IU Opera Production (10) – Cattle call: Are they sheep or what?

 The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Production Countdown

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—– Đọc bài tiếng Việt —– 

Photos by Anvi Hoàng 

It is that time of year again. Early Fall semester is the second cattle call season at IU Opera Theater. What is it like? Be curious. It may not be as you think it is.

The history 

Cattle call is a mass audition. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term was first used in 1952. Many internet sources distinguish between audition, for more established actors in smaller groups, and cattle call, for thousands of inexperienced candidates herded into a small room waiting for a chance to perform for a minute or so in front of the judges. It is the ‘herding’ aspect of the event that makes cattle call a more loaded word people can joke about.

The atmosphere

At IU Opera Theater, both audition and cattle call are used. But unlike competitive uncivilized atmosphere seen elsewhere, cattle call at IU Opera Theater is cozy and comfortable.

The first cattle call of the season at IU Opera was held last April to cast for three out of six operas of the 2013-14 season, Le Nozze di FigaroWertherHansel & Gretel. During the last three days of August, two evenings and one whole day, the second audition was organized for more than 140 students who competed for roles in the rest threeThe Tale of Lady Thị Kính, H.M.S. Pinafore, and La Traviata

In the beautiful opera house of 1460 seats, the simple stage centered around the piano and the spotlights. The House was well lighted so everybody could read the handouts. Many voice faculties, the conductors, the directors, the composer, students and friends and families suddenly had a lot of space when it comes to locating the seat of their choice.

The majority of the people present served as audience and observers while a small number worked very hard as judges of the casting committee. With dozens of roles in total to cast, that is by no means an easy job. As a layperson, I cannot imagine how they go about doing it. You need to understand every single role in each opera extremely well in terms of their voice type, character, and the degree of acting required in order to do a good job. All the judges are well-known in their fields and have a great number of years of experience, they must go through it like a breeze, having done it many times, but I’d still say: hats off to them.

After the initial socialization, everybody sat down. In quietness, they waited for the sounds and movements coming from the stage.

All of a sudden, the stillness of the space seemed to pump up the excitement that was going to happen on stage.

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A candidate, a performance, a moment of excitement for the audience.

The surprise

The candidate came out, a score in hand. They handed it to the pianist, stepped to the front right under the spotlights. Ready.

Music played and they started to sing. “Oh, that song sounds familiar!” I gaped. “I heard it on the CD by Pavarotti before.” And it is true, because you know what, many arias have been performed by famous singers such as Luciano Pavarotti, Sarah Brightman, or Andrea Bocelli so many times in large audiences, shown on TV or recorded on CDs, to the point they become popular like pop music – arias such as Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Turandot, Brindisi from La Traviata by Verdi, La Donna È Mobile from Verdi’s Rigoletto, or E Lucevan Le Stelle in Tosca by Puccini.

So, after all, opera is not as unfamiliar as many people think. It is the matter of familiarity and programming the ears to get used to opera singing to appreciate it.

The fun 

As common in a  theatrical audition, the candidates often choose the songs that showcase their voices the best, also ones that they have spent time practicing to perfection. Those with extra determination to win a role that they want would choose to sing the very aria of that role. In this audition, around a dozen candidates decided to sing excerpts from The Tale of Lady Thị Kính that will be premiered in February 2014. The performance of new songs created extra excitement on the part of the composer and the audience alike. It is quite an experience for me as audience. It makes me dream of seeing arias from The Tale of Lady Thị Kính to become part of the audition repertoire.

Another very enjoyable part of the audition is that because the candidates usually choose some of the best and most popular arias or classical songs to perform, attending the audition is one pleasant way to learn to appreciate opera singing. The arias cover a wide range of artistic expressions: melancholic and romantic, dramatic and agonizing, sad and miserable, drunk and flirtatious, etc. – the whole gamut of human feelings and emotions. This kind of variety is such a treat to the ears, the eyes, and the minds.

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Judges at work.

The learning 

Still another bonus in coming to the cattle call is that because many candidates choose the same song to sing, that means that you can enjoy the beautiful aria again and again, which also means that you may feel bored at some point because not everyone presents the same soothing or beautiful delivery to your ears as you like. After a while, you start to realize that you prefer the third singer over the fifth one because the latter is not very good. This means that you could begin to feel some nuances in different voice types. You may or may not know why, but by instinct, you make a judgment on the singing quality. This, in turn, means that you have begun to understand opera singing a tiny bit more. Congratulations! You have entered a new stage in the journey of opera appreciation.

Now, for a non-musician unfamiliar with opera singing, it may be difficult to tell which voice is better than which one. Yet, within a few hours of the audition, you could be able to do that, tentatively. It is, indeed, a fun and valuable lesson. Better yet, it is free of charge. Who said there is no free lunch!

The Vietnamese version of this article has been printed and published online by the Viễn Đông Daily News. Read my online Vietnamese version.

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