Stage Director: Opera-Theatre-Musicals
For those who haven’t had the opportunity to work with Chuck Hudson, the following interview gives a glimpse of why he is one of the most sought after coaches and directors around; he has an incredible gift in helping both emerging and established professionals bring their physical presentation to life, both in the audition room and in performance. It is a great pleasure to offer this interview covering the work one should (or must!) do to prepare your audition arias: part II, covering Chuck’s thoughts on the singer’s relationship with their stage director, will come next week. Enjoy! -Julie Baron
November 2, 2011
First of all, thanks so much for asking me to take part in this interview. I enjoy working with young professional artists, and I also value what YAP TRACKER is doing to organize and distribute information to those artists in such a wonderful way.
Please share a little about your background as a coach.
I am a New York based Stage Director of Opera, Theatre, and Musicals as well as an instructor of Acting and Movement Skills for singers and actors. I am a co-creator of Seattle Opera’s Young Artist Program, where I directed productions as well as created and instructed specialized classes on Acting and Movement skills for singers.
In 2008, I was a guest professor of Advanced Acting and Stage Director at Cincinnati Conservatory, and I was a Guest Stage Director at Indiana University Opera Theatre. I was a professor at the University of Houston School of Theatre, at Cornish College of the Arts Drama and Music Departments, and I was an annual Adjunct Faculty Artist at North Carolina School of the Arts Theatre Department and Fletcher Opera Institute. For two seasons I was the Artistic Associate of La Lingua della Lirica in Italy, and I have been an annual Master Teacher at San Francisco Opera’s Merola and Adler Fellows programs for 7 years. I was recently in Australia working with the singers at The Dame Nellie Melba Opera Trust in Melbourne and the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts in Perth, and at SIVAM in Mexico City. Right now, I am the Schmidbauer Guest Artist at the Theatre Department of Stephen F Austin State University, directing A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM.
When I am home in NYC between productions, I have a Private Coaching Studio in mid-town.
Please describe your process of coaching arias.
I call it The Cube of Space Technique, which is a 3-dimenstional approach to the aria; dimensional in the space itself and also dimensional in a dramatic sense. I focus on the “dramatic sculpting” of the aria itself—the dramatic and physical presentation that reveals the individual performer; helping them to become more physically and dramatically active.
This technique creates a genuine map of the aria that the singer can use to make the invisible visible without “acting it out”, gaining control of the piece no matter where they audition. You can find out more about it on my website:
Address this statement: “If I’m focusing on my physicality, I’m afraid my singing will suffer in an audition.”
Of course, one has to be ready for this level of work. If you are just learning to sing, then, yes, wait until you have some level of control before adding the next layers of character and action. I liken it to working on a Trigonometry level with students of Algebra—they may perceive the value of the work, but they are not advanced enough yet to actually do that work until the “ground work” of singing has been established.
After every public master class series I do with singers, remarks come from both public and professionals alike—it has even been quoted in the press—that “their singing improved.” There is an “effortlessness” about the singing that happens all by itself when this work is explored by a trained singer. The physicality is secondary to the dramatic focus—the physicality is the visual expression of the dramatic action, so they must focus on the Acting, not the Physicality, which actually supports the singing.
Clean singing that is technically perfect but expresses nothing leaves us cold. Naïve personal freedom of expression with no technique is just a mess. There must be a balance of the two…in fact the two become one.
Any tips on how singers should prepare physically for their coachings and their auditions?
I am sure everyone on YAP Tracker knows that the audition is not a social event, even though it may be the one time you see colleagues in a long time. The time spent immediately before the audition is time devoted to getting ready: warming up vocally and getting yourself ready to “hit your first moment.” So, physical preparation or not, here is the ACTING work that must be done:
You have the first 30 seconds of an aria for the panel to decide whether they are going to call you back; most people on the music side of things say this decision happens in the first 15 seconds, so that first 15-30 seconds is vital to the success of the audition. In an audition for a Musical, you may not even get to sing the entire piece but only a selection from it.
A singer cannot be “in the moment” unless they know what that moment is: when does it begin and end, what is this moment about, what are the given circumstances that brought your character to this moment, how does the action I create in this first moment carry me into the next moment? These are called BEATS OF ACTION, and this will create the structure for the communication—the framework or the skeleton on which the real muscle of the musical work can be supported.
Preparation for a coaching is also important and singers must be self-reliant about this. Indeed warming up vocally is important but research on the character is more important than even physically warming-up.
You must have the piece memorized. You cannot approach the specificity of a coaching if you are struggling with the music.
Opera singers must sing in several languages, and you must know what you are saying! I am amazed by the number of singers who come to me and do not know what they are saying. You must translate the piece word for word into English and then you must also create a colloquial English way of saying the phrase. This answers the two questions, “What do the words mean?” and “What do the words mean to your character?” Why waste $100 or more on a coaching only to hear “you need to know what you are saying” as the only comment?
You must know the ENTIRE OPERA. Not in musical detail, but you must know the scenario and sequence of actions in the story, you must know when this aria takes place in the opera, and you must know what happens to your character after this aria. We are creating an ARC OF CHARACTER and this aria fits into that arc somewhere. If you do not know how this aria fits into the arc of the character, then you cannot find what the aria is about. I coach Susanna’s aria Deh vieni from Figaro a lot, and when I ask, “Are you married yet?” and the singer does not know the answer, how can I go any further without spoon-feeding them information that ultimately means nothing to them.
Dos and don’ts on staging an aria for an audition
Proportion is everything! The Audition is an interesting animal! We do not want “park and bark” we do not want “performance art.” I would say primarily to understand the difference between an entertaining performance at a donor event and an audition: Avoid Gimmicks. You do not need to look at an actual locket for Tamino’s Aria, you do not need to look into an actual mirror (or a mimed one for that matter) for the Jewel Song, you do not need to pop up from behind the piano as Papagena, and you do not need to whip out your cell phone for Leporello’s Catalogue Aria. Delightful in a concert, and yes, I have seen all of these in auditions.
Dos and don’ts on a singer’s physicality in an audition room?
Do not move for movement’s sake. Do not wander around or shift weight back and forth as you sing. You get 1 step to 1 step and a half off of the center point before it becomes “too much movement.” When you hear, “don’t move your hands and arms” it means “don’t move your hands and arms like THAT!” Gesture and movement can distract from the singing as much as it can support the singing. Do any hand and arm gestures help you get what you want in this moment, or are you just doing what you do in the voice studio to “find the line” or the rhythm in a technical way?
Do not look AT the auditioner. It will just throw you when I look at your resume or turn to a colleague to ask about calling one of your references.
So, what do you do? You prepare your first moment and you structure the presentation of the aria to create action: “I am the Countess. Today is the day I am going to change my life and get my husband’s love back. Right now, I am asking the god of Love to support my decisions and actions. I decide in this aria that I would rather die than continue living like this.” Now, sing Porgi amor. Does the Countess fidget? No. Does she wander around the room? No. Does Mozart provide time for psychological and dramatic depth of character and action in this aria that introduces the highest status character in the show? YES, he does!
Any final thoughts on what a singer can do to shine on stage?
I have found that there is one thing that most performers do not take into consideration as they are auditioning. Remember, the panel is ON YOUR SIDE. We SO want you to be the one we choose from the minute you walk in the room. Now here is a thought that will be playing under everything that happens in the room: “Do I want to spend 3 weeks in a rehearsal room with this person?” And if it is a program, “Do I want to spend several months working with this person in a group of others?”
Be yourself. Seriously, just what your parents have always told you. But who are you? Thousands of years ago a piece of advice was inscribed above the Temple of Apollo in Greece: KNOW THYSELF. Look back over this entire interview and really it all boils down to that! BE YOURSELF…well, you cannot BE yourself if you are not self-aware, aware of others, and then take some action to KNOW yourself. It will make you a better artist, and it will make you a better person, too!
See what a Coaching with Chuck looks like on his website:
November 7, 2011
Last week, we shared Part I of our conversation with Chuck Hudson, stage director and master teacher, which covered Chuck’s coaching philosophy and tips for success in the audition room. In Part II, Chuck shares his thoughts on putting your best foot forward in performance; he also provides tremendous insight into how best to cultivate your network and sustain your relationships with potential future collaborators and employers. Thanks, Chuck, for another must-read piece.
Please share a little about your directing background.
My particular approach to directing is acutely physical and visual due to my years of work in Europe with Marcel Marceau and various other Movement Theatre Companies. I direct opera productions at US and international companies including Cape Town Opera (South Africa), Florida Grand Opera, Seattle Opera, San Francisco Opera Center, Wolf Trap Opera, Minnesota Opera, Sacramento Opera, Opera Santa Barbara, and Caramoor Opera among others. I have also directed theatre productions in New York and regionally, including The Pearl Theatre, The Children’s Theatre Festival of Houston, New City Theatre, Chester Theater Company, and Chicago’s Fox Valley Shakespeare Festival. My Off-Broadway production of She Stoops to Conquer was extended to run a total of 4 months after its review in the New York Times and was awarded one of the Joel A. Callaway Awards by the Actors Equity Association. My production of the One Man Show DARK AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL opened in NYC last fall, toured to Dallas this Spring, and returned to NYC just this month.
How can a singer put their best foot forward from day one in staging rehearsals?
Say “yes.” And, as good improvisational training will tell you, say “Yes, and…” offer something more that moves the action forward. We all want to be collaborators so if a singer is a collaborator, things move along quickly.
Simply put: Take the proposed direction, produce the desired result and you will have proven yourself to be flexible and open-minded as well as willing to think “outside the box.” This will allow the director to trust you, and will perhaps be more open to your creative input. This is also a time-saving device, because with the time left over—after following that direction—you can propose the following: “May I show you something?” Here is where you SHOW the director what you have in mind rather than trying to “explain it”.
I mentioned this while I was directing at Music Academy of the West a few summers ago and later in a tricky and complicated staging rehearsal one singer looked at me and said just that phrase through her smile! I said, “Yes please…” and the work went ahead incorporating her wonderful idea.
Any common choices/mistakes that singers make to “sabotage” their own stage performances?
You must dare to be Excellent. One of the 9 Value Statements I give performers when I work with them is “Am I settling for mediocrity when I could be striving for excellence?” Complacent performers, as well as those with an unconscious fear of success, will always find a reason NOT to work at the top of their capacity. In fact, they are very creative in finding ways to avoid the work!
In Sports Psychology as well as in the psychology of Performance Anxiety, professionals will help you determine whether you Choke or Panic when things go awry. They are not the same thing, they do not have the same effects on you, and they each call for different remedies. If you go up on your text or if you freeze in public, was it because you choked or did you panic? If you don’t know, you cannot address the problem.
From a director’s perspective, what are some dos and don’ts for how a singer should interact with fellow singers and production staff?
Back to the idea of collaboration: be a good colleague. The golden rule! Daring to risk will only happen within an environment of Trust. Trust is earned and a reputation as a trusted colleague takes some time to build—it only takes a second to destroy. We have all been on both sides of that happening. Be professional in work ethic as well as “bringing it” 100% every time you are in rehearsal. Be polite to the administrative secretary because 5 years from now she may be the Artistic Administrator—and she will remember you!
How can a singer best maintain a strong relationship with you for networking purposes after the show has closed?
Creating and Maintaining Relationships is integral to any business, and as artists we are essentially Self-Employed and Freelance. I believe in what I call SUCCESSFUL CREATIVITY, and so we must find ways of generating a successful career as well as creating great art—we need to make a living doing what we do just as any professional does.
We are in a Referral Business so I maintain a database of singers that includes where I have worked with them and whether I have directed them in productions, and this allows me to keep in touch with them about my work either through my website or via Email Newsletters. This is a marketing tool singers can employ themselves, and I enjoy hearing from singers who are letting me know where they are and what they are doing. In fact last season, I was invited to speak on a discussion panel on just this facet of communication and organization in the arts presented by Opera America in NYC and you can find a lot of good information on their website.
Singers can follow my work by Subscribing to my online database at
Have you had occasion to recommend a singer for a job in which they were hired based on your feedback? Is it common practice for administrators and hiring personnel to ask directors for recommendations?
Yes! As I said just now, this is a referral business. Out of absolute necessity, producers are spending more time scrutinizing their budgets, and need to be able to rely on directors as problem solvers; to know how to achieve performances of supreme artistry in an economic fashion. For me, that happens best when I know I have a cast of singers I can RELY on. When I am offered to direct a production that does not already have a complete cast, I am often asked to recommend singers for roles. Sometimes I am asked to propose a future production to a company and I will propose singers for that production—especially if my enthusiasm for directing the show is due to my history with a particular singer.
I propose singers with the dramatic and vocal tools necessary to succeed in the rehearsal process, which translates into both an effective use of rehearsal time as well as creating engaging, high caliber performances. I have also been able to call upon trusted singers at the last minute to replace another singer in an emergency, because I know this particular artist is going to show up equipped and ready to maintain a level of 100% excellence in the most challenging of circumstances.
What aspects of a working relationship with a particular singer would mark them as “recommendation worthy”?
Talent may get you hired once; talent combined with a strong work ethic will get you hired again or not hired again. It is the same with recommendations. I rarely write letters of recommendation if I have not directed a singer in a complete production, because I do not know if they come through in performance. When I work at Young Artist Programs, I evaluate each individual singer on several pieces of information. To be considered EXCELLENT (and therefore meriting a letter of recommendation), these are the criteria I use:
EXCELLENT singers raise themselves above the rest in the group and are the locomotives. Their approach is mature and sophisticated, their work ethic professional, they are detailed and specific in their physicality (even though for many the work is quite challenging), they find grace and a sense of the organic human being in their work, they are generous to others in improvisation, they remain in the moment while discovering ways to apply the techniques to their characters, they play status well, they have an aesthetic sense of proportion that makes them compelling to watch, and their attitude in rehearsal makes my work with them a pleasure. They are always early or on time, attentive to me and to the detail and specifics of the work, listen to their fellow performers when they are speaking, respect one another, pursue the challenges of the work with enthusiasm, ask intelligent questions, take criticism well, and enjoy the work without being childish about it. I gain a true respect for these singers due to their maturity and advanced level of commitment to the Acting work.
There is actually a category beyond EXCELLENT that I call SUPERIOR, which contains that 1% of artists for whom I will go the extra mile as an advocate because they do the same working with me. Greatness is demanding, it does not just happen. Of course this is all very subjective to me personally and to what I value, as it is with others for whom a singer will audition.