Christine Seitz, Teaching Professor of Music, joined the faculty at the University of Missouri in the fall of 2008, where she is Director of Show-Me Opera and a member of the Voice Faculty. She was a member of the stage directing staff for the Apprentice Artist Program at Des Moines Metro Opera from 2006 through 2013, and she was the founding Opera Director for the Pine Mountain Music Festival in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, directing and producing operas there from 1992 through 2002. She has been a guest director for the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre, the Florentine Opera of Milwaukee (educational outreach productions), the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Luther College. She has created original translations and supertitles for productions at the Florentine Opera of Milwaukee, the Pine Mountain Music Festival, the University of Wisconsin Madison, the Dubuque Symphony and the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
Christine Seitz is an established dramatic soprano, and she recently appeared with the Des Moines Metro Opera, singing the role of Madame Larina in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. She has also sung operatic roles with the Seattle Opera, the Dallas Opera, Madison Opera, the Los Angeles Opera, the Toledo Opera, Kentucky Opera, the Florentine Opera of Milwaukee, Central City Opera, and in Europe with the Wuppertaler Bühnen and the Stadttheater Bern. She sang the leading role of Anna Clemenc in the world premiere of The Children of the Keweenaw, by composer Paul Seitz and librettist Kathleen Masterson, at the 2001 Pine Mountain Music Festival. She has also sung in concert with the MU Choral Union, the Waukesha Symphony, the Greater Lansing Symphony Orchestra, the Caramoor Festival, the Germanfest Symphony in Milwaukee, the Cincinnati May Festival and the Las Vegas Philharmonic. She has sung in numerous recitals in New York City and throughout the Midwest, collaborating with pianists Steven Blier and Jessica Paul, and she has presented voice workshops and master classes in Houghton, Michigan, and the University of California-Irvine.
Professor Seitz is the past Central Region Governor of the National Opera Association, and a member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing. She received B.Mus. degrees in both applied voice and music education and an M.Mus. in applied voice from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. A native of Madison, Wisconsin, she was a two-time winner of the Eastern Wisconsin Metropolitan Opera District Auditions.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Wisconsin outside of Madison, Wisconsin. I have a large family of 10 brothers and sisters, and I grew up in a household where there were lots of music activities going on; lots of dance activities and lots of agriculture as well. We were in the country. We raised cattle. We had crops, and we did all of those things.
How did you get into music?
My mother was a piano player, and she was also a church organist. She made sure that we all took music lessons of some sort. So from the time I was six years old, all the way through high school, I was taking piano lessons. I took a few voice lessons in high school, but just from my choir teacher.
Where did you attend your undergraduate studies?
University of Wisconsin - Madison.
What undergraduate degrees do you hold?
I got a Bachelor of Music in Applied Voice and a Bachelor of Music in Music Education.
Did you do any young artists programs during undergraduate studies?
No, I did not.
What are some things (besides YAP) that you did to build your resume as an undergraduate student?
Well, I had a couple of what you would call “extracurricular activities.” I did a junior recital that was all Medieval and Renaissance music, and then I did a couple of special project things. My husband was the music director at the Catholic Center on campus. One year he did a performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and I sang the role of Dido. Then one year he wrote a new composition called Requiem, which had a few solo parts and a chorus, and I sang the mezzo soprano solos in that. So I did a world premiere when I was a junior in college, but it was my husband writing a new work and writing a part for me.
What are some of the most useful ways for undergraduate students to spend their time to prepare themselves for the “next step?”
It depends on what they think that next step is. That's very forward looking. Not every undergraduate knows where their voice is going to go while they're still an undergraduate, and that was certainly the case with me. Mine was a very late developing instrument. When I started college, I was a very good musician, — very highly trained; could sight-read kind of anything — but I had no vibrato yet in my sound. I had a strong sound, but it did not have anything like its mature sound when I was an undergraduate. I sang whatever I could get my hands on, but I was not thinking of a solo career at that time. I was just thinking of learning more. So I think a lot of undergraduates are in that boat.
I think it's probably the four years in vocal development that are the hardest for people to be patient with, because everybody's voice matures enormously through those four or five undergraduate years. No one can really tell you where your instrument’s going to be by the time it's done. When I was done with an undergraduate degree, I went out and taught school for a year thinking, “I don't know. I'm ready to teach. I'll get a teaching job.” I taught for one year, and I scooted right back to college and did a master's in voice because I thought, “I haven't been singing enough. I need to sing more.” Then I finished my master's degree, and then I still went out and taught for four years. This time, it was a private boarding school, so it was a more rigorous job, because there was more time on campus spent in supervisory duties and stuff like that. By the time I was done with four years of that, I was now in my late 20s. I knew that I needed to sing more. I knew that teaching at that kind of pace was not going to be good for me, vocally, because I wasn't going to be able to sing enough to develop my instrument. So I went cold turkey, and moved to New York City at that point.
How important is GPA in undergraduate studies?
It depends on whether you want to go to graduate school or not. If you want to go to graduate school, it's very important. Specifically, I'll tell you what we do here at the University of Missouri when we're looking at graduate students. We look at their last 60 credits that they did as an undergrad, and we take the GPA from that last 60 credits, and that's what gets them in or not for graduate study. A lot of universities do that, because they'll cut you some slack. When you start as a freshman in college, most people don't know whether they're going to be a solo performer or not. You're really not supposed to yet. If you're a violin major, you've got a better lock on that, but as a voice major, usually not. Nobody that I've ever met had their mature instrument when they were a freshman in college.
APPLYING TO GRADUATE SCHOOL
Does attending a more acclaimed yet competitive school provide more opportunities in the long run as opposed to a smaller school with more individual opportunities?
Well, there's no easy answer to that. If you're at a larger school, you're up against more competition, and you have to really keep your head above water and not flip out when nobody notices you and what you're doing, and you don't get any roles. You really have to keep a solid head on your shoulders. If you're in a smaller program and you get a lot of TLC like our graduate students get, you can make enormous progress while you're doing graduate work. But then you're not in a highly competitive situation, so then you have to seek your audition situations and your summer programs out [of school]. There's good and bad from both sides.
We've had some graduates from our undergraduate program go to institutions like Boston Conservatory, LSU, Northwestern, UC Boulder, just in the last 5,6, or 7 years. They've gotten into very competitive graduate studies programs and done very, very well in their graduate degrees. When you go to a graduate program that is at a higher level, — more competitive graduate program or a larger graduate program — you get more connections to people in the business. If you get the right teacher, you can get great training. If you get the right opportunities, you also make connections. For instance, if you get a chance to go to Juilliard for your graduate work, you're pretty much in at the Aspen Music Festival if you want to go, because those Juilliard teachers are the feeders for most of that Aspen program. So it's very difficult for people who aren't from Juilliard to get into Aspen, although it does happen to the opera program.
How do you find a voice teacher that you would like to study with?
You budget before you get into your senior year. You budget enough money so that you can take some trips. I think the best thing is to get suggestions from your own teacher and maybe a few people that you really trust about who the good teachers [are] out there. Then you try to make a trip to that campus and do a sample lesson with that person, and maybe talk to a graduate student who's already there in the program, and get their perspective on it. But a sample lesson is your best way, I think.
Is it more beneficial to attend graduate school or gain experience right out of undergraduate studies?
For voice, I would say a master's degree is a really good idea if you have any kind of inkling that you would like to try for a solo performing career. Once you get out, and you start doing the solo performing, there's no time to go back. It's a real conundrum. I know. I worked for eight years on the stage directing staff at Des Moines Metro Opera, which is one of the top Young Artists Programs in the country, and there are any number of singers — five or six now — that are starting to get hired by regional companies around the country. They're now working. Every month, they're going somewhere and doing another thing and another thing. Once you get on that circuit, it's really hard to say, “Well, I'm just going to walk away from that for two years and go back and do a master's degree.” You walk away from it for two years, and the companies maybe forget about you, and maybe they start hiring somebody else. Maybe that person is going to get all the Don Giovanni's or all of the Figaro’s. It's hard. Once you're in circulation with the opera companies, you kind of want to stay in circulation. I think the time to get the master’s is sooner, rather than later. It's interesting, though. We have a student with us now at Missouri, who's getting a master’s after being out and singing in a professional choir for four years, and that was a tough decision for him to make, but it turns out to be a very good decision, I think.
Should you pay for graduate school or should they pay you?
Get the best deal you can get — that's all I can say. Some schools have more money available than others. We don't have much available right now for graduate students, and that's very sad. We can only support one TA [Teaching Assistant] a year in the voice area, which is really not very good. You go to a bigger school, and it'll depend on how much they want and/or need your voice type, frankly. Typically, you'll get a graduate assistantship if they really feel they can use you. The gentlemen get them more easily than the women, I'm afraid to say. That's usually what happens. You go for the best package you can, but if you’ve got a place that's got a good teacher who wants to work with you and a very good opera program that you can interface with very well, [but] they don't give you a full ride, it might be worth your while to take the loans anyway.
How important is it to have a master’s degree?
Well, I think I think in voice, the master's degree is a really good thing to do, because almost every voice is just on its way to finding its mature path at the end of the undergraduate years. Every voice is really young at that time. You think at 21 or 22, finishing an undergrad degree — there's no way that you're anywhere near your mature sound. The voice is just starting to have an inkling where that mature sound is going to, so I think it's good to do the masters.
How important is it to have a doctoral degree?
It's important to have the doctorate if you want to teach in college. I do not have a doctorate. There are universities and colleges that cannot hire me because I don't have the DMA. In voice teaching, if you want to get a good voice teaching job at a college level, you have to have the DMA, and you have to have performing experience to be really competitive for those jobs. [The people] who [are] getting the DMA typically are people who are aspiring to teach at the college level.
Where did you attend your graduate studies?
At the same school I did my undergrad at. It was easy, and they gave me some assistantship.
What graduate degrees do you hold?
Just one: Master’s in Voice.
Did you do any young artists programs during graduate studies?
I did not.
What are some things (besides YAP) that you did to build your resume as a graduate student?
My master’s recital was a was a fairly big deal for me at the time. After I was done with my master’s, I made myself do a recital twice a year. I didn't do my first Young Artists Program until I was 32. Then I did only one, and that was Des Moines. I was actually a young artist at the Des Moines Metro Opera. See, you’re talking to somebody who is a dramatic soprano. I wouldn't have been able to tell you that's what I was going to be when I graduated, even with my master's degree. I was still singing mezzo-soprano repertoire and mostly song and chamber music, and then I started singing opera in my late 20s. When I was first singing opera, I was singing mezzo-soprano roles — arias, basically, because I wasn't really doing full operas. When I was 32, and I finally went to Des Moines, I went as a soprano two in their chorus for their main stage programs. I was singing some soprano arias, but by the end of that summer, I was singing Wagner. That's when it started happening, but that's typical of a dramatic voice — it takes longer. In fact, I'm working with a singer right now who's doing her very first Wagner Aria on her recital. I only let her do it because she's a little older than most students — it's her second bachelor's degree. [She’s singing it] only with piano because her voice isn't strong enough to sing it with an orchestra yet. You really don't move into that repertoire until you're usually around 30 or late 20s.
What are some of the most useful ways for graduate students to spend their time to prepare themselves for the “next step” (not necessarily to build their resume)?
Well, get as much background in as many things as you can. Sometimes a master’s degree won't ask you to do it, but if you have a chance to do extra study in languages, do it. If you have electives, and you can take them in music history rather than music theory, take them in music history. The more background you have of the context of the music history, the cultural context, the social context of things, and the better you are at your languages, the better, especially if you’re aspiring to be in opera. Another thing that is always there if you have a chance to do it is an acting class. If you're a guy and somebody offers you a stage combat class, take it. There are things that if you're in the academic environment, and if they're available, dive in and do it, because when you're out in the outside world, you're paying for that out of your pocket. When I got to New York City in the 80s, I was suddenly paying $40 an hour for voice lessons and $40 an hour for coachings. Then the voice lessons went up to $50, and then a couple years later, they were $75, and I was still paying on the low end. I had friends who were paying $200 an hour for voice lessons in the 80s in New York. Once you're out of the academic environment, things get a lot more economically challenging right away.
How important is GPA in graduate studies?
Well, here's how ours works at Missouri. They allow you one C or C+ in one course in your graduate study. If you get more than one, you have to repeat that class. Everything has to be a B- or higher. So they're already assuming that you're going to be better than average, in your graduate studies, and they're already expecting you to get B's and A's. When you're done with your graduate work, who's going to look at your transcript? Only if you're going to apply for a job that requires you to submit a transcript. So if you apply for a job teaching voice at a college with a master's degree, — as an adjunct or something like that — they'll probably make you submit a transcript and they're going to look at your courses. Then if you flagged all your theory, they're going to say, “Well, I don't think we want that person teaching our voices.” So when you take a graduate degree, GPA is important because you just want to get as much out of every course as you want. When that stuff ends up on your transcript, whoever asks for a transcript is going to see what you did.
How do you get auditions?
Everything has changed since I did it. When I moved to New York in 1982, I wrote letters to opera companies. The Central Opera Service had a list of regional companies, and I would just type them out and send them out and ask for an audition. I was living in New York, because almost everybody in the country would come to New York and hear auditions, and I would get a few auditions on my own. After I was in New York for five years, I auditioned for an agent, and I got an agent, and then my agent would set up auditions for me.
Do you need an agent?
Yeah. Again, it has really changed. There are a lot of people out there who are agents, and they have people on their roster, and to be on their roster, you have to pay them a certain yearly fee or a monthly fee, and some of that is just highway robbery, because they're not really getting people jobs. They get people auditions, but they don't really get people jobs. You learn how that all goes as you're getting farther along in the business, and you're talking to colleagues who are involved and who are working with agents. I had a very prestigious management in New York for quite a while, and then I started directing. My management dropped me, because I wasn't available to sing as much as they wanted me to. So I was then back, trying to get management again, because I was not available in the summers, because I was directing Opera in the summers. So I auditioned for another very prestigious agent, and he liked me very much. He said, “You go out and get yourself two years of work, and then I can work with you.” So it's a very tough business, and if I really put the pedal to the metal, I'd probably have been able to get some regional gigs and stuff, but I wasn't always available because I was doing some directing, and they didn't want to hear about that.
What pieces do you choose to prepare (range, technique, etc.)?
It isn't about range or technique. It's about what music is best for your instrument and your character — your interpretive self. Which pieces suit you best? I would be auditioning, and I would want them to know that when I got to the top of my range, it would sound like x. [I want them to know] that I could do dramatically this or that fast tempo or this slow tempo. You would try to have a variety of stuff on the list, but it was much more important to have stuff that was right for your instrument. The Germans have a word for it. They call it fach, and what mine was when I was doing my New York auditions was a young dramatic soprano. There were a certain list of roles that would fit into that slot, and I would start almost every audition with the Act Two Aria from Tannhäuser by Wagner — “Dich, theure Halle” almost every single time. Then I would have at least five other arias that were ready to go that day — usually a list of about seven. I'd walk in the room, and my agent would have my materials, and then they could see what I could sing. My audition aria — that Wagner Aria from Tannhäuser — was about two and a half minutes long and showed long lines, extended high range, and characterization all in two minutes. It would show everybody what my voice was about. In an instant, [you could] look at what I was good at doing.
How many pieces do you present?
In that time, I would have at least five ready to go, if not more. It's usually about five or seven ready to go when I would do a general audition like that. Typically, I would start with the thing I wanted to start with, and typically, they would ask for one other selection from my list. One time in my life I sang for a conductor for 45 minutes. That was the longest audition in my life. He just wanted to keep hearing more and more and more stuff. I did get a job out of it, which was very exciting, but that was going through the grinder — that's not very typical.
What materials do you bring with you into the room (paperwork, resume, binder of music, etc.)?
Again, this has changed a lot. In my day, I had a box of 200 of my 8 x 10 photos, and I would type up my resumes on resume paper. I would hand them an 8½ x 11 single-sided sheet with my resume and my photo. When I had management, my photo was in a folder. My list of possible roles was in a folder with my press clippings and reviews, if I had reviews. Then there would be a full page bio of me and all of those materials, and then you just hand them to them, and then they'd keep them on file. If they used you, they'd have it already to put it in their program. Right now, we do most of that stuff digitally. So, typically, you'd be sending the resume and photo in advance, and you would walk in the room with another copy of the resume and the sheet of selections you'd be offering that day.
What is the first thing you do when you walk into the room?
You look like yourself and you say hello, and you go to the piano, and you get comfortable. Then as soon as you're ready to sing, you assume the character of whatever it is you're going to portray. So you quit being yourself, and you'll be the character.
How do you keep positive after failures in auditions?
Well, it wasn't so much failures as it was no word of any kind. You sing a lot of auditions, and they'll say thank you very much. Sometimes they would say, I really enjoyed that, and you go off thinking that something was going to happen, but then you'd hear nothing. You don't get feedback from your auditions, unless you sign up for an audition seminar, where they're going to give you feedback, and you've paid tuition to be in it. At typical company auditions, you're not going to get any feedback. You just get a thank you, and you go home and live with yourself.
When you walk in the room, bring your best presentation at that time and be happy with it. You have to let them make the decisions they're going to make. You don't know what that means. Sometimes I wasn't hired because the tenor they had was 5’2”, and that was just the way it was going to be. Now being a director, I understand that. That was sometimes hard to take, because I knew many times that I sang auditions, and they really liked me, but the hiring didn't always happen. I sang a lot of auditions. I know it was over 150 before I finally got hired once. I keep thinking it was 300. I wish I had logged them. I did not keep a running log of when I did all those auditions in New York, but I sang for everybody for a couple years, and then somebody finally took a chance on me.
In my case, I was portraying myself as a dramatic soprano, and the reality of that is that in the opera world, those works are usually a higher budget item. They cost more. The Met, when they put on their Wagner operas, they're spending millions of dollars. They're not going to hire somebody to sing their first Sieglinde on the stage at the Met. They want somebody who's already done it a number of times, so that they know what that product is going to be. They're not dealing with somebody who's going to flip out or get sick or have a psychological crisis or something. There's too much money riding on the production, so it's harder to get your start.
What type of auditions have you overseen (opera, opera chorus)?
I've listened to a lot of opera auditions for productions that I was going to be directing. I’ve directed productions in the upper peninsula of Michigan for about 10 or 11 years. I heard auditions in two or three cities every fall in advance of those summer productions. I've heard a lot of college auditions [for] incoming undergraduate and incoming graduate [students] over the years.
What is expected in each type of audition (opera, opera chorus)?
That's a really good question. I would just say read what they say to bring in, because I'm pretty sure when you do an Opera Chorus audition, they want to hear you sing a solo operatic something from solo operatic repertoire. An Opera Chorus is chosen in a different way than a chamber chorus or a Chanticleer kind of professional chorus. The Opera Chorus is chosen for the individual voices that come together and form the unit of the chorus, but each one of them is singing with their own individual sound. They're not shifting it or changing it or blending. They're choosing individual voices, whereas a professional chorus would be choosing people who they know the tone color is going to blend really well with the ones we got. That goes into a professional chorus or a chamber chorus. It does not go into an opera selection for Opera Chorus.
When choosing someone for a part, what are the most important aspects that you look for?
We take for granted that the singer is going to sing with impeccable technique, and not have technical issues. We just take it for granted these days. We take it for granted that the singer is musically perfectly prepared, and they will not have any issues learning their music, and they won't have any issues learning their texts no matter what language it's in. What we're really looking for is that person's portrayal of the character with the right dramatic purpose, no matter what aria they're singing, so that it just springs to life. That has changed in my lifetime. It used to be only important that you stood there and sang beautifully, but as soon as they started putting productions on live TV from the Met, everything changed, because how it looked and how well the character was portrayed was suddenly really important through the visual medium. I think the first live from the Met broadcast was La Boheme with Pavarotti and Renata Scotto in the early 70s. I remember seeing it, and I remember how differently it made me think about everything having to do with opera.
Do singers need an agent?
A lot of regional company singers don't need an agent. If you want to sing at the Met, you’ve got to have an agent, and you're going to have to have a performance track record. With the regional houses, you can get general auditions without management. I have not directed operas that were being populated by singers from management, but I know that when I was with management, after the audition when they wanted to use me, all of the negotiations about what one would get paid and whether one would get travel and all of that would all go through the agent, and I would not be involved in it until it was all done.
What do you expect someone to do when they first walk in the room?
I expect them to say hello and be themselves and then go to the piano and collect themselves and then show me the dramatic purpose that they're portraying in what they're going to say.
What material do you expect someone to bring with them into the room (paperwork, resume, binder of music, etc.)?
It depends on what I've gotten beforehand. The last few years we've been doing auditions for the summer opera with Missouri Symphony, and we require that the singer send us their resume and photo ahead of time and a letter requesting the audition, so we've already got the resume and the photo on file. I don't need another copy of that, although a lot of singers bring it. What I do want is the list of what they're going to sing. If you haven't already filed that resume with the company, then definitely bring the resume and the photo.
What type of styles do you prefer to hear?
It depends on what I'm just casting for, and whether I'm casting for something specific, or whether I'm just hearing people in general. There are two kinds of auditions. There are general company, what they would call a “cattle call” auditions, where they just want to hear singers that are available and hear what they're up to and hear what they're good at. Two years down the road, they haven't picked their pieces yet. They might hear somebody that's just the perfect Billy Budd and they're going, “Okay, fine. Two years from now we're going to cast a Billy Budd, and that person is going to be our Billy Budd.” That sometimes happens from general auditions. If you're singing for a specific role, it's best to ask the company ahead of time whether they want to hear that specific aria or excerpt from the role. For instance, last year we did Carmen with the Missouri Symphony. I really needed to hear the tenors sing the Flower song from Carmen. I really needed to hear the Carmen auditionees sing at least one of those Carmen arias. You really needed to hear the Mikaela's singing that area. You really needed to hear it in context, and we made that clear in our specs for the audition.
Do you look for specific personalities to fit the ensemble?
You look for people who will be easy to work with — who will be personable and be self assured and not need a lot of TLC outside of rehearsal time. You need people who can be comfortable staying in a place that's not their home. Most of these gigs that singers are getting around the country are going to be in strange towns to them, and they're going to be living in housing situations that aren't their own apartment. It's important that you, even at the audition, show that you're well adjusted, and you can be confident and happy with yourself in an unusual living situation and be able to show up on time and learn your music and all of that.
WORK OUTSIDE THE MUSIC FIELD
Have you ever had to work a part-time or full-time job that does not involve music while on the track to becoming a professional musician (not including work done while in school)?
Absolutely, and I don't know any singers who haven't. When I moved to New York, the second day we went job hunting. My husband and myself got hired at Bloomingdale's department store, because it was the fall, and we knew they'd be doing Christmas hiring. So he got a job as a salesperson on the selling floor. I walked in and they interviewed me and put me right in the personnel department right away. I already had a master's degree. I wasn't applying for an executive job, but they knew that I had a good education. They needed somebody like me to do a lot of record keeping in their office. I worked for Bloomingdale's from fall of 1981 until 1993. Most of the time I was in New York, but the last few years, I worked remotely from Madison, and did online computer work. I told them the day that I applied for the job that I was there to be an opera singer. And that when I got a singing job I would be leaving, and they took that and said fine. And I did that job, sometimes full time, sometimes part time. Sometimes, when I got gigs in the late 80s, I would be gone for three, four or five months. When I went to Europe. The first time I was gone for five months. I came back and they brought me back in.
Do you take private voice lessons as a professional musician?
I took lessons as long as I could when I was in New York.
How do you find a teacher?
By word of mouth. Somebody told me this when I first moved from Wisconsin to New York, “Just remember, if you take more than two lessons in a row, and you didn't get helpful information, and it didn't really help you keep moving forward with your voice, walk away from that teacher and find somebody else.” I always remembered that. And I would say to get a recommendation for more than one person. So when I went to New York, I started studying with the person that I got two trustworthy people’s recommendations from. I studied with her for 5-7 years, something like that, maybe, and then she didn't continue to be as helpful to me as my voice was growing into larger repertoire. So I made a teacher change. But I only had two teachers in New York. I would take a lesson from the voice teacher, then I would go for a coaching with a pianist coach who would coach me musically through my stuff. And I got just as much training from the coaches as I did from the teachers. The teachers are about getting the voice getting the instrument to you know, grow, open up, do whatever, but the coaches were about this is how you want to sing this vowel in this place and this is how you want to do this tempo and, and you need both.
What’s an average cost for a professional voice teacher?
I don't know what it is now. When I was there in the 80s, I was paying about 50 or $75 an hour for lessons. And I knew people that were paying $200 an hour. I expect it's $100 or $150 an hour, at least right now. But I really don't know. You'd have to ask somebody who's in the circuit right now.
Do you have to bring your own accompanist?
No. The teacher would play something at the piano and I would do things without an accompanist at lessons, because then that's an extra added expense. You know, that's on you.
How quickly do you digest pieces (first singing to performance ready)?
I can do it pretty quickly because I can learn music pretty fast. But it isn't always the best idea, vocally, to do something really fast. My first coach in New York was a gentleman named Steven Blier, who is a pretty well known musician, and he still plays a lot and does a performing series with singers. He told me at one point, “I know that there's a singer that's booked to sing this concert on New Year's Eve, and she's supposed to sing the aria from Fidelio, and I know that she cancels a lot. So I think you should start looking at this aria.” He told me that three weeks before New Year's Eve. So I started looking at that aria that week, and it sat in my voice pretty well. Sure enough, three weeks later, I was singing it on New Year's Eve in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in front of 10,000 people with Leonard Bernstein in the front row. That was my first big New York gig. I learned that aria in about three weeks, but typically, I wouldn't do that. That was an opportunity that came up and fit my voice quite well. Suddenly, it was ready. But typically, what you want to do is start working on stuff when your voice is ready to start working through it, and you want to sing it in, and then start coaching it with people. You want to take your time, because the instrument does not necessarily wrap itself easily around a piece right away. Learning a song by Schubert is one thing. Learning an aria by Verdi is another whole thing, vocally.
Is it better to work for a multitude of different opera companies or stay based with a full-time opera company based out of one location?
In this country, you usually don't have that choice. If you want to be a professional opera singer in the United States, you're going to go from company to company. There are a few very lucky people who sing their whole career at the Met, and then really don't go anywhere else. Nico Castel was one of those people. He was a character tenor. He sang at the Met for years and years, and he coached languages for them as well. I don't even know how many hundreds of opera he sang in. A bass who saying pretty exclusively at the Met for a long time was Paul Plishka. He would just sing anything they needed him in. He did buffo bass, and he sang all the way up to big roles like Boris Godunov. And then, you know, these folks would probably also take summer gigs here and there and work with other companies. But typically, a singer in America will be singing one month here and another month there.
How much of an understanding do you need of other languages/how important is it?
It's really important. You don't ever stop studying languages. My language study, in the recent past — the last 20 years or so — has been doing translations and creating supertitles for operas. I’m using a dictionary, looking up every word, figuring out what the context is, and doing more translating. The better your language skills are, the better. There are some people who will do summer pay-to-plays, which is where they'll pay their way into a summer program in Italy or in Germany or in France, so that they get more language practice in the country itself.
Is it better to stay in the United States or go to Europe to sing/study?
The European market has changed a lot, and it changed right when I was over there — when the Berlin Wall came down. It used to be that the West German houses and the Swiss houses and most of French houses were eager for American singers to come over and sing for them. As soon as the wall came down, the countries that used to be behind the Iron Curtain were open now, and there was a whole mess of singers that had been singing in the East who had a lot of good training. They flooded into Western Europe because the money was better. That's sort of evened out now. If you can get work in Europe, it's great. But then what happens is you get over there, and you start working in Europe, and then the American houses forget who you are and what you sound like. Then you have to find some time to get back over and audition for people back in America. It's a little bit like leaving the performing world to go back to school or something. If you're singing in Europe, you're singing in Europe, and they don't know about you back in America. You have to sort of play both sides.
PRIVATE VOICE TEACHER
How do you build a library of vocal repertoire?
I kind of did it, because when I started teaching voice on the college level, I did a little of it at Wisconsin in the 90s. In the late 90s, I taught for five years at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. This is a small liberal arts Lutheran School [that] had about a total of 2500 students in the total population. 600 of them would be singing in choirs at any one time, and 300-350 of them would be taking voice lessons at any one time. [During] my first year [that] I was there part-time, I had 25 students. These were half-hour lessons every week, and I saw 25 students in three days. I did that for two years. Then for three years, I saw 40 students a week. That's when I developed a vocal library. I would be at the music store every weekend, buying more things. I got a big collection of the Joan Boyntim song collections and the Boosey and Hawkes collections. Then I just added to my own personal library of the Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Faure, [etc.] Whatever I didn't already have, I would start buying. I've just added over the years. When somebody is singing something that I don't have, I buy it and add it to my library.
How do you find students?
I haven't been in the market where I was trying to support myself by teaching privately. I don't find [private voice students]. They find me. I only have one or two right now that come in for private lessons, because I really don't have much time to teach outside of the university setting. When you're young, and you're trying to establish a teaching studio, I think one of the best ways to do it is to introduce yourself to the high school choir teachers in the area. The high school students who want to pursue solo and ensemble festivals and want to take some extra private voice lessons are probably the best way to start a studio. The other thing you can do is make sure that local choir directors at churches know who you are, and you could pick up a few voice students that way.
How do you teach voice parts other than your own?
Breathing is the same. Vowel shaping is the same. I don't worry about it. I teach coloratura sopranos. I teach basses. I don't care. I've had all voice types. It really doesn't really matter. To me, I keep trying to find [what] each person's instrument needs to grow and find its own path. So I just figure out the range of that instrument and where the tessitura is going to live and then try to assign music that gets that voice to set up there, and I go from there.
How important is it to be able to play piano?
It's important to have some piano skills, but mine are very basic at this point, even though I studied piano from the time I was six all the way through high school, and I took a year or two of it in college as well. I was never anybody's idea of a great pianist. What I can do is keep a bass line going. I can play the bass line and a student's melody. I can play some of the simpler accompaniments. It's important to give the voice student enough context, so that they hear everything right, and they hear how they fit with the harmony and get them that kind of scope with a piece. Then, get them to find a pianist when they're ready to sing the thing with the full accompaniment.
DIRECTOR OF AN OPERA COMPANY
How do you craft a suitable schedule that most effectively utilizes the singers’ time, your time, and benefits the overall production?
Find out when the orchestra is available, and you build the schedule around that. I mean, I always start with production week. When are we in the theater? How much time have I got in the theatre? When do I move the set in? How much time do I have to get it set up and working? When do I have my tech rehearsal? When does the orchestra come in? How many orchestra rehearsals can I have? when are our dress rehearsals? When are the performances? I do [production] week first and then go back from there. When I'm doing that with a professional company, I have 8 to 10 days of staging rehearsals before we move into the theater. So I'm assuming that the singers come to town with their roles memorized and off book. I make one pass through each scene with the first initial staging, and then we go back and do it again through the whole work. A second run is a work through of everything, and basically that takes 8 to 10 days, and then we're on stage. Typically, you'll work the singers up to two times a day, for two and a half hours at each slot.
What does a normal rehearsal for your opera company look like?
Two slots — morning and afternoon — and a total of five, sometimes six hours of staging a day. But you don't ever make one singer sing all of that time. One summer when I was staging up in Michigan, I did a Marriage of Figaro where I had very little time. I was doing two operas that summer, and the way that rehearsal schedule went was that I had to stage that piece in three days, and it's a big piece. So the first two days were seven hour days, — something like that — and the third one was a 10 hour day, and everybody had to deal with it. But typically, you don't want to do that.
How much responsibility is put on the singers to know the music before the first rehearsal of the production?
In this country, it is assumed that when you get that job to sing that role, you have learned it completely. That means your teacher loves it. Your coach loves it. You're off book, and you have everything memorized. You have some of your own ideas as to how your character interacts with other people in the piece before you get to town. Typically, the opera company will have the first day be a music run through day with the maestro. So everybody sits, and you have your score there, but you're watching the maestro like a hawk, and you're getting tempi, and if you're doing a piece with a lot of cadenzas, the maestro's hearing what you're doing with your cadenzas and figuring out how things are going to structurally link together, in terms of pacing. You do that one day, and the next day you're staging, and you stage without the book in your hand. I do not require that of my students here at the university, because if I made them memorize their music before we started staging, we wouldn't ever stage as they don't know how to do that yet. But in a professional company, you have to do that.
How much do you allow the members to make decisions regarding phrasing, musicality, staging, or acting?
Well, in a professional company, all of the musical decisions are in the hands of the maestro and the assistant conductor or coach. The director does not have anything to say about it. The director is talking about emotional point of view, physical interactions, spacing, furniture, and all of that stuff, [along with] putting that together, visually and dramatically speaking. The musical information is all handled by the music staff.
How do you create a healthy environment within the ensemble with 15-50 different personalities?
Well, that's one of the reasons why it's so important when you're hearing auditions that you choose real people to do the roles, because you want people who are well adjusted and get along with other people and don't walk in a room and immediately and start having anti-vibes about that other soprano, — or something like that — because you just don't have time for it. That's what you try to do. You don't try to create an environment. They have to come in and plug into yours. There's no time, typically, in a professional company in the United States. You go to a town and you'll do an opera gig in a month. But what that means is you've got two to three weeks of the music rehearsal with the maestro and the staging rehearsals, and then you have a week of tech in the theater, and then you have however many performances you're able to do.
How do you handle conflict?
I've seen it happen, but I have not had to handle it myself in any of my productions. I've had a case where the soprano — she was singing La Traviata, and she hadn't seen it before. She started having a crisis of confidence, and I took her aside and gave her a lot of positive input and things to think of to keep her brain positive about it. But I haven't had real conflict between people that I had to deal with, which is handy. I have seen it happen that a singer came to town to do a role poorly prepared, and the company put up with it for two or three days of staging, and then they just sent her home. In that case they'll either bring somebody in to replace them, or it will have been a role that was double cast.
How do you choose the opera, operetta, etc. that the company will perform?
It depends on what the musical side wants to do and what the company is ready to do budget wise. There's a lot of things that go into it, and then sometimes you get to do the one you really want. For me, that's always Falstaff. I'm always ready to do another Falstaff. I want to do a Falstaff whenever somebody lets me do a Fallstaff. I want to do one, but what we've been doing with the Missouri Symphony the last few few summers are pieces that the audience is going to know something about. We did Fledermaus. We did Traviata. We did La Bohème. We've done Carmen. The audience knows about those pieces — you have a better public reaction. The people who know about Falstaff are opera-goers, and we don't have a full audience of veteran opera-goers in this town. So that one is a difficult sell for this kind of a place, and I understand that.
What happens if a member is sick or is unable to perform?
You hopefully have a cover. I've been doing these operas the last few summers with the Missouri Symphony — we don't have covers. I haven't had that situation. I know in bigger companies, they'll just get on the phone and call an agent and get somebody flown in for the next day. I've seen it happen. We had somebody in three days before Carmen opened — the tenor was absolutely not going to be able to do it. [If I had to] I'd have to figure out who to call in New York and get on the phone. It would probably be New York, and we'd find somebody who’d done it before and bring them in, and then we'd have to figure out how we could pay them.
How do you manage and prevent vocal fatigue while performing demanding amounts of music?
Well, first of all, you trust your opera company not to put you in too many performances on too many days in a row. During staging rehearsals, you figure out when it's time to mark and when it's time to not mark. I used to have a little set of rules. I would sing full out for the maestro for that first music rehearsal. I would sing full out for the orchestra rehearsals on stage, but in a staging rehearsal, I would sing full out once in a staging of a scene, and then mark the rest of the time. Although my first gig, I didn't do that, and in three days, I sang my voice out. That's how I learned not to do that.
What are some remedies for curing short term altercations to the voice (sore throat, cold, etc.)?
You have to be your own judge of whether you should sing or not. If your cords simply won't phonate, you really need to rest them. You keep your vocal health up by protecting your voice and your body from outside viruses and germs from other people. You have to be quite careful about that. In this day and age, if I did have a singing career, and I got on a plane to go sing a gig, I might just wear a face mask on the plane. These days, I just might do it. I didn't used to, but I might now, because you just don't want to catch a bug that you're not responsible [for]. It just takes you down. Opera singers tend to be very specific about getting the right amount of sleep and very specific about drinking the right amount of fluids and very specific about getting the right amount of exercise, so that their physical plant of their of their instrument stays healthy and in tune.
How important is it for a singer to exercise consistently?
It's very important. In this day and age, you have to be in excellent physical shape to be in a production. Many productions are asking their characters to do some fairly challenging physical staging things or combat things. There was a production of Billy Budd where the guys were swinging on ropes, because it's on ship. The Billy Budd himself was the first one I saw. The singer was from England, and he was phenomenal. He was swinging on ropes and doing cartwheels on the stage, and I was like, “Oh!” It made sense with the role. He was having a great time being on a ship, but I wouldn't have thought about it before. I was a stand and sing kind of person. The physical conditioning is really really important. Many, many, many guys are at the gym all the time, and they’re as buff as athletes. It's really important.
How important is it for a singer to follow a specific diet and what foods and drinks should be avoided?
Well, that's an individual choice. When I was out on the road singing, I discovered what was triggering my migraines. When I found out that it was food, then I went on a fairly rigid diet that would not allow any of those triggers in it. I did that for a number of years, because I sang with a migraine a couple of times, and I knew that I never wanted to deal with that again. In my case, they were all food triggers, so I just figured out what to avoid, and I avoided it. There are people who are gluten intolerant, and there are people who have different dietary restrictions. It’s not easy when you're traveling to keep up with your dietary restrictions, but sometimes you have to be very rigid with yourself to only purchase this kind of food and only make this kind of food or when you go to a restaurant, make sure that it doesn't have any of this in it. Really be sort of pushy with the waitstaff just to make sure, because you don't have any other choices.
How does alcohol affect your singing short and long term?
I guess the night before a gig, I wouldn't drink, but it's not like I feel any lasting effects of it. But I don't drink a lot. I used to go off and not drink alcohol and not drink coffee on the day of the show. The night before, I wouldn't do a glass of wine, and the day of the show, I wouldn't do coffee, but then my body would go, “Where's that coffee?”
How much does touring and traveling with high vocal demands affect you?
Well, it's hard to do, because first of all, you've got to get your rest. When you're in a strange place all the time, you don't have your own bed. So it's hard. You got to be able to relax and get sleep no matter where you are. You have to have a good sleeping environment. There's some folks I know that would travel with their own egg-crate-foam-thing that they put on a bed wherever they went or an inflatable mattress they bring in and put on the bed, so that they knew what kind of sleep they were going to get. It gets to that point sometimes. That's really important that you have the ability to get the rest that you need. Then you figure out how to get the exercise that you want. What I would do in various places was just figure out what my walking path was going to be, and I'd walk a few miles a day. That would be my exercise of choice.
FAMILY AND RELATIONSHIPS
How has being a professional musician affected your relationships?
Well, I'm married to another professional musician. So when I was out singing, it was difficult because we weren't able to be together most of the time. So we would communicate a lot. We did a lot of phone calling. When I was doing it, it was before we had the internet, so there was no Skyping. We were paying phone bills, and they were expensive. I found out some very strange things when I went to Europe and was away for seven months. The first three weeks I did okay, but week three I caught a cold at exactly the same time that my husband caught a cold back in New York. That was freaky. I also suffered from depression when I was away from home that long. Then I realized later that I'd never been away from home that long in my life. What did I expect? I had no foundation. I had come from a big family. I had been married for some time at that point and suddenly I was all alone. I was okay for a while, and then it just would hit me. I know that that happens to a lot of people. I didn't really even know what I was dealing with, but after the fact, I look back and I know that's what it was. I worked my way out of it, but it wasn't fun, and it was hard to deal with.
Is it hard to balance a relationship with a non-musician?
It depends on whether they understand what you're up to and approve of it and like it or not. The [relationships] that I know that have worked are the relationships where the other person, although they're not trained in music, appreciates it and allows their partner to find their best self. When the partners are making demands on each other to feed the ego of the other partner, then it tends to not work out so well.
Would it be difficult to have a partner and children as a professional musician?
Well, as a singer, it's kind of difficult. But I've known some singers that have made it work. In some cases, bringing the baby with them and traveling and having the baby with them. In other cases, having kids and then having an au pair with the kids so that when they're at rehearsal, the kids have got something to do and somebody to be with. But when the kids need to be in school, then they have to stay somewhere and be in school. You can't be a traveling opera singer and try to homeschool your child at the same time. It's really almost impossible. There's not enough hours in the day.
What is the best way to market yourself as a musician?
That also is completely different than when I was doing it. Like I said, what I did was I would type letters and send them off to opera companies to get auditions. Nowadays, you're able to apply for things through YAP Tracker and send your materials out and get your auditions that way. When you do an event, you're able to publicize it on Facebook and Instagram and whatever else there are. That all has changed completely since I was doing it. I think the Facebook event is a very powerful thing, and getting people to share it with all of their sets of friends is a very powerful thing. If you're going to do a recital live for a fundraiser or something, do you pay for advertising? Probably not. You depend as much as you can on word of mouth to get your audience there, but you do whatever you can to get those people to know about it and to come to it.
How important is it to network?
It's absolutely important. You can't be a success in this business without networking. Even if you have management, you still have to network. But you network quite easily as soon as you are involved in something. You just continue to add to your network with every person that you work with and meet on the way.
Do you think that it is necessary to have an active social media?
Yes, I think so right now.
Is it important to have a website?
Well, I don't think it is anymore. I think if you have a Facebook, that functions the same way now. I think it's easier for people to use than websites are. Although, you know, if you look at some of the big name singers that are working out there right now, you'll probably find them on websites before you'll find them on a Facebook page. That's kind of a choice, but Facebook is just as successful as far as I’m concerned.
Is being a musician financially difficult?
It can be. It usually is. We're talking about the life of a professional singer, right? And in this country, that basically means that somebody is going to go out and try to get hired by regional opera companies. You can make a certain amount of money singing with orchestras. Christmas season is a big season for solo singers because of Messiah gigs. If you plan it out and you get three or four Messiah gigs, you can get some good money then. But it's hard to plan how much money you're going to make. It's hard to even know what you're going to be bringing down as a salary until you're working a lot. So there are years that you make some money being a singer, but it's not your total income. You have to add to it by having a part time job or some other job.
How beneficial is it to have an accountant that is adept at working with musicians in terms of taxes?
That can be beneficial, but I've always done my own. I had an accountant help me once in New York because that was the year I sang in Germany and Switzerland. So I had international money that I had earned and I didn't have a clue how to do that on a tax form. So I had them do my taxes for me for one year and then that was my model. And I didn't have any international money after that, but how they did my Schedule A and my Schedule C and blah, blah, blah, and I was just like, “Okay, that's how it works.” And I've just been doing it myself ever since.
What is a normal day like for you?
Well, right now my normal day is my academic day during the semester. Usually I'm at work from at least 10am to 6pm every day, and when we get into our production time, I'll come in a little earlier and I'll stay a lot later because of evening production build sessions and stuff like that. It gets more busy rather than less. In the summer, when I do a professional production, then my day is different every day depending on the rehearsal schedule, but whatever is needed I do it. So some days there's like an 8 hour day and some days it's like a 12 hour day, or a 16 hour day.
What’s it like being the Director of Show-Me Opera at the University of Missouri - Columbia for 12 years?
I've enjoyed the position very much. The group of people that I'm working with are mostly undergraduates, and I find that very invigorating and I enjoy working with that level of singers very, very much. But it's kind of unusual. Most college opera departments will do almost everything on the backs of their graduate students and they won't double cast nearly as much as I do. So the challenge is to find works that are appropriate for the younger voices, but the outcome is that so many students at an early age can get their feet in the pond and really feel what it's like to do these works. Like last year, when we did Magic Flute, we had all of those roles that we could double cast. There was just this enormous flowering of understanding in all of those students about what it was like to be involved in a production like that and to bring that piece of music to life. So I love doing great works, I love being able to double cast them, I love giving as many people who are ready for the opportunity, the opportunity to get involved in a production. So I've really enjoyed it a lot, even though it's mostly undergraduates. And other people might look at this job [and say], “You're only doing one full production a year. How are you enjoying it?” I enjoy it very much.
Where do you see yourself after the University of Missouri - Columbia?
On a boat in the middle of Lake Superior, I think. I'm probably going to retire from here and not seek a further gig somewhere else, you know. I'm probably going to finish out my career here. That's what it feels like and it's been going really well.
What are some things you wish you knew while you were going through the process of becoming a professional musician?
The first thing I wish is that the people that I was studying with when I was younger had a better idea of where my voice was going to end up. Because I've always felt like I could have known. Even though I wasn't going to sing that repertoire until I was in my 30s, I really feel like somebody could have known it was coming and warned me. So I didn't do much seeking completely on my own of what was right to sing and what was not right to sing. I feel like there were about four years in there where I did a whole lot of self experimentation without any external guidance and that really was hard. [There were] a lot of crises of whether this would ever work and what was right and not right.
I wish because when I finally got hired to sing a major role, I was 37. And that role was Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s Macbeth, which is a huge role. I wish that I'd had more experience in opera productions, just being onstage and singing a role of any size, because I really hadn't done much. I did a couple things in college that were just smaller roles. And when I walked into that opera house when I was there to do that role, I went, “What is this? I don't know what this animal is. I've not been in it enough.” That's what I felt. Which is another reason why when I have the opportunity to work with undergraduates, I'm giving as many people an opportunity to be involved as possible, so that the whole genre is more open to them and they understand how it works and how it feels to be in it, because I sure didn't. I just really felt like I was supposed to sing all of this music and be great with my voice. I felt like I could do the acting pretty well, but all of the production details [such as] costuming, wigs and, [just] being on the set, and all of that stuff. I had no experience at it and I wish I'd had more.