The finalists for the 2018 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. L-R: Carlos Santelli, Ashley Dixon, Jessica Faselt, Gretchen Krupp, Danielle Beckvermit, Emily Misch, Madison Leonard, Megan Grey, and Hongni Wu.
New York is heating up, and it’s not just the temperature outside. Over the weekend, the Metropolitan Opera wrapped up the third round round of its annual National Council Auditions. As the last notes died away, nine young singers – including two competitors from the Upper Midwest Region – were listed for the Grand Finals Concert at the Met this Sunday, April 29.
So how do you end up singing at the Metropolitan Opera? Much like the question “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”, the answer is partly “practice, practice, practice”. Filling the Met’s 3,800-seat theatre with the un-amplified human voice requires more than natural gifts or enthusiasm – it takes many years of dedicated training, exquisite self-discipline, and steadily exploring opportunities and challenges just to compete in the field. Nor is it a “one moment and you’re done” competition – performers must be able to consistently deliver on demand a wide range of repertoire, in different and sometimes unfamiliar acoustics, while juggling the rest of life’s personal and professional demands.
About the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions
By the time the semifinalists reached New York, they had already gone through two of the National Council Audition tiers. The Met has 42 Districts across the United States and Canada, the winners of which feed into 12 Regional Auditions. Minnesota, for example, is its own district, as are Iowa, Wisconsin, and Nebraska. North Dakota and the Canadian province of Manitoba form another district. The winners of all five of these district-level competitions competed at the Upper Midwest Region auditions back on March 25.
Once upon a time, each region sent just one winner to the semifinals in New York. This was a practical expedient in the 1950s, when air travel was still relatively expensive, and when the National Council auditions as we know them were first coming into being. (The auditions’ spiritual predecessor traces back to 1935 with the Auditions of the Air radio program; the auditions didn’t go national until the mid-1950s, when volunteers began creating regional feeder auditions and the Metropolitan Opera National Council became directly involved.) This year, the 12 Regional Auditions sent 25 singers to New York for the Semi-Finals – three of whom were selected during the March 25 competition at Bethel University. Two of those nine were selected over the weekend for the Finals.
The complete list of singers competing in the Grand Finals Concert at the Met on Sunday comprises:
- Danielle Beckvermit, soprano (Eastern Region)
- Ashley Dixon, mezzo-soprano (Northwest Region)
- Jessica Faselt, soprano (Upper Midwest Region)
- Megan Grey, mezzo-soprano (Upper Midwest Region)
- Gretchen Krupp, mezzo-soprano (Central Region)
- Madison Leonard, soprano (Middle Atlantic Region)
- Emily Misch, soprano (Eastern Region)
- Carlos Santelli, tenor (Western Region)
- Hongni Wu, mezzo-soprano (Eastern Region)
Although many singers travel across the country to find auditions that suit their calendars, most compete relatively close – or a direct flight, at least – to home. As it happens, both of the Upper Midwest Region’s singers who have advanced to the Grand Finals Concert hail from Iowa. Soprano Jessica Faselt grew up in rural Iowa, and won the Upper Midwest Regionals last year; by advancing to the Grand Finals concert, she is already one step further than in 2017. Megan Grey, a mezzo-soprano with a penchant for playing the cello, is a native of Cedar Falls, Iowa and currently completing a Master’s degree in Voice at the University of Northern Iowa. (Faselt is an alum of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and the University of Iowa.)
So why is the such a big deal? Not only is the Metropolitan Opera one of the largest and most prestigious opera companies in the world, it is also notoriously difficult to break into as a principal singer. The company has chorus auditions, to be sure, but many of its stars are selected through informal channels.
As the company’s webpage lists, “Auditions for principal roles are by invitation and are offered only to artists who are represented by professional artist management or under very special circumstances.” The National Council Auditions are one of the main channels by which young, up-and-coming singers come to the attention of the Met’s casting directors. The Semi-Finals and the Grand Finals Concert are also watched religiously by a large cadre of directors, casting directors, and agents who want to see the best of what the young opera world has to offer. It is, as they say, great exposure.
Offer “exposure” to a professional-level opera singer and the offer usually is very insulting, given their many years of dedicated training and practice – not unlike, say, asking a commercial architect to design your house for free. The Met auditions are one of the exceptions that prove the rule, at least at the last stages – many of the competitors in its last two rounds walk away with offers from American opera companies, whether or not they won the competition. It’s a fringe benefit that only a small handful of other opera competitions, like the biannual BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, can claim to offer. It’s the reward that helps people keep going, pursuing further advanced study and returning to the same competition to see how far they can go this time.
Well, not the only award, perhaps. There’s also a $15,000 prize for the five “winners” of the Finals round, and $5,000 each to the runners-up, so each of the nine competitors selected for Sunday’s performance knows that they’re going home with something more than just exposure. There are always bills to be paid in a profession that is notoriously expensive – $250/hr for a voice teacher in New York City is not unheard of, plus accompanist fees, travel for countless auditions, and performance garb.
To say that the Met National Council Auditions are competitive is a gross understatement. More than 1,500 young singers between the ages of 20 and 30 compete in the competition’s district-level competitions every year. So where do those who don’t advance to the final stage go?
As it turns out, district and regional winners are all over. Look at the rosters for Minnesota Opera, and you’ll see many singers with District and Regional wins to their names. (The company sends many of its Resident Artists to compete each year.) Look at a competitive college program in classical singing and often you’ll find a similar credit next to a faculty name. Playing – or performing, rather – at this level is itself an imprimatur of quality. And one audition, no matter how grand – and no matter whose stage it plays out on – is just one step in a career whose rigor can last a lifetime.
The 2018 Grand Finals Concert of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions will take place at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, NY on April 29.
Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.