Keith Cerny
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Building Musical Brands That Deliver

In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny returns from hearing auditions in New York, and has tips for future auditioners.

published Sunday, May 4, 2014


Dallas — I returned from a trip to New York late last week, just beating the storm that delayed flights back to Dallas. It was an enjoyable and busy week in New York, with two primary purposes. One was to see The Dallas Opera’s Music Director, Emmanuel Villaume, conduct a performance of Massenet’s Cendrillon at Juilliard. The other was to collaborate with Emmanuel and TDO’s Artistic Director Jonathan Pell to hear around 75 singers auditioning over the course of several days. These experiences offered important lessons in the powerful effect of musical branding—both positive and, in a few cases, negative.

The Juilliard premiere took place on Wednesday, April 23 in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Juilliard. As Brian Zeger, Artistic Director of the Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for the Vocal Arts, noted in the program, “Many opera lovers enjoy Rossini’s sparkling treatment of the Cinderella story, but Jules Massenet’s relatively neglected Cendrillon offers a distinctly different twist on the classic tale.”  TDO’s Music Director Emmanuel Villaume conducted and Peter Kazaras directed the performances, which featured the outstanding Juilliard Orchestra. Donald Eastman created the whimsical sets, which included one scene set in a movie theater with the fairy godmother’s entourage wittily, and nattily, dressed in red as theater ushers (costumes were designed by Gabriel Berry). Standouts in the cast were Julia Bullock as Cendrillon, Avery Amereau as Madame de la Haltière, and Elizabeth Sutphen as La Fée, whose light, crystalline voice carried admirably in the relatively small theater.

The performance was excellent, and received very positive reviews. Maestro Villaume led the young players with great finesse, achieving a finely nuanced performance—no mean feat for young players still becoming accustomed to the twists of turns of operatic pacing and orchestration. Equally striking was how Julliard parlayed a student production into a “not to be missed” event. On opening night, I spotted famous singers, veteran composers, world-class directors, leading media players, and distinguished academics in the crowd. Given the plethora of exciting things to see in New York on any night of the year, this was quite a remarkable achievement on its own. Juilliard is, of course, one of the most famous brands in the music business; and the addition of a renowned Music Director, Stage Director and other members of the artistic team to the student production, put them “over the top”—generating tremendous coverage for the school, the Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts, the Juilliard Orchestra, and the young artists themselves.

The other part of my week involved hearing around 75 singers represented by at least a dozen different managers. The singers ranged in age and experience from promising undergraduates to seasoned professionals. We kept to the usual timetable of hearing six singers per hour, with a half-an-hour break for lunch. This pace requires great mental focus and concentration on the part of the auditioners, who are keenly aware that these singers have invested years in developing their craft and deserve our full attention.

We held the auditions at the National Opera Center, which is managed by the national service organization, Opera America (More details can be found at this link). When this Center opened in 2012, it was a gift to the industry, creating one central, high-quality facility in which to hold auditions, eliminating the need to beg or borrow space in New York. (Disclosure: It is my privilege to sit on the Board of Opera America, which has never wavered in its strong support for the opening of this new facility).

From a format point of view, we began the auditions at 10 a.m., and we owe a special thanks to singers willing to perform that early in the day. (To paraphrase Sheri Greenawald, the Director of San Francisco Opera Center and Artistic Director of the Merola Opera Program, any earlier than that and singers “bleed from the throat”). Each singer brings an aria, and then offers a list of arias for the auditioners to hear. Ideally, the list offers 4-5 contrasting alternatives. The singers are accompanied on piano.

While we certainly knew a good number of the singers beforehand, it was an opportunity for them to present themselves anew. And one of the keys to making a strong, favorable impression, I found, is to realize that small choices matter:

  • First, sing your best aria. Most singers did this well, but a few sang ho-hum first arias, only to deliver a second one that knocked our socks off. Don’t make the auditioners search for your best—we may miss it. If you are brilliant at Rossini, but want to move to Verdi, auditions are probably not the best place to try out the Verdi as your first aria.
  • Offer variety of choice in excerpts. The proffered selections should offer variety, so be wary of too many in the same language/style/period. A few singers offered a very narrow range of alternatives, which made it difficult to assess their stylistic range.
  • As a corollary, avoid extremes of all popular/all obscure offers. As auditioners, we know a lot of operas, but we don’t know every opera ever written, and we can probably evaluate your performance better if we know the selection. (I remember a memorable performance in Santa Fe in 2011 of Vivaldi’s Griselda, which was new to almost all of us in the field. Isabel Leonard – who just appeared with TDO in the Barber of Seville, sang the role of Costanza beautifully. I probably wouldn’t recommend an excerpt from Griselda as an audition piece, though). On the other hand, please do include some lesser-known works in your list. We can only stand to hear “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette so many times in a day! (My personal limit is four. After that, my eyes begin to glaze over).
  • Wear clothes that flatter you. In an audition setting, no one expects singers to have engaged a costume designer, but wearing clothes that flatter your physique is important. For the men, consider something other than the usual blazer/turtleneck/slacks combination. This is an important chance to make yourself memorable. Some singers actually used their clothes as part of the audition (e.g. the “overcoat” aria from La bohème). My advice to men and women?  Select clothes, whether casual or more dressy, that fit you well and flatter who you are; it gives the auditioners confidence that you have the self-awareness to project a compelling personality on stage in an opera.
  • Be consistent. If your bio extols your “comic gifts,” start with an excerpt from a comic opera, not an angst-laden tragic one. If you’d rather not be considered a specialist in comic roles, fine—then update your bio accordingly.
  • Avoid “statue syndrome.” No one expects you to present a fully staged performance, but as I have noted in an earlier “Off the Cuff,” audiences do expect to see you move in the context of the character. If you stand completely still apart from the occasional gesture, you diminish your impact considerably.
  • And above all, make it a true performance—your best. Delivering real emotional content is vitally important. A few singers in these auditions were able to deliver great emotional depth in a brief aria, and these, along with a couple of “one in a million” voices, were the most memorable for me.

Reading, and re-reading, 70 singer biographies, I had several additional thoughts:

  • Only call yourself “one of the most talented artists of your generation”or “one of the most important emerging artists” if it’s indisputably true. Probably a quarter of the bios I read made some similar comment, and it’s not realistic.
  • It’s great to start your bio with quotes, but unattributed quotes that claim you are “a dazzling performer” don’t mean much if the reader doesn’t know the source. Positive quotes from The New York Times are always good, especially at the beginning of a bio.
  • Recognize that not all accomplishments are equal. I read far too many bios that mix major accomplishments with minor ones. If you are already singing with the San Francisco Opera and the Chicago Symphony, and made your debut last year at Carnegie Hall, I’ll take it on faith that you have also sung with more modest organizations.
  • Give us one unusual thing to remember about you. If you played the ukulele in a rock band, tell us!  We all need “hooks” to remember people, especially when we hear so many at the same time.

At the end of the day, performers need to make themselves memorable—and brand consistency helps. A brand is not a boast; it is a promise that the institution, or person, will deliver a consistent set of qualities. In Juilliard’s case, the brand signifies to me brilliant young musicians, with bright futures, doing extraordinary things beyond their years. For the Cendrillon performances, the conservatory delivered on all of these elements of the brand, but also added another layer of “buzz” and excitement that drew press, audiences, and opinion leaders. For singers, especially those at the earlier end of their careers, consistent personal branding is critically important. In particular, make sure that your bio, choice of opening aria, selections offered, even the clothes you wear, reinforce the impression you want to make. And above all, deliver a performance that is emotionally rich, passionately felt, and memorable—which can overcome many limitations of technique and experience.

◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in Below is a list of previous columns:

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Building Musical Brands That Deliver
In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny returns from hearing auditions in New York, and has tips for future auditioners.
by Keith Cerny

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