Resident Artist Auditions Sing ON!                  A conversation with Opera North’s Artistic Director Louis Burkot

Auditioning by Zoom

Even as the challenges and disruptions of this pandemic year roll on, so do the creative solutions, especially here at Opera North.

Case in point: by now Louis Burkot would be traveling the country, hurrying through airports and recital halls, on the annual quest for next year’s class of Resident Artists.

Instead, he’s enjoying novel November sunshine at his home in the Upper Valley. Appreciating his morning coffee. Strolling through the applications for the Summerfest 2021 Resident Artists.

Well, maybe not “strolling” – since there are 620 of them.

But deep into the pursuit of that elusive magic that makes Opera North the right time and right place in an artist’s career, his ear – and experience – are trained on the sound of the voices that will fit perfectly into the jigsaw puzzle of the year’s chosen repertoire.

Starting next week, Louis will begin to audition around 120 finalists to find the lucky nine who will be included in the 2021 Resident Artists experience at Opera North.

Auditioning by Zoom may seem a far-fetched plan. But for Louis and his Dartmouth Music Department teaching schedule and for the audition hopefuls, “online” is where they’ve been working already, for months. Even the sound quality of Zoom is “not as bad as you might think,” Louis said. In fact, he has already advised them to find a comfortable space to audition– home is great – and not to be concerned about clothes or hair or special makeup. No grand spectacles needed.

But Louis does recognize the downsides: “They are not being accompanied by the pianist I would have hired. We now have to use recorded accompanists, which is something I normally never do.  I’ll miss that opportunity to judge how they’re interacting with an experienced pianist who is leading them through their performance.”

To start, we asked why the Resident Artist program is so important to Opera North.

Certainly, it’s a tradition as old as the company itself. But in Louis’ words, “Much of the season revolves around the Resident Artists. They step into principal and secondary roles in our productions. Our investment in the development of their careers pays dividends as the Resident Artists enrich the community here in the Upper Valley—and in the broader community of opera professionals across the country.”

Making the Zoom auditions work

Auditioning by Zoom may seem a far-fetched plan. But for Louis and his Dartmouth Music Department teaching schedule and for the audition hopefuls, “online” is where they’ve been working already, for months. Even the sound quality of Zoom is “not as bad as you might think,” Louis said. In fact, he has already advised them to find a comfortable space to audition– home is great – and not to be concerned about clothes or hair or special makeup. No grand spectacles needed.

But Louis does recognize the downsides: “They are not being accompanied by the pianist I would have hired. We now have to use recorded accompanists, which is something I normally never do.  I’ll miss that opportunity to judge how they’re interacting with an experienced pianist who is leading them through their performance.”

So, Louis is building more time than usual into each audition to allow more time to chat and find out what each prospect knows about Opera North and why they are pursuing the Resident Artist opportunity.

Because the program is so well established and successful (counting Resident Artist alums who have debuted at places like the Met), Louis also has the advantage of established relationships with conservatories and programs he knows he can mine for those golden voices and for the artists who are at the stages of their careers where Opera North can make a difference.

“I can tell in twenty seconds whether singers are technically proficient; and I can tell – even by Zoom – if they’re resonating from the chest or head or mouth.” But the audition is also about what Louis calls “the freedom to be expressive.” “I always ask, ‘What is it you want to have happen here?’”

Three categories of very special people

“Basically. there are three categories of very special people,” Louis said about the process of selecting those he auditions.

First there are “the precocious undergraduates, or first year grad students at the major conservatories. I have cultivated relationships with the major teachers there and have built Opera North’s reputation for being a place where those artists can get their first opera experience in a professional setting.”

Second are the artists who hear about the opportunity by word of mouth and “seek the working environment to improve.” They might be singers with professional experience who want the “smaller, more personalized attention that they get from a place like Opera North,” said Louis.

The third category of prospects are people who are already at the professional level who seek opportunities to perform a role for the first time. They recognize the high level of music-making at Opera North and come for the coaching. “Knowing this, I will devise a season that incorporates these opportunities,” Louis said. “I like taking singers for the first time through a role.”

For each audition, Louis asks, “Pick things you sing better than anyone else.” Opera North will present La bohème, in English for Summerfest 2021, along with a special production—Extraordinary Women— that highlights the heroines of the Baroque opera period. Singers have been asked to present arias that showcase their technical facility and stylistic understanding of either genre, as well as their ability to sing in English.

All things considered with the online auditions, Louis allows “It will probably be awkward for both of us!” Without the body language, “It will be harder for them to tell what I’m thinking.    This year, because of the need to use recorded accompaniments that don’t have the give and take of working with a collaborative pianist, I may ask them to sing something a capella, the way they want. We can disagree on technique, but it must work for them, to use the voice to do exactly what you want.”

“I just hope I know enough to know if I like them!”

As the 38th class of Resident Artists, the chances are this group will sustain Opera North’s reputation for surprise, delight – and extraordinary music, whatever Summer 2021 brings to Blow-Me-Down Farm.