Talking Auditions

Ashley Pearson

We caught up with SPO director for Così fan Tutte, Ashley Pearson, to talk through the whole process of finding the cast for the production.

Q: How did you approach the auditions process for Così fan Tutte?

A: One of the most crucial elements in the build-up to SPO’s next production – Così fan Tutte on 29 and 30 June – has been the audition process.

Finding the right cast for an opera is much more than choosing great voices, though that, obviously, is key. Strong acting skills are equally vital as is finding performers who complement each other.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

St Paul’s Opera is clearly making a name for itself – after we put the word around that we were looking to cast Mozart’s comic opera this summer, we were inundated with interest from talented young singers. As with every other opera company, we had far more female singers than males auditioning… come on you tenors, baritones and basses, where are you?

We have an open-door policy at SPO and we saw almost everyone who responded, so our auditions had to be spread out over a three-week period; we had six sessions in all.

Q: With so much interest, how did you select from all the people who auditioned?

A: The first task when setting up the audition process was working out what we want to hear. We asked singers to prepare something by Mozart and also an additional Italian aria— so we knew they could handle both his style and the language.

In retrospect I would liked to have heard a comic aria as well… many people came with ‘serious’ material which showed one set of skills but proved less helpful for finding performers with comedic chops. While musical director Juliane Gallant concentrated on the voices, I try and direct everybody in the audition to see how – or even if – they take direction.

Each audition lasted about ten minutes after which we sat down with the candidate and had a chat to find out why they were interested in the part and, equally important, for them to discover what kind of a company we are. They also needed to know what they would be getting into as it’s a big time commitment for the performers involved.

Q: Beyond strong singing and acting, what qualities were you looking for in the auditions?

A: One of the things we do really well here is create a company of players who have a genuine chemistry together and that’s where taking accurate audition notes is integral… you need an excellent memory backed up by accurate contemporaneous notes when attempting to match people who auditioned days, and even weeks, apart. It was especially difficult this year as standards were exceptionally high.

At the end of each session, Julianne and I together with producer Tricia Ninian would get together to discuss who we’d just seen. We’d talk about how they sang, how they acted, which parts they were interested in and generally discuss what we thought of them.

Any stand out performer was obviously noted but, in fact, because we had so many great people we started to group them based on how we thought they would interact together. It’s that chemistry again – something that’s so important in this opera: unless the audience can believe the emotional complexities of the four lovers on stage, the whole thing falls apart.

At the end of the auditions, we wound up with four possible casts… something of a luxury! Necessary, though, because things change. Someone available for the opera at audition time might no longer be available when actually offered the part. And that could impact on someone else we had thought would work well with that particular performer.

That said, we have a fantastic cast who are gelling really well.

Q: You have also cast covers for the opera’s key roles; tell us a little about that.

A: Yes, for the first time at St Paul’s Opera we have a cast of covers, each ready to step in should one of the main cast members drop out for any reason.

In a larger opera house, the first role a young singer will get is often as a cover. Knowing how to play a major role in front of a large audience after very brief rehearsal time, often without any of the cast one will actually perform with, is one of the most significant challenges a young singer can face. That’s why we wanted to have a cover cast who will get first hand experience of this unique way of preparing for a role.

In the week of the opera, the current plan is to have full dress rehearsals with the main cast and chorus on the Monday and Tuesday and a performance by the cover cast and chorus on the Wednesday with viewing restricted to friends and family. Everyone takes a break on the Thursday and then we have the full production over two nights on the Friday and Saturday.

And on the Sunday, we will, no doubt, be thinking about what we should stage in 2019 …

About Ashley Pearson ...

Ashley holds an MFA in Theatre Directing, and studied in London, New York, Moscow and Amsterdam. She was Associate Director of Opera Works at the English National Opera and a Staff Director with Olivier award-winning OperaUpClose, where her work includes Carmen, La Traviata and Ulla’s Odyssey.

She is a playwright and librettist and holds a B.A.Sc. in Mathematics. Recent credits – Director: Die Zauberflöte and Orpheus in the Underworld (St. Paul’s Opera), The Chairs (Corbett Theatre); Assistant: Les Mamelles de Tirésias, Une éducation manquée (Royal College of Music), Dispatches (ENO). Most recently, Ashley was an assistant director of Macbeth at the Royal Opera House.