JAN 2021: In conversation with Christine Jane Chibnall

Christine Jane Chibnall is the longstanding Director of Planning & Head of Casting at Opera North, having previously worked at Welsh National Opera in the 1970/80’s. Following over 37 years of collaboration and co-production with other opera companies, cross-discipline art forms and international Festivals, this month she shares her insights about casting and advice for singers auditioning today.

What has been your approach to casting over the last 40 years?

Different companies have different ways of casting – leaning more vocally, dramatically or somewhere in between. At Opera North we have resident music staff who look after musical considerations, except when casting early music and specialist repertoire where we sometimes involve guest conductors. However, perhaps more unusually, we also heavily involve directors in the casting process, which can often result in a longer timeframe when considering options. I was surprised when a leading British director once explained he was simply told who the Cio Cio San was going to be in his production of Madama Butterfly, because clearly the right chemistry in the room is of vital importance.

There are many ways to cast any role, and all directors will be looking for different things, I have therefore always endeavoured to put a selection of singers in front of a director.

Some singers are very good in audition but less good when they get into a rehearsal room, so dialogue/music working sessions can often be much more revealing in telling us how an artist may engage in a production process and how adaptable they may be. We try to see singers in performance when casting for specific repertoire, but it can be difficult to judge if it’s not a good production and auditions, although limited, can be more useful. Getting to know the singer is crucial when pulling teams together and so it’s important to give appropriate time to the casting process.

How should singers approach auditions?

Auditions are an imperfect science, but a necessary evil. I want to see personality in an audition and use it as an opportunity to get to know the singer better. I would rather see something interesting, that isn’t perfect, but has the seeds of something exciting that will develop during the rehearsal process and come to fruition during performances. Sadly, some singers seem to peak at the audition.

Regarding repertoire, we look for variety in language and style. Often singers are unsure whether to present roles in which they would be immediately employable, or arias that show their potential in roles that they are not yet ready to sing. I would suggest it is fine to do the latter, but that it is wise to be honest and acknowledge you may not sing that role right now.

It is important for us to know that an artist has a realistic sense of what they are capable of. This context is important for a panel, whether in live or recorded audition.

Managements are struggling to come to terms with the shape of auditions in the future. We are getting better at judging recorded videos, however it’s difficult to judge scale of voice – which doesn’t give a level playing field with varying access to high-quality equipment. This is an area that is being looked at as we emerge from the pandemic and beyond.

Remember that repertoire choices should be varied, reflect your personality and be relevant to the Company you are singing for. Ultimately however, find an aria that tells a story and always sing any accompanying recit, which can tell a panel as much as the aria itself.

What do you look for in a singer?

I look for someone who can communicate a story or an emotion which reflect their dramatic thoughts. A celebrated conductor once said to me ‘She has a very beautiful voice, but what good is that to me?’ Connection to the text is essential.

Increasingly, I’m looking for artists who have many tools in their toolkit.

Whilst singing on the mainstage, singers may be asked to take part in projects, education programmes, recitals, talks about their work with the Company. Vocal talent is a given and should only be one part of their offering. They must have versatility, dedication, self-discipline and motivation to develop the skills and craft necessary to forge a career as a freelance singer.

What advice would you give to singers working today?

I would urge all singers to watch theatre and other artforms. Listen to other singers and watch their performances in the same role to see how they differ.  

Don’t expect a straight line from music college to whatever stage you want to sing on. There are lots of ways to get from A to B, and life experience is essential if you want to really engage with the operatic repertoire and confront the major issues of the human condition they explore.

If there is one single piece of advice I would give to any singer, it is don’t ever open your mouth and sing a note unless you know why you are singing it. You need to have something to say to be interesting.

However, returning to the essential point that a singer is a communicator, now more than ever we need to remember that we do what we do for audiences and not for ourselves. We must continue to remain relevant and reflect and serve the communities we live in.

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