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AU, Washington National Opera Give Teens Something to Sing About

Christina Scheppelmann, Washington National Opera's director of artistic operations, fields questions from students, July 9. (Photo: Bill Petros)

Opera singers need more than perfect pitch to succeed on the stage.

“Don’t just sing—say something,” said Christina Scheppelmann, director of artistic operations at the Washington National Opera (WNO). “Show your personality . . . have the poise and the courage to say ‘This is who I am.’”

Scheppelmann, who auditions more than 600 singers each year, shared tips and tricks of the trade with 30 talented teens, July 9, as part of the Washington National Opera Institute at American University. Open to singers ages 15 to 18, the intensive, three-week summer program, which ran through July 10, included classes in drama, period movement, music theory, chorus, and opera history.

And while the young singers enjoyed perfecting their trills and vibrato, Scheppelmann’s master class helped them glean insight into the business side of opera.

Among her tips:

  • Flip-flops aren’t any more appropriate for an audition than a ball gown. Singers should be confident and comfortable. “If you don’t normally wear skirts or dresses, wear pants. If you’re uncomfortable, I’m going to know it . .  you need to walk out with confidence, and what you wear is part of that.”
  • Audition as much as possible. “It’s an artificial, unpleasant experience, but it’s the only way you’re going to get hired.”
  • Eye contact conveys confidence. “There are moments in a piece when you want to wander, but I appreciate direct eye contact.”
  • Make an ally out of your accompanist. “Music should be easy to turn for a pianist; [do that] and you will get a lot of goodwill from that person. That can make or break an audition.”
  • Always ask for feedback. “If you have to corner the person you’re auditioning for, do it. If you wait for them to come to you, it’s never going to happen.” And, be prepared for negative comments.
  • Don’t overstate your qualifications. “If you’re a young artist, you shouldn’t have an autobiography. Your résumé should be clear and honest.”
  • Financial literacy is just as important as the ability to read music. “No young artist program is going to make you rich. You’re going to be right on the edge at the end of the month.” And while the experience will pay off in the end, Scheppelmann suggests singers have a firm handle on their finances before they receive their first stipend.
  • Learn from other singers’ successes and failures, but never compare yourself. “Don’t compete, focus on yourself. You all have talents; you just have to be honest about what they are.”

The summer institute is part of AU’s ongoing partnership with the prestigious Washington opera company. In November, the institutions teamed up for “The Next Step: Building a Career in Opera,” a panel discussion featuring Scheppelmann and others. AU students also met with the cast of Porgy and Bess, which was staged last spring at the Kennedy Center.

"The wonderful thing about the partnership between AU and WNO is that we combine our respective resources for a sum greater than its parts," said Bruce Taylor, WNO associate director of education and community programs. "Our staffs have an opportunity to learn from each other and to enjoy the camaraderie of shared purpose."