Just like the stories it seeks to tell through histrionic plots, spectacular settings and virtuosic vocal lines, the world of opera is full of behind-the-scenes drama.
Maria Callas' diva-like antics have become legendary. Luciano Pavarotti earned the nickname "The King of Cancellations" for his habit of frequently backing out of performances, which strained his relationships with some opera houses. The salons of Europe doubtless gossiped for months after Hans von Bulow's wife, Cosima, left the celebrated German conductor and pianist for the even more celebrated operatic auteur Wagner.
One aspect of backstage drama that few people outside the opera world know anything about, however, is the high-stakes journey undertaken by aspiring singers as they reach for stardom. A new, feature-length documentary produced by the Metropolitan Opera, "The Audition," which debuts today in conjunction with the Met's HD screening series, provides a rare insight into the enormous challenges facing up-and-coming singers as they attempt to launch their careers in a cutthroat profession.
Shot by filmmaker Susan Froemke (the director of Emmy Award-winning documentaries about pianist Vladimir Horowitz and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, among other projects), "The Audition" follows 11 opera singers from ages 20 to 30 as they prepare for the 2007 finals of the Met's National Council Auditions over a tension-packed 10 days in New York. "The film is really about whether these young singers have what it takes to transcend their fears, walk on stage and face their futures," Froemke says.
The documentary covers the climactic final phase of one the world's most prestigious competitions for up-and-coming opera stars. Over the course of 90 minutes, we watch the finalists as they select concert repertoire; work intensively with singing, breathing and acting coaches; rehearse with the orchestra; try on costumes; and finally stride onto the Met stage to perform. The intimacy of Froemke's cinema verite style reveals something of the intense pressures facing the auditionees. One singer candidly talks about his intention to take three sleeping pills to get a decent night's rest before the performance. Another paces backstage just before he's about to go on, repeating the mantra "I'm a tiger, I'm a tiger" quietly under his breath. At one point, Froemke shows us a close-up of a competitor's hand emphatically crushing a paper cup.
The Met auditions evolved in the mid-1950s out of "Auditions of the Air," a radio-based vocal competition. Today, thousands of singers from all over the U.S. and Canada participate in the district and regional rounds of the auditions each year. Only about 20 make it to the semifinals in New York. Ten or so go on to the grand finals, where they sing on the Met stage with the company orchestra before an auditorium peppered with industry talent spotters. Being selected by the judges as a winner at the end of the concert (a handful of the finalists secure the competition's top $15,000 prize) can powerfully affect a young singer's future. Some of the country's most well-known opera stars -- including Frederica von Stade, Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson -- all won National Council auditions. "The auditions are the first step to an international career," says the Met's general manager, Peter Gelb.
"First step" are the key words, for the challenges facing young singers are enough to put anyone but the most focused of aspirants off pursuing a life on the opera stage. "Reaching the National Council semifinals can kick-start a career by getting you noticed," says Gayletha Nichols, executive director of the auditions. "But the road that lies ahead is extremely tough." For many developing opera performers, even making it to the National Council semifinals seems like a distant dream, owing to the overwhelming competitiveness of the landscape.
The glut of American opera talent comes as a result of the mushrooming number of companies and training programs. According to the service organization Opera America, 72% of U.S. opera companies appeared after 1960, leading to an increased demand for singers and the growth of dedicated training programs. (Before the U.S. boom, newbies typically went to Europe to hone their craft.)
But in the intervening years, supply has far outstripped demand. The recent economic downturn has exacerbated this problem, causing many companies to scale back productions or, in the case of organizations like the Connecticut Opera, Opera Pacific and Baltimore Opera Company, shutter completely.
"Thousands of singers come out of conservatories each year. There are an awful lot of talented people out there," says Dan Novak, manager of the Lyric Opera of Chicago's Ryan Opera Center young artist development program. "Getting yourself known is a hurdle."