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Tips for Contestants

1. Choice of Repertory: Because this is a "theater singing competition" and not a vocal or recital competition, dramatic context and content are very important. Contestants should sing repertory that is appropriate for their vocal and acting ability, as well as age, type, and range. Although sometimes opera productions will ignore type and cast people strictly on voice, this has become less frequent. In musical theater, seldom do directors cast too far from age or type. Therefore, don't choose a female character's song if you're a male; don't sing a world-weary song of bitterness and disillusionment for a 45-year-old character (“Losing My Mind”) if you're only 22. Instead, choose material that you could believably perform if cast in a full-scale production of the work in question. This will also lead you to material that you can better relate to from your own experience, allow you to personalize and make more specific your reading of the excerpt. You should know the character, plot, situation, etc. of every excerpt that you sing, and you should perform it in the version from the stage work (not an arrangement or popular song version). Think of the four selections as an opportunity to portray four different characters, each offering something that allows you to incorporate your own experience. Do NOT think of the musical theater songs as popular numbers existing outside of the dramatic property from which they're taken. Perform them as you would an aria, in a dramatic context, in character. There is a time and place for jazz or cabaret versions, personal arrangements, and "updated" renditions, but the Lenya Competition is not it.

2. Crafting a Program: Contestants should carefully consider not only their choices of a selection for each category, but the content, variety, and impact of the program as a whole. Judges have consistently rewarded contestants for enacting a wide-ranging diversity of vocal idioms, musical styles, character types, and emotional dynamics. Avoid a program that will come across as “one note” in terms of subject matter, tempo, vocal and dramatic range and idiom. For example, while a program consisting of “What Good Would the Moon Be?,” “My White Knight,” “With You,” and “O mio babbino caro,” may show that you can sing in different genres, it does little to show diversity of vocal idiom or the range of characterizations or emotions you can inhabit and communicate. If you have a number that is sure to make the audience laugh, can you follow it up with one that will make them cry? Can you deliver an internal, reflective monologue alongside a song that might be as corny as Kansas in August or as extroverted as a girl who can’t say no? You can show many sides of your talent over the course of four numbers, and the judges will expect to see the fullest range of what you are capable of. You might think of your program selection metaphorically as something akin to choosing your favorite outfits to take along on an important trip. Each should be something that you like to wear, that make you feel comfortable, and that indicate who you are under differing circumstances, occasions and settings. They should all fit you so well that you feel good about putting them on.

3. Performance Mode: Singing theater songs or arias outside the theater or opera house is, of course, difficult and can seem awkward in the setting of a concert hall. But the Lenya Competition is not a recital, so, unless you are using the piano as part of your stage setting or as a prop or prop holder, get away from it! Nothing is more untheatrical than standing in the crook of the piano and “performing.” That said, there is a wide range of possibilities for effectively conveying a theatrical number, ranging from the extreme of highly staged, stylized, or choreographed to motionless internalization. Don't be afraid to move and to gesture, but it must mean something. Artificial or unmotivated movement (“strolling,” “wandering,” “fidgeting”) is the quickest way to demonstrate "disconnectedness" from the character and to undermine truthfulness of the moment (not to mention the surest way to "upstage" yourself). Your material will often dictate what is appropriate. Obviously anything beyond the most minimal setpieces and props (a letter or a chair, for example) will not be easily incorporated. But every song takes place "somewhere," and you need to visualize that somewhere and then inhabit that space in your performance. These "somewheres" will, of course, change from number to number. Create your own dramatic environment.

You might imagine that your audition for the Lenya Competition is an audition for a theater company which does the full range of musical theater, from musical comedy to opera. You need not dress in formal recital clothes, unless this is appropriate for the four characters you are playing. You may want to wear something casual or neutral, depending on what you're performing. In general, don't try to "play the room" as if this were a presentational performance to an audience, unless the selection is one of those numbers from musical theater and opera that are intended to be presentational, where you come down to the footlights and sing right to the audience ("Willkommen" from Cabaret and "One Life to Live" from Lady in the Dark, for example). If you perform one of these types of numbers, a change of mode will be obvious and appropriate.

4. Song as Scene: A solo theater song or aria is usually a type of sung monologue. The character is telling a story, articulating a need or a demand, seeking some objective, explaining something about him/herself. Often these are sung to another character in the drama. It is crucial that you know who your character is, why s/he is singing, what the "objective" is as you move from the beginning to the end of the number. Rehearse your songs as spoken monologues. Find the "beats," the transitions, divide it into sections, paraphrase it, personalize it so that it means something to you. Find your connections to the character and the dramatic moment. Live in that moment, as if you are inventing the lyric as you go. And when you perform it, place the person (whom you create for us in so doing) in a specific place. If your "silent, imaginary" acting partner moves during the course of the song, you need to make this clear. If you place your "imaginary acting partner" on stage with you, make sure then that you position him/her so that the audience can be included in that communication. And remember that you cannot act an emotion or a mood (mood spelled backwards is "doom"). You need to play objective(s), and repetitions of verses need to be motivated by progress or lack thereof in attaining those objectives. Don't "present generalized emotions"; enact a character's needs, tell a story.

5. Props: If you use imaginary props (writing a letter, drinking poison, etc.), make sure that you know where these props are at all times. They shouldn't just appear and disappear out of nowhere.

6. Accompaniments: Piano-vocal arrangements of works for voice and orchestra are seldom pianistic and often double the voice throughout, especially in scores from the American Musical Theater. Seldom is it effective in performance for the accompanist to play exactly what's on the page, as if it were a composition for voice and piano. Therefore, you should come up with a version which faithfully transmits the original (without a sense of "arrangement") but which allows the voice more freedom and flexibility than constant doubling of the melody allows. This will also foster greater intelligibility of lyrics. The "fill" between phrases or under sustained notes, of course, is crucial to the idiom.

— Kim H. Kowalke
Founder of the Competition and President, Kurt Weill Foundation