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Ask the Professionals: Opera Coach Kathryn Wright

Updated: Feb 12, 2022

Have you ever wished you could ask the people you audition for what you did right or wrong? Do you wish you could hear it then and there instead of waiting months to hear whether or not you got the job? I got the chance to do just that. I dug deep into what happens on the other side of the audition desk when I sat down with Kathryn Wright, a coach, prompter, and répétiteur. She has been in auditions both on the piano bench and behind the auditor’s desk. She sat down with me and shared her wealth of experience and knowledge to help you succeed in your next audition.

Kathryn Wright, Her Story and Her Unique Perspective

Kathryn Wright is one of the most experienced opera coaches in the world. Her career began when she landed in New York following her university education. It was there she studied with Joan Dornemann, a fond memory of hers she enjoyed sharing, “I was actually working for her as her personal assistant, and she inveigled me little by little into playing for singers on the grounds I would be doing her a favor. Who was doing who a favor?!” After learning the craft under Dornemann’s tutelage, Ms. Wright went on to work at the world's leading opera houses including the Metropolitan Opera, Sidney Opera, Oper der Stadt Köln, and spent ten years as a member of the musical staff at the Deutsch Oper Berlin. During that time she worked with a seemingly endless roster of the most famous and influential singers, directors, and conductors of the last half century including James Levine, Placido Domingo, Bryn Terfel, Renee Fleming, Anna Netrebko, Deborah Voigt, Maria Guleghina, Lise Lindstrom, Jose Cura, James Conlon, and Donald Runnicles. After her tenure at Deutsch Oper Berlin she returned to the states where she now serves as the head of music preparation for University of Georgia Opera Theatre Department.

As a part of her incredible career, Kathryn Wright has been in auditions both on the piano bench and behind the auditor’s desk. When asked what her preference was, she said “I actually enjoy playing behind a singer, even if I am part of the decision making process because it gives me such a good idea of the singer's musicality and what they might be like to work with.” She continued, “This is definitely something auditioning singers should be aware of - we want to know not only if you can sing and perform, but if you are nice to know. Will you be a good and responsive colleague? Will you handle yourself professionally? Do you look like you belong on an operatic stage?”

The more we got into our discussion, the more the nitty gritty of what to do and not to do emerged. While Kathryn Wright has a career’s worth of experience on the do’s and don’ts of auditions, a lot of what she said confirmed or reaffirmed maxims that we as performers have been told for years. The fact they keep recurring only means that they continue to persist and we should never be complacent in avoiding being “that guy”.

The "Wright" do's and don'ts

• Do not send in what she called “flawed” media. Things she said to avoid included, “musical mistakes, intonation issues, and bad audio or video quality.”

• Do not use audio or video that is one year or older.

• Do make sure your website and Facebook page are professional, functional, and up-to-date.

• Do make sure your resume looks professional. Make sure the things you want the panel to see can be seen at a glance. As Wright said, “Cutting Corners won’t Cut it.”

• Don't try to guess what the audition panel is thinking.

• Do focus on what you can do. Or as Wright puts it, “Concentrate on the things that are in your control, like singing well and looking good. Bring what you've prepared and what you feel shows you to best advantage, and give us your best shot."

The Aria Package

"Singers pick repertoire that is too big or too demanding in some other way." That was the first of many truth bombs Wright dropped when I asked her about aria packages. She continued, "Don't sing repertoire ahead of your career. Even if you have a big enough voice for Tosca, nobody is going to hire you for it until you've sung a couple of Mimi’s." Ms. Wright was tough, but fair and supporting, "Don't worry," she said, "The repertoire is not going away, and will still be there when your career and your experience justify your singing it.” While we have all heard and engaged in water cooler rep talk, “Did you hear that ____ is singing ____. That’s way to big for him/her,” it is usually directed at other singers. Talking with Wright made me realize it is a much bigger conversation that we should be having with ourselves.

In addition to singing rep that was too big, she also said that singers singing rep that just didn’t fit their voices was also a big problem. She said, “Most singers are so concerned with meeting requirements that they end up force mapping their voices onto repertoire that they think they ought to be able to sing, or that they think auditors want to hear… they don't think enough about what they are really good at. In effect, they end up putting the cart before the horse.”

When coming up with a package, Wright described a simple process. Make a list of the things that are best about both your voice and you as an actor and performer. Things like great high notes, wonderful piano singing, fantastic comedic acting, or perfect villainous scowls. Once you have that list, talk with your teacher and coach and ask if they agree. If they do, find what arias best show those strengths.

During our interview, Wright made it a point to say that she and her colleagues are not concerned with singers having one aria in every language and time period, or even having a Mozart aria. I know, I was shocked too. They want singers to pick repertoire that not only fits, but shows off the finer qualities of their voices and that plays into their abilities as an actor.

Normally I would find a way to surmise everything in to succinct points, but Kathryn Wright did it perfectly herself.

1. “Know who you are as a singer and be honest with yourself about your accomplishments and your abilities. Be honest when you look in the mirror and be honest when you listen to your recordings. It's the best way to learn and it will keep you from getting a reputation as someone who is satisfied with mediocrity. Also, surround yourself with qualified people who will be honest with you, and listen to them.”

2. “Choose your repertoire to show off what you do best, and not to satisfy an imaginary hearer… Your audition package should already present a profile of you as a singer. I should be able to look at it and already have an idea of who you are.”

3. “Train, train, train. Never stop working at it and getting better. Keep singing and keep practicing and studying. If you love what you do, this is not as hard as it sounds. Use all the fabulous resources, digital and otherwise, that surround us today, and do a lot of critical listening. By that I mean analytical, not negative. Listen to the music and the accompaniment too, not just the singing.”

If there was a theme to our whole conversation, it would have been “know thyself.” Not just your limitations, but your strengths as well.

Our sincerest thanks and appreciation to Kathryn Wright to agreeing to this interview. I hope this gives young singers and emerging artists the world over a small part of the wisdom and knowledge I have been so privileged to benefit from.

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