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Getting Your Foot in the Door at the Local Level

Topic Talk

A brief conversation between Carol Kirkpatrick and Joan Rutkowski on understanding how regional opera companies and young singers work together to share a love of opera, build an audience, and start careers.

Have you run into this type of situation in your own community? There is a group that puts on a full production every year and you would love to have the opportunity to sing a complete role with them. However each time you audition, you not only, never get offered a role, but you never even hear from them regarding your audition. You feel qualified vocally and dramatically and like every emerging artist, now need experience. You feel that your community is not supporting you and in essence, is letting you down. If you can't even sing with this local group, how will anyone else ever hire you? It can be very discouraging.

If you are having trouble getting your foot in the door with your local opera companies, first consider the resources available and then take an honest look at what you can contribute. Make sure you know what their game is, what their rules are, how to play their game (this part is often very different from what their rules are so do some investigating) and then examine whether you are want to play their game or not, and if you are qualified.

What types of local companies are in your community? Are they volunteer groups started and run by aspiring singers? Are they a performance group controlled and run by a patron of the arts who enjoys holding the reigns of hiring? Are they performance groups you have to contribute money to in order to perform a role? Are they semi-professional companies that hire locally and outside your community? Are they B level houses that mainly hire managed professional singers?

First, know that most local companies tend to use the same people over and over again because they are a known commodity; there is no risk involved. They know what to expect, even though you may feel they could do better, and they don't have to worry about objectionable surprises.

Local companies run by singers tend to use the company as a vehicle for themselves and/or their colleagues with whom they have worked in other venues. A group like this has a certain dynamic that they feel could be disturbed by bringing someone new into it.

Perhaps your local group thinks you are too good and your talent intimidates them. Or, on the other hand, maybe you are not quite up to their level of performance in their minds.

Be realistic about which of these companies you choose to target by taking an honest look at your own abilities.

Ask yourself:

  • Am I in good shape vocally? Is my technique solid?
  • Do I have the vocal and physical stamina to perform a complete role?
  • Do I have charisma on stage?
  • Have I had enough performance experience to be able to understand the responsibility one has when performing an entire role, be it a small or the leading one?
  • Am I easy to get along with?
  • Do I come with my music totally memorized and my interpretation prepared?
  • Have I taken the time to fill out a character chart so I know my part intimately?
  • Do I feel prepared?
  • How are my work ethics? Do I do the work while rehearsing or do I fool around?
  • Am I respectful of my colleagues as they are rehearsing?
  • If I encounter trouble spots as the rehearsals unfold, am I taking them to my voice teacher and/or a coach outside of the production for the help I need?
  • Do I take direction well and am I flexible when it comes to opening or creating cuts in the music?
  • Do I learn quickly?
  • Do I communicate well with the stage director, music director and my colleagues?
  • Am I acting as a professional?

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand."
~ Albert Einstein

Once you have completed an honest assessment of where you are in your journey as an opera singer and done your homework to discover what level companies are in your community, target the appropriate companies with determination, patience and persistence. Here are some suggestions of how to get your foot in the door:

  • Given the reluctance of companies to take a chance on someone new, perhaps you could consider auditioning first for either a comprimario role or becoming part of their chorus. In this way they are able to get to know you not only as a performer, but as a person. It gives them an opportunity to see, hear and understand your work ethics and if your meet their criteria as a performer. That means being a good colleague, always being prepared vocally, musically and dramatically as well as being reliable and talented.
  • If your local company is a serious professional one, try out for the chorus. This will give you the opportunity to get to know the chorus master, conductor and perhaps even the general director. Set up an appointment to talk with them about how they feel about your potential. If it is favorable, you can then communicate your aspirations and ask how you might arrange an audition for a comprimario role in the upcoming seasons. Then, perhaps, by showing them through your performances how you are always improving, you could talk to them about the possibility of hiring you and giving you a chance to move up the ladder role wise until you get a leading role.
  • Similarly, you could offer to volunteer with other aspects of the company so those in charge will have an opportunity to get to know you as a person and understand where you are coming from as an artist. Often times companies are understaffed. Offering help selling refreshments, handing out programs, posting flyers, or sewing a costume makes lasting impressions. More than likely, you will be remembered as a team player and thought of favorably.
  • If you are interested in performing a specific role that you have been working on and can't get your local company to use you, put a production together for yourself. How about getting your church or some other local organization to help sponsor your production and raise the money to make it work. There are always people in every community that would want to help "put on a show". It could be done concert version possibly with some very basic stage movement. You could cut most of the chorus, if necessary, or you may approach a church or local choir to see if they might like to participate. Finding other aspiring singers to participate should not be a problem. Just like you, they are looking for that opportunity to perform a complete role. If you choose to use a conductor, most communities have a university or college where you can find either a student conductor who needs the experience or better yet the conductor of the opera orchestra or university symphony. It's important to learn how to work with a conductor even if your performance is with a piano or a 4 hands version. However, there could be university orchestral students who would love to have the experience of playing in an opera orchestra. This would create another dimension to the performance experience. It would also help with publicizing your event and get great community interest and support. You might even make some money if you charge a nominal fee at the door. If you choose this route, give yourself plenty of time to put this all in place as it is a huge undertaking that requires a huge commitment but is well worth it. You will learn so much about the entire process of producing an opera as well as having the experience of performing a complete role. Once you have everything arranged, make sure you invite those who do the hiring in the company that you are interested in performing with and give them free tickets. Set up a time to talk to them at a later date about scheduling an audition for them if they have good things to say about you.
  • If your local performing group is a tight knit clique, find out the names of those involved in the group and see if you can get to know them one by one outside of the performing venue. Invite them for coffee to talk opera. Let them get to know you and how serious you are without asking for a job. Pick their brains about opera. Find out what they like and don't like. Talk about favorite singers of yesteryear. Find out what their hobbies, favorite sports, authors, etc. and other passions are. Invite them to your upcoming performances whether it is a church solo or a restaurant job. Let them get to know you. Ask lots of questions. People love talking about themselves. Find out how they came to the world of opera. Then the next time there are auditions for their group, you will know someone in their company that could put in a good word for you. As a result, they might be more open to hiring you.

I know from experience that even in professional companies, those hiring would rather use someone that might not be perfect vocally but are solid in their work ethics, get along easily with their colleagues and are totally committed to portraying and inhabiting their character onstage.

"People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
~ Maya Angelou

Often your reputation is not only based on how you sing, but on you - the person, the colleague. It's about the attitude you bring to a rehearsal or performance, your flexibility, your willingness to try something new that a stage director or conductor suggests, your ability to fit in with everyone else, your preparation, and your professionalism.
A few words of caution should you finally break through and get offered a role.

  • Whatever you do, do not get involved in the politics of the company or become a gossip. News travels fast and no one wants to hire someone who behaves in this manner. It is too expensive for everyone involved.
  • Most importantly, don't badmouth anyone in the singing community. It is a much too tightly knit group. Inevitably what you say will eventually reach the ears of the person you were talking about. News travels fast and you do not want to want to ruin your future opportunities to audition and perform in your community.
  • If you do get into your local company, you cannot have the attitude that you are doing them a favor. Whether you are better than the others involved or not, it is up to you to maintain your own ethics of performance. In doing so you will bring the others up to your level of performing and make everyone look better as a result. That will get you hired back. You can't get frustrated and roll your eyes or snicker or look disgusted because someone doesn't know their part or make uncomplimentary comments to other colleagues about any aspect of the company. This behavior will not be appreciated or rewarded.

Great ability develops and reveals itself increasingly with every new assignment."
~ Baltasar Bracian

Finally, I want to address how you turn down a job gracefully so you don't hurt your chances of future employment with this or neighboring companies.

Honesty is always the best policy. No matter what the reason you supply, always start with how you truly appreciate their offer. Then explain the reason whether it be because you feel the role is not quite right for you, or your teacher wants you to wait before taking on that particular role, or you are not quite ready vocally or perhaps dramatically, or you have another job during the same time period, or perhaps you will be out of town doing some auditioning, or whatever.

If you can't or don't want to do it, offer to help them find the right person for the job. If at all possible, go to the performance and help support what they are doing.

Getting your foot in the door with local companies and turning down a job gracefully is ultimately about your ability to communicate. Communication is not only about sharing your views and opinions with others, but also about really listening to what others have to say. Communication is totally about relationships whether it be with others or the one with yourself. So continually spend time getting to know you from the inside out so you know when to hold them and know when to fold them. The better you know yourself, the better your communication will be both on and off stage.

"I believe life is constantly testing us for our level of commitment, and life's greatest rewards are reserved for those who demonstrate a never-ending commitment to act until they achieve. This level of resolve can move mountains, but it must be constant and consistent. As simplistic as this may sound, it is still the common denominator separating those who live their dreams from those who live in regret."
~ Anthony Robbins

I love hearing from all of you so keep the suggestions for upcoming newsletters, your comments and observations coming. If you want to access the previous newsletters, you can go to tbe website here. (User Name: guest and Password: passagio) Or if a friend wants to start getting my newsletter, have them go to

Ciao until next time. Carol

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