Opera Arias for the Twenty-Something Mezzo: Operetta and Character Roles

I have invited my dear (and very long-time friend,) mezzo-soprano Catherine Huntress-Reeve, to write a few words to young mezzos about auditioning for the companies which produce light opera and operetta.

Ms. Huntress-Reeve is a rare musician and actress because she is equally at home working as a stage director and music director as well as a leading lady in operas, musical theater and operetta. Her stage directing and music directing credits include productions for The Washington Savoyards, Opera Americana, Victorian Lyric Opera, Bel Contanti Opera and for The World Bank and Supreme Court. She is a former Metropolitan Opera Regional Mid-Atlantic Finalist with singing credits from The Washington National Opera to DAR Constitution Hall. Our daughters grew up together, and we have worked together in many productions and concerts.

Ms. Huntress-Reeve writes:

I ask that, even if you are not a young mezzo, you keep reading this post. Almost everything I have to say is not specific to mezzos, but is worth all young singers’ knowing. In the immortal words of Mr. Gilbert, (of Gilbert and Sullivan) during the mezzo-specific material, if need be you may “allow your attention to wander.”

The first pearl of wisdom I offer is this: please audition with something age- appropriate! You may have sung the role of the mother-in-law in The Consul in college, but that was presumably a production with costumes and make-up or because that’s the only rep your teacher knew.  When you come in to audition, with a youthful glow and a glam headshot, “The Lullaby” will feel to us like a strange choice. We want to love your performance, not have it leave us scratching our heads; remember also, that by the time we have heard several days of auditions, it doesn’t take much for cognitive dissonance to kick in. There’s a distraction you don’t want us to have!

Trying to stay believable in auditions offers particular challenges to the mezzo – after all, our characters are the “witches, bitches, and boys.” So, my suggestion is that you focus on the bitches and the boys, and save the witches for later. A generation older than you are is fine, but two is starting to push it. (Low basses have a similar issue with characters like Sarastro; it’s hard for a very young singer to be perceived as having the gravitas necessary for these roles.)

Second, try to find out if the show for which you’re auditioning will be done in the original language (if not English) or in translation. Bring in a piece in the language in which the operetta will be presented, so we will know if your diction is comprehensible. Much of the time American light opera companies perform in English, so it’s a good idea to have several English options as well as a French, an Italian, and a German in your binder. Most opera singers know this, but it is the same for operetta auditions.

The most important is requirement is, can you sing the piece well? You must be confident that the piece is well within your capabilities, and you must know it in your bones. Make sure you have tried your material out on friends, family, or colleagues, before presenting it to an opera company. This is a small business, really, and people talk. “She wasn’t prepared” or “She didn’t have the high note” isn’t what you want us to say.

Please avoid the piece that everyone else will do. At a recent set of auditions for a Gilbert and Sullivan season, I heard “Poor Wandering One” at least three dozen times. Unless yours is the finest performance we hear, this isn’t in your best interest. Look for something that will tell us what we want to know, but you’ll be the only one who sings it. You’ll stick in our minds that way. As an example, if we’re mounting Carmen in French, avoid the “Seguedilla” and the “Habenera” unless we’ve asked for one of them. A good choice might be Bizet’s art song “Ouvre ton Coeur” or one of the Ravel Five Greek songs. It’s OK to think outside the aria box for operetta. And don’t worry about singing a piece from the show – if we want one, we’ll ask ahead of time. Singing something else by the same composer can be a good strategy.

Choose a piece that you can sell dramatically. Make sure we know what kind of actor you are. If you can make us laugh, or make us cry, you’ve succeeded. (And just because it’s light opera doesn’t mean everything will be comic. Perichole, from La Perichole, must elicit tears of sympathy with the letter aria, and then turn around and cause tears of laughter with her drinking song.)

Here’s something important that is often overlooked: care and feeding of your accompanist. Make sure your selection(s) can be sight-read by the average voice teacher. Some companies are blessed with superb in-house accompanists; some are not. Also, you never know when a sub has been called in for the evening. Especially if your selection is not fairly standard, you cannot count on a pianist already knowing it, so it needs to be immediately accessible. The advantage to you is, you will hear what you expect to hear from the piano, and be supported in the way you expect. (If you desperately wish to sing a tricky piece, you could bring your own pianist, but that can get expensive.)

Have your audition materials in a binder, so pages may be turned easily. If you are working out of a score or anthology, make sure it is well broken in, and will stay flat on the piano. Be courteous to your accompanist – you do this first of all because it’s the right and professional thing to do. Secondly, you do it because some companies solicit their pianists’ input when casting, and in other situations, the music director herself could be at the keyboard. If your number gets kicked off at the wrong tempo and you can’t adjust it easily, we don’t mind you saying, “I’m sorry, may we start again?”

We DO mind you snapping your fingers at the pianist; he/she’s not a dog.

Some ideas for comic or dramatic songs for mezzos:

French: “Ah, quell diner” (Perichole’s tipsy song, La Perichole, Offenbach)
“Faites-lui mes aveux” (Faust, Gounod)
Any of Carmen’s arias, depending on circumstances

German: “Vom Jaeger Herne” (Merry Wives of Windsor, Nicolai)
“Ich lade gern mir Gaste ein” (Orlovsky’s aria, Die Fledermaus, Strauss)

Italian: Mozart – almost any of the mezzo arias, some are harder for pianists than others

English: “Were I thy bride” (Yeomen of the Guard, Gilbert and Sullivan) comic
“To a garden full of posies” (Ruddigore,) comic opportunities, but also sad

Two arias that are acceptable for operetta auditions but are generally not wanted in operatic auditions are “Must the winter come so soon” (Ericka’s aria, Vanessa, Barber) and Bernstein’s “What a Movie!” from Trouble in Tahiti.
(The latter is very tricky for pianists.)

And don’t forget to think outside the opera aria box. Singing an art song that fits the character and shows your acting chops will help us remember you!


  1. Thanks for sharing this! I wish more than anything sometimes that the accompanist didn’t have to be considered though :/ I’ve had horror stories from friends about accompanists simply stopping and not continuing while an ultimately bored- looking panel look up and glaze over.. Though most places will offer you extra rehearsals with their accompanist for what is usually a really small fee so that’s definitely worth it if you’ve found the perfect piece but you want to be sure of a steady accompanist..


  2. A wise teacher once told me that I must hear the “Vienna Statshopper” in any audition–in other words, be so secure in what I was doing that nothing could hinder my performance. And, indeed, I once won a slot studying with Martin Katz when he was artist-in-residence at University of Maryland, because he deliberately tried to mess me up in an audition to see how I’d do and I remained rock solid and expressive. When I get students ready for auditions I play the same trick with them, too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m thinking back to when I was auditioning for college and there’s no way I would have stayed calm if the accompanist did anything I wasn’t expecting! I had such terrible nerves and an awful defeatist attitude! I like to think I could deal with it now, though! My last teacher was really bad at accompanying so I got used to all sorts of odd things – sometimes I wondered if she was testing me by playing the false relatives of what I was singing by ‘accident’! It’s done me some good, at least!


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