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Pearls and Wraps

On Conformity




For the last few decades, I’ve made my bread and butter as a professional opera singer, in some form or another - stage, concert, and teaching. Conformity is a big one. You don’t get much more rigid in rules than classical vocal music. Well, artistically, that is. Coders, engineers, surgeons and scientists need not roll their eyes. You guys get it. Lives depend on it. Not us. The only lives that depend on it are our own, and possibly our unfortunate dependants.

In the performing world, Opera, as it was introduced to me by my first voice teacher, is the Olympics of Singing. Indeed it is. After 23 years of study, 20 years professionally singing and the same amount of time teaching, opera takes your whole mind and body to perform. We are all born with the same tools. Yes, some are naturally gifted, but we all basically can sing. If you can speak you can sing. If you want to sing over a 40 piece orchestra, unamplified in a hall of thousands, while at the extremes of your range, in a foreign language, and all while trying to honestly emote with your fellow actors while following -or giving- cues from the conductor, then you need to study a long time. And conform. There is a big difference between the stylistic and vocal choices one makes when singing Mozart versus Puccini. It takes years to understand the nuance necessary, and if you want to make a lick of your student loans back, you need to conform to exactly what the auditioning house expects to hear for each given style. And you need to be expertly well versed in at least three. Not to mention languages. But I digress.

The conformity of which I would like to speak is in the audition practice itself. When I first entered grad school, singers were expected to have a headshot. Just like good ol’ Hollywood actors of the time, well, a few years behind, agents and impresarios expected to see a black and white headshot, full glam, pearls. Yes, pearls, ladies. I remember a teacher, not my own, laying into students and projecting a doomed career if said female student didn’t have a ring of white stones around her neck. Conformity. The times quickly changed during my schooling, but the expected diva-ness was still present, even in bare-necked technicolor.

I was one of the lucky ones that got a manager in New York. I had a few outlier experiences that made vying for representation a little easier. I had my diva headshots in tow and jewel-toned jersey wrapped dresses ready to go. Oh yes, and heels and hose. The holy trinity of a 2000 aught’s and teens soprano: the turquoise wrap dress, nude tights, and pointed toe stilettos. That conformity was delightful. The dress never wrinkled and flattered everyone, the hose kept you warm in the frigid NYC winter audition season, and the heels felt powerful. If you could walk in them. I always kept mine looking high but actually within a comfortable range.

Where this audition conformity and I diverged was in the execution. I’m a happy person. I’m usually happy to be wherever I am. People make me happy. As I write this, I realize I might be a golden retriever, and I absolutely gave off happy puppy vibes when I auditioned. I mean, who wouldn’t be happy living their dream? I get to spend my days singing with world class pianists in audition rooms, singing my favorite arias, and meeting fellow champions of the arts! The audition itself is a performance, and I might get a great job out of it? Awesome! Sign me up!

I absolutely walked into each audition with a giant grin on my face. I’d rather say hi and see how their day was going than solemnly drudge “in character” toward the piano and then grace them with a performance. No, this is a collaboration, and a damn fun one at that.

Until I had a routine lunch with my manager. He’d sat in on a couple auditions.

“You need to smile less.”

“Sorry?”

“You need to smile less. They won’t take you seriously. They won’t think you’re professional” he said, eating some kind of sandwich on rye. It was a long time ago. “Don’t be so happy.”

“Oh.” I said. “But that’s me?”

“I know,” he said, “Act.”

Cut to a few months later. I had serendipitously also landed a musical theater agent who was able to get me some auditions. Here, I entered the room a little less self-assured. I was a trained opera singer, I hadn’t gone to school for musical theater. I didn’t have the years of study to accurately convey the difference between a Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown interpretation that I was sure the auditioners would be nitpicking the second I opened my mouth. These folks had been on Broadway, for cryin out loud. I was sheepish.

After my audition? They didn’t tersely say, “thank you” and bury their heads back in their notes. They burst into applause and laughed. I found my tribe. I felt my joy rush back from the weak dam that had held it in.

Conformity be damned. I found the type of folks I wanted to work with, and work with them I did. And I did get to sing operatically, but this time it was with professionals with the same unbounded, non-conformed joy.

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I have to note that I have met some of the coolest, weirdest, and happiest people in the classical vocal world- on stage and off. These handful of terse auditions were specifically my experience. The opera world has changed since then and was even changing as I was auditioning. But it makes for fun fodder to write.



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