Young classical singers are in a unique position that most other performing artists do not have to contend with – they are too young and physically immature to perform their chosen repertoire. The voice matures into the twenties for women and some argue into the thirties for men. If you look to the major opera stages of the world (The Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera Chicago, La Scala, Covenant Garden) you will notice that the singers are almost always in their thirties or older. This is in large part due to their vocal maturity. Conductors, directors, and audience members will gladly accept a 40 year old playing 16 with a beautiful voice, the opposite rarely happens. However, for a young singer, this is often hard to accept and many try to force their way into big sounds too early. This enthusiasm in the case of classical voice leads to more harm than good. Not only can singing rep that is too big too early cause vocal damage, it can also lead to memorizing bad habits that are extremely hard to break later down the road. We’re not only talking musical and diction habits, but also muscle memory that is next to impossible to reverse in many cases. So what should a young singer sing? Art song and classical musical theatre. Art songs are the best place for young singers to be vocally in the learning stages. The songs are most often written for only piano and voice as opposed to opera arias that are composed for full orchestra and voice. Professional singers who specialize in art song often sing with a more lyric sound that is a healthier model to have in your ear. The repertoire is vast and its easy to find another art song that fits you well 10 years down the road if you build bad habits in high school. There are art songs in every language and every time period. There are ballads and uptempos, melodic and chromatic. It is a wonderful body of work to spend time learning and if you are majoring in music in college during your undergraduate education, you will study this rep 90% of the time in your lessons.
Classical musical theatre repertoire is also wonderful to study in college. Musical theatre before 1965 (Fiddler on the Roof) was mainly based on classical vocal production. Many of these singers began their careers as opera singers or were trained by classical teachers, therefore composers wrote music to suit their voices. Classical music values are valued in this repertoire and since they are in English, they make great selections for learning to act while you sing. The Tin Pan Alley composers are also great for classical singers. Again, during the time period, classical vocal production was en vogue so composers wrote for these voices.
So what should you do for your college audition? Pick something you sing perfectly. Don’t try to impress the panel. The voice faculty understands that at your age, the voice has yet to fully mature. They expect to hear a wide range of sounds and after years and years of teaching, they can hear which young voices will sound great by the end of 4 years. However, if you show up with a song with wrong notes, wrong words, and wrong rhythms that you chose solely because it shows your potential to sing really fast passages, you will more than likely leave them with the impression that you don’t learn your music, you don’t understand your voice, and you don’t take this seriously. This is not your goal. However, if you walk in the door with Caro mio ben sung perfectly with impeccable diction, flawless pitch and rhythm, and dramatic connection, you will leave them with the feeling that they have an opportunity to accept a consummate artist into their program. Unlike musical theatre, there are no overdone lists for vocal performance auditions, just one song “O mio babbino caro”. By the end of the school year I never want to hear that aria again, ever. Some may disagree, in which case I would say there are no overdone lists for vocal performance auditions as long as you sing it perfectly.
To get you started on your search for the perfect audition song, here is a short list of repertoire that is perfect for students your age and repertoire that is too big and will more than likely leave the wrong impression:
24 Italian Songs and Arias
First Book of (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone/Bass) solos
Golden Age Musical Theatre
Anything by: Puccini, Verdi, Wagner, Mahler, Wolf
(There are highly qualified voice teachers who know selections by these composers that are acceptable, just be very careful)
Most operatic material