How DO you solve a problem like Maria?

By Dr Donna Soto-Morettini, casting director on the BBC’s hunt for the new lead in The Sound of Music.

Well, whatever your take on the new Andrew Lloyd-Webber project of casting by television vote – and of course there is much debate about it – there are things to learn from it. And having spent many days in Edinburgh and London as a casting director for the project I can’t help wondering if I was the one who learned the most! The terrific team of casting directors included veterans David Grindrod, Anne Vosser, Stephen Crockett, and Debbie O’Brien. It seemed to me that with such collected wisdom about casting for musical theatre, we couldn’t go far wrong…

We spent our days sitting next to our assistant producers in dark rooms watching an endless stream of candidates and as they sang we watched both them and the monitors to assess that unpredictable relationship between the ‘in-person’ look and the look on camera. We were also judging, from very short, unaccompanied excerpts, whether to put someone through to the next round or not. And after the third day or so the tech crews in the various simultaneously running rooms launched a bet on who would hear “I Could Have Danced All Night” the most times in a single day – winner to receive a box set of My Fair Lady.

So (apart from “I Could Have Danced All Night”) what did we see? In fact it was an extraordinary mix. We saw a very talented woman about 50 years of age who had no experience or training whatsoever, but who really had a great ‘open’ quality about her audition and a rich, haunting vocal sound. We saw an amazingly talented 17 year-old coloratura who simply didn’t seem to understand what kind of gift she possessed. We saw young girls who very clearly had no idea what the role of Maria required and who buckled immediately when asked to sing the first two lines of The Sound of Music in the original key…

But mostly we saw people who were just okay. And I am reasonably sure that that is exactly how most auditionees DON’T want to be described: as ‘just okay’.

So what it is that separates the stand-out audition that gets the whole panel excited from the one that is ‘just okay’? This intensive experience emphasised for me the importance of three things: attitude, vocal impression and performance quality – although in practice it’s very hard to separate the last two.

Attitude, of course, is something that can be quickly and pretty easily adjusted (unless you are too difficult to even make this effort, or else can’t recognise at all what it is in you that others perceive as difficult – in which case there’s not a lot to help you). When it comes to attitude, remember that there’s always only one question a panel asks: would I want to work with this person? The number of people who evoked an immediate ‘NO’ from everyone was small, but there were enough to convince me that many people still don’t see how critical this is in auditioning and still don’t understand how many people are involved in this judgment.

The fact that you were rude to someone at the door but lovely to the panel means that you just didn’t realise that the ‘someone at the door’ was an assistant producer. Any inconsistency in attitude like this is an immediate killer for panels. They can sometimes be generous and write off arrogance as nervousness but displaying one set of behaviour toward the people you perceive as ‘gofers’ and another toward the panel leaves you looking calculating and difficult.

Making a lot of excuses, fumbling around and apologizing for yourself, or making people worry about you is another side of the same coin – it’s not going to win you any admirers.

But if you’ve got your attitude right, the areas you want to concentrate on are vocal impression and performance quality.

You’ll notice that I wrote ‘vocal impression’ and not vocal ability. I choose these words carefully because what you find out when you’re seeing many, many people in the space of a very short time is that you don’t tend to analyse the voice in the way you would if you were teaching or listening to a singer in the fullness of time. Making an impression in a short period of time is an art!

Go with me for a moment on a metaphorical journey. Let’s compare singing to sculpting. Imagine that we’re considering Michaelangelo’s Pieta. The overall impression is almost indescribable.

It isn’t just the beauty of the marble (although he clearly started with a very fine piece), and it isn’t just the verisimilitude of the work (although he certainly captures the human form with truth and beauty). Nor is it just unexpectedly languid grace of the dead Christ’s body (although its sinuousness and ease has an uncomfortable – a surprising and unspeakable? – sort of erotic charge). And it isn’t the just the extraordinary way that the light and shadow create depth and luminosity.

It’s all of this, and more. It’s an experience which is of course the sum of its parts and is yet somehow greater. Of course, the longer you look at the Pieta, the better it gets, but its greatness means that even its immediate impression can leave you speechless.

If we compare the art of sculpting with the challenges faced by the vocal artist, it perhaps will make my points about immediate ‘vocal impression’ a little clearer.

In the sculptor’s eyes, the original block of Marble is surely chosen for a number of qualities. It isn’t just strong – it has to have complexity, depth of colour and suppleness. Too much strength would make it hard to work with. Too little colour would flatten out the overall look of the stone. Too much could compromise simplicity when needed. For the role of Maria, the singer has to start with some good quality material: a pleasing tone, a good ear and the right kind of vocal energy. Of course that ‘pleasing tone’ part can be a bit subjective but for this role, depth, resonance and a kind of ‘roundness’ of tone work well. Anything too nasal or too thin/shrill is not pleasing in this context.

I was surprised, then, at how many singers demonstrated a kind of ‘one-dimensional’ approach with their ‘raw material’. I saw many singers bent on sounding LOUD throughout, either belting or twanging for all they were worth. Or going for a kind of one-colour, one-flavour ‘vanilla’ performance. Or choosing songs that ran through the gamut of their stylistic and tonal possibilities in a way that made the whole thing too complex and mannered.

‘Vocal energy’ doesn’t mean LOUD, it means having a dynamic range of sound appropriate to what you’re trying to express. A ‘pleasing tone’ is not a static, rigid thing – it comes of ease and confidence, and more importantly, it comes from knowing what kind of sound will most effectively communicate what you’re trying to express.

This of course, means that both vocal impression and performance quality are always a question of actually knowing WHAT you’re singing about. Over those days, there were many candidates who didn’t have a clue about this. The ones who were ‘just okay’ had spent some time thinking about their songs. They just hadn’t spent enough. They may have asked questions, but not the right ones. They had come to some obvious conclusions, expressed in some general ways. They were speaking not to one specific person, but to whoever might be there. They knew what the song was about but they didn’t know why they were singing it.

When you hear so many ‘just okay’ voices one after the other for days on end, you can’t help wishing for more than a loud/pleasant voice in tune employed by someone who is expressing some pretty obvious sentiment.

You can’t help wishing for nuance, for detail; for delicacy and connected emotional power, for light and shade and sometimes luminosity; for clarity, complexity and suppleness.

In short, you can’t help wishing that singers could learn to think more like sculptors.

Dr Donna Soto-Morettini is Head of Musical Theatre at the RSAMD, and author of Popular Singing (A&C Black £16.99 with CD).