A Brief History of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions

The Metropolitan Opera began sponsoring a structured auditions program for young singers in 1935 with the Auditions of the Air, the ancestor of the present Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. The Auditions of the Air was a radio program that featured exceptionally talented young American singers who were auditioning to become part of the Met’s working roster. The first prize was a contract with the Metropolitan Opera.

Fifteen broadcasts were aired the first year, and eventually, singers such as Risë Stevens, Eleanor Steber, and Robert Merrill were brought to the Met’s attention through the Auditions of the Air. Although its corporate sponsor, Sherwin-Williams Paint Company, realized after the inaugural season that the program was not the advertising vehicle they hoped it would be, they continued to support and expand the program. Sherwin-Williams sponsored the auditions for the next ten years, through the 1944-45 season during which 217 broadcasts were presented.

No auditions were held during the 1945-46 and the 1946-47 seasons. The Auditions of the Air returned for the 1947-48 season, and from the 1950-51 through the 1957-58 season they were carried by the American Broadcasting Company as a public service program. Rudolf Bing eliminated an automatic contract with the Metropolitan Opera as a prize when he became general manager in 1950, although contracts could still be given at the discretion of the Met’s artistic staff.

The director of Auditions of the Air from 1950, William Marshall, was becoming more and more aware of the expenses facing singers who wanted to audition for the program but did not live near New York City. In addition, it was clear that New York singers were dominating the program. Consequently, the Met’s board and management turned to the Metropolitan Opera National Council to take over sponsorship of the auditions and to establish a regional auditions program. The National Council, a group of opera devotees from around the nation, was organized in 1952 to support the Met through financial contributions and volunteer work. The primary objective in having the National Council run the auditions was to make it a truly nationwide effort. The pilot operation of the regional auditions took place in Minneapolis in 1954 with great success, and, as a result, more regions were established across the country through the efforts of dedicated volunteers such as Howard Hook, co-founder of the National Council Auditions. Initially basing the regional auditions around the stops on the Met’s annual tour, Hook eventually organized the entire country into sixteen regions each with its own sponsors and volunteers to set up auditions in their area.

At the end of the 1957-58 season the Auditions of the Air came to an end when ABC ceased to air the broadcasts. By this time, however, the National Council Auditions program was well established and promised growth for the future.

With full responsibility for the Auditions now in the hands of the National Council, it was decided to bring all of the regional winners to New York City to be heard in a concert on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. The finalists in the auditions had the further opportunity of attending Metropolitan Opera performances and having coachings with Met staff during their week of preparation for the Finals Concert. This opportunity, via an expense-paid trip to New York, was made part of each region’s first prize. When the prize of an automatic Met contract was reintroduced in 1958-59 (later to be made at the management’s option again), Teresa Stratas was one of the contract winners. In addition, a district level of the auditions was added as a first round feeding into the already established regions. By 1980 the Auditions had grown to over 50 districts and 17 regions, all run by National Council Members who volunteered their time. This basic structure has remained in place up to the present. There are currently 40 districts and 13 regions.

From 1979 until 1998, ten equal winners were chosen from the 25 regional winners to perform on a Winners’ Concert on the Metropolitan Opera stage with the Met Orchestra. In 1998 the format was slightly altered to include another round of competition. What was formerly the Winners’ Concert was changed to the Grand Finals Concert. Instead of the ten singers chosen as winners, they are now called finalists and up to five equal winners are chosen and announced on the stage after an intermission and the judges’ deliberations.

Today, approximately 5 winners each receive $15,000 in prize money, and those finalists who do not become winners receive $5,000 each. The remaining Semi-Finalists receive $1,500. The experience for all 25 of the singers is worth a great deal more than the cash prizes. Each of the regional winners who come to New York are eligible to return during the next three years and audition for the Met’s artistic staff for additional grant money of up to $5,000. In this way, the National Council has the opportunity to track the singers’ progress and continue to be of assistance in their career development.

Over 100 singers on the Metropolitan’s roster during any given season have auditioned for the National Council. While there are many routes to the stage of the Met, for North American singers the National Council Auditions create an introduction to the company that may have otherwise eluded them.

Former National Council Audition participants represent a choice sample of important artists appearing on the Met stage. For example Frederica von Stade and Paul Plishka were Auditions participants in the 1960s; Samuel Ramey, Wendy White, and Delores Ziegler in the 1970s; Renée Fleming, Ben Heppner, Hei-Kyung Hong, Denyce Graves, Thomas Hampson, Deborah Voigt, Susan Graham and Veronica Villaroel in the 1980s; and Paul Groves, Emily Pulley, Stephanie Blythe, Sondra Radvanovsky, Gergory Turay, and Jennifer Welch-Babidge were all winners during the 1990′s. A who’s who of National Council participants from the 2000′s includes Lawrence Brownlee, Simon O’Neill, Karen Slack, Charles Taylor, Joseph Kaiser and Susanna Phillips.