Welcome to the Opera

I could feel my heart beating in my chest as I went up that elevator. A man wearing an extremely colourful Hawaiian shirt stood in front of me, my mother and her flamboyantly pink hair was to my right and my father stood to my left. Then there was me.

Up, up and away we go, where we'll stop, nobody knows!

I was wearing leather shoes for the first time in my life, a shirt, and I’d struggled my usually unruly hair into something resembling a classical style. My heart was beating because I was about to attempt my first musical audition.

Two weeks prior to the audition I’d attended an activity fair in our city, Montpellier, where my mother had found a stand for something called Opera Junior. It was a branch of the Opera Orchestra National of Montpellier entirely dedicated to young lyrical singers between the ages of 15 and 25. She had asked if they were still accepting applications. The woman at the stand said that they were and that they were particularly looking for boys.

She was thrilled to hear that my mother had a son who would be interested, and significantly less thrilled to hear that the son in question (it’s a-me!) had no musical experience. Nevertheless, she took our number and said that they’d call us and arrange an audition.

They never did call, so a week later I called them (I didn’t want to appear too eager, I liked them, they liked me, but I had to play it cool) and eventually was put through to the Opera Junior administration and I got an audition a week later.

In essence this was fantastic news especially since, as it turned out, I was three months late for the normal audition deadline (boys were a scarce resource that year apparently), however there was one little drawback to the whole thing.

As previously mentioned, I didn’t know anything about music.

"Ah yes, the Egyptians were well known for their hieroglyphs" Me, seeing music scores for the first time.

So I now found myself in the peculiar position of having to learn two opera arias in the space of a week, without knowing even the basics of solfege and having barely even heard any opera in my life.

So I got to work, I had one imposed aria, Sebben Crudele, which I needed to learn but I also needed to find an aria myself. I focused my efforts on the latter.

The amount of knowledge I had to base my research off was nearly comical, I didn’t even know my vocal range, so I assumed I was a tenor and went from there. I looked up opera arias and listened to a whole lot of Pavarotti, whose voice had me in awe, and I found his La Donna è Mobile. I spent a lot of time working on that aria, entirely by ear since I couldn’t read what was on the partition, until four days before the audition.

At this point, I was having a very jolly time of it all, but something wasn’t right about La Donna è Mobile and I hadn’t even started Sebben Crudele so my parents looked online for a local tutor who could help me urgently. Luckily for me, we hit the jackpot.

In swoops Julie Tourreau. She walked through the door, she’d arranged the lesson an hour and a half before her train back to Paris and wasn’t about to waste any time. She nearly grabbed me by the arm as she brought me into my room and made me do some vocal exercises.

By some fantastic twist of fate, Julie had actually been part of Opera Junior when she was young and knew better than anybody what I could expect at the audition. She was also qualified to inform me of something that, for my age, was fairly uncommon.

I was a Bass.

So here I was three lessons later and ascending towards an audition for an art of which the existence was practically unknown to me less than a week ago. But hey, no sweat, just another Friday night.

I reached the 3rd floor and walked out into a corridor that I’d probably describe as boring. However, it was boring in the same way as the first bit of the “It’s a Small World” ride is boring, but I knew that once I walked through the doors the man in the Hawaiian shirt was leading me to I’d be able to see the main attraction.

Vincent Recolin (I’d mentally stopped calling him the man in the Hawaiian shirt by now) turned to my parents and told them that they would have to wait in the corridor during the audition. I then followed Vincent through the two sets of sound proof double doors leading into a huge ballet room, half the walls were covered in two-meter-tall mirrors and the floor was made of brightly polished wood (I refrained from saying “wow that must be a birch to keep clean”).

It looked like it would be a real pine in the ash.

With no time to admire myself in the mirrors, my gaze was instead drawn to the piano in the centre of the room. Vincent, who in the interim between the corridor and the ballet room had been joined by a clipboard wielding assistant, made his way to the piano and sat down. He gestured for me to go in front of the piano and told me that we would be doing a few vocal exercises.

I followed his instruction and we started doing a few basic warm ups. I opened my mouth and sang, copying the notes being played on the piano. As I did, I watched Vincent’s expression change drastically, from polite indifference (tinged with scepticism, which I attributed to the fact that we’d left the “Previous Musical Experience” box empty on the application form) to pleasantly surprised, all the way to enthusiastic. He stopped playing and said a couple of thing in a low voice to the assistant standing next to him and she dashed out of the room.

Vincent turned back to me and started what I assumed was the interview part of the audition.

“So you really haven’t done any music before?” He asked me.

“No” I replied, almost apologetically.

“So how old are you?” He asked with a smile.

“Fourteen” I answered.

He stroked his chin thoughtfully “Well the age for Jeune Opera (the oldest category in Opera Junior, the one I was auditioning for) is usually sixteen, minimum fifteen, when’s your birthday?”

“November” I answered, worried that my age might be a point against me (even though it would hardly be the first time I ignored the recommended age).

He seemed to deliberate internally, “Well, that’s only two months” he said slowly.

I liked the way he was heading, “If it helps I am currently doing my Bachelors in English Literature, so I’m used to being with people older than me” I figured if I could at least make it to the singing part of the audition without being disqualified for being too young, that would be great.

He laughed, “Well in that case there shouldn’t be any problem.”

I grinned.

At that moment, a tall woman with long brown hair walked through the door. Vincent sat up and came and stood next to me.

“So are you going to be auditioning?” she asked me with a smile.

“Yes” I said.

She sat down and started making sure the piano was in the right position (rather than you know, upside down).

Because that would be silly.

“He’s in university, you know.” he said delightedly “At fourteen.”

“Oh?” she said, impressed “What year?”

Vincent turned to me inquisitively.

“First year” I said modestly.

“Only first year?” the woman raised an eyebrow sarcastically, Vincent laughed.

As if people were only entering the room during conveniently timed conversational lulls, a man entered the room accompanied by the assistant from earlier and walked up to us. He greeted Vincent and the pianist and then turned to me and introduced himself.

“Hello, I’m Jerome Pillement, I’m the director of Opera Junior, I don’t really believe in formalities” he said in a somewhat jaded tone (in all fairness, since this was all in French he was referring to the “vous et tu” for the formalities and honestly who wouldn’t be annoyed?) “So whenever you’re ready” he gestured to the piano and retreated to a chair on the other side of the room.

I handed my partitions to the pianist, I was starting with Sebben Crudele.

I turned to face Jerome and Vincent. My heart was beating, my legs were shaking, but I was determined to give a good show. The piano started playing, I took a deep breath and sang.

And I sang well. The piano was a higher pitch than I was expecting which threw me off balance and pushed my vocal cords a little higher than they were expecting (I receive an extraordinary amount of complaints from them, but hey, I am their landlord) but I pulled through and stayed in rhythm. I could feel my voice reverberating off the walls around the room and I felt the vibration in my throat I’d grown so fond of in the last week.

After the longest three minutes of my life, I uttered the last note of the aria. Vincent and Jerome were talking enthusiastically under their breath and I turned to the pianist, slightly panicked.

“It was a little high wasn’t it?” I said, ever the perfectionist.

She looked at the partition “No I think that was right” she said sympathetically.

“Ok” I said, biting back my obsessive urge to ask for a second try.

As I started preparing the next aria, Jerome walked up to me with Vincent close behind, I glimpsed a smug smirk on Vincent’s lips.

Jerome put out his hand.

“Welcome to Opera Junior.