Local job opportunities for opera singers got a boost early this week, when Opera Pacific issued a casting call for apprentices and chorus members for the company's upcoming production of Puccini's "La Boheme."
The Irvine-based company will present Puccini's beloved work, to be staged by composer Gian Carlo Menotti, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on March 28 and April 1 and 4.
More than 70 singers from throughout Southern California, San Francisco and even New York City flocked to Cal State Fullerton where general director David DiChiera was overseeing the two-day auditions.
Judging the hopefuls were:
--DiChiera, who directs the Michigan Opera Theater and the Dayton Opera Assn. as well as Opera Pacific.
--Michael Kurkjian, director of opera theater at Cal State Fullerton and head of the Opera Pacific's apprentice program, formed to train and showcase talented singers in the county.
--Maurice Allard, director of the Orange County Master Chorale, who also will be preparing the chorus for "La Boheme."
"I really wanted to make sure I gave a good listen to as much Southern California talent as possible," DiChiera said during a short break at Tuesday's auditions.
"So far it's been very encouraging."
DiChiera's call for auditions lured many professional singers, including some East Coast talent:
Soprano Nicole Philibosian, who will make her debut with the New York City Opera in September as the Countess in Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro," came to the Southland looking for more work opportunities, she said.
While trying out for DiChiera's company, she also will audition for the Long Beach Grand Opera and the San Diego Opera.
"I don't have a manager, so I have to do all my own work contacting all these companies and trying to do as many auditions as I can," Philibosian, 32, said.
"The way an opera singer survives today is to sing everywhere. Unless you're really with the Metropolitan or another big house, you can't stay in one place. And even then singers are moving everywhere."
Other professional singers, more locally based, reinforced that theme.
"I had heard that DiChiera was very talented and that he gives opportunities for young singers," said Robert Haydecker, a Hermosa Beach-based baritone.
"How many opportunities do we have in Southern California, especially if you want to audition for quality stuff?" Haydecker said.
Agreeing with Haydecker was mezzo-soprano Rickie Weiner-Gole, 33, a member of the Los Angeles Vocal Arts Ensemble.
"In New York, you can go to three or four auditions a week," Weiner-Gole said. "But they are few and far between here. If this can become a center point for auditions, it would be fabulous."
Santa Monica-based soprano Dale Wendel, 33, feels that changes are already happening.
"There are very few auditions out here. But these auditions represent an exciting change," Wendel said.
"All of a sudden there is this catalyst of energy (DiChiera) on the West Coast who is especially good at doing things and taking risks."
For his part, DiChiera maintained modestly: "I want this company to be a conduit for developing careers in opera here. I'm always pleased and excited at the amount and diversity of talent in Southern California."
His criteria for selecting singers varied, he said.
"For apprentices, you look for great potential and enough experience and training so that the person can take advantage of the program, which can be compared to a finishing school.
"But if you are casting for a specific role, there has to be something beyond potential: The person's stage presence has to be convincing, and the singer must be fully capable of realizing that role now.
"Even with the chorus, you need people who not only have a fine voice and a good instrument, but who also demonstrate a sympathy for the stage. An opera chorus is truly a group of individuals who have a sense of pride and excitement in creating their own cameo roles on stage.
"In two full days of auditions, if I find even two or three singers, I feel it's been well worth the effort."
The singers represented a wide spectrum of talent and experience, according to DiChiera.
"I can't make generalizations about them, but with younger singers and particularly with students who have not had an opportunity to develop certain skills, you have to hear them on as regular a basis as possible to find out whether they're improving or, unfortunately, not improving.
"At this age, they can never stand still."
DiChiera foresees a "synergistic blossoming of opera" locally as a result of the activities of his company, as well as that of Los Angeles' Music Center Opera Assn. and the Long Beach Opera.
"There will be more work and more opportunities, which in turn will encourage more singers to stay in the area and develop their careers," the director said.
"Down the road, in a decade or so, California is going to compete very favorably with New York as a kind of breeding ground and place for emerging and experienced singers.
"It will be fabulous for opera and music theater."