This July marks the ten-year anniversary of the founding of Audition Oracle, a digital platform which helps pair singers and artists with auditions, opportunities and industry professionals. In celebration of this milestone, we are reflecting on Audition Oracle’s journey and how it has helped shape the performing arts community.
Where it all began:
Ten years ago, singer Melanie Lodge identified a crucial gap in the classical music and opera industries, that there was no one place to find out about auditions and opportunities. The journey to becoming a musician is notoriously difficult and Melanie felt compelled to bring her vision to life and revolutionise the industry, and it was here that Audition Oracle was born, inspired by her own career and observing the struggle of her fellow singing colleagues. On 3rd July 2013, the original website was released, social media accounts followed on the 4th July and the first bulletin was triggered on 8th July. Quickly Audition Oracle established itself as the market leader in its field and a precious resource to both singers and opera companies.
Audition Oracle, since its inception, has constantly evolved and morphed to maintain its position at the forefront of the industry, leveraging technology to transform access to audition information for performers across the globe.
By Voice Alone:
2019 also saw the creation of the vocal competition, By Voice Alone. This revolutionary competition was created with the aim of removing unconscious bias from castings and the audition process in the industry. Participants encountered a completely blind first-round audition, with no CVs, experience criteria or names. Over 400 participants auditioned with 28 going through to the semifinal and 7 through to the final at King’s Place. Since By Voice Alone, we have seen some of the leading opera companies in the UK influenced by its ethos and introducing blind first-round auditions, including the Royal Opera House.
A word from the founder of Audition Oracle and By Voice Alone:
Looking back at the last ten years Melanie commented: ‘It has been such a pleasure to watch so many artists grow their careers with the help of the information and opportunities provided on Audition Oracle. At Audition Oracle we like a personal touch and keep in contact with many singers and opera companies, and we are constantly listening to ensure that Audition Oracle remains as helpful as possible in creating a successful industry. There is so much talent out there and we love supporting it.’
The longevity of Audition Oracle can be attributed to its commitment to innovation and adaptability. Over the past decade, the platform has consistently evolved to meet the changing needs of the performing arts industry. It has incorporated user feedback, introduced new features, and embraced advancements in technology, ensuring that it remains a cutting-edge platform for auditions.
As Audition Oracle enters its second decade, its influence on the performing arts industry is set to grow even further. With advancements in artificial intelligence, and machine learning, the platform has endless potential. Additionally, Audition Oracle's commitment to inclusivity ensures that it remains a vital tool in promoting equal opportunities for all artists.
‘Give yourself time…if you’re happy in yourself, you will be a better artist!’
Hello Steve! Thank you for agreeing to this interview, we are delighted to be chatting with you. Would you kick off by telling us a little bit about your background as it isn’t the usual pathway to artist management?
No, not at all usual! I haven’t been to agent school!
I worked in television and radio for most of my twenties but had always sung and wanted to explore the idea of taking it up professionally. So, I trained at the RSAMD (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland as it is now) and sang for various companies afterwards. I think it was a Raymond Gubbay contract when we first met.
Yes, I think we met on Aida.
It was indeed Aida, in 2012. I was in my early thirties and doing extra chorus contracts for Scottish Opera and Garsington too. My husband is a tenor and we did lots of contracts together, but it became clear there might be another way to make a career in opera…without being a singer. Ironically, it was in the dressing room at the Royal Albert Hall, doing that Aida, when I saw the job advertised for Chorus Manager at Opera North. I was offered that job and stayed in post for five years, spending two and a half years on the Senior Management Team and meeting colleagues at the other national companies. I then went on a management training course with Opera Europa in Peralada, Spain, which was a real highlight. I stayed at Opera North for three years afterwards looking after small-scale projects, a foreign tour to Ravenna and, latterly, in the casting department. These roles gave a breadth of experience in how an opera company functions, and I combined this with running Oxenfoord International Summer school and relaunching the Leeds Lieder Young Artists programme. It’s fair to say I came across a lot of singers and started thinking I’d quite like to be an agent. But… I hadn’t been to agent school!
I decided to leave Opera North and went into company management at The Grange Festival, delivering their 2019 season and preparing for 2020. Then, of course, IT happened… and very suddenly the entire industry shut down. During the 15 months of lockdowns, I was fortunate to be asked to look after the Welsh National Opera Chorus and fixing choristers for Opera Rara’s recordings and concerts. Around this time, I revisited the idea of becoming an agent so I could help freelance singers more directly. Covid was awful when it happened, however, had it not happened I might not have decided to go for it. Or perhaps I would. Who knows?!
Fantastic, and I think there are a lot of singers who will be pleased that you have made the jump. Especially as you have the understanding of having gone through the career yourself. With that in mind, you know what it is like to be a singer hungry for opportunities. How best can singers approach agents, without being hassling?
That’s an interesting question and I’d suggest the same principles apply to how singers approach professional contacts more generally.
The first thing to acknowledge is that it’s easy to feel ignored if you haven’t had a reply to an email, though It’s worth remembering that agencies and casting departments are enormously busy, and it could simply be that your email has slipped down the pile. Just think how many singers are contacting companies for N/A’s, auditions, asking for feedback, sending updated materials etc. This is alongside administration to run the department, planning future repertoire, holding auditions, creating rehearsal/performance schedules, facilitating touring periods and seeing singers in performance elsewhere. So, my advice would be not to take things personally. I’m not saying it’s right not to receive a reply, but it’s the sort of unintentional thing that can slip between the cracks unfortunately.
You can help yourself a little, however, and I’d suggest that brevity is key when writing to an agent or company. You might spend time crafting an email with long paragraphs, really taking the reader on a journey; but with up to 130 emails received each day, it’s possible they might think: ‘I can’t read that right away, I’ll leave it until later’. And then your email doesn’t get read at all. Brevity is important and gives the best chance of your email being scanned in the moment. All you need to say is this is me; this is where I’m at, these are my updated materials, and I would love an opportunity to sing for you. That’s it!
Make sure you’ve spent time formatting your CV so that it can be scanned at a glance. For instance, think about using columns, ordering by most recent date, formatting roles in bold etc. There are many choices you can make regarding headings, what you put at the top of the page, how different elements are aligned etc. Just be consistent and give most prominence to what you want the reader to know most about you. Check for spelling and accuracy too, particularly with roles and repertoire in foreign languages.
As agents you handle biographies, therefore do you like to see a biography on a CV?
I like a CV that I can scan, but which also has the necessary breadth of detail if I need to know more. I therefore don’t mind two pages, although some competitions and young artist programmes do ask for a one-page version. I find two-page CVs allow you to make choices about what to give most prominence to on page one (i.e. roles/performing experience) and then what goes on page two for context (i.e. education/masterclasses/languages). You can also space sections out and show a broader range of experience more clearly. Don’t forget to include your photo, contact details, voice type etc at the top of the first page too.
To answer your question, I do like a small biography paragraph just below the photo because it is a rare opportunity for the singer set the narrative. Perhaps you’ve changed voice types or had a career break, or have had children, whatever it is, you can set it up in those couple of sentences. It’s not a biography and should be kept short, maybe three sentences: what you’re most proud of, what you’re doing now, and what’s coming up.
Save your CV as a PDF to ensure that careful formatting remains consistent on any device. You could also embed a direct link to your website or media page where you have videos. If there’s a video that you’re particularly proud of, send a direct link to it in the body of your covering email too. As a casting assistant, I might be listening to twenty or thirty singers before my next casting meeting, so make it as easy for as possible to get to that content. And, if you can, delete any old footage you’re not happy with online; managing your digital exhaust is so important.
What do you look for in videos or sounds files? And do you have any tips?
I would advise having recent video recordings, showing the best of where you’re at vocally now. Single takes replicate the audition experience as closely as possible, but this may not be possible when singing longer arias with extended recitative/cabaletta sections. You should probably refresh your materials every two years, and this might give a reason to reach out to an agent or company (i.e., ‘please find attached some recent recordings’). However, I wouldn’t ask for feedback. It’s a huge time commitment to actively listen and provide meaningful first thoughts. That is something I would do with my artists, but I couldn’t commit to it more generally. Videos are being used more and more to initially scope out singers to hear in audition – so take the time to get this right. It is tax deductible and is worth the investment.
It’s also become so much cheaper to make these recordings now.
Yes, Jan Capiński is good (https://www.capinskirecordings.com). He provides great end results and good value for money with his drop-in service where the equipment, piano, venue, pianist etc are included.
Ah yes. Lovely Jan Capiński. The National Opera Studio also recently offered recording sessions for £125 which is great value.
Yes exactly, and Jan is £130. So, you could essentially record two or three arias for £130, which is brilliant, or you could also do it yourself with a zoom recorder. If you do, just make sure you understand the settings to make the balance as good as it can be for your voice in that acoustic. Make sure your face, eyes and gestures are clear too.
Hearing someone live is still important, as you can’t judge scale of voice from a recording. When making first contact with an agent or company, as well as attaching your up-to-date CV and videos, you might also invite them to an upcoming performance. If you’re singing Fox in The Cunning Little Vixen at Jackson’s Lane Theatre, then invite them. If free, they might come and watch. You might look at the agent’s roster too. If you happen to be in the same production as one of their artists, then that’s a nice connection and an easy introduction.
In this instance, would you expect to be offered a ticket or to buy your own?
I would never expect a free ticket. If I knew the company I would likely phone ahead to see if I could get in, but if I really wanted to see the performance then I would pay (probably looking at the cast list first to see who’s singing). However, if it’s a completely cold email and you’re trying to build a relationship with an agent then you should offer to organise a ticket, as that makes it as easy as possible for them to say yes. They would still need to travel each way, which is both time and expenditure, so the offer of a comp goes a long way.
Yes, if all goes well, you will have a long close relationship.
Exactly! You need to be able to pick up the phone to your agent when you’re at your lowest and to have mutual trust to talk things through. For me that personal contact is crucial, and I would advise singers not to accept the first agent's offer received, certainly not straight away. It’s worth meeting up to make sure that that relationship is right for you. If not, perhaps it’s better to not have an agent and to wait until you find someone you do connect with well.
So, what happens after you have met and you decide to work together?
The first thing you need is a contract. That will save all sorts of ambiguity later and it’s important for expectations to be clear on both sides.
I have noticed that some agents will test out a relationship before formalising a contract. They may engineer a couple of auditions for a singer and see how they go before issuing a contract. Is that something you do?
It’s not something I do. Organising auditions is hugely time-consuming in terms of fixing dates and times (often requiring N/A’s around other contracts), sending CV’s and biogs, liaising about audition repertoire/extracts/dialogue and chasing final decisions/feedback. That’s all done in lieu of a prospective fee (as the singer hasn’t got the job yet!). In other sectors, an agent would be paid a retainer for ongoing administration and contact with companies on their client’s behalf. I therefore prefer to spend time seeing a singer perform and then to meet them, building rapport and seeing where our common connections are. That way I feel more informed about our potential working relationship, with mutual respect as the starting point.
A contract is important to establish parameters, for instance, is your relationship going to be exclusive or non-exclusive? Will your agent only look after certain territories (i.e., UK only)? Will they look after concert work or opera, or both? You could also include clauses such as no commission on gigs where the fee is under £400. Also, how is the commission settled? Do you get the fee and then send the commission or vice versa? If this all detailed in a contract you both agree to, then the terms of your agreement will be clear.
Yes, and whilst it may seem some work comes direct without agent involvement, it’s important to consider offers of work can be due to the exposure and reputation given to you by the agent.
There is a school of thought that once you’re on a roster you’ve already been shortlisted, and more opportunities will inevitably come your way. This doesn’t mean you can’t get work if you don’t have an agent, but it can open more doors. That being said, my contracts detail that we both have responsibility for generating work and finding opportunities. It’s a joint effort.
Absolutely. And, when you are out there working you sometimes get little snippets of information, and can work with your agent to use it constructively together.
That can be useful, but the singer’s grapevine can also be inaccurate…sometimes based on rumour and hearsay. So, ensure it is reliable information! Also, a singer may hear that a company is auditioning, but their agent may already know they’ve not been invited to sing. So, it’s worth remembering there may be other context and factors at play.
Yes, certain singers are wonderful in certain niches - eg. character roles. How do you manage situations where the artist desires and auditions for the romantic lead, but still gets offered the character role?
Before auditions, I often ask what the singer is going to perform, and we have a constructive dialogue. The longer you work with someone, the more you get to know their voice and what’s appropriate to offer in different circumstances.
It can be difficult for singers to know what they want from their career. It reminds me of this phrase someone once said to me: would you rather have a definite or a maybe? For instance, knowing everyone is desperate to cast you as a character, but you prefer playing the romantic lead. That could mean a choice. Singing those romantic roles with local companies on smaller stages over travelling all over the world performing character roles on international stages. Both choices are completely valid, and they may or may not end up on the same stages with time, but it’s not just about career level. Work/life balance and personal fulfilment are also important.
That’s what I find interesting about artist management, and not just being an agent. I don’t actually like the term agent; artist management implies a relationship and someone who will help you with your longer-term career trajectory.
So, when a singer is working with you, do you like them to stick to office hours when contacting?
I haven’t been doing this for that long, and my previous work for companies had different expectations about out-of-hours working, so I’m still finding my way with that. It varies according to the artist too, as they all have different ways of communicating; some prefer email, some WhatsApp, some text, and some voice note! I completely appreciate that a singer might be in rehearsals at 21.30 and understand if I receive an email then. That’s probably something I’ll need to manage, but if they’re having problems, I want them to know they can contact me.
I always like to ask this question! What is your top piece of advice for young singers who are starting out?
This might be contrary to what other people say, as many will advise singers to get on with it and get out there. However, I would say give yourself time. Don’t sing the wrong repertoire because you’ve had a job offer and risk ruining your voice. Don’t work with people who make you terribly unhappy. Yes, we all need to work, but you always have a choice. You need to prioritise all sorts of things in your life, and if you’re happy in yourself, you will be a better artist. What can be good about having an agent is that you have someone else to bounce ideas off.
Agreed. People are often encouraged to just say ‘yes’ to everything, but risk running themselves ragged.
This is something that crops up a lot. Any freelancer has gaps in the diary, which is the nature of being freelance, but there seem to be more gaps post-Covid. I would suggest trying to re-frame those gaps as opportunities. Using periods of downtime to work on language, or vocal technique, or repertoire passages you’re having problems with, or a new role, or do something different entirely. There are so many constructive things you could do which will inspire your creativity and reframe those periods more positively.
With singers, do you mind if they have side hustles?
No, not at all, it’s actually quite sensible and realistic in the current climate. Things are definitely gaining momentum but there are still fewer opportunities to audition than there were pre-Covid and companies are still not planning as far ahead as they were (not just because of Covid cancellations/honouring postponed contracts but also uncertainty around funding/audience numbers etc). I just ask that my artists tell me to avoid confusion when diary planning, fixing auditions or organising jump-ins.
A singer shouldn’t say yes to a job offer without discussing it with their agent either. There might be another contract already in the early stages of discussion. Before being drawn into fee discussion, your agent might also be able to negotiate a learning fee if you haven’t sung the role before, or get accommodation/travel added which can make a real difference financially. Communication is key, and there are always ways your agent can help, so keep that dialogue open before agreeing to anything otherwise.
Thank you so much Steve for all your wonderful insight and advice, it has been such a joy to chat and I know our singers will appreciate your words enormously.
The career of opera remains an enigmatic one. There is no obvious road map to success, as there is in other industries. For opera singers, it is a lot of learning by doing, feeling as we go, and finding a path that works for us.
When talking to clients and singing colleagues about opera in Germany, the topic of agents is one that comes up time and time again. For example: what is different about opera agencies in Germany, compared to elsewhere? How do you get an agent in Germany? Do you even need one? It is all very confusing. In order to clear some things up, today I am answering some FAQs on the subject of opera agents in Germany. Hope it helps!
Why are German Opera Agents Different From Agencies Elsewhere?
The main type agent in Germany however, is totally different to what we might expect. These agencies are what I like to call ‘domestic agents’, because they tend to operate only in the German speaking opera system.
Domestic Opera Agents
Regular agencies in Germany differ greatly to agents in other countries because the opera culture in Germany is totally different. This is due to the Fest system. German opera houses mainly employ opera singers on a salaried basis, not as freelancers.
The main task of a German opera agent, therefore, is to get their opera singers a Fest contract. This provides the singer and the agent with a regular income. It also means that an active relationship between a singer and agent is largely unnecessary, but more on that in the next question.
How Do I Get an Agent in Germany?
That is the question indeed, and one with a relatively simple answer: you write to them. Contact information for agents in the German speaking world is freely available on Operabase.
Having an agent in Germany is actually quite a straightforward affair. This is because working with representation in Germany is casual in nature. For domestic German agencies, there is non-exclusivity, and no contracts. Singers are free to work with as many agents as they choose. This means that the barrier to entry is much lower.
Singer/agent relationships in the German speaking opera world are considered to be more like a collaboration than an official working relationship. An agent might recommend a singer for an appropriate job opening that comes up. After the singer gets the job, they might not hear from the agent again for some time. This leads me to the next question:
Do I Need an Agent in Germany?
When I ask my singing colleagues in Germany if they have an agent, the answer is very often ‘no’. This is because, once a singer has a Fest contract, there is very little need to be in regular contact with an agent.
Being a Fest singer is a full time job. There is little time for other singing work. For this same reason, International (exclusive) agencies are perhaps less likely to approach and sign Fest singers - there is no point for either party.
Don’t get me wrong, Fest singers often have agents. This might be for concert work or jump-ins. It also depends on the specific Fest contract. Some Fest singers have a lot more freedom in their schedules than others. This depends on the house they are working for, and the conditions under which they are hired.
Can I Contact German Opera Houses Directly?
I get this one a lot. Of course, we are at liberty to send an email to whomever we want in this day and age.
However, in my experience, it is very unlikely that an opera house will respond to an independent singer. Agencies are the link between artist and house.
When an opera house has a vacancy, they alert agencies that they have a relationship with, and subsequently receive the agency’s recommendations. Then they choose the singers they want to hear during a specifically organised set of auditions. Apart from anything else, if a singer writes independently to an opera house, it is very unlikely that the house will have an appropriate job vacancy at that point in time.
So, as a caveat to the previous question: you don’t need to have a regular agent as an opera singer in Germany. However, you do need an agent initially to get a Fest contract. After that it is plain-sailing, stability and quality of life. More or less anyway!
Do you have other questions? Feel free to contact me at [email protected] for a free consultation about agents opera in Germany.
I can’t believe how much time has elapsed since By Voice Alone!
Well…we had a pandemic!
Yes! How was that for you?
Well, because I found a way to keep singing pretty much throughout, it was really not so bad. There were lots of things I didn’t like of course, but what I LOVED was the complete evaporation of the (self-imposed) pressure to try and get an audition and the envy of other singers’ careers. It was the first time in so many years I was free of that anxiety, and what a liberation!
Also, an important life-line early on was Ben Woodward from Fulham Opera (as was) asking me to play Aithra in The Egyptian Helen by Richard Strauss, originally scheduled for October 2020 but, of course, with ever-increasing uncertainty about when or if it would happen at all. The timing of his email (I think it was 20 March) was so powerful – I think it saved me from despair. I had something to work towards, a reason to get up in the morning, and an affirmation that in some realm of reality I was still a singer and opera was still a thing.
Moreover, an unexpectedly beautiful thing came from the experience of fully learning a role that, in all the uncertainty, I had to accept I might never get to perform. Usually, being so outcome-focussed, we discard the journey of learning music as less important than what it might lead to. But this time, instead of projecting forward to first-night thrills and potential reviews, I really had the space to stay in the moment and simply enjoy this fabulous music for its own sake (and with Strauss, I’d say you really need that space!). Aithra is probably the most difficult role I have ever tried to learn, but having all that free time to learn it was a huge blessing, and I can honestly say it was its own reward.
I think overall I became a much better singer over lockdown, and I will always be grateful for that. It was partially the experience of teaching myself my first Strauss role, but it was also largely due to something completely unique to the weirdness of 2020 life. Never before (unless I was ill) had I allowed myself to let two weeks elapse without doing at least some singing. But during lockdown, especially that first one, time was so bendy I would suddenly realise two weeks had gone by and I hadn’t sung a note. The prompt to notice this was a real need to sing, not based on any thoughts, but only feelings. So then I would sing, and it felt like those two weeks of vocal relaxation were at least equivalent to the best singing lesson I ever had!
That’s so interesting; and how come you were cast in the Strauss?
Ben knew me, as I had sung Adele in Die Fledermaus in 2016 for Fulham and in 2018 he cast me in a new opera, The Prometheus Revolution, at Grimeborn Festival. I think I’m one of the sopranos he thinks of whenever a role requires top Ds, basically. This also applies to Aithra - she sings quite a few Cs and one D, I think– but I was delighted to find there was so much more to the role than that, as I believe I also have a lot more to offer!
I ended up so grateful that the production was delayed by a whole year. With only a few months to learn it, I wouldn’t have sung it half so well. As it was, by the time October 2021 rolled around, I felt Aithra fully embedded in me, and I really, really enjoyed performing it.
Anthony Negus from Longborough came to one of the performances of Helena, and off the back of that offered me the cover of Marietta in Die Tote Stadt in 2022, which you came to see. Although unfortunately you didn’t see the night I sang…
Have you done a lot of covering big roles?
None so big as Marietta in terms of ‘heft’, I think. But I have covered Mimi [La Boheme] for English Touring Opera, just this year. And in 2019, Konstanze in The Abduction from the Seraglio, which in terms of hard vocal work might in a way be the biggest. I do wonder whether Mozart might not have liked the person that he wrote that role for! So many crazily difficult arias, and two of them back-to-back. And then all the ensemble sections are just so relentlessly long and high. It’s a slog! But, of course the music is just brilliant and Martern aller Arten is one of my all-time favourite songs. What a thrill it would be to sing that in front of an actual audience. Hopefully one day…
Speaking of covers, I also got to cover the Queen of the Night at Glyndebourne in Autumn 2020. I had never worked at Glyndebourne before (just done a couple of disastrous general auditions) so it came completely out of the blue, and I know it will have been the convoluted machinations of 2020 that led me to it – so, another thing to thank the pandemic for! I didn’t get to go on, but I felt so fortunate for the opportunity to get down there and make that connection.
Yes, Queen of the Night was one of your showstopping pieces in By Voice Alone.
Yes, and I’m pretty sure my sending out the video to an agent I know must have been the link in the chain that led me there. So thank you, Mel!
Luci took Second Prize and the Audience Prize with her performances of Der Hölle Rache (Die Zauberflöte) and the mad scene from I Puritani. Recorded at the final of By Voice Alone at King's place in 2019
You’re so welcome. You also managed to produce an entire CD during lockdown?!
[Peter Warlock: Songbook, with pianist Eleanor Meynell]
Oh yes, so I did! That had been a couple of years in the planning, but in 2020 the funding came through from The Peter Warlock Society, so we thought we’d better get on with it. We managed to find time in October, just before we went into that second lockdown, and then did an extra day the following April.
I sang 28 songs! Too many really. We recorded them all in two days which was pretty stressful. But again, the lockdown was a gift as it gave me so much more time to practise, which I really needed.
TWO DAYS!! You had fantastic reviews and you were picked up by a label, weren’t you?
Actually I should say three days, as Convivium added one in April ’21 for retakes. Yes, we were picked up by them early in the year, which was jolly handy as I didn’t have a clue how we were going to distribute it, stream it or anything. I was just hoping something like that would happen, and it did. Sometimes you just put your faith in the universe!
Are you somebody who likes to trust that things will happen?
Oh yes. You know, when the pandemic began, I felt I had two choices: I could go down the despair route and think everything was going to get worse, which I could clearly see was a bottomless pit of negativity and really quite frightening, or I could start believing that there is goodness all around. What became evident really quickly was how much people wanted to help each other. There were so many beautiful things happening at that time, I just concentrated on that branch of things. It was the starkness of the pandemic that made me become an even more positive person.
Later that summer, I also started doing Zoom concerts through a website called LockdownPresents.com. This was another life-line and it actually allowed me to earn money by singing, fancy that!
I would sing a 15-minute programme of operatic big-hitters (transferable skills from my busking career) for a £30 fee, of which I received 80%, the rest going to Mind, Age UK and Refuge – very pandemic-friendly charities. The people who set it up did so as volunteers and made no money from it; they just wanted to help musicians, and help people who were missing hearing musicians. And give to charity. It was a totally selfless thing. Shout-out to Steffen Hoyemsvoll and Simone Girardeau – I thank you so much!
Fortunately, I usually got much more than £24 for a concert because people were invited to tip at the end. Quite a few tips were in triple figures, would you believe, and one lovely nurse from Canada once gave me £300! She also wrote me the most beautiful email I think I’ve ever received. I’ll just quote a bit of it: “People in my line of work may help keep people alive, but people in your line of work make life worth living. I had forgotten how much I missed going to the opera until your singing reminded me.”
I mean….can you imagine receiving that email?! That was a good day. What a beautiful person to connect with.
So, LockdownPresents was an absolute blessing: I was making money, I was generating money for charity, I was satisfying my performing urge and I was giving people joy who were stuck at home, or in care-homes. Perfect!
That’s so great! So you’ve done a lot of busking before?
Oh yes; I have been busking in the Lower Courtyard at Covent Garden for over ten years now. It is a wonderful way of making money if I don’t have any other work, which I don’t mind saying is very often the case.
It’s allowed me to continue to identify only as a singer, regardless of whether I am ‘employed’ or not, which for me has been crucial in keeping my focus all these years. And thanks to LockdownPresents, and a couple of impromptu sessions in the park (!) I have been able to keep this thread going, even through a pandemic.
There are so many singers who moved away and/or retrained during that time, and now I think for some who want to come back it’s hard to make that transition. Once you’re in front of an audition panel, your thoughts can be the life or death of the venture, and the thought: “It's ages since I did this” is definitely not an ideal one. You can lose confidence so easily in these situations.
In auditions you need to be so goddamn sure of yourself. When I walk into an audition nowadays, I just think: “This is who I am; I am an opera singer. I am so committed to being an opera singer that I never stopped being one, even when there was no opera.” That’s a pretty powerful thing. Again – thank you pandemic.
I think that strength comes across when you sing. When you took part in By Voice Alone you won the audience vote by quite a significant margin. And in the first round of auditions, you scored the highest of all the participants! I wasn’t judging, but I enjoyed listening to everyone.
Oh wow, and thank you so much for telling me that!! It was such a good concept and idea. I remember going in there and feeling so relaxed and grateful for this chance to sing without anyone looking at me. You don’t realise how much baggage you carry around; not just about what you look like, but what’s on your CV or what’s not on it, more to the point. It’s great to let all of that go and just sing!
I wonder what that distinguished panel thought about doing blind auditions; I guess it's not something they do that often?
Interestingly, since By Voice Alone, English National Opera, the Royal Opera House and some other companies have introduced and experimented with blind auditions, certainly for some chorus roles.
Well, there you go - you are influential! It was an amazing achievement to organise all of it. Just thank you so much.
So, tell me, what are you singing in now? What is next for you?
I am going to be singing for ETO next spring  in Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims…
I LOVE Il viaggio a Reims.
Ah brilliant - you will have to see it! It starts at the Hackney Empire on Saturday 4th March (then we go on tour) and I play the Contessa di Folleville.
Wow, that is such a brilliant role! I was Modestina in Wexford about 100 years ago. You are going to have so much fun!
Yeah, it looks like a hoot!
After By Voice Alone, in Autumn 2019 we did Kurt Weill’s The Silver Lake and I played Fennimore. So, I have had a role with ETO before, but this will be the first time I really get a chance to show off what I can do vocally, and right from the start of the tour (rather than just covering and stepping in later).
I like to ask everyone this question: Have you got a piece of advice you would give any young singers starting out? Or anything you wish you had taken on board as a younger singer?
You can come up against so many roadblocks and so much rejection, and it can make you want to give up, but if you feel that this is what you want to do and you wouldn’t rather do something else, then believe in that and believe that that is enough to keep going. That is the simple reason I have never given up singing.
I would also say; don’t bother constructing a timeframe of when you think things should happen by. It is NEVER too late to do anything! Don’t believe in the age-limit story because I’ve always been too old for the upper-age-limit of everything that I have been the right standard to apply for, yet I’m still here. I have only succeeded by sheer dint of not giving up!
I think a lot of people give up because they think they’re too old. This is not a good reason to give up. The only good reason to give up is because you don’t want to do it anymore.
If this is what you want to do and you think you have the potential, and if you have been told by anyone whose opinion you respect that you have enough talent, then don’t be discouraged by how long it might take. Just keep trying because you will succeed eventually.
You don’t have to have gone to music college either; you can just build up experience. Do what I did: sing for amateur companies, get roles on your CV and then subscribe to Audition Oracle.
So, as you didn’t go to college, how did you get into the world of opera?
Just very, very gradually. I had tried to get into various postgrad programmes but never ended up even being offered a place, never mind a scholarship, which I would have needed as my bank balance hovered around zero for a long time after university, and my parents have never had any money. This was distressing as I thought I had to do a singing course to be taught how to sing in an opera. However, luckily it eventually occurred to me that the way to learn how to be in an opera is to be in an opera!
So I sang with a couple of amateur companies, like Brent Opera. I sang Adele in Die Fledermaus with them about a decade ago, and I would love to say it all snowballed from there, but it didn’t really - it developed very slowly.
I also did the Morley College evening class and that was useful as a first step and to meet people. So my advice is: Go and meet people and go and be in operas.
Busking was also very useful; through that, I met an agent and through her I met my first decent singing teacher and also got an initial audition for ETO. That didn’t result in a job, but a couple of years later I got in contact directly with James Conway and was lucky enough to be offered a chorus contract and therefore establish a link with the company. Little bits and bobs slowly add up to a career!
You are obviously a great colleague because you have worked at ETO for a long time.
I have done, I think, five seasons, and about to do a sixth.
I love that you don’t have the usual trajectory but you have still managed to make your way into this industry. Another similar inspiration is Nadine Benjamin.
I think it’s sad that we don’t hear enough about the stories of those people who don’t take the normal route and how they get to where they get.
There are plenty of people out there who could really do with the inspiration. I could have certainly done with it fifteen years ago. I felt so cut off from everything; we didn’t have Audition Oracle then, and I didn’t know how to find auditions.
Because I hadn’t gone to college, I had no contacts – I didn’t know a single opera singer, or anyone in the industry really. My heart sinks to remember the hours I spent on the computer trawling through every opera company’s website. I didn’t know which were amateur or pro, I had no concept of the spectrum of standards between them, and consequently how much point there was in sending a blind email out to the ‘info@company’ address. It’s so embarrassing now to think of the emails I sent!
Luci, this is my story as well! Nobody would tell me how to get work in opera and this was my entire reason for starting Audition Oracle. I used to spend loads of time in the library, just the same as you. You could get the odd audition at the back of Opera Magazine and I could never afford to buy it, so a trip to the library it was. Then I got this reputation as someone who always knew about auditions, and this is why Audition Oracle happened. I asked myself what service would I need as a singer to help me.
You have done such a good service to us all. It is exactly what we needed. Hopefully no more young singers have to go through what we did!
Thank you so much and it's been great chatting with you! It’s been lovely to follow your journey, and I so admire your determination and self-belief.
Those are the two elements that you need. Knowing you did it yourself and that you overcame something can power you through. I think self-belief naturally results from tenaciously holding onto your dream and refusing to give it up! If the years pass and you’re still doing that, then surely you’ve got what it takes.
Thank you again Luci, and see you in Il viaggio a Reims!
Come join us in supporting Luci's journey further by booking your tickets to Il Viaggio a Reims!
We were delighted to catch up with Jennifer Witton, discussing everything from her upcoming debut at Longborough Festival Opera to cake baking. Jennifer is incredibly bubbly and funny, and, as denoted by the many brackets filled with ‘she says laughing’, it was a brilliantly hilarious interview. Our enormous thanks to Jennifer.
Hello Jennifer! Firstly, thanks for meeting with us today. We can’t wait to come and hear you sing the role of Micaëla in Carmen. Is this your first time singing it?
Thank you for having me! Yes, I covered it at ENO in around January/February 2020, just before everything shut down. That was an opportunity that actually came to me via By Voice Alone, as Michelle Williams was one of the judges on the panel. Michelle offered me a couple of things off the back of By Voice Alone. I have to say, it was lovely to get a fair amount of momentum following the competition.
Whilst we are on By Voice Alone, that’s a great place to start, how did you find the process? (For those who don’t know, Jennifer won our By Voice Alone competition back in 2019, which pioneered blind auditions in the opera industry).
I quite enjoy competitions generally, because it is one instance where you can be free from worrying about casting. You can just sing the repertoire you choose and just enjoy it. You don’t have to worry that you aren’t necessarily suited to the character, you can just enjoy that particular aria and sing it honestly, free from insecurity. So, for By Voice Alone I just sang repertoire I liked and that suits my voice, and well, that’s always fun.
Can you tell us a bit more about what happened after the competition?
Sure, a few things really, but it’s really hard to remember or pinpoint specifics as exposure like that has a ripple effect. The ENO jobs, offers from Garsington (which sadly clashed) and one thing that does stick in my mind from that time is covering Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto shortly after for Glyndebourne.
Amazing! Did you get to go on as Gilda?
Sadly not, no. I was on standby a couple of times and did a couple of rehearsals with the main cast.
Is it a role you had sung previously or have sung since?
Again another no. As much as I like the role, I think that some directors, not all, would perhaps overlook me as I don’t look like your stereotypical Gilda.
Oh, that’s such a shame. Have you found that a challenge thus far in your career? That your voice is deemed as one type of role, but you don’t match the character?
Yeah! For sure! This is something I battle with regularly. Although it is never explicitly said as I think people aren’t straight-talking particularly in this country. For instance, I tend to get a lot of ‘fantastic, we will keep you in mind’ feedback after an audition, whereas perhaps the reality is ‘you don’t look right for this role'.
I haven’t heard ‘you don’t look the correct age for the role’ or ‘we can’t see you as the romantic lead’, but interestingly I do have male singer friends who have received such comments. So, there is disparity on this issue. I also find places outside the UK to be more direct with their feedback. And whilst receiving this feedback is harsh, it at least arms you with the information. I think it is unhealthier being left to wonder and dwell on why you weren’t successful.
Yes, I completely hear you. It is great that other singers have been vocal about this issue in the press, for instance, Allan Clayton particularly springs to mind as having raised the issue. This was the main incentive behind launching By Voice Alone. We want to create a more inclusive industry which puts the voice at the very heart of it.
Yes, it’s certainly a ‘thing’, and not just specific to me. It would be wonderful for the industry to progress to a stage where this was no longer present.
I’m not just talking about lead roles, I would love to see choruses and supporting roles that have greater diversity. Not only is this more inclusive, but if nothing else, it just looks more real and reflective of society.
Some shows are making progress though. One show that sticks in my mind is Come From Away, which is a West End Musical. The cast in this show is really diverse in age, size, you name it and it also just makes the entire show more believable.
And, of course, streaming boomed throughout the pandemic. How was all of that for you? Of course, it was a difficult time for any artist.
If I am really honest, I felt quite self-conscious about doing anything on camera. I was also pregnant at the time, so I was worried that might influence my future cast-ability.
It was a mad time though, for everyone, and I generally just took a step back because there was so much going on in my personal life. I did get asked to do a fair bit and remarkably paid, which I am extremely grateful for. But yes, screen work and recording are very different to live performance, which is why we all do what we do.
So, coming out of the pandemic, and trying to get your singing career going again. Was that an easy process? Did you have a lot of things lined up?
I think my first (post-pandemic) bit of singing work was workshopping a new opera by Mark Anthony-Turnage. It is tricky contemporary music and Mark was tweaking things on the spot, so a lot of concentration was required. I had a 5-month-old who didn’t sleep through the night and hadn’t sung in front of anyone for however long. I remember being so exhausted by 3pm. But it wasn’t just me, we all were. I suppose we all weren’t used to it anymore and had more adrenaline than usual, so had peaked too early!
Was there quite a lot of emotion in the room?
Oh definitely, I think everyone found it quite surreal. I mean the masks and the social distancing contributed to that. But I think we were all amazed to be singing again, let alone singing something so fantastic. It was such a brilliant week of making music with excellent singers and musicians.
From that, I did another of his workshops working on ‘Festen’, an opera based on Thomas Vinterberg’s film, at the Royal Opera House for their 2025 season.
So, how did Longborough come about? Isabel Murphy was on the second-round panel of By Voice Alone. And I have noticed that a couple of singers from the competition are performing as part of their season this year.
Aha, that might explain it. So, if I am honest, I am not sure myself, which is the case a lot of the time with how jobs come about!
So, this production was supposed to be in 2020 and has been pushed back and back. Everyone thought it was going to be scrapped as it had been delayed so many times due to the pandemic. But essentially I got an email from the company manager, asking me if I was available. I checked the dates and they worked for me and was delighted to be offered the role. Which was pretty incredible! I had no clue whose idea it was who’d thought of me in the first place, but I am definitely very chuffed!
Also, in this production, Mathilde Lopez is not directing us in the traditional way that the roles are often played, which is amazing. Micaëla I’d say is normally presented as the girl next door sort of character, but not for our setting. This gives me the freedom to play her in a way that makes sense to the drama and casting. I shall say no more.
Amazing, how intriguing. Well, we have our tickets so we shall see. Is this the first time you have done a full role since the pandemic?
Fully staged… Oh yes definitely!
And how has it been balancing it with childcare?
I’m not going to lie, it’s been a nightmare (she says laughing). But I have had a lot of help from my family, which I am very grateful for. But what is hard about childcare is the scheduling in this industry, because sometimes you don’t find out until the night before if you are required or not. You do get given a skeleton for the week, but then obviously things change. So, of course, that’s tricky, but I am lucky to have amazing people around me who are willing to jump on childcare duties with only 24 hours’ notice. I am so so grateful for that.
Can I ask If you have an agent at present?
I don’t, but I also haven’t been seeking one out. I like the workload that I have at present. I used to have one when I first left college but finding an agent is about finding the right one for you. When I was younger, I thought any agent is better than no agent, however, I have thrived for many years now without one. And yes, you have to do some of the contacting and negotiations yourself, but for me, and where I want my career to live, which is mainly in the UK, it works for me, and I like knowing what’s going on!
Agents can be brilliant, but for me, being a singer with a young family, I need to consider that, and it’s imperative I keep true to my image of what I want my career to look like, rather than be influenced by external factors. So, it’s all about finding the right fit, who wouldn’t put pressure on that circumstance.
I try to always ask this next question: What piece of advice would you give a young singer starting out.
That life is long, and don’t be in a rush. That hasn’t done me any harm, but young singers put a lot of pressure on themselves to do it all straight away. As long as you’re having a good time, then continue. And I mean the whole business, not just being on stage. And there will be gaps, and that’s okay because gaps are part of the job.
What do you do to relax outside all of this?
I have a new hobby every week (she says laughing again). Well, I started a cake business in 2018. And when everything shut down over lockdown that turned into brownies through the post, which took off. But when celebrations came back and things were normal again, I picked back up doing cakes. But what I hadn’t realised is that this is another highly competitive and stressful industry! So, I am going to take a small step back from that now.
Oh no! Your white chocolate brownies were legendary! A very important question, do you take cakes to your rehearsals?
Yes absolutely! I remember taking cakes to a cover call at ENO and offering some to everyone before singing, which didn’t go down very well (again laughing).
Well, thank you so much for taking time out to speak to us. It has been hilarious! Best of luck for Longborough. We cannot wait to see you!