2023: In conversation with Aidan Lang

This month Aidan Lang, WNO General Director and Chair of the 2023 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, shares his thoughts about how the industry has changed, what might be expected of singers today and three top tips for auditions.

For the last fifteen years, you’ve worked as General Director of significant lyric opera companies in New Zealand, USA and United Kingdom. How has the landscape changed for singers and how can they ensure they are fit for purpose for whatever might now be expected of them?

Increasingly, opera companies are demanding a much broader skill set from a singer. Beyond the ability to sing and act, we are looking for artists who can truly communicate. Over the last ten years, the scrutiny the camera has brought to performances has had a knock-on effect on the kind of singers that companies are now looking for. For better or worse – and I am on the fence about this – a more intimate form of performance is often being sought, rather than the conventional sort that has the ability to project into a large auditorium.

The art form today needs to be much more flexible, fluid and adaptive to changing circumstances.

Rather than relying on existing company structures to make work, there has also been a shift toward initiatives led by young professionals themselves. They might be singing La bohème in a bar, or some other ‘found’ space, that requires of them the versatility and responsiveness that comes with performing in close proximity to an audience. The American system has traditionally trained voices to sing in vast theatres often of 3,000 seats, but in my later years in the US, I noticed this pattern changing, and moving towards an acceptance of lighter voices on the main stage. I’m not sure that our own teaching systems in Europe are so well aligned to current industry demands either. There still seems to be an emphasis on training singers to perform in conventional theatres, whereas the reality for singers graduating from conservatoires is much different from what it was fifteen years ago. To give an example, early in their careers, they are quite likely to be employed in the community engagement projects that all UK companies create, and I’m not sure singers are properly taught what is needed to do this.

We are therefore looking for a versatile all-rounder, and it’s fair to say that today, it’s not sufficient to just have a fabulous voice. If Pavarotti were auditioning now, he wouldn’t necessarily have had the career he did, because he’d have many more demands on his time away from the mainstage.

Your background is in directing, how do you balance the creative and the corporate when managing a company?

Through various early positions of artistic leadership at Glyndebourne, Opera Zuid and Buxton Festival, I worked closely with General Managers who taught me the importance of checks and balances. I quickly came to understand that to bring an artistic vision to the stage you must mould to the financial resources available to you. Just as you save in order to go on a dream holiday, you must first raise funds for any out-of-the-ordinary project, and always make your plans within the financial boundaries you have to play with. This was a great learning curve for me, and, regardless of the strength of your artistic vision, I always understood that running in tandem there was a financial responsibility to the organisation as a whole. So, I came to learn the right way to balance the two. If the money isn’t there, then you have to think again. If financial constraints mean that something is not feasible, there is almost always another way of doing it, and often, re-visiting a project opens up new creative possibilities.

As a national company we should be developing all kinds of work in all sorts of spaces to facilitate conversations around themes relevant to society today including race, justice and representation.

When programming repertoire, it’s important to remember that audiences tend to see a performance just once, so you need to make sure the rationale for the choices you make is clear. Always remember to programme repertoire with audiences in mind and resist the lure of ‘vanity projects’, which are usually programmed for the artistic benefit of the performers. In the UK, I find that audiences on the whole do not like to feel lectured to by a production, and the worst thing we can do is make them feel excluded from the performance. Ideally, we want to give audiences enough space to encourage them to formulate their own responses to the work. Creativity and imagination, combined with a sense of identity with the presenting company, are the best way to build audiences. We should take an altruistic point of view, creating extraordinary experiences and giving audiences something they didn’t know was there. Put yourselves in their shoes, make any complexity clear and ensure they feel compelled to want to know more.

During the design process too, I always endeavour to eliminate any unexpected surprises along the way through collaborative work with the creative team. Many times, when I presented a design concept to a company as a director, I did so having received no prior check-ins or progress updates from them. The final design presentation is far too late to make changes to the concept or design. So, when commissioning work for one’s own company, it is essential to ask questions like ‘Is this the right approach to the work for our organisation?’ and ‘It’s brilliant, but is it feasible, technically or financially?’. Checking in with the creative team throughout the process should ensure the realisation of a vision that works for everyone.

Away from the mainstage, we have a responsibility to produce extensive education and engagement programmes, commissioning and programming chamber operas in unusual settings within communities.

Having sat on hundreds of panels, what are the three most important audition tips would you give to singers?

  1. You are a performer. Think about your poise and presence as you walk into the room. Look like you know what you’re doing and make the panel sit up and want to listen to whatever you do next.
  2. Think very carefully about your programme. Put yourself in the point of view of the panel. Imagine it’s 3.50pm on a Thursday, you are in the last slot before the afternoon break, and the panel have been auditioning from 10am-6pm every day that week. You cannot choose your time slot, but you can choose the first piece you sing. So, choose one that will make the most impact; shorter is often best in this regard. You only have 10 minutes in which to impress, so compel the panel to want to listen to you sing something else (perhaps don’t offer Mozart if you don’t want it to be heard, as it will certainly be picked otherwise).  
  3. As a guiding principle, communicate, communicate – and communicate! Text is not just about the words but the libretto and music combined.
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