An Interview with Opera Casting Director Sophie Joyce

Text · Title Image © Foto PR · Date 12.6.2019

On May 14, I sat in on an hour’s worth of auditions for the early rounds of the 2019 Neue Stimmen (New Voices) opera competition. Visibly nervous singers entered a cavernous rehearsal space, weary pianist in tow. Some 70 feet away, the jury sat at a table barely visible beneath laptops, water bottles, papers, and candy wrappers.

One member of the jury was Sophie Joyce. Joyce is currently the Director of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera. Previously, she was Head of Casting at the English National Opera in London. A pianist by training, Joyce worked as an agent with IMG Artists, handling singers like Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón, before immersing herself in opera.

I wanted to talk to Joyce about the voice and the mysteries of its perception, as well as how the sausage is made in the opera industry. We started off by discussing one of the singers, a tenor with a gigantic, almost brassy sound which threatened to overwhelm the arias he sang.

VAN: At the end of the audition by the tenor—let’s call him Will—you and the other jury members advised him to change his repertoire. Instead of focusing on heroic tenor parts, he would do better to learn character roles, you said. How can you be sure that advice is correct? Those comments might changed the course of his entire career.

Sophie Joyce: There was a certain color in the sound that made us think of particular roles. It projected so well, it was really resonant, but it was somehow like a knife—it had a blade on it. It was Mime or Loge [from the “Ring” cycle] territory. There was more of the cut in the sound than there was of the golden Italianate beauty that we would want for him to be really competitive for Rodolfo [from “La Bohème”]. That’s not to say he wouldn’t be able to sing Rodolfo. But to be really competitive at the top houses, our point was there was a color that would really lend itself to different repertoire. 

That seemed like the right advice, on this day, for these 15 minutes, in this space. But I guess what I’m asking is: will that be the right advice for tomorrow, or in two months?

He has to take the feedback he’s given, and if he gets that feedback consistently from people he trusts, he might think: “OK, this is the feedback I’m getting from the marketplace, so maybe to be more marketable”—if you think about it in those terms—“I could present this repertoire and see if I get hired.”

 A group of opera lovers listens to a radio broadcast at the library • Photo New York  Public Library (Public Domain)
 A group of opera lovers listens to a radio broadcast at the library • Photo New York  Public Library (Public Domain)

One of the arias Will sang was “Where’er you walk,” from Handel’s opera “Semele.” I first heard that piece in a gorgeous yet diametrically opposed version by Allan Clayton. How do you get your favorite versions of these arias out of your head and open yourself up to new interpretations during auditions?

I think your favorite interpretations are always in your head, but when a singer does something different with it that you like, it’s exciting and surprising. It’s like having a chocolate cake made with another ingredient, where you think, “Oh, that actually complements it.”

You hear so many of the same arias over and over again in these auditions…

You know, most of us are in this industry because we love opera, and we don’t get bored of hearing the same music. There’s always something new to hear from different singers doing it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything too much. If I hear the same aria all day, and then someone comes in and sings it absolutely brilliantly—great.

I noticed my concentration waning and my notes getting less detailed by the fifth singer. How do you keep your listening energy going through two 10-hour days in a row?

It’s tiring, but there are categories that help me stay focused. “How’s the natural quality of the voice?” is one of the first things I think about. Then I think, “How secure is it, what is the technique like?” Then: “How much presence have they got? Do they have anything to say dramatically? Are they communicating, or are they just standing there with dead eyes?” And then musicianship, style.

But it lifts the energy when you get a good singer. You’re so ready to hear something that’s exciting that when you get something that’s exciting, it really does give you energy.

At what point are you interested in the raw talent and quality of the voice, and at what point do you care about polish and professionalism? For example: just now we heard a singer with a beautiful color, but the text was incomprehensible, because the accent was so strong.

There are factors. Depending on their age and the training they’ve been through, you can work out roughly what they need to get to the next level. So if they’ve not had very much input, they’ve hardly ever done anything outside their home country, but the sound is pretty good, they’ve got a working technique, you imagine what style, language, and all that musicianship training could do for them. If they’re still young enough where they’re flexible to take that all in, then it’s worth taking the risk.

How old is too old?

That’s a difficult one, because it depends on the person. 

Sure, but if you’re making these calculations for people you don’t really know, there must be some guidelines.

I mean, mid-20s is young still. You know that there’s still quite a lot of flexibility. By the time singers get into their 30s, unless it’s a dramatic voice type or a bass, then really…they’ve studied long enough, and they’ve usually had enough experience that they’re somewhat near where they’re going to be. 

I noticed a lot of opera hands in the past hour. Do they have any bearing on your decision in this audition situation?

Again, it depends. Sometimes, with the arms, you can tell there’s quite a lot of tension. Then it bothers me. I think, “Maybe that’s what I can hear in the voice. Maybe that’s why it sounds a bit harsh.”

The audition scenario is tricky. It’s not a concert. And the singers are themselves, but they still have to communicate something of the character who they are singing. They have to show that they know what they’re singing about. So we do need some notion of acting, but without actually carrying out the scene. And often their answer to that is one arm movement [laughs].

During the auditions, the jury talked, typed, checked their phones, occasionally laughed. That tended to happen more during the worse performances than during the better ones. Isn’t that putting people who are already slipping on even more difficult footing?

I hope they realize that when we’re typing we’re writing notes about them. And I think they’re probably used to the odd word in between, because sometimes we do need to point something out in a CV that’s relevant, or talk about which aria we want to have next, so there’s not a huge discussion in between.

I hope they find it normal. But you’re right, it can be a distraction. They’ve really got to just try and block us out.

Is that part of the audition?

Yeah. I encourage younger artists to just stay in the zone, and if they’re really in the moment and expressing, it won’t matter what the panel is doing.

At conservatory, my singer friends were often in agony because they were constantly told they were actually a completely different voice type, or fach. In these auditions, do you ever hear singers who have clearly been told they are one thing when they’re actually another?

Yeah, we might think, “I wonder if that singer is actually a soprano.” It’s based on this one hearing, so it’s quite difficult to know. But if they ask for feedback, I might say, “This is quite a soprano-y sound.”

The whole thing about voice types is that it’s difficult not to be in a category. It makes the lives of the people who are employing you much easier if they know what you think you are. Then they can find the appropriate role more easily. But there are lots of examples of people who aren’t in one clear category.

Could you say, “Here are the roles I sing,” instead of, “I’m a lyric mezzo”?

You do have to choose between soprano, mezzo, alto, tenor, baritone, bass-baritone, bass. As long as there’s some kind of relationship between the arias in the repertoire, then I don’t think you need to say, “I’m a coloratura soprano.” You can just say soprano. And then we can work out from what you’re offering which world you fit in, or which two worlds you straddle.

One issue that comes up with opera, and with classical music in general lately, is this need to have performers be hot. We see it with singers, pianists, violinists, accordionists. The fabulous alto Wiebke Lehmkühl once described being cut from a production because she didn’t fit into a Rhinemaiden costume that had been designed for someone else. Is that issue on your radar at all?

Looks do come into the equation. It’s a visual art form as well as musical. So it is an element of the decision-making.

In these auditions, too?

I think everywhere. The casting process is cruel. In my experience, though, the decision isn’t made by one person. It’s not one person saying, “I want all attractive people doing these roles!” It’s usually a director, a conductor, a whole team of people who discuss all of the roles. The director may have a really strong visual idea, and say, “I imagine Marguerite [from Gounod’s “Faust”] as someone who looks like Audrey Hepburn.” And so from hopefully the five or six amazing singers that you have, you would start thinking, “This one would probably fit the designer’s taste more.”

But if they were all of varying standards, and there were only two or three who could actually sing it, it would have to come from those two or three. I really feel that the quality of the singing needs to be a priority.

Do other people in the industry share that view, do you think?

I think they do. It’s just that there are all these elements that go into the casting decision. It’s not just who is the best singer. It’s also about how the singer fits in with the rest of the team. It’s not quite as cut and dry as, “We’ll go for the hot one” [laughs]. ¶