Seated in rows of the Katzen Recital Hall, an audience of about 50 singers, music professors, interested parents and a handful of others waited to receive the advice of three women who represent both performer and gatekeeper in the opera world.
“The Next Step: Building a Career in Opera,” a panel discussion presented by the AU Department of Performing Arts and the Washington National Opera, offered the audience counsel on a career in opera from Christina C. Scheppelmann, director of artistic operations at WNO, Elizabeth “Betsy” Bishop, professional mezzo-soprano and Brandy Lynn Hawkins, Domingo-Cafritz young artist.
From the beginning of the panel, the audience was invited to lead the discussion with their questions. Set with three armchairs and a coffee table, the stage felt like a living room rather than a performance space, giving the talk an informal feel.
The majority of the audience members were interested in the steps to take to become a singer and the auditioning process itself. For undergraduate students, the panel recommended getting a well-rounded education that includes a foreign language, history, music theory and traveling.
Scheppelmann shared her experiences judging auditions.
“Shy is not something you should be,” Scheppelmann said. “You have to want to go out there and excite an audience. There has to be something in you that really, really wants [it]. Otherwise there will always be something holding you back.”
Hawkins, dressed in jeans and high-heeled boots, related to the majority of the audience in age. A graduate of the University of Kentucky, she is currently in her second year of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program at WNO. The program gives singers, conductors, coach-accompanists and directors the opportunity to learn and perform at WNO while receiving a monthly stipend.
Hawkins stressed the responsibility singers must have for their own career. Once singers leave school, they have to apply the skills they’ve learned and show the initiative to practice and maintain their voice, Hawkins said.
“[Your professors] are teaching you how to take responsibility for yourself because, believe me, that comes to a cold, dead stop unless you have lots of cold, hard cash,” Bishop said.
Bishop, who has performed with the Metropolitan Opera, WNO and other illustrious companies, stole the panel with memorable responses. Dressed in a black long-sleeved shirt and a long jean skirt, her warm Southern accent and over-the-top humor gave the panel a friendly feeling.
Singers should take the initiative to go on their own mini-audition tour and keep a thorough record of where and when they audition, Bishop said.
When auditioning, singers should pay close attention to their audition cover letter, book of music for an accompanist and outfit choice. An evening gown is not appropriate attire for an afternoon audition, Scheppelmann said.
Hawkins said she has one great dress that she can rely on for her auditions. Bishop agreed with Hawkins: “You just whistle and [the dress] packs itself.”
While the panel encouraged the singers to audition, they also talked about the reality of having a successful career as an opera singer. Bishop described the opera community as an inverted pyramid with aspiring singers at the bottom and professional singers making their living from opera at the top.
If a singer is able to make a living in opera, they must keep up with the business side of being self-employed. Bishop told students to “practice while you’re in school now: balance your checkbook, keep track of your expenses, keep track of what you are doing, keep your organizational skills up” — advice that can apply to almost every career.
Still, Bishop couldn’t help but acknowledge what a fantastic career she has.
“You never lose how cool this is,” Bishop said. “You just have to understand that it’s not just the cool part ... Your ice cream has got to sit on the cone.”