Friday night, I stood outside a building in San Diego at 9:10pm. I double checked the email again, and punched in the number code written, slowly and deliberately, as the email had mentioned I should. I waited a second, the door clicked open. I was in. Marble floors accentuated the click of my heels as I caught my reflection in the ornate mirrors to either side of me. The building had a 1920’s feel to it, and it felt way too classy for me to be in. What the heck am I doing here, I thought. I was nervous.
Two weeks previous to this night a good friend had texted me to let me know that San Diego Opera would be having auditions for their chorus for the upcoming season. Now, San Diego is one of the top opera houses in the United States. Principal work there would require management and years of experience. But chorus work, now that was something I was fully qualified for. I had tried to audition for them years ago, before my resume was built up, and had been rejected without them ever hearing me (which is not uncommon). But now I had a resume. And also, apparently, all you had to do this time was pick a time. I went online, filled everything in, and chose April 20th at 9:51pm. So there I was, dressed up, with my binder stocked with audition rep, nervously shifting as I waited for the elevator to descend.
Of course, there really wasn’t a blank between those two weeks. Between those times was a lot of preparation. Some of the work had already been done. What makes opera auditions different from musical theater auditions is that they the way we choose our songs varies. I am not worried if the song is overdone (trust me, one of the songs was Mozart. It is, without a doubt, overdone). When they say they want two of contrasting style, it is more a contrasting time period than a ballad and uptempo song. Both my arias were uptempo. One was written in 1789, the other in 1946. Believe me, they were contrasting. And these aren’t 36-bar cuts. They are the full thing. I memorized them, sang through them, worked out the characters on them, had actually already performed one of the roles, and sang through them multiple times. I had all of the information that was emailed to me and I was ready to go. And I was back in my car, having gotten to the parking lot at 8:00pm, if not earlier, waiting for 9:30, the time I told myself I would go in. It was 9:10. I was nervous. I knew looking at my music would make it worse, so I decided it was time to go in.
I walked to the building, a sign on the door letting me know that I was in the right place. Deep breath. This was the big time. Punch the code in, walk inside. Deep breath. We were here in the first paragraph, I hit the elevator button. Deep breath. Walk into the elevator, hearing the empty click of my heels. Deep breath. Enter the code into the keypad, choose the floor they tell me to go to. The elevator lurches up. I remember to breath. I get off the elevator and turn down the hall.
A woman is sitting at the desk in the room at the end. A sign tells me that this is the San Diego Opera Corporate Offices. “Are you Anne?” I am taken a back. I’m not late, am I? There is no way I could be late! “I thought I was early…” I respond. “You are. But so was everyone else, and there was a long break before you. Are you ready, or do you want some time?” I tell her that I just need to get a drink of water, if she can point me to a water fountain or bathroom. She does. My mouth is incredibly dry. I drink water out of the tap in the bathroom and look at myself in the mirror. Here I go.
I walk back into the room and tell her I’m ready. Why sit around and wait anymore. She types
to them and tells them that I am ready. Then she waits. We make small talk, which has never been one of my strong suits. Just breathe, I tell myself. You found that space today, you can find it again. You know what you are doing. The good thing is that there is no one ahead of me. There is no one for me to judge myself against, or pressure myself to sound like. I have a light voice, operatically speaking, and nothing gives me an inferiority complex like some woman singing Violetta’s death aria with long, silky, legato lines when I know I’m going up there next with a song that is literally laughing into a telephone. The laugh requires a high D, I keep telling myself. Time passes, they don’t respond. I find myself staring at a poster. I have no idea what the heck opera that is supposed to be. The woman gets up, she is going to tell them that I am here and ready to go. She doesn’t think they saw her note. I am amazed that anyone can walk into an audition room with such nonchalance. I long for that.
“They’re ready for you,” she tells me. I go in. The room is small, there is a woman at the piano, and two men sitting at a table. I am taken aback. This is the same situation as every other audition I have ever done. A person at a piano. Two unimpressed looking people sitting at a fold-out table. I’ve done this before, I tell myself. I’ve done this a hundred times. I hand the accompanist my music. I stand in front of the two men. “Hi, my name is Anne LaBella, and I will be singing “Una donna quindici anni.” I forget to tell them it is from Cosi Fan Tutti by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. To be fair, I’m pretty sure they knew that.
Let me break in my narrative quickly to inform you that for the last four months I have been doing an intensive through a vocal studio in Los Angeles. This intensive is for singers who, like me, know what they are doing. When I work with a student, I can hear what needs to be changed and I know how to fix it. But humans have an amazing way of getting in our own way, and artists of all sorts seem especially prone to this. In auditions, I would find myself locking up. That freedom and ease I feel on stage was replaced with the single thought, “They are judging me. I want them to like me!” I had made breakthroughs with this intensive. I noticed areas of tension dropping away, my mindset changing to more healthy ways to view my singing, and an ability to make the necessary adjustments in the audition that I need to make. This audition was the culmination of a lot of that work.
There is no introduction to the Mozart. The pianist plays a “D,” and then I take it from there. The placement of the voice felt good. It was hard to tell, the room was dead and I did what a singer should do; I relied on what my body was telling me and not what my ears were telling me. My ears would tell me to push, that I needed to be louder. But my support knew better. It knew what to do, and I let it. I placed the voice where it should be, and proceeded to inform the auditioners that once a woman hits 15, she really should know how to keep the attention of all men and never actually give them anything for it, and I, Despina, know what this is all about. I distinctly remembered to “drink in the sound” (inalare la voce, if I were to use bel canto
terms) at the end of the aria. Okay, that was the one I was worried about. I messed up some words, but I kept going. Did they know, yes, probably. But it’s okay. It is done.
“Thank you,” one of the men says. Okay, this is it. It is over. They are going to send me out. I’m not going to do any of the sight reading. They didn’t like me. “Can you sing a bit of the Menotti for us?” “Of course,” I say.
Now, here is where I make a mistake. I forget to tell the pianist my tempo. I didn’t for the Mozart, but remember, this is an opera audition. We all know Mozart. He is bread and butter. As a classical singer, if I could only ever sing one composer for the rest of my life, it would be Mozart. If I could only ever sing two composers for the rest of my life, it would be Mozart and also Mozart. You get the idea. But the Menotti, while accepted within the general circle as proper canon (I mean, the song is in the Schirmer book of soprano solos after all) is a little less well known. I don’t give her a tempo. She plays it slowly. I don’t blame her. There are a lot of notes on that page, and about 30% of them make little sense.
I proceed to then ignore the auditioners while I talk to Margaret on the phone. Margaret talks a lot. To be fair, so do I. I also laugh a lot. There is a video on YouTube of a white fox laughing. That is what my laugh sounds like. I keep waiting for them to stop me. We are 2/3s done by the time they tell me to stop. I messed up the runs. I don’t actually know if they know that. I kept singing, and ended with the pianist, so there was that. I also laugh really well, if you are interested in casting someone who can play a fox. They should have let me finish though. The ending of the song is part of the joke.
“Okay, thank you.” I’m ready to leave again. “Please go over there and take a look at measure 45.” I look at measure 45. It is marked Soprano I. How did they know? “You can sing on solfegge or any other syllable of your choosing. This is the tempo.” He beats the tempo. I sing. I sight read a lot. I do it for my job. I’m pretty good at it. But you know when you are pretty good at something and then you get nervous and suddenly you are terrible? That isn’t quite what happened. I did pretty well. The ending got a little weird. I breathed after I was done.
“Okay, can you look at the top paragraph. There is a translation underneath if you want to read that first.” It is a joke in Italian. I look at the translation. I look at the Italian. I can do a quick, basic translation in my head, so I am able to line up the important words. I tell the joke as if it were a joke. I stumble on a word. I keep going. I very much want to cry.
“Okay, thank you very much,” they say. I can’t tell if being there for that long is a good thing. I say thank you to them and to the pianist. I say thank you to the woman sitting at the desk. I go down the elevator, which doesn’t need a code if you are just going to the first floor. I walk out of the fancy, bright lobby into the dark San Diego streets. I walk to my car that is in the parking lot across the street. I get in, turn the key, and breathe. That was the most important audition of my life, and also the one where I felt the most in control and the most competent. Success.