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Alive and Innovating: Opera Auditions Go Virtual

Young Artists Raise Their Voices to the Challenge

By: The Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, Arkansas District

The Pandemic Isn’t Keeping This Venerable Competitive Institution From Support Young Artists

First held in 1954, The Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions might just be the oldest talent search competition around. Held for young singers beginning their careers (ages 20-30), this prestigious competition has launched the careers of many opera greats (Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Eric Owens, to name a few). But the pandemic could have put this important audition on ice in 2020-2021 were it not for the innovative use of technology to take the competition virtual — no small task for Council and its fearless leader, executive director Melissa Wegner.

A young singer with curly hair stands in front of a piano played by a middle aged gentlemen in a gray suit. She is facing the empty seats of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.
Young Artist on the Metropolitan Opera Stage

Young Artists prepare, many for months and even years, to compete in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in the hopes of making it to the finals in New York. However, participants at the District and Regional levels also gain valuable experience, direct feedback from industry professionals, and cash prizes to support their ongoing artistic work. PHOTO CREDIT: The Metropolitan Opera

The Auditions are normally open to any singers wishing to participate and held in four rounds: districts, regionals, national semi-finals and grand finals. The Arkansas District audition co-chairs, Martin and Melissa Thoma have been chairing the Arkansas District Auditions for more than 10 years.

“We knew that pulling off auditions in a virtual environment that would be acoustically excellent and give each singer their best opportunity was going to be difficult. But the National Council organized the auditions on the Kiswe Studio Platform along with supplemental meeting spaces on Zoom to replicate the relatively complex audition process,” explained Melissa Thoma.

The empty Stella Boyle Smith Concert Hall at UA Little Rock. A grand Piano sits on a stage with large glass windows behind it overlooking the garden outside the building.
Closed Concert Halls Present Challenges

The Stella Boyle Smith Concert Hall at UA Little Rock has been the venue for the Arkansas District level auditions for several years now. Due to the pandemic, travel and live events put singers and audiences at risk. Concert Halls like these sat empty, and the organizers of the MONC Auditions had to make alternative plans to keep the auditions running.

The logistics were mind-boggling for a national staff you could count on one hand. Met Opera National Council staff managed:

  • Sourcing a couple of thousand video applications
  • Screening those applicants to the best roughly 600 singers
  • Coordinating hundreds of volunteers serving dozens of districts and regions nationwide
  • Building singer lists for each audition, training singers and volunteers in the use of the Kiswe Studio Platform
  • Securing judges, accompanists for each of the auditions--taking care to provide preference (and income) to accompanists who have traditionally played for district and region auditions
  • Managing a highly orchestrated “dance” on audition day to keep judges, singers and volunteers in the right virtual rooms and keep the event moving efficiently for all

“We’ve held excellent auditions at the district and regional levels using this innovative approach and will be looking forward to the semi-final and grand final rounds May 9 and May 16. And for the first time these audition levels will be live-streamed, so folks from around the world can enjoy these fabulous singers.”

Sometimes necessity is the mother of innovation. Utilizing streaming technologies in a creative way afforded singers building their careers an opportunity to let their voices be heard. And perhaps a new star will be born along the way.

For more information about the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, visit their website here.

To find out more about the Arkansas District, you can visit their Facebook page.

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