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The questions you get asked at opera auditions

This happened in a famous opera house in a major European capital this week.

Young hopefuls were lining up for secondary parts in next season’s productions. One soprano said she was feeling slightly unwell.

‘May I ask, are you having your period?’ said the male theatre intendant.

May we ask, what business is it of his? Had anyone asked that question in the Met, Covent Garden or Sydney Opera, they would have been out of the door before their feet touched floor.

So why can they get away with it in civilised, continental Europe?

audition

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Comments

  1. Not such a stupid question, as menstruation affects vocal timbre. However I would expect that to be asked by a member of the panel, and not the attendant.

    Now being a soprano, and hence knowing that as a breed we have a reputation of being ‘temperamental’, that was a very dangerous question to ask.

    Personally, it wouldn’t cause me any problems at all. If this was the case for any malady, I would answer honestly. However, I might preface it with a comment such as “cheeky” or “you’ve got a nerve”, before answering.

    I’ve sung whilst ‘under the weather’ for decidedly female reasons. Adrenaline has an amazing ability to keep you upright and going through the gig. (on this occasion a student lunchtime recital). It was only on returning to the Music Department that the inevitable happened and I fainted. However I defy any man to sing whilst he feels he has been kicked in the back and stomach and is loosing blood to boot.

    Not an enjoyable thing to do, but I was trained that unless it was my vocal folds that were compromised, the show went on.

  2. Mike Hausgrand says:

    While I understand that from a non-performer point of view this may sounds outragious, I can guarantee you that among singers and conductors soprano’s periods are among the most talked things in an opera production.
    In more than twenty years of professional work in the opera theatre, I have witnessed very shy and reserved sopranos and mezzos telling in full-cast music rehearsals ‘sorry about being sharp or flat today, it’s my first day of period’ and nobody gave a damn. To them it was like saying ‘sorry, I haven’t slept well, or I feel a cold coming-up’.
    It is an information about physical well-being, and one that for particular female singers sometimes makes the whole difference between an awful day and a great one. By asking this the intendant was maybe giving a chance to the singer to explain a short-coming which could be, in permanent and not-period related, otherwise influential in his hiring the singer.
    It is dangerous to put anything sexual-related reference under the umbrella of abuse or discrimination. The intendant was not asking about sexual orientation or preferred sexual practices (which would have been unexcusable and completely out of place) but about a recurrent condition which could influence the performance on a certain day, given that the voice is an inner instrument and anything as stressful and to the body as a period is an important piece of information to have when judging the performance of a voice.
    Where I find this intendant wanting – but it’s not clear from the article if this is what has happened – is that he should have not asked in front of many people this; but I believe many conductors will tell you how many evenings a female singer starting her period would go at their door and tell them about her condition in order to have a him adjust to an instrument which cannot perform at its best.
    Opera and theatre are made with bodies, sweat and guts, while this going over-PC on anything remotly personal is a matter for people in suits and PR offices.

  3. Graf Nugent says:

    The Intendant is the Director General of the theatre, not a doorkeeper. As questions go, it was pretty crass, but, as chief conductor of a German house, I remember when we hired some singers from Russia about twenty years ago and were informed that female singers from that country did not have to sing during the first two days of their period. In fact, they were actually legally protected. I’m not defending this particular intendant’s clumsiness but he may have been confronted with an uncomfortable situation before and was, on this occasion, trying to be understanding. Just a thought.

    • It certainly is harder to control the passagio into the head register during menstruation and that is just due to hormone levels.

      Given that us singers have to make the whole thing sound effortless whilst working our breathing mechanisms with the effort of a highly trained athlete, Graf’s comment is welcome.

      Now personally, this kind of comment causes no problems what so ever. However I am a singer, and I understand that the concern is that menstruation will affect the singer’s ability at the audition, and may unfairly prejudice her. Having said that, alls fair in love and opera.

  4. I’m sure he could have phrased it better, but if there is a chance of it affecting the voice, it seems a sensible question, and one which the singer in question probably wouldn’t mind answering.

  5. Without judging either way, I just wonder whether, if a decision whether to hire or not was involved (it seems this was an audition), it would count as sex discrimination in certain places such as the UK. After all, it’s not a question you would ask of a man!

  6. I think this intendant was being exstremely nice, and as said above gave the singer an extra chance by trying to understand why some ‘shortcoming’ occured.
    Of course you do not expect this question and it probaby felt a bit odd, but nevertheless it’s a lot better this way than ignoring the effects of female hormones….!

  7. Sex discrimination or not, it is a fact of life. In this case one that affects vocal quality.

    Unless I am very much mistaken, one does not get men who can sing adult soprano roles anymore. The operation required to sing them is also no longer done as it is consider unethical.

    I have yet to find a male equivalent to menstruation. The physiology of the adult voice is different between men and women. This is why women are sopranos and Contralti and men are Tenors and Basses (with the exception of the Haut-Contre and the falsettists) However the Haut-Contre is the male equivalent of the Lyric-Coloratura Soprano.

    Likewise the male voice is not affected by pregnancy and childbirth.

  8. Norman, here in NYC it’s a subject that is often talked about! It affects every singer differently, some more, some less. But it is certain that it can make a singer’s life much more difficult for a coupe days. The vocal chords do thicken and it can make singing tricky! Imagine an oboe player that has a completely different reed once a month has to play it, or an athlete running with a slightly swollen foot. While there is nothing we can do, we should keep in mind that an opinion made about a singers during that time is simply unfair.

    I find nothing really chocking here.
    I also think it is partly cultural, menstruations tend to be a bit more taboo in some European countries.

  9. I have heard from a tenor friend that having sex the night before can change his vocal timbre. Can you imagine if someone asked a tenor if he had had sex the night before, resulting in a flubbed high note?

    • beaumont says:

      To Paraphrase “Blackadder Goes Forth” – I’m sure the tenor would reply:
      “I always flub high notes after making love – so normally I’m a twenty flubs a day man”
      ;-)

  10. Tenors just love boasting about their conquests!!!

    However for us poor sopranos, it is a case of ‘the bleeding curse’ to coin a phrase.

  11. richardcarlisle says:

    He can say: Do you know why you’re not in top form today?

    She can say: Being female– same reason I’m a soprano.

    • I like it!!
      I’m definitely known for having ‘Soprano moments’.

      • richardcarlisle says:

        OK, another thought on the path to precluding all future awkward moments when defining a woman’s monthly reason for less-than-peak performance …. why not use an objective term like “code eight” instead of “the curse” too pitiful “the period” confusingly similar to the punctuation mark, “hormonal” too vague… I could go on…but can we agree– a better term is required here and an end to awkward moments could be in sight..

        Here’s a list of contenders for a much-needed menstrual-awkwardness terminator term (and why not an international coalition for the elimination of awkwardness — funded by donations– designed to develop appropriate terms for any and all awkward circumstances including boisterous unexpected burping, extremely humiliating farting, embarrassing stupid comments, etc. ):

        So here’s the list–

        1) “UR time” for Utero Restoro

        2) “WD time” for Womb Doom

        3) “INOT time” for I’m Not Pregnant!

        4) “RU time” for Restoring Uterus

        5) “Code eight” no specific meaning but easy to say.

        Coming into the topic from a different angle now, having covered the new terminology aspect, why not take a more comprehensive look at the BIG PICTURE…

        THE MENSTRUAL PERIOD IS A SIGN OF GOOD HEALTH SO EXACTLY WHAT IS THE EXCUSE FOR VIEWING IT AS AWKWARD IN THE FIRST PLACE!!!

        If it did not occur there would be cause for complaint, for concern, whatnot… so therefore it is something to CELEBRATE and why not declare the event as a cause for joy, i.e., wear a campaign-style button declaring “HAPPY TIME” or “DIVINE TIME”, an outright declaration of a good thing so no one would ever have to wonder and try to figure the best way of asking what’s going on during those few days every month.

        Actually we’re victims of handed-down ancient customs that included locking women away for that monthly period… but time has come to get modern, toss the past nonsense and get over the awkwardness that should not exist in the first place… I might just start a website to sell “HAPPY TIME” and “DIVINE TIME” buttons.

        • I can assure you Richard, when you are bleeding and doubled up it is not a”happy time”. There can be all sorts of reasons for a woman not to have a straight forward menstrual period. When they occur it is not pleasant, just a fact of life.

          Given that it is simply that, something that happens, and can be rather unpleasant. There isn’t really very much else to do than get on with life. On days when the going is too tough, give up. On other days take two paracetamol, anything the doctor has prescribed and get on with it. Harsh but true.

          If blood loss is excessive, eat lots of iron rich foods and drink plenty of water. This might be rather of matter-of-fact, but this is a matter of fact issue.

          When it comes to the womb, menstruation, pregnancy, child-birth etc, they are all matter of fact. Women just deal with them. Get it.

          • richardcarlisle says:

            Get it. Hmmm…. Apologies seem due, having not made my point– not even close.

            OK, try this angle:

            A woman has major cancer surgery, several small tumors removed from most major organs able to get tumors… she lies immobile for a day, having lost great amounts of blood along with suffering severe pain in every cubic inch of her body.

            The next day she miraculously feels fifty percent better, everything regarding the healing process going amazingly well– a near case of medical history… meanwhile everyone in the neighborhood familiar with her becomes familiar with her condition and fully appreciates how well she’s recovering…. no awkward resistance to letting everyone know about the surgery or the recovery.

            She continues improving at the same amazing rate until five days later she is back exactly to her ultimate health condition as if the cancer surgery had never happened.

            An important aspect of her recovery was that others knew and understood what she went through, offered support in every way possible…. so why can’t menstrual periods be regarded exactly the same way– let others know in a kindly direct manner, nothing to hide or be reticent about admitting the condition…. and if you won’t consider the condition something to celebrate at least be pleased with the rapid recovery and agree it’s nothing worth hiding.

            Point is not how much suffering the process inflicts, but that others should openly be made aware of it and allowed the chance to be supportive.

        • stanley cohen says:

          Having read richardcarlisle’s pot-pourri of euphemisms, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Cockney ” I’ve got the decorators in,” isn’t half as bad as I thought previously.

    • Richard, he can’t if he hasn’t heard the soprano sing. Re-read Norman’s statement.
      And to ask in that way after someone has sung is a bit crushing if there’s no reason, no?

      • richardcarlisle says:

        OK, insert “not feeling well” in place of “not in top form”… I thought they were equivalent but understand your question.

        • I always wondered what dancers do during HAPPY or DIVINE TIME.

          • richardcarlisle says:

            CJ,

            In a perfect world females would want to share the monthly renewal process with everyone and wear a means of announcing it….. but in this world quite the opposite is the case with a “nobody’s business” attitude… fine and dandy if that’s it but don’t expect support or understanding if it must be kept a secret.

            The perfect world will wait its turn.

            If there’s one thing that makes dancers more functional more of the time and athletes including swimmers more competitive it’s the internal device that does all that and more, including making the period less of an issue in every sense…. in fact it’s done more to enable women to take more active roles in every direction and if you give it some thought it’s probably the single factor responsible for incalculable changes in every aspect of all human experience– a close competitor to the computer though much simpler in construction.

  12. “Got the decoraters in ” I love that Mr Cohen :-)

    • richardcarlisle says:

      How could anyone do such a thing as compare a tampon to a computer…. the rightful comparison is the WHEEL (keep in mind the wheel was never really invented, rather the AXLE that in combination makes the wheel the functional device we know today) yes, both of them simple in construction with ramification complexity to make the head spin.

      I stand corrected by an alert condition only possible after a nourishing weekend.

  13. I’ve learned from experience that you should never audition when feeling under the weather. If for some reason you choose to go ahead with it, you shouldn’t bring it up. What good does it do the adjudicators to know what ails you? Who cares?? And how can they be guaranteed, if you sing under par on that particular day, that you’ll be stellar when you’re feeling better?

    As far as the Intendant’s question goes, I think if the singer brought it up, he has every right to ask. Some women, like Ms. Debenham, obviously, are more effected by their menstrual cycles than others. Personally, I pop a naproxen sodium, and I’m good as new. Lucky me.

    In general, I just don’t think it’s very good to start your audition with an excuse. Sure, trying to hide things may backfire (been there, done that), but if it does, you can always explain later. At the end of the day, a shitty audition is a shitty audition. Either you reschedule, beg for a second chance, or keep it to yourself!

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