So You Want to Be in the Chorus? Part 1

An oral history of the auditions, decisions and opening nights of the the Metropolitan Opera Chorus’ three newest members.

 New Choristers at the Metropolitan Opera: Brian Anderson, Sara Heaton & Patrick Miller

New Choristers at the Metropolitan Opera: Brian Anderson, Sara Heaton & Patrick Miller

by Edward Hanlon

This year, three new singers have joined the ranks of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus as full time singers: Sara Heaton, Patrick Miller and Brian Anderson. It has been a career and life changing transition for all of them. To get a sense for what it means, I sat down with them to listen to their experiences and the path that lead them here. Here are their stories:

Before the Audition

All three singers have had solo careers throughout the country and worked in the extra chorus at the Metropolitan Opera.

Sara Heaton: Since I graduated in 2007, I’ve been doing young artist programs and building up my career as a soloist. In the beginning I did mostly opera and quite a bit of new music. For the past few years, I’ve been focusing more on concert work with symphonies and chamber music ensembles and doing recitals.

Brian Anderson: I traveled a lot from the time I finished my Adler [Fellowship at San Francisco Opera]. Then I ended up making my [New York] City Opera debut and latched on with them. I was covering and singing second cast kind of stuff but it was great because I could be home. But then when they went belly up that source of income dried up for me.

Patrick Miller: After I finished the Ryan Opera Center at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, I worked professionally for 10 years, singing leading roles mostly with small to medium-large houses along with my wife, who is also a singer. Five years ago I started working in the extra chorus; it was a great "side job" and provided stable, dependable pillars of income and family time throughout the season. It also conveniently coincided with the birth of our daughter.

Sara: I’ve been doing extra chorus for three years now.

Brian: For the past 5 years, I would say I’ve been more or less transitioning to staying in New York more and traveling less. Especially since my daughter was born in 2011. So I went and auditioned and got into the extra chorus and I just kept doing that.

Brian is married to Christina Thomson Anderson (also in the Met Opera Chorus) and has four children, ages 20, 17, 8 and 5.

Sara Heaton as Celia in Lucio Silla with Odyssey Opera. Photo by Kathy Wittman.

Sara: It wasn’t until a few years ago that I even knew you could be a full time singer in the Met chorus. I did the audition to be in the extra chorus and when I did my first extra chorus show here, it was just eye-opening to learn about the full time position. I can't believe I didn't hear about it earlier on in my career and education. I realized that this is another way to have a singing career.

Patrick: As a soloist, unless you are in a situation where you’re working with a particular house, (like the Met), that’s hiring you frequently enough, you’re traveling a lot, you’re staying in hotels, you’re out of town for weeks and sometimes months on end. I wanted to be closer to my family, so doing extra chorus work meant spending time with them. I was going to be home for extended stretches.

Patrick is also married to a singer and has a five year old daughter. All three singers hoped for an full time position with the chorus.

Sara: It has been in the back of my mind since the beginning. I was a little bit torn, because there are a lot of things I really loved about the freedom to create my own performing schedule. Just in the past couple years I’ve formed some special relationships with musicians I collaborate with regularly and, given the schedule at the Met, it will be a little more difficult to do gigs with them during the year.

Patrick: It was much more fun than I expected… not that I was expecting that it wouldn’t be fun! The experience of working with 80, or sometimes over 100, singers - that many great voices in one room was a rush. I’ve sung in choirs all my life, and you’re usually hired to pull other people along. To be in a group where we were all leading the charge musically and vocally… it was a real pleasure because you immediately felt that you would achieve something great artistically. Many of my colleagues were accomplished soloists before joining the Met Chorus, and joining such a fraternity of artists is exciting. I never felt that anywhere else but here.

Sara: I tried not to think about it too much because it wasn’t a given. I assumed I would do the extra chorus for many years and then, maybe, I would get a full time thing. But I certainly wasn’t counting on it and I didn’t set my hopes on it too much.

The Audition

Patrick: I remember postponing my audition a couple of times: first I was out of town, then I was sick. I finally did my audition some time in October.

Sara: I sang “Je veux vivre” [Juliette’s first act aria from Romeo et Juliette] in my August audition.

Both Brian and Patrick heard in December that they would be called back for a full time position on the 14th of December.

Brian: I had heard about two weeks ahead of time that I was going to be doing it which was great because it gave me a lot of time to prepare.

Patrick: We both got dressed in the extra chorus locker room and warmed up in there at the same time. I was in the bathroom and he was in the dressing room - finding a space to vocalize in this city requires creativity, and sometimes you have to share!

Brian: Singing for a chorus audition is different from a solo audition. Maestro Palumbo is looking for the voice to do certain things that should blend into the rest of the section. Being in the extra chorus I learned so much about what it means to be in the chorus (also, of course, being married to one!) I learned the demands of the job and the level of musicianship he expects and what it really means to sing in an ensemble as opposed to singing solo. It really is, to me, a big difference.

Donald Palumbo (chorus-master of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus): 1 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 pretty 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 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.

Brian Anderson as Tamino in Die Zauberflöte at the Miami Dade Auditorium. Photo by John Pineda.

Brian: I sang “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” [Alfredo’s Act 2 aria from La Traviata]. You send the chorus office a list of arias. They pick two and then you choose from that. But Maestro Palumbo just wanted to hear the one aria.

Patrick: For the callback I sang The Flower Song [Don José’s Act 3 aria from Carmen]. There is some strategy involved in selecting what you sing in an audition, but essentially you should offer the arias that best show off your technique, vocal color, and artistry under pressure. For me that was Don José.

The Decision

Patrick & Brian learned they were accepted over the Christmas holiday.

Patrick: My wife, daughter and I were in Minneapolis over Christmas break to spend a few days with my parents. It was New Year’s Eve, and we had just finished some shopping. My wife says, “Is there anything else you want?” and I say “I just want a job. A job I can be proud of - that I can support my family -that I can feel like I’m making a contribution.” That was about 3:30 pm.

Brian: I think I heard about a week after the audition. But I just kind of knew. When I did the audition I felt really good about it. Sometimes in auditions, somehow you just know that you’re doing something right. And this was one of those times. I was ready, I really prepared, and I said, if it doesn’t happen now whatever… but I couldn’t have done any better.

Patrick: I pull into the grocery store parking lot and look down at my phone… I remember it was snowing… and I see a missed call from the Metropolitan Opera and I was like “that’s weird… why am I getting a call on New Year's Eve?" So I check the voicemail: “Patrick, this is Donald Palumbo calling. Please give me a call at your earliest convenience”. My heart started racing… I was like “Oh this is it, this is it!" I called back and he wasn’t there. When I got back to the car I said “umm… Donald Palumbo just left me a voicemail…” and my wife was like “THAT’S IT, THAT’S IT! YOU GOT IT!” I said “OK, let’s calm down here” (we Minnesotans try to avoid assuming "best case scenarios"!); I’m trying to wrack my brain to think of some other reason he might be calling me. I got home and told my parents and they were really excited. My parents had been hoping and praying for this, as we all had, for quite a while.

Maestro Palumbo did call back an hour and a half later and offered Patrick the job

Patrick: And the best part about it: I told you I had that moment in the car where I said this is all I want. I checked the timestamp on the voicemail and it was right at that time. It was between 3:30 and 3:45., within a couple minutes of when I said that, that Palumbo called me. And if my ringer had been on it would have been an even better story! Why couldn't I have had my ringer on???

But what about poor Sara!?!? She had auditioned in late August, but March rolled around and she still hadn’t heard from the Met.

Sara: I didn’t hear anything until some time in the early spring when they asked me to sing in Fidelio and Nabucco.

Sara had been hired to sing extra chorus. That was all she expected to sing with the Met in the 2016-17 season.

Sara: I had those chunks of time already blocked out in my schedule for the Met productions, and I had other solo engagements throughout the year in addition to some freelance work as a grant writer. Then on July 29th (it was a Friday) I got a call from Kurt Phinney saying: “I wanted to see if you were interested and available to start the season with us on Monday as a full time soprano in the chorus." I pretty much started freaking out!

Kurt Phinney (Chorus Manager): The hire was last minute because a chorister decided that they wanted to retire but hadn’t come to that conclusion until very late. Maestro Palumbo always has a keen sense of the talent pool at his disposal and ultimately it’s his call. Sara was the number-one candidate for him. And I think everyone that was listening at the audition concurred whole-heartedly because not only is she a great singer but also a great colleague. It was a convenient thing that we had someone so good already working here. So actually, it was one of the most easily resolved casting crises we’ve ever dealt with. With Sara, the choice was very easy.

Sara: After the conversation with Kurt, I had the weekend to mull it over, talk to my husband, etc.. On Sunday I called Kurt to tell him I accepted, and I was here for rehearsals on Monday!

The decision to join the Met Chorus was not one they took lightly

Brian: It’s somewhat of a challenge for our family; both of us doing this job and having two small kids but at least now they are both in school during the day. It’s just the evenings that are tough — I won’t get to put them to bed a lot.

Sara: I was excited, but it was also a little bittersweet. I had to cancel several engagements I had coming up this year. An added complication is that my husband and I recently bought a house in Beacon, which is beautiful, but it’s not like living in the city and being around the corner!

Patrick Miller and his wife, soprano Veronica Mitina, as Cavaradossi and Tosca, respectively, in Tosca with Syracuse Opera. Photo by Doug Wonders.

Brian: I don’t think I would have even tried for the job if we didn’t think we could make it. And once I was given the job, we went to find quality child care and look at the schedule for what the year would look like for us. Where’s going to be the easy time, where’s the challenging time?

Sara: My husband was really proud of me and just really excited. He’s a musician too, so he appreciates both the enormity of being offered a job like this, as well as what it means to not be pursuing a solo career anymore. We did discuss not seeing each other as much anymore given that it’s a long commute but we’re open and flexible to seeing how it goes.

Patrick: You feel validated as an artist. I really feel that an investment has been made in me. That there’s one spot and I’ve been chosen to take it.

Sara: I remember feeling this wave of relief. I had been working as a soloist for so long but to have that recognition from this company was this emotional wave like… wow! It was really gratifying and humbling at the same time to feel like somebody at that company thinks I’m good enough to be there. Even though I had done extra chorus before it was different. There’s a lot of weight to that.

Patrick: It’s an honor, but also a responsibility. You feel immediately that you want to "step up to the plate” and deliver every time you open your mouth.

 

End of Part 1.  Click Here for Part 2


Edward Hanlon, graduate of McGill University and University of Michigan, is a happy Long Island boy making good with the Metropolitan Opera. Favorite roles include Figaro, Sparafucile, Dick Deadeye, Sarastro and Nick Bottom with companies such as the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Lincoln Center Theatre, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Des Moines Metro Opera and the Glimmerglass Festival. He dreams of singing another Figaro with his beautiful wife, soprano Tanya Roberts. His first novel is is due to be released this summer ... at the end of the 2017-18 season ... umm... someday? Check out his website and follow him on Facebook or Instagram.

  1. From an March, 2009 issue of Classical Singer Magazine. Interviewed by Rachel A. Antman.