by Richard Carsey
An audition in 1986 changed my life. It wasn’t even my audition.
I attended Indiana University for my Master’s degree in Piano. My parents had offered financial help for my undergraduate degree, which I began at Eastman and finished at the University of Louisville (another story). Graduate school was up to me, however. In order to continue my education, I needed some kind of paid assistantship combined with student loans. I applied to Indiana. I was accepted to the school, but no assistantship was offered. At least, not until one week before the summer session of 1986 when I received a call from the graduate office.
There was an opening in the Opera Coaching department, available immediately. I would start classes right away and play for the two summer productions. If I didn’t accept the offer, it would go to someone else and there would be no assistantship for me in the fall. If I did accept the offer, the assistantship was renewable each semester with the approval of the coaching faculty.
I said yes. I had seen less than 10 operas in my life, and had only played for a few musicals. But I had no other plan. Thankfully the summer’s offerings were “Elixir of Love” (conducted by a graduate student) and “Camelot”. I got through those just fine and figured all was well.
At the beginning of the fall semester, an enormous set of auditions is held at the IU Opera Department, called “The Cattle Call”. Every singer (and there are hundreds) in the school auditions for all 6 of the mainstage productions performed that year. Auditions are held in the theater. They are open auditions, so anyone can come and watch. All of the voice faculty, all the conductors and all the stage directors on faculty are in attendance, and afterward they go and fight it out for who will get what singers in which production. Every production is double-cast. However, many, many singers end up with no mainstage role. If you are a vocal performance major, having no role makes for a very disappointing year. The event is fraught with import.
Backstage there are three pianists. Singers show up with their music and tell you what they are going to sing. One of the pianists says he knows it, they talk through it while another audition is happening, and then you go onstage to entertain the exhausted ears of the faculty.
I realized I knew none of this repertoire. I hated sight-reading so I was not good at it. I knew “Elixir” and “Camelot” and some other musicals. I was petrified. I played a couple really easy things and muddled through, but mostly the other two pianists were doing all the work (and resenting me).
Finally a soprano came backstage to sing from “Boheme”. I hadn’t played in about an hour so it really was time for me to do SOMETHING. I had seen “Boheme” and figured it would be Musetta’s Waltz, so I said yes. The aria was Mimi’s “Donde lieta” from Act Three. It didn’t look familiar at all, and it had a 5/4 bar and a bunch of sharps. None of this boded well.
We walked onstage and I ruined this girl’s audition. Ruined it. What came out of the piano had nothing to do with Puccini. I played wrong notes, I got lost, and she bravely fought through it. At the end she was sobbing. She took her music, and we exited.
The instructor in charge of all the Opera Coaching assistants was Robert Porco, one of the school’s conductors. He stopped me in the hall the next day and told me that my playing was an embarrassment.
“You are not qualified for this assistantship. You don’t know even the most standard repertoire and you obviously can’t sight-read. If I could take this position away from you today I would, but I can’t until the end of the semester. I’m giving you fair warning that I am making it my job to see you fail, and to see you leave.” If this is not a direct quote, it’s damn close. The last sentence is verbatim. That’s not something you forget.
When the cast lists came out the next week, the coaching assignments were on them as well (we each played for 3 operas during the 6 opera season). I was given the first show of the year, Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”–hugely challenging to learn, and starting rehearsals in less than one month. Mr. Porco was the one handing out the assignments.
I must have gone to classes and lessons, but I’m certain that all I thought about and all I practiced was “The Rake”. I could not stay in school without this job and I had nowhere else to go. I learned that opera like it was the last piece of music I would ever face (and that’s exactly how it felt!). I approached singers in the show and asked if they wanted to start working early, so I could play it with everybody before the first rehearsal. The conductor (not Porco, thankfully) had an assistant and I asked him to conduct through the opera with me before we started. I did everything I could think of.
Mr. Porco made certain that I played the first read-through of the opera with the full-cast, and he came to watch. It wasn’t flawless, but he came to me afterward and said, “OK, you’ve won round one.”
The next day he handed me the Schirmer Soprano Anthology and told me to learn ten arias every week. Once “Rake” was in performance (I got to play the harpsichord solos in the pit because I knew the opera better than anyone else), Mr. Porco met with me every few weeks and conducted me through many of the arias in the Schirmer anthologies. That’s how I learned much of the standard aria repertoire. It was an act of kindness on his part. I don’t know where he found the time, but I’m forever grateful. I kept my assistantship, and Mr. Porco became the most important mentor of my graduate career.
The point of all of this is not that you should admire my perseverance. There are lots of possible outcomes, many of which would have been positive—including realizing that this wasn’t for me, and leaving school to do something else. The point is that we will all crash and burn from time to time. We will question our skills and be faced with our inadequacies. It’s what we do with that moment of confrontation that matters.
And there’s nothing like an audition to provide us with that humbling opportunity.
© 2013 Richard Carsey
Next up – One last thought on auditions