Par for the Chorus

The following article first appeared in the March, 2009 issue of Classical Singer and is reprinted with special permission.

By Rachel A. Antman

Maestro Palumbo, rehearsing about 150 singers for  Die Meistersingers von Nurnburg.  Damon Winter/ New York Times

Maestro Palumbo, rehearsing about 150 singers for Die Meistersingers von Nurnburg. Damon Winter/ New York Times

Does an audition for an opera chorus differ from a regular opera audition, and if so, how? In this first of a series of articles on the top opera choruses in the United States, Donald Palumbo, chorus master of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, tells what he looks for and what a singer can expect when auditioning for him.

Would you like a cushy, stress-free singing job? Don't try out for The Met Chorus. A typical day for the members of this renowned ensemble might begin at 10:30 a.m. for a costume fitting and end well after midnight at the conclusion of a Wagner opera—and the time in between is packed with rehearsals and operas to be memorized in languages ranging from Italian, to Russian, to Sanskrit. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted, and certainly not for the faint of voice. Accordingly, Donald Palumbo, the Met’s chorus master, selects his choristers very carefully. He recently took time out of his busy schedule to tell Classical Singer about his criteria and the audition process. 

You just wrapped up auditions for the 2009-10 season, which for the first time were invitation-only rather than open-call. Why did you decide to make this change?

The old process was such an imposition on people that I think we were scaring off good singers. They didn’t want to wait in line all day and not be guaranteed a chance to audition. Now there is no lining up, no waiting, and singers know exactly when they should warm up. There’s no reason to stretch out the process for professional singers. They want to be fresh when singing an operatic aria.

Now that you’re prescreening applicants, what do you look for in their materials?

Experience is most important. This job is not appropriate for someone right out of college who wants to break into the business. People don’t realize how many hours and days in the week the choristers actually sing. The work can take a huge toll on the voice for someone without experience in a major opera house and in a large theater.

Do you care whether an applicant has a degree from a conservatory?

Not really. I pay the most attention to professional performance experience, both solo and choral, as well as references from teachers and conductors whose work I know and respect.

What about language abilities?

It’s hard to evaluate language skills from a résumé, but it is clearly evident in an audition. I also find that mastering an aria in one foreign language in an audition usually indicates ability to handle diction in another foreign language.

Does it matter whether an applicant is local or from out of town?

No. I think the draw of the Met makes us a national company. The amount of work and the level of the work that we offer people expand our scope beyond the local.

What sort of difference does AGMA affiliation make?

The Met wants to give AGMA members an opportunity to be heard. This is a throwback to the old way of doing things, when there was a separate day of auditions for AGMA members. Also, an AGMA member is more likely to have the requisite experience. It’s another component in judging an applicant’s suitability for the job.

How do you evaluate a singer’s headshot?

I barely look at it. The headshot has very little bearing on how I’m going to evaluate the voice. It’s simply part of the file. I certainly would never ask for someone to audition or to not audition based on a headshot.

Do you review notes from previous auditions during the prescreening process? What impact do these have?

I do check to see if a person has an audition history and I keep detailed records from year to year. I might have made a note to myself that says “hear this person again,” for example, and that helps me to know how to proceed.

Did you notice a big difference in the quality of applicants between this year and last year (before you instituted the prescreening process)?

The level of the best applicants was comparable to past years, but we had fewer people who were completely unqualified and overly ambitious.

Let’s talk about the actual audition. What qualities do you evaluate?

There are many. First and foremost, there has to be a basic amount of sound produced for work in a large opera house. If the voice is so small that it won’t add to the sound, that’s a strike that’s going to be hard to overcome, even if it’s a pretty voice. I also evaluate the purity of the tone and whether the vibrato is controlled. I want to determine whether the voice maintains its shape and focus throughout the range, and, in particular, whether it gets pushed past the beautiful point in forte singing. Intonation is also critical. Problem signs are a constant sagging in pitch or a tone with no spin. If a person has a beautiful voice that sits below pitch, that would create problems in the chorus.

Several articles about you have mentioned a certain dark quality you aim for in the choral sound. Is that something you listen for in the auditions?

I certainly pay careful attention to tone quality, but I don’t expect individual voices to possess the depth of tone and richness that can be created by the chorus. I analyze whether the way the voice is produced will fit into my sound concept for the chorus. If, for instance, a soprano sound is very bright and chirpy with little warmth and roundness in the sound, I know that the voice won’t fit in.

Do you ask singers to sight-read during the audition?

I don’t. I believe that if a person can study an aria and execute it with skill in an audition, then they’re strong enough musically to learn and memorize choral music. If someone lacks basic musical skills, it’s evident in the performance of an aria.

What do an applicant’s repertoire choices tell you?

We ask singers to have two arias prepared, one of which should be in a foreign language. English is fine for the second one. Some people come in and sing arias that don’t demonstrate how they could add to the chorus. For example, there’s not much point in singing Queen of the Night or Zerbinetta—there aren’t a lot of chorus parts that call for that range. For mezzos, “Smanie implacabili” is an iffy choice. It requires such an aggressive, biting tone. I prefer to hear a piece that requires a full lyric sound—not too fast—that shows the line in the voice, even if it’s a simpler piece. Another consideration is the amount of recitative in a piece. Is there a lot of piano playing linking sections of the music where you’re only singing short, conversational phrases? That might not show you off inthe best light. It’s better to choose a piece with sustained melodic lines.

Do you prefer that singers perform popular or obscure arias during the auditions?

I don’t have a preference as long as the arias show the voice to its full advantage. One thing singers should keep in mind, though, is that if you’re using the house pianist, you should be considerate. You don’t want to leave the audition feeling compromised because the aria was obscure and difficult for the pianist.

Speaking of pianists, do you prefer that singers bring their own to the auditions or not?

Either is fine, but if you do bring your own pianist and the two of you are not in sync, then that’s a major strike against you. If the pianist is someone you’ve worked with consistently, and that person provides a sense of support, then by all means bring your own pianist.

How should singers dress for the auditions?

Again, it’s not a major issue for me, but business casual may be the best way to go. There’s also no need for women to wear formalwear—many women come to the audition overdressed. The bottom line is that the singer should feel and look comfortable.

How important is dramatic ability?

It’s certainly important, but it’s hard to determine this in an audition. That said, we do observe how a person walks into a room, interacts with the pianist, stands in front of us, and whether he or she has a dramatic sense of the aria. I typically don’t like the staging gestures that people sometimes do in an audition. You don’t have to do the “Papers” aria and fling papers all over the piano. The focus should be your voice and how it would add to the choral sound.

Is height or body type important?

It’s a component of the whole package, but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all. Look at some of the body shapes of some of world’s most famous singers through the ages. If you do this, it’s hard to make an argument that body type makes a difference. As far as I’m concerned, if a person carries him or herself well and is comfortable on stage, then it doesn’t matter whether that person is tall or short or fat or thin.

How do you evaluate personality, and what influence does it have on the audition outcome?

The contact you make during the audition is so short that it’s hard to evaluate someone’s value as a colleague or how someone will pan out in the job. You can pick up extreme personality quirks, however, that could color the overall evaluation. For example, you might register that someone seems disrespectful or flippant or extremely ill at ease while singing, problems that seminars on audition techniques should address.

What are the reasons you ask for a second aria?

It could mean that I heard something I like but I wasn’t sure that the chosen piece showed it off. Perhaps the person was unduly nervous and I wanted to put him at ease. I might want to hear a piece in a different language. For instance, if a native Russian singer auditions with a Russian aria, I might want to hear a second aria in Italian or French. In the best of cases, the voice was so good that I wanted to hear more.

Are your criteria different for the extra and regular chorus positions?

In regard to the regular chorus positions, we want to have a strong sense that the person will make it in the Met environment. The extra chorus can be used as a testing ground. In some instances, we hear a voice and all the signs are right—we just know that the person will fit right into the regular chorus. In all cases, however, we are extremely thorough. The demands of this job are such that we have to be absolutely certain that the person is right.

Do you hold callbacks?

Not for the extra chorus. In some instances, if someone we are really interested in hearing couldn’t attend the auditions, we will set another date. We do usually hold callbacks for the regular chorus positions so that we can hear all the voices being considered on the same day.

I understand from Steven Losito, the chorus administrator, that four people attend the auditions with you: Kurt Phinney, chorus manager and chorister; Stephen Paynter, assistant chorus manager and chorister; and AGMA delegates from the women’s chorus and the men’s chorus. To what extent do you consult with the others?

We talk, and I’ve often asked them to indicate if any people jump out at them. The choristers already know some of the people auditioning. If they tell me that so-and-so was a great colleague, that’s a major plus.

Do you ever disagree with the others?

Yes, but so far, we’ve been in complete agreement on the regular chorus positions.

Can you offer some general tips to singers who wish to audition for the Met chorus?

Sure. Provide a concise, clear résumé, and use as references the most experienced and well-known people that you possibly can. If you want to list special skills, take a step back and think about how you would perceive them if you were the one making the audition decisions. In an opera company, in contrast to the theater, those special skills don’t mean very much. Generally speaking, résumés should come across as serious and professional. As for the actual audition, choose your pieces with careful attention, coach them, and make sure that they are musically fine-tuned. Be sure that the aria shows the strongest qualities of your voice and that it allows you to produce a sound that a chorus master would want to work with. Get into the mind of the listener. Make sure the listener’s reaction is not “What was she thinking?”

What are some common mistakes singers make in auditions?

Sometimes people look at the Met’s upcoming repertoire and feel they should sing the big aria from one of these operas, overreaching and choosing a piece beyond their abilities. Do not sing a piece in which the climactic top notes are insecure. Choose a piece that you can sing despite being slightly nervous or under the weather.

One last question: Some singers believe that once they’re in the chorus they’ll never have a solo career. Do you agree with this view?

Not at all. I could give you a long list of big-name singers who have sung in one of my choruses. There’s no reason why that list shouldn’t continue to grow.

Rachel Antman works at LVM Group, a boutique public relations firm, and moonlights as a singer and stringer. Her articles (both written and ghostwritten) have appeared in the New York Times, the National Law Journal, Real Estate Weekly, and several trade publications.