One of the most respected figures on the international opera casting and competition circuits is Lenore Rosenberg, associate artistic administrator of the Metropolitan Opera. On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, Rosenberg gives a masterclass on Florida Grand Opera’s SongFest Masters Series. The class will be held at 7:30 p.m. at Steinway Piano Gallery, 4101 Ponce de Leon Boulevard, Coral Gables, Florida. The four participants are all members of FGO’s Young Artist program: soprano Elena Galván, mezzo-soprano Melissa Fajardo, tenor Benjamin Werley, and bass-baritone Calvin Griffin. For tickets, go to www.fgo.org, or call 1–800-741‑1010.
In late March, I telephoned Rosenberg at her office at the Met; what follows is our discussion about what she encounters when giving masterclasses and judging competitions.
BK: We are all quite excited that you will be giving this masterclass at Florida Grand Opera on May 9. Would you please say a bit about the consistent issues that you run up against when you’re giving this sort of class?
LR: I think that things that should be of secondary importance become of primary importance. I am really interested in the singing. And it’s less important what they wear or what typeface their resume is in, or what they call their websites, or all of the things that people seem to be fixated on these days. I want them of course to know what the words mean and what they’re talking about and who they’re speaking to—and about all the normal preparation to bring out the character through the music.
There is so much emphasis on running around, and that’s called acting. And what they need to understand is that they need a sort of tool kit to bring with them to any job. So if the director says “Go left, go right,” it’s up to you to go left or right as Tosca, versus as Marguerite.
And then you get into “What are they casting for?” Because of course most of these kids are concerned with “How do I get a job?”
BK: And how do you answer that question when the young singers press it?
LR: First of all, that they should do some research on who they are singing for. Is it a stage director? It is a conductor? Is it a big theater? Is it a little theater? Some of them have some very strange ideas. They will say, “Should I present something that I hope to sing in ten years?”
BK: That would be a no.
LR: That would be a no. There is some school of thought that you should “stretch.” But I don’t think you should “stretch” in an audition. You’re going to be nervous. So you need to have as many things as you’re absolutely confident about as you can possibly have. They offer an aria and I may say, “Why did you offer this? And they say, “Well, my teacher told me to.” No.
BK: What’s the most important thing you’re looking for in an audition?
LR: The most important thing to show to somebody in an audition is yourself. Because I’m going to hire somebody. So you have to give me a reason to make it you. So if you’re going to sing “Voi che sapete,” you’d better have to something to say about “Voi che sapete,” besides singing it in tune—something that other people will not bring to it.
BK: And yet so many people, in both masterclasses and competitions, give such bland, anonymous performances of arias. How do you account for that?
LR: I think people become voice majors in college because they loved singing in high school, and they were in shows and choir. Once they get through four to six years of college training, all they are capable of is not making a mistake. They are no longer concerned with “I love this” or “I have this to say” or “Look at me, Ma—I’m singing.” All of that goes away, and they’re terrified of making a mistake. And that, I think, leads to what you’re talking about—the kind of anonymous, dull performance. But it’s very tricky to maintain that spark. And it goes past college. You get hired for something, you have the coach telling you one thing, you have the conductor telling you another, and the stage director telling you another, and you’re so desperate to keep the job that you’re trying to keep everybody happy. So it becomes kind of innocuous.
BK: As a journalist, I’ve covered so many voice competitions in New York over the years, and I have always been stunned by the scarcity of certain voice types. Lyric baritones and lyric sopranos and lyric mezzos, but so few Verdi tenors or sopranos or mezzos, and nearly no Wagnerian voices.
LR: Of course, it’s difficult with a contest. First of all, one hopes that you’re hearing young singers. For instance, I just did the Lissner [the Gerda Lissner Foundation International Vocal Competition in New York]. In the Wagner division, the age limit was forty-five. Careers are over by forty-five! You don’t want to be entry level then.
The emphasis on light repertoire is part of a perception of age-appropriate repertoire. I think people are being born with big voices, but fewer people know how to teach them. It can go both ways. A young tenor can’t negotiate Tamino, so the teacher says, “You must be a Siegmund,” which only avoids having to get him through the passaggio. It doesn’t mean he has a heavy voice. Or the other way around, where they say, “You mustn’t sing anything heavier than Mozart, dear.” Because they feel they aren’t so tested by legato or whatever. I think what goes off the track is teaching, more than the actual voices. Also, people don’t have a lot of imagination. They all have the anthologies, and they think, “Well, the soprano anthology contains ‘O patria mia’ and ‘Deh vieni, non tardar,’ so I guess that’s what I should sing.”
BK: What exactly will you be trying to accomplish in your class at Florida Grand Opera?
LR: I’m not scouting in this trip. I’m coming to try to fill in some gaps or correct some misconceptions. I think what I find missing so often in classes is what I find is missing in professional auditions, which is real breath support. Real singing. Singing in tune. Things like that. Sometimes, a really profound misunderstanding of what repertoire they should be offering. It’s hard to do these classes without just coming out and saying, “There aren’t enough jobs—you’d better be damned good.” But they do need to realize that they have a lot to learn. And being somebody who can take care of himself or herself, meaning: arrive with the music learned. Show up on time for rehearsals. Really basic stuff that one thinks can be taken for granted, but really can’t.
BK: How often would you say you are surprised by what happens to a young artist that you think you have pegged as capable of a career or not? How often does your original estimation of a talent get overturned?
LR: I would say at least a third of the time. I’ve learned that you really can’t predict who’s going to go the distance. There are people I was sure were going to become stars, and they have disappeared. And there are people I found of no interest at all, and they have very nice careers. It’s a lot about the last man standing. And taking a “no” and saying, “Well, I can fix that.” Instead of “Well, they’re wrong!” In Renée Fleming’s book [The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer, Viking, 2004] she talks about how she auditioned for this and that, and she didn’t get it, so she worked on her trill and she worked on her French—but she always tried again. She took it seriously and fixed what needed to be fixed. There were people at the beginning of Renée Fleming’s career who didn’t think she was interesting.
Singers have to convince me, or whoever is making the decision. It’s interesting, because at the Met, we just finished this run of Idomeneo. Alan Opie was singing Arbace, and he’s a baritone. Arbace is a lower tenor part. Baritones have done it, but it’s a lot for a baritone. Almost uniformly, people have said Alan Opie’s is the best singing of the night. Why? Because he’s a pro. He knows what he’s doing. Now there’s too much concentration on abdominals and Rolex ads, and not enough on learning your craft. I see so many people who are shot before they’re forty, and this guy goes on and on and on, because that was that generation.
BK: There are some performers in the Florida Grand Opera Young Artist program who I think could have nice careers as character singers. Would you speak a little about the practice of casting young artists in roles that used to be done by seasoned, veteran comprimarios? It’s driven by finances, of course—but when do you think that began to change?
LR: I can remember the 1970s, when the arts were not a dirty word. I suppose it started in the 1980s, or maybe the 1990s—whenever the economy became difficult. Young artist programs, which are supposed to be about training, became about cheap labor. So it’s too bad. First of all, it’s wrong for the show. It’s wrong for the audience. And it’s not right to ask the kids to do it. There are all kinds of things. I know of a case of a girl in a young artist program being asked to sing Mamma Lucia. That defeats the purpose. But if that’s what they want to spend the money on, or don’t want to spend the money on, that’s how it is. I see it in Europe, too. It isn’t just an American thing. Or sometimes, the director who has a concept.… God help us .… says, “Oh, I want a young Gremin.” What are we supposed to do with that?
BK: How would you encourage the Young Artists in the Florida Grand Opera program to prepare for your masterclass on May 9? How should be they preparing to impress you?
LR: I suppose it’s a version of “Know Thyself.” Be realistic about how you come off. If your voice is not as big as your ambitions, then don’t sing big repertoire. If you always miss that high note, then don’t sing that aria.
Have a reason for everything on your list.
And don’t offer Norina, because I hate it.