With most conservatory and university-based training program auditions finally coming to a close for the 2012-13 term, many of you may have already received feedback on your applications (and we've got our fingers crossed for many happy results!). For those who have gotten into their program of choice, the next logical step (after screaming and doing a happy dance) is to consider how you can prepare now to get the most from your training to come.
We contacted Thor Eckert of the venerable Academy of Vocal Arts (commonly called AVA) in Philadelphia to ask for a primer on preparing for this important stage in an opera singer's career; we were overwhelmed by his tremendous generosity. We hope you will find his thoughtful responses to be as insightful as we did. Thank you as well to Denise Stuart, Director of Marketing and Public Relations at AVA for facilitating our conversation.
Please describe your role at the Academy of Vocal Arts and your career beyond the school.
My official title is Professional Development Coach, and I began at AVA in 2006. A bit of back history is probably in order. I was interested in opera almost as long as I can remember, and I was fortunate that my first live opera experiences were at the old Metropolitan Opera House, where I heard many of the great singers of the 50s and 60s in their career primes. Over the years, I broadened my musical interests significantly, and became fascinated with the performance of music. I began my writing career in Boston as a music and New England theater critic of The Christian Science Monitor. The paper moved me to New York in 1980 to be the national music critic. In 1989 we came to a parting of the ways, and I spent the next five years as a freelance writer as well as North American Editor of Classic CD. In 1994 I opened Thor Eckert Enterprises, Inc. a management office for young singers. Most of my clients came out of AVA so I was very familiar with how the school trained their artists. After 10 years, I came to the realization that managing was not a good fit for me, but I had learned quite thoroughly how the opera business worked behind the scenes. Since I had also spent some 16 years attending events nightly I knew what performers had to deliver to get on audiences’ radar and what made artistic administrators put down their pens and listen in auditions. So I was able to make the case to AVA that it would become the first school of its kind in the US to have someone on faculty specifically addressing these issues, as well those of careers as a business. These days my time is divided between AVA and WWFM in West Windsor, NJ which devotes Sunday afternoons to opera: Half the year American Opera company broadcasts as produced by WFMT out of Chicago are featured; the other half of the year is devoted to live European broadcasts – mostly La Scala right now – which I script and present.
How can a singer assess whether they are ready to apply to AVA specifically or a program of similar caliber?
For AVA, singers need to have completed at least four years of music and voice study on a college level, and must know that a career is something they desire above all else. They also must be sure – and for this they need to ask for an honest assessment from their various teachers and coaches – that they have an instrument that their teachers and coaches believe can take them all the way to an operatic career. AVA is a full scholarship institution; the standard is high. At AVA opera is the single focus – I call the institution an opera finishing school. The schedule is rigorous; the demands on the singer’s time and energies can be grueling. It is not for everyone, and on occasion we do have singers of great potential who leave before the end of the first year. We also do not invite singers to return if the artistic director, the music director and the coaches believe they have not progressed sufficiently to warrant another year. There are numerous programs out there that are not as severe on the singer – tough love, as it were, is not for everyone – so research into all the possible options is crucial for anyone looking for and advanced-study opera program. Self-honesty is also vital – if you do not know your own strengths and weaknesses, you will be at a disadvantage in an environment as competitive as an elite opera program and should probably defer applying for admission.
Would you share some advice on how one can best prepare for conservatory-based training program auditions? Is it any different from a YAP or training program?
The conservatory is going to be looking for artists who sing well, or show a voice of great potential that may not yet be in complete technical demand. But it is also going to listen for how the singer puts forth the arias being used for the auditions. If there is a spark of imagination, if there is at least an attempt – no matter how inconsistently developed – to bring the aria to life dramatically, rather than just approach it as a vocalise, then the singer is more likely to catch the interest of the panel assessing the auditions. This is the single greatest failing of young singers – and established singers as well, sad to say – that lack of dramatic commitment to the music at hand. Those singers who really communicate that dramatic commitment will be discussed when the auditions are over! For a YAP the bar is generally higher because the singer needs to be ready to go out and do small parts on the company’s main stage; but they, too, are looking for voices and communicative skills.
At this time of year, many singers are receiving notifications of acceptance from conservatories; can you share your thoughts on what they can do now to prepare in advance of starting their program?
This really differs from conservatory to conservatory. If assignments are given for roles to be learned over the summer, it is highly advisable that the singer learns those roles, and be off-book or at least nearly off-book by the start of the fall semester. Beyond that, just keep working on the instrument so you can show progress has been made since the audition in the spring. I would say it is also advisable to have a range of arias ready so the coaches can get a real sense of where the singer is in his or her development, can learn what interests the singer, and what arias really suit that singer at that time.
Any thoughts on what singers should try to take the most advantage of while they are in an educational environment?
Again, this depends on the school. At AVA, the schedule is demanding and quite intense. Learning how to keep up with the voice lessons, the coachings, the language classes, the role preparations, the productions, and finding the time to practice so that they can incorporate each day what they’ve learned that day is vital to taking full advantage of what AVA has to offer. And it is the same everywhere else, I’m sure. If you are in a school that offers a range of music and language courses, take as many as you can. The more you absorb at your school or conservatory, the more of an edge you will have when you get out into the real world. Today singers who have a broad musical knowledge are more apt to get on the radar of conductors, and that is an important part of gaining momentum at the outset of a career.
When a singer completes one degree-bearing or conservatory-based training program, there is always the question of whether they should go on for further degrees or post-graduate diplomas. How will a singer know when they’ve had enough formal education?
I am opposed to too much music-school education. A bachelor’s program, and perhaps a master’s program should be ample preparation if the singer has taken full advantage of what the school has had to offer. The singer needs to put what has been learned into practice, and on a day to day basis, so the next step should be a YAP, or else, if possible, a European and try to get a Fest contract with a good smaller company. It’s the day-to-day work in an opera company that seasons the young singer, that builds the stamina, that helps deal with nerve-management issues, and so on. There is no reason to stay in school into your late 20s unless your teacher and your coaches truly believe that you need extra time to be ready for that next step or you happen to have a particularly large voice, which usually takes more time to settle and mature.
There is a perception among singers these days that their expected age of stage-readiness is getting younger and younger. What can young singers do to prepare for this pressure? What can older singers do to remain in consideration?
In some ways I actually think it is the reverse. Before World War II, everything happened at a slower pace. Voice students saw their teachers more often – in many cases every day of the week. The process of building a voice and a technique was laborious and detailed. Young singers often had to wait two years or more before they would even be allowed to sing an aria. We cannot go back to those more leisurely times, but it puts more pressure on the young singer. Today, singers enter their first music schools and within a year are performing roles. But by the time they get out of their final academic programs, they are already in their late 20s, so in a very real sense, they are older than their counterparts from the past. Jussi Björling was 19 when he made his professional opera debut in Stockholm; Roberta Peters was 20 when she debuted as Zerlina at the MET – it was her first complete opera role and her first time singing with orchestra. Today such debuts would be at best improbable!
What I see happening with increasing regularity is the bypassing of the smaller companies here and abroad by the young singer of real talent. That singer is now apt to begin a career on more important stages, singing big supporting roles and even lead roles without the chance to work things out in the safety of a smaller company. The pressures become enormous. Therefore it is up to the singers to be alert as to what is going on in their throats and in their bodies and to question their teachers about things they feel are not going well, or about things they do not understand technically. If these issues are not fixed at the beginning of a career, by the time the career takes off there is less time to deal with them, and eventually the singer may find the career halted by accumulated issues not properly dealt with. The singer must be brutally honest with himself or herself when it comes to appearance, to vocal security, to nerves management, and to the ability to deal with the spotlight. If a singer believes he or she is not quite ready for the next step, but that adrenalin and the excitement of a debut will carry the day, then that debut in all probability will be a disaster. (The same goes for auditions…if the singer has not been able to sing a particular aria consistently well in the practice studio, I can assure you that to try that aria with the idea that if it goes well it will impress the panel, is a recipe for disaster.)
As for the mid-career singer, today the pressure is all about the looks as well as the singing. We are in the age of HD-close-up and the stage director, and the director often has final say on casting; if a singer with a splendid voice is carrying around too much weight, the director will request someone who may not sing as well but is more agile on stage and looks more believable in the costumes. I hasten to add that this goes against every fiber of my being -- opera is first and foremost a singer’s art form – but it is the reality of today, and to survive in opera singers will have to deal with this.
Any additional thoughts you’d like to share on how singers can get the most out of their time in an educational environment?
Take advantage of all the coaches. Pick their brains, explore things with them and don’t be passive. Engage them in a meaningful dialog. And take notes as you explore – nothing irritates a coach more than a singer who forgets everything that had been worked on during the previous session, and this happens far more often than it should. You are in a unique position to absorb, inhale, so much musical knowledge, and when you start making it your own, the coaches will find working with you to be a real pleasure. If you have a chance to take music courses outside of the operatic literature, do that as well. You are musicians, after all, and the more music you know, the more you know about the stylistic demands of the various periods, the better off you’ll be when you’re approaching a new role. If your institution offers acting classes, sign up for them. Opera singers are notorious for not really knowing how to move gracefully, or how to present a character through body language, so if there is a chance to learn some aspects of that, take full advantage of it. If you can get into a summer opera program in Europe, do it! And stay somewhere where English is NOT spoken. The singer who can present the essence of a character in each and every aria used for auditions is going to get attention, and the more skills you have acquired in the training process, the more tools you will have when you are actually out there starting your career. That those tools will give you an important edge.