In a rehearsal studio at the Canadian Opera Company, a young soprano is belting out one of the most famous arias in the repertoire, Quando m'en vo from Puccini's La bohème. The joyfully self-promotional waltz, sung by the character of Musetta to impress the men in a Paris café and win back a boyfriend, might seem like the perfect audition piece, but this interlude does not end in triumph.
"Thank you for coming in today," says COC music administrator Sandra Gavinchuk pleasantly. It's her standard non-committal response to the dozens of aspiring opera singers whom she and two colleagues will hear during several weeks of auditions for the Ensemble Studio, the company's sought-after apprenticeship program.
On that day, after hearing 14 singers, the three jurors quickly eliminated the would-be Musetta along with 11 others, leaving them with two maybes. The next day, a similar process netted them one yes and one maybe. In total, they listened to 150 candidates (all Canadians in their 20s) in auditions in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and New York, ranging from soon-to-graduate music students to young professionals in the first stages of their careers.
From the 150, the audition panel can pick only seven finalists to compete in the COC's Centre Stage gala at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on Tuesday. The elimination rate is brutal, but the payoff for the best singers could be career-making. At the glitzy competition, the top three will win cash prizes and may even be invited to join the COC's ensemble for further training.
In the auditions, each singer is given about 10 minutes, and begins with a piece of his or her own choosing. The panel then hurriedly consults and picks a second piece from a list of five the candidate has provided. The jurors may be looking for something in a different tempo or style, or to hear a voice in what they suspect is its more natural range. Or they may just be looking for something short to get the candidate out of the room.
The singers are still in training and the panel knows right away if they don't cut it: The auditions take hours, but the process of elimination takes the panel only a few minutes of private consultation.
"It isn't gymnastics. They don't have to get it perfect," says Liz Upchurch, vocal coach and director of the Ensemble Studio. "Quite often they have the wrong arias. If you're 20 and you've chosen Madama Butterfly …" She raises an eyebrow.
Young singers may chose arias that aren't suited to their vocal styles, she explains, or they may even have been slotted in the wrong category at school. The studio often redirects a high baritone who would be better off singing tenor roles, or a high mezzo who is really just a "lazy soprano."
Upchurch, Gavinchuk and COC artistic administrator Roberto Mauro must have heard Quando more times than they can remember, but it's actually easier if the candidates sing the standards: That way the jurors know exactly what to compare them to. They may not be looking for perfection, but, as those long odds suggest, they are looking for something pretty special. "Is this an incredible voice and is this an incredible artist in the making? You are looking for the extraordinary – [something] that you think you can help nurture," Upchurch says.
Many of the singers are already known to the panel and some will get a warm letter explaining why they didn't get chosen. Some will also be encouraged to come back the following year. "The point is to get them young and guide them," says Upchurch, who often makes friendly inquiries about their studies or teachers before the nervous candidates leave the audition room. "You want people to succeed. You don't want them to crash and burn [at auditions]. That would be awful."
For the seven lucky ones, the next step is the Centre Stage gala, where they are invited to sing at the 2,000-seat Four Seasons Centre and compete for $11,000 in prizes. The show will be hosted by tenor Ben Heppner, himself a high-profile graduate of the Ensemble Studio. Afterward, the winners may be invited to join the studio, a program that offers anywhere from one to three years of training and opportunities to understudy for the main company – but no one is guaranteed a spot. It depends a bit on where the winners are in their careers and whether there's space in the ensemble.
The big-ticket gala, now in its second year, is by no means the final say in recruitment; rather, it turns what was previously a private process into a showy public contest.
"There is a lot of young vocal talent in this country," COC general director Alexander Neef says, explaining why he launched the competition in 2011 and turned it into an increasingly public event. "By doing it behind closed doors, you don't really let the community participate and celebrate that talent."
Prior to the gala, the finalists are put through their paces by the COC team with a week of coaching.
"This is boot camp. It gives us an opportunity to see how they work," Upchurch says. "If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a small army to raise an opera singer."
And then, seven of them step out onto that big stage.
"It's completely different singing for a few people sitting at a table with papers, taking notes and singing for a thousand people … in these huge halls," says Nathan Keoughan, a bass baritone from PEI who is one of the seven finalists. "It's exhilarating. I hate comparing it to American Idol and those types of shows, but there is an 'it' factor, an indescribable thing."
On Tuesday, he'll discover if he has it.