How do you know when you are ready to enter the competition circuit, or if it is a route you should consider taking? We spoke with Ann Todd, Competition Director for the prestigious Fritz & Lavinia Jensen Foundation Competition, on the ins and outs of applying and participating in competitions. The deadline for the Jensen Foundation Competition is March 15, so if you plan to submit, do so today!
Please share a bit about the Fritz & Lavinia Jensen Foundation.
I have been honored to serve as the Competition Director for the Jensen Foundation since 2006. The Foundation has a wonderful history. During her life, Lavinia Jensen was committed to supporting young musicians in pursuing careers in the arts. She served as a patron to these young artists, most from the small town of Statesville, NC, by paying for music lessons, sending them to Brevard’s opera program, and helping them with school tuition and even living expenses as they pursued music careers. A few years before her death, Mrs. Jensen founded the competition to continue her commitment to supporting young singers.
What do you perceive to be the benefit of participating in competitions versus focusing on young artist or mainstage auditions?
Competitions obviously have a financial “perk” – with the Jensen Foundation if you place in our competition you walk away with cash, no strings attached. But I believe the other reason to consider a competition is it provides an opportunity to “practice” auditioning before putting yourself in front of potential hiring decision-makers. I also recommend looking for competitions that are committed to singer development—with panelists willing to provide feedback.
But opening yourself up to the feedback is critical. Singers that don’t win often ask “what should I sing if I want to win?” It is unlikely that the reason you lost was simply an aria choice. Open yourself up to really hearing the feedback and addressing the issues either with a coach or teacher. We have singers come back year after year making the same mistakes. An unwillingness to hear the feedback and work to address issues keep singers not only from winning competitions but from career advancement.
Would you share any guidelines singers should use to judge whether they are ready to apply for your competition or competitions of similar caliber?
Our competition limits at the top end—we do not accept singers that have already received contracted roles at top houses. Instead, we are looking for the singer on the cusp; the singer that may need a little more development (which we can provide with our cash prizes) to reach those top stages. But we are looking for singers that are pursuing a career in opera and committed to the training, time, and effort needed for success.
How influential are the application materials in determining who gets heard? Are the materials used as part of the final deliberation or just in the preliminary selection?
Before granting an audition slot, I review the materials only for eligibility. But I do review them and expect singers to follow the instructions and to be accurate on the application. With the number of applications we receive, I won’t consider an application that is incomplete or doesn’t follow the instructions—I just don’t have time. I recommend reviewing rules for each competition so you don’t waste the application fee.
As to our panel of judges, they do review application materials but are primarily focused on the voice in the room and the performance on the stage.
Should a singer prepare different repertoire for a competition than for a young artist program or mainstage auditions? Please provide any guidelines you feel would be helpful.
I think it is important to understand the rules and requirements first—different competitions and auditions have different requests. For example, we don’t accept musical theater or oratorio but we don’t have hard and fast rules on different languages. But typically, you’ll want to show your range, including different languages.
Choose rep you can really sing – I don’t recommend having “stretch” pieces. Then if you’re selected for the finals, stick with the same first piece unless you have a strong reason to change or unless the preliminary judges have a suggestion for you. I’ve seen too many singers do exceptionally well in the preliminary round and then in the finals they change their first selection and it results in a miss.
Take note of the audition time slots—most are 10 minutes. Our judges almost always select a 2nd piece to hear and rarely interrupt a singer. But because of that, I recommend reasonable cuts—a first selection that takes up the majority of the 10 minute time slot doesn’t help—I think it hurts.
What is the most important thing the panel wants to hear (and perhaps see) from a singer in their first aria?
Go with what you know! Choose an aria that shows what you think is your best attribute like a stunning high note or an exceptionally beautiful legato or an Oscar-level dramatic interpretation. Start with your strongest piece—one that showcases your voice and that you feel confident in singing. Your confidence carries over into your second piece.
Any advice on what a singer can do to help make a positive impression overall?
There are two “groups” you make an impression on—the competition director (me) and the judges. For me—follow the instructions and don’t be high maintenance! Remember I control your timeslot.
The judges are looking at the whole performance. We encourage singers to demonstrate dramatic skills and how they use their time on stage. Opera is about the complete presentation and not solely vocal abilities. While we aren’t “hiring” singers, we are looking for singers that have career potential.
Your dress is also important in the overall impression. It should be professional but not distracting. A dress that “stands out” isn’t going to be a differentiator, but could be a distractor. Choose something that fits well, doesn’t hinder the performance, and has no potential for a wardrobe malfunction (we’ve had it happen!)