The Magic of the Right Match
How to navigate the process of finding, hiring, and working with soloists.
Solo voices can elevate choral works to new heights of beauty and power, but finding that special alchemy between a chorus and soloist can be an art in itself. Chorus America asked choral conductors and professional soloists to explain the nuts and bolts of finding the right soloists, preparing for auditions, arranging rehearsal and performance logistics, and building a relationship with chorus members.
Tapping Local Talent
Choruses in music-rich communities often make a point of looking first for local singers to fill their solo roles. In some areas, the soloist pool is deep—from excellent singers just out of college or graduate school to well-established veterans with national, even international, careers. To familiarize himself with local talent in the Washington area, for example, Julian Wachner held open auditions soon after he came to the Washington Chorus as music director in 2008. “Open auditions are a rarity in Washington,” says soprano soloist Danielle Talamantes. “Local singers who are not managed would come out of the woodwork for something like that.”
At university music schools, voice faculty often are expected to maintain active solo careers, and voice students are eager to get the experience that will help launch their own professional lives. Gretchen Kuhrmann, artistic director of Choralis, hired Washington-area soprano Marlissa Hudson when she was just a couple of years out of graduate school, and she has since become a regular. “If a chorus is on a budget, I would be plucking soloists from graduate school,” Hudson says, “because they’re hungry.”
Churches can also be a source for good soloists, as many conductors also have church jobs. “Most of the work I have gotten,” says Hudson, “has been working for somebody at a church and then they tap me for something bigger.” Since church musicians tend to know each other, word of mouth can lead to even more choral work.
Working with Agencies
Many top choral soloists are represented by talent agencies, which can be key in facilitating a good fit between soloists and choruses. “I have an advocate who speaks about who I am and the kind of repertoire I am very good at singing,” says Chicago-based tenor Rodrick Dixon. “It’s important for me to have someone in the industry who knows where I may fit well.”
Dixon’s solo performance during Bernstein’s Mass, part of the opening concert of the 2014 Chorus America Conference, was clearly a good fit, says the Choral Arts Society of Washington’s artistic director Scott Tucker, who conducted the piece. “When the agency presented him,” Tucker says, “I realized that I had heard him years before in Three Mo’ Tenors on PBS. I listened to his tapes again, and it was clear to me that this was the guy for the Mass.”
Tucker also went through an agency to find a “matched set” of soloists for Choral Arts’ performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Starting with the price range that the chorus could afford, the agency recommended a number of soloists who would fit the bill.
But not all soloists use an agency. Marlissa Hudson has relied on her marketing background to promote her own solo career. “Agencies can be very helpful,” she says, “but I understand it depends greatly on which agency. So unless I am offered something beyond what I can do for myself, it doesn’t make sense for me.”
The Shape of an Audition
Many choruses typically hold auditions several times a year to fill solo slots in the specific works they will be performing in their upcoming season. Kuhrmann’s auditions are generally 20 minutes long, with soloists presenting two works—in English and another language, and in contrasting styles. She also may ask singers to sing pieces from the portfolio they bring to the audition. “If it’s in their resume, then they should be ready to sing it for you,” she says.
Kuhrmann emphasizes that it is important to be specific when announcing auditions. “Say ‘I want to hear Brahms Requiem baritones or the arias from Messiah,’” she says. “A soloist may sing a wonderful aria in an audition, but then in concert there are issues. Maybe they sang a Bach aria for me, and I thought their voice would be great for Mozart, but it wasn’t.”
Word of Mouth and Persistence
As important as auditions are, choral conductors lean heavily on the advice of their colleagues when choosing soloists. In the Washington area, Kuhrmann says, “we go to each other’s events, and there is a pool of soloists that we all tend to rely heavily on.”
For soloists, breaking in to that inner circle can be challenging, but conductors encourage them to be persistent. Tucker says Choral Arts keeps careful records of everyone who auditions or sends in materials. “No one is ignored.” Kuhrmann recalls hiring three singers primarily because they stayed in close touch. “Their gentle, professional persistence paid off,” she says. “Even after an audition, if a conductor has said nice things about you and likes your instrument, drop him or her a line and say, ‘I am singing this work, if you want to come. There are comps at the door for you.’”
"It is important to be specific when announcing auditions. Say ‘I want to hear Brahms Requiem baritones or the arias from Messiah.' A soloist may sing a wonderful aria in an audition, but then in concert there are issues. Maybe they sang a Bach aria for me, and I thought their voice would be great for Mozart, but it wasn’t.”- Gretchen Kuhrmann
Sealing the Deal
While some choruses make agreements with soloists through a handshake or an email, going without a contract is risky. Tucker recalls getting an email commitment from a prominent soloist and then waiting for a signed contract that never came, despite persistent phone calls. “That is a tough situation, because often you’re having to make decisions about marketing materials way ahead of time.”
Soloist contracts should spell out everything in detail, including the fee (how much and when it will be paid), the timing of rehearsals and performances, and any other demands on a soloist’s schedule. “For instance, when we have soloists here, we almost always ask them to do a reception or a lunch with our donors,” Tucker says. “Having that in the contract avoids all kinds of misunderstanding.” (For a soloist contract template, see the Chorus America website.)
The fees for solo singers range widely—from a few hundred to several thousand dollars per choral concert—depending on the demands of the repertoire, market size, the prominence of the choral group, and experience of the soloist. Soloists typically quote a set fee per concert, but some are amenable to negotiation. Singers working through an agency may have less flexibility, as the agency typically gets 20 percent or more of the fee. Some agencies have a policy of foregoing their percentage if the solo job is less than a certain dollar amount—say, $500 to $1,000 per concert.
Singers who take a soloist job for less than their usual fee do so because of a strong relationship with a chorus or because they feel it will help their careers. Whatever the agreed-upon fee, soloists say that getting paid promptly is a big plus. “Having a check in my hand by the end of the concert night means a lot to me,” says Colorado-based tenor soloist Derek Chester.
Before the Concert
Many choruses designate a staff member or volunteer to act as the liaison between the choral group and its soloists. That person handles details such as travel, accommodations, transportation to and from the venue, parking, and comp tickets. “I may be friends with the conductor,” says Danielle Talamantes, “but it’s wonderful to have that one person you can ask all your questions. It makes the experience so much smoother.”
Soprano soloist Kathryn Mueller, based in North Carolina, says getting a detailed itinerary for her concert appearances helps to avoid miscommunication. “Once I showed up to a 10 a.m. rehearsal only to be told that I was not needed until the afternoon, but no one remembered to tell me,” she recalls. “It’s normal and understandable for choruses to get caught up in the weekly rehearsals of their ensemble members and to forget about the soloists once they've been hired. But someone in the organization should be responsible for thinking of these things along the way.”
The person tapped to shepherd soloists through the process should be fully briefed and trained so as to avoid glitches and missteps. One soloist recalls being picked up from the airport and then treated to a lengthy car tour of the city. “I never want to be rude,” she says, “but my body was exhausted, and I was jetlagged.” Allowing a day for a soloist to get acclimated is a nice gesture if a chorus can afford it.
Most choral performances have a condensed schedule of piano and dress rehearsals, so there’s not much time for major changes. For this reason, conductors often communicate beforehand with soloists about tempo or other interpretations of the music. “I will send out ideas I am thinking of,” Tucker says, “and I want to hear back, ‘That really doesn’t work for me.’ Or, ‘That’s perfect. I love that tempo.’ I think all conductors like to communicate as much as they can ahead of time, so when you get to the piano rehearsal we are pretty much on board, and it can be pretty quick without a lot of surprises.” Kuhrmann says Choralis includes in soloists’ contracts details about the music and expectations for the rehearsals.
The ideal scenario for a major choral work, Tucker says, is to have a separate piano rehearsal just with the soloists before the dress rehearsals. For longer works such as the Mass in B Minor, devoting one dress rehearsal to the interplay between soloists and orchestra also can be helpful. “Then soloists are set,” says Tucker, “and you can use the second dress rehearsal to focus on the balance with the chorus. You don’t need to go through every solo.”
A separate piano rehearsal for soloists is also useful in getting the voices acclimated to each other and building rapport. “Remember,” says Talamantes, “a group of soloists is only as good as the weakest one. So if there is a major imbalance, it makes everybody horrible.”
Bonding with the Chorus
Soloists say they enjoy opportunities to get to know the choral group with which they are singing. For Dixon, knowing about the long history of the choral organizations involved made the performance of Bernstein’s Mass all the more memorable for him.
Giving chorus members information about the soloist can enhance the relationship, too. During her collaboration with the Santa Clara Chorale, Hudson says, members of the chorus greeted her like they knew her. “They had sent out information about who I was and samples of my singing,” she says, “so that by the time I got there, we were all friends. For my type of personality, that was great.”
To acknowledge that bond between chorus and soloist, Hudson says she often turns around during rehearsals and sings her solos directly to the chorus. “They’re staring at your back the whole time,” she says. “That can’t be very exciting.”
“In the choral world, it is about community, so it’s pretty hard when somebody flies in from on high and has no sense of relationship.” - Scott Tucker
“Don’t Play the Diva Card”
Choruses regularly draw soloists for major choral works from the world of opera, usually with stellar results. “Some of these great soloists love to do chorus gigs,” Tucker says, “because they can say to the opera company, ‘I’m just going to go down and do this one performance, and then I’ll be back.’” And concert work is often more lucrative than opera in terms of the time and effort required, making it attractive to professional soloists.
But soloists need to know that the concert setting requires a different set of skills than opera. “I think [opera singers] are often surprised at how much less time there is to work on things,” Chester says. “They may come unprepared and be unable to cope with the situation.” Kuhrmann recalls an operatic soprano who performed well during rehearsals, but in the performance “it became all about her. She started coming in late and hanging over beats and wouldn’t follow my tempo.”
Besides undermining a concert performance, diva behavior also can damage a soloist’s career—in the form of bad reviews and fewer requests to sing at concerts. “If you want to get hired, you really don’t want to play the diva card,” Talamantes says. “In the choral world, it is about community,” Tucker says, “so it’s pretty hard when somebody flies in from on high and has no sense of relationship.” He likes to give young singers with outsized egos the benefit of the doubt. “You need to give people room to grow,” he says. “Sometimes a young soloist will be very full of himself, and then after four or five years, they might come back to reality.”
A Good Marriage
When the match is a good one, the interplay between soloist and chorus can be magical. “The passion of choir members who work, some for pay, some not, months on end, who give up their weeknights and weekends to keep those traditions alive—it’s inspiring,” says Dixon. “As a collective body we are all doing the same thing, soloists and chorus, presenting the art form we love. It’s the whole gestalt. Everyone is necessary. ”
Kelsey Menehan is a writer, psychotherapist, and longtime choral singer based in San Francisco.
This article was adapted from The Voice, Spring 2015.
For more on choosing soloists, see the following Chorus America articles: