Advice on auditioning: 1. Picking opera audition repertoire

Stephen Bell as Orontë in Alcina (2010).

Dear terrified/intimidated/resigned/fatalistic/anxious opera singer:

Audition season is upon us once again, the time of year when a young opera singer’s fancy turns lightly to thoughts of baring oneself (artistically) in front of a panel of professional judges who stand between the singer and further experience.  It’s a time of scrambling to find an obscure audition venue, of trying to find which door is open, of warming up in a stairwell or a bathroom stall, of walking into an unfamiliar room which is either ludicrously big or uncomfortably tiny, of dealing with spaces that are either inadequately or over-enthusiastically heated. It’s a joyous, laugh-a-minute romp of performing arias with unfamiliar accompanists on no rehearsal time, of wardrobe malfunctions and the dreaded audition season sickness.

Most of all it’s a chance to pay startlingly large amounts of money to submit oneself to judgement by an increasingly blurry stream of people sitting on the other side of a table that seems to divide friends from foes. This process may be character-buliding, and it’s certainly an unavoidable part of the business but it’s not often fun. You may sometimes feel that those people judging you are positively inimical or at the very least completely uninterested in you.

Whether one is singing for a YAP, for a summer workshop, for entrance to a master’s program, for a professional gig or for a role in a university or community production, we often feel that the power is all on the other side of that table.

I’m here to say that the more you can take back that power and control those things that you can control, the more enjoyable the audition process can become.

I’m also here to say that many of us on the other side of the table are actually rooting for you like crazy.

In this series of blog posts, I’m going to share some of my thoughts about auditioning. I’ve been listening to  young singers audition for twenty or so years, both in my role as artistic director of a regional Canadian opera company and as I annually listen to and cast singers for my pay-to-sing summer opera workshop.

As always, these are my personal opinions. Comments, suggestions, other points of view are very welcome, from both sides of the table.

First Step: Pick your audition repertoire

This is number one for many reasons, but I sometimes get the feeling that for a surprising number of young singers not enough thought goes into those aria choices. There are actually few things more important than picking the right audition arias to offer. Seriously.

Your basic goal is to be able to offer five arias which contrast in terms of style, mood, character, language and period.  (The exception to this is when you’re well-established and have a rather narrow range that fits you like a glove and from which you can build an entire career).

Eventually, as a professional singer, you’re going to have a larger raft of audition arias from which you can pick the most appropriate or current 5 (or 4 or 3 or 2) to offer at a specific audition or competition. These arias will change as your voice/Fach* changes, as you add roles to your c.v. and as you zero in on the best pieces for your voice and personality.


* Be passionately in love with every single piece you offer.

* Include some Mozart if it’s a good fit for you. That’s a big “if”. While Mozart is generally considered appropriate for young voices, his music is actually freaking hard to sing, and ruthlessly betrays every gap in our technique. I beg of you, please don’t sing “Ach, ich fühls” unless you can really do it.  If you can offer Mozart and do him justice, then go for it.

* Make sure you can sing the piece really well. I mean really well. Be careful of pieces like “Meine Sehnen” from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, or  “Eccomi…O quante volte” from I Capuletti — they’re hella hard to pull off well.

* Make sure that the role would be appropriate for you as a whole. You may be able to sing “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from La rondine but could you really sing Magda’s entire role?

* Know what you will sing first if you’re given the choice (as you often are), and make the choice count. I think it’s smart to make this first number short and fabulous, because it gives more time for a second number. Whether it’s super short or not, make sure you adore it, sing it like a boss and have coached it so thoroughly that you could sing it in your sleep.

* Have your teacher and coach approve the list. They may be able to catch something that would look odd to an auditioner.


* Sing something that’s way beyond where you are technically.  I know this is basically the same as #3 above, but it’s important enough to say twice. Yeah, you may love a certain piece, and maybe you willl be able to sing the crap out of it in a couple of years, but unless you can nail it now, don’t offer it. I will personally cut young singers some slack for developing technique, but total lack of judgement is more than a tad worrying.   The competition is fierce enough, even for pay-to-sing workshops such as the ones I cast, that you really can’t afford to make a mistake like this.

* Think you have to showcase only unusual or rarely-heard arias. Make sure you have a fair number of arias drawn from standard repertoire (unless you’re auditioning for a very specific program for cutting-edge contemporary or early music). Standard arias are the best guideposts the people listening to you can have when weighing the relative merits of different singers. Having said that, I really enjoy hearing new pieces myself, especially English language opera repertoire. Go figure.

* Pick arias from mutually-exclusive Fächer. For example, if I see a mezzo offering both Stride la vampa and Que fais-tu blanche tourterelle I’m going to question her judgement if not her sanity. (True confession, I was that mezzo once, and, no, I didn’t get the gig:) I was in transition between lyric and dramatic. Also I was stupid).  In general you want to pick a Fach for a particular audition cycle and stick with it. Don’t confuse the auditioners (we’re often a little dazed due to lack of REM sleep and too many “Deh vieni non tardars”). You don’t want to give us any reason to put a question mark next to your name.

* List any aria that you’re not totally prepared to sing that day. If you’ve got an aria that’s a real stretch for you, and you know you’re not going to be able to do it justice on a particular day, then leave it off your rep list. If you’ve got an aria on your list and you’re praying the audition panel doesn’t pick it, then maybe it shouldn’t be on your list in the first place.

Some special problems:

Help! My Fach has changed!

Okay, it can definitely be a bit freaky to find yourself totally Fached-up, but if you’re singing for a summer program or any opportunity for young singers, then the people auditioning you should understand that this happens. Take a deep breath and regroup.

First of all, you need to assemble a new set of arias that reflect your new category. If it’s been a big change, like from baritone to tenor, there’s no way around it — you’ve got to have fresh material. Depending on the program hearing you, you may be able to substitute an art song in a different key for one of your foreign language arias. If it’s a really big, important audition than you may be better off leaving it a year until you’ve polished your new repertoire.

I’m Zwischenfach. What the hell do I do?

You may have the ability to sing a wide range of roles, but you’ve got to be smart about how you market yourself. You have to make a conscious and educated decision about what arias you should offer, based on what you sing best, your vocal colour, your acting ability and what engagers are most likely to cast you as. This is an opportunity for you to show your audition panel, by your brilliant selection of audition repertoire, that you know exactly who you are and how to market yourself.  Zwischenfächer high mezzos can reasonably offer  Cherubino, Despina, Der Komponist and maybe Santuzza, for example. There are definitely high baritones who can sing some bari-tenor roles: like Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus or Danilo in The Merry Widow.  Just don’t put down choices that will confuse your auditioners.


* Fach (plural Fächer) is the German word for a cubby-hole or container and is used to describe the system of categories used in German opera casting. It’s a kind of typecasting which takes into account not only your voice, its size, colour and tessitura, but also your physical presence and acting abilities. While it’s not used in North America the way it is in the German house system, it’s still a useful way of describing our voices and choosing appropriate repertoire, which is why it’s achieved quite a bit of traction outside the German-speaking opera world.

Some reference material:

I’m sure you already know this, but the Wolf Trap Aria Frequency lists are a wonderful source of information about what arias singers have offered WTO in any given audition cycle. The Wolf Trap blog is a brilliant thing, too. Love those guys.

There’s an excellent breakdown of the Fach system with aria lists at IPA Source. Note that the aria lists are limited to the arias most often chosen by European agents and Intendanten and so leave off many common North American audition arias.

Fach Me can be a great source of role ideas for people who already know what roles fit them well and want other suggestions. It’s role-based, not aria-based and it’s a bit of a blunt instrument, but it’s fun.

We’ve also posted the modified text of a booklet I wrote a few years ago on roles for various Fächer: The Fach System of Vocal Classification

Originally published in 2013 — updated October 2017


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