How do you start at sea level and get to the top of Mount Everest? Imagination and confidence play leading roles, as does desire. If you simply decide that you are going to stand at the top of the world, then eventually you will. That is, if your imagination and desire are strong enough to create the time and attract the encouragement, and before all else, the money, to make your vision happen in the chaotic and expensive, three-dimensional world of snow squalls, crampons, oxygen tanks, and avalanches.
The answer? The Metropolitan Opera's National Council Auditions and Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. (The parallel is so obvious I thought I'd skip it.)
Since 1954, when Mrs. August Belmont, founder of the Met's National Council, asked Howard J. Hook to establish nationwide singing auditions that would be produced and funded by Council volunteers, the Met National Council Auditions have been a gateway to operatic careers‹including, of course, Met careers‹for hundreds of singers. Flip through any recent issue of Opera News (we tried this with the September 2005 issue) and the names of Met National Council participants, the majority of whom were winners, come tumbling out: Grace Bumbry, Frederica von Stade, Shirley Verrett, Samuel Ramey, Deborah Voigt, Heidi Grant Murphy, Susan Graham, Denyce Graves, Thomas Hampson, Ben Heppner, Sondra Radvanovsky, Morris Robinson, and Nathan Gunn and Stephanie Blythe in the same year (1994, "a banner year," says Gunn, who has just finished a Met premiere run in Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy). And the list goes on‹55 former National Council participants in that one issue. Belmont and Hook's legacy is an honor roll of American singers, and a vindication of their belief that, "out there," in the Council's 16 regions and 45 local districts, there is, in fact, great vocal talent.
Today, Gayletha Nichols, Director of the National Council Auditions, and Lenore Rosenberg, Director of the Met's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program (or LYADP; more on that in a moment), travel extensively to other competitions and to summer festivals, and network tirelessly with teachers, coaches, and administrators around the country, in order, Nichols says, "to find new, young talent, for the Met‹and for the opera world." Nichols and Rosenberg almost always find their quarry. In an increasingly open, electronic world, Nichols says, "there's no safe place to sing!"
Each National Council district produces an average of three winners each year to go to regional auditions. The regionals produce 20 to 24 young singers who then come to New York as National Semi-Finalists‹in itself, perhaps, an extraordinary experience. "It was the most exhilarating time of my life," says the tenor Eric Cutler, currently appearing in Die Zauberflöte, who, at the time of his audition, was a student in Luther College in Iowa. "It's still the happiest time I've ever lived." Then, the former regional winners finally step onto the Met stage in front of a New York audience: "a humongous thrill" (Gunn); "my nerves were at an all-time high" (Cutler); "eye-opening, life-changing" (Sondra Radvanovsky).
Sometimes it's hard to decide who is more thrilled over this annual springtime ritual: the auditioners or the Met staff and volunteers. According to Camille LaBarre, National Auditions Chairman, who herself glows as she relates it, "Everyone around here gets so excited. They're all saying, 'The National Council kids are here!' We have a reception and take them to the opera. We try to make their time here as wonderful as can be. We tell them, 'Get everything out of this that you can.'"
Many National Council participants who came of vocal age in the past 25 years were also invited, thanks perhaps to their triumph at the National Council Auditions, to pass through the Met's second triumphal arch, the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program‹a three year regimen of intensive coaching in voice, acting, movement, languages, and more, founded here in New York in 1980 by Maestro James Levine. Among those mentioned in the September Opera News, Murphy, Radvanovsky, Gunn, Blythe, and Robinson were so blessed. And to hear them remember it, "blessed" may be an understatement.
"It was the biggest break of my life," says the bass Morris Robinson, a LYADP success story who happened not to be a National Council winner. "If you have the right attitude and an open mind, the environment is conducive to making you better than you were when you came in the door." Or, in Robinson's case, when he knocked repeatedly on that door.
Just past 30 years of age, Robinson, in spite of conservatory training and some good singing engagements, had been selling data storage devices for 3M when he gave the National Council Auditions a go and came in third at the New England Regional Finals. But, ever the practical and determined businessman, he called Gayletha Nichols to get feedback on his performance. He eventually got an audition with John Fisher (the Met's Director of Music Administration) in the opera house's List Hall. This led to a private coaching with Fisher, and to an audition for LYADP on the Met stage, with Maestro Levine, the final arbiter, in attendance. "I walked out and saw that white Afro," Robinson recalls. "I laughed and said to myself, 'If I don't make it at least I can tell my grandkids I sang on this stage!' I wasn't supposed to be there anyway, so I could screw up. But he liked me a lot." And so Robinson entered the LYADP. (You can see him later this month, also in Die Zauberflöte.) "In this business," he says, "it helps to have a persistent personality and be strong minded‹even when you get opportunities."
And what opportunities the young people of LYADP get! Robinson characterizes the three years this way: "You have at your disposal the best coaches and teachers, the best facilities, the best ears, the best resources, and the huge advantage of going to performances all the time as a requirement."
"The Met is swinging for the fences," says Gunn. "They want to push everybody as far as they can. I remember working on Rossini with Renata Scotto and spending an hour on two measures, make choices about each note."
The LYADP artists not only take great pleasure in their teachers and mentors, but in one another. "In our group there was not one ounce of competition," says Radvanovsky. "They were all really the nicest, nicest people. And we still stay in touch."
The LYADP singers receive stipends of $30,000 a year, and in their second years begin reaching for the upper atmosphere with their first Met contracts. For Robinson it was the Second Prisoner in Fidelio. Cutler, two years earlier, was the First Prisoner. Gunn bowed in The Ghosts of Versailles, and Radvanovsky covered Countess Ceprano in Rigoletto. Then, for most, after that first contract, the sky is the limit. Radvanovsky began voice lessons at 11, after having seen the man she now calls "Plácido" on television. After having passed through the Met's National Council Auditions and LYADP, "I have done Roxanne to his Cyrano. It doesn't get any better than this!" (The Domingo-Radvanovsky pairing hits the Met stage late this month.)
It is of interest to note that LYADP offers not only exposure‹to the best of everything, all the time‹it also offers protection. Young voices are vulnerable. The young woman who'll be the next Brünnhilde should not sing Brünnhilde too soon. Others should not sing Brünnhilde at all. Ever aware of the fragility of the vocal cords and the possibility of career burnout (the shortened career has become pervasive in the opera world in the past few years), the Met's coaches and administrators watch over their brood carefully, and hold the power of veto over summer jobs at, say, Wolf Trap, St. Louis, or Santa Fe. "Young people with big talents can get inadvisable offers," says Rosenberg. "But here they are allowed to mature."
Thanks to the Met's faith and thoughtful planning, thanks to their dedication and meticulousness, we, and the world, will be graced with the maturing gifts of LYADP and National Council artists for years to come. The view from the top of Everest has never looked so inspiring.