am in your audition.
When I audition singers for OperaWorks’ training programs, I have only ten minutes to evaluate where you are musically, dramatically, vocally, creatively and personally. Because I am not casting for specific roles, I am also interested in how comfortable you are with yourself, how committed you are to the aria in that moment, and much of a risk-taker you are.
I would not recommend auditioning with arias that are fairly new and untested. I can usually tell if a singer has prepared their arias musically but with only a cursory understanding of the character. You need to do in-depth musical, vocal, dramatic, physical and mental work on your arias long before an audition. Watching YouTube videos is not what I mean. You must work with the text separately, answering “why do I say this?” for every single line and word that you say. You must explore different vocal colors, dynamics, tempi, and articulations that will express the intent of your words. There is enormous competition in this business and the richer your performances are, the better chance you have of standing out from the crowd.
Are there specific factors that set a great program apart from other offerings?
1. Vision: There must be a strong vision on the part of the directors so that everything in the program supports that vision.
2. Organization: When a program is well organized it will run smoothly and efficiently, and positively affect everyone’s creativity, psychology and morale.
3. Quality: Programs that emphasize excellence in all aspects -- artistically, administratively, interpersonally -- benefit everyone involved.
4. Uniqueness: Great programs, as with great singers, have a palpable yet indescribable uniqueness that sets them apart.
What do you perceive as the general differences between degree-bearing offerings, a training program and a young artist program?
There are excellent academic programs for singers around the country, with many outstanding and dedicated teachers. There is also an increasing number of schools that struggle with budget cuts, limited performance opportunities for expanded student populations, and teachers who have do not an opera background or professional experience to adequately prepare opera performance majors. At the very least academic institutions should prepare you with basic skills including vocal technique, diction, theory, history, and keyboard. You may also learn basic stage techniques, and perform in opera scenes and opera productions. These are the bare minimum and you will need to seek additional training elsewhere within or outside your institution.
Training programs fill a need by providing artistic and career development that is not commonly available in academic institutions. In a training program, you can learn new skills, expand on the skills you already possess, study with professional artist-teachers, and work with colleagues from different parts of the country. Many of these programs will guide you to improve your skills, polish your performance, build your confidence, increase your network, and move you to the next level.
Young Artist Programs can be the next step, although doing a YAP is not essential to having a career. These programs provide an opportunity for you to work in a professional company, perform in a variety of situations from mainstage to outreach, and work with professional singers, directors, and conductors. You may also receive coachings from the opera house staff, and some programs offer other types of training as well. I think of these as an apprenticeship where you can “learn the ropes” from those already working in the opera business.
Some singers worry that a training program will not reflect well on a resume when applying to young artist programs; what are your thoughts?
I hear that question a lot from singers and I think it depends on the program. YAP directors and companies who have hired our alumni have told me that when they see “OperaWorks” on a résumé they can expect the singer to be well-trained, professional and great to work with.
Personally, I like to see training programs listed on your résumé because it demonstrates that you are committed to building your foundation and craft, and that you are serious about establishing yourself as a strong competitor in this field.
Any other concerns that have been raised about training programs in the past that you’d like to debunk?
Somehow singers have the idea that their career trajectory will look like this:
Go to school — Do roles — Get into a YAP — Get management — Sing at the MET — Become an international opera star.
With an exploding number of singers vying for limited spots in a shrinking opera market, the trajectory above is not realistic. To compete in this new market, you need to be The Most Prepared, The Most Business Savvy, The Most Well-Rounded, and The Best Singer-Actor at an audition.
While performance is an important part of the process, there are other crucial skills that you need to learn as a complete artist. Training Programs can help you build a strong foundation that will fill in the gaps, open new doors, give you professional contacts, and benefit your career in many ways.
Please share a brief description of the various OperaWorks offerings and about your target audience.
I founded OperaWorks 25 years ago out of a desire to provide singers with a safe, nurturing environment where they could learn the craft of singing-acting. Our belief that singers learn how to perform better when they are actively participating rather than observing in master classes has driven our curriculum: our innovative and holistic brand of training is completely focused on the individual singer.
We offer two summer training programs in Los Angeles for Emerging Artists and Advanced Artists. Each of those culminate in two public performances of staged original operas. We offer several workshop series year-round in New York City and Los Angeles, as well as master classes and residencies at academic institutions throughout the U.S. In addition to our educational programs, OperaWorks also has a production arm to feature alumni in productions.
We don’t have age limits for our summer programs. If a singer has career potential or is already having a career, and I feel they are appropriate for the program in that year, I will give them serious consideration. I am particularly interested in singers who have innate musical talent, an inner fire, a strong work ethic, and intellectual curiosity. Past programs have included undergrads and grads, singers from YAPs, and managed singers who were seeking to take their career to the next level.
Any final thoughts or considerations you’d like to share about OperaWorks specifically?
We do not believe that singers are mere commodities. They are people who desire to make art and bring beauty into our world. Unfortunately, the Right-Wrong educational model is pervasive in singers’ training, and can be so detrimental to the creative spirit. Years of receiving criticism without positive feedback is even more damaging.
It is important to us that singers have a safe environment in which they can discover (or re-discover) what their strengths are, and what they need to improve. Simply telling singers “it goes like this” will shut down their imagination, and leaves little room for other choices. Obviously, there are techniques and stylistic concerns to be learned, and we have always taught musical, dramatic, physical, and business skills at OperaWorks. But it’s “how” we teach that has had such a profound artistic and personal effect on our alumni.
OperaWorks’ non-traditional methods have helped thousands of singers overcome some of the psychological wounds that can creep up at any stage of a career. As a faculty, we have witnessed again and again that when singers’ bodies free up, their Music changes. When they begin to accept their uniqueness and their self-confidence improves, their Music changes. When their souls feel safe, they let go of physical tensions, and they stop waiting for criticism, their Music changes. We strive to make that difference happen for every person.