Each singer at Saturday's audition has submitted a list of five arias. After hearing one aria of the singer's choice, the judges — Stanford Olsen, a Utah-born tenor who went on to a robust career at the Met and other major houses; Speight Jenkins, former general director of Seattle Opera; and Diane Zola, director of artistic administration at Houston Grand Opera — will choose another from the list. This means Anderson must be ready to play any of dozens of arias at a moment's notice.
She's had years of preparation for the task. Anderson has a doctorate in keyboard collaborative arts from the University of Southern California. (Her other degrees are from Baylor University and the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.) "I play well with others," she explained. As a major part of her Utah Opera job, she is at the piano for the first couple of weeks of an opera rehearsal period. The singers don't practice with the Utah Symphony until four days before opening night; in the meantime, Anderson must reproduce the sound of the orchestral score as closely as it's possible for a piano to do. This involves hours of comparing the full score to the published piano transcription, correcting wrong notes and adding the occasional instrumental riff the transcriber didn't include, all so that the singers will know exactly what to expect when the orchestra arrives.
Utah Opera artistic director Christopher McBeth, who's known Anderson since they worked at Houston Grand Opera together in the mid-'90s and hired her for her current job in 2003, said she has a secret weapon as well.
"Carol is probably the best sight-reader I've ever met in my life," he said. He loves to tell of the time, about six years ago, when he and Anderson were conducting auditions for Utah Opera's Resident Artist Program. One applicant — whom Anderson had never met — sang a lesser-known aria from Janacek's "The Cunning Little Vixen" with Anderson at the piano and then exclaimed, "That's the best anyone has ever played that for me!"
"Carol said, 'I'm glad you feel that way, because that's the first time I've seen it,' " McBeth remembered.
Anderson plays a major role in the Resident Artist Program, Utah Opera's training program for up-and-coming singers. "I don't teach them how to sing," she pointed out; every singer works on the mechanics of vocal production with a voice teacher. The coach assists with other aspects of operatic performance, such as interpretation and language. McBeth said Anderson's experience with major opera companies, including an ongoing summer job coaching at Santa Fe Opera, makes her an invaluable resource. "Our young artists are some of the most highly developed in the country, and I would put the bulk of that on Carol Anderson," he said.
Anderson said it's easy for her to empathize with the singers. She studied voice for her first couple of years in college before realizing her true gift was as a collaborator. "They're pretty naked," she said of the auditioners. "There's nothing for them to hide behind."
Her goal at the keyboard "is not to show what I know. It's to provide an environment in which any singer can do their best work." That's true whether she's coaching young professionals, preparing for a mainstage production or assisting a Met auditioner.
There's no set number of contestants who will advance from Saturday's audition to February's Rocky Mountain Regional in Denver; typically, Met district judges send three. The top singers from the 13 regional events will go to New York City in March and sing for judges in a closed semifinal round. Approximately 10 finalists then will sing in a public concert with the Met Orchestra, and up to five winners will receive $15,000 awards. Some of them will be invited to participate in the company's training program.
"Our prime directive is to identify the voices with the most operatic potential," said McBeth, who has served as a judge at every level of the competition — including last year's grand finals at the fabled New York City opera house.
For an audience member, "it's like watching the NFL Draft," he said. "It's the crème de la crème of collegiate talent in the moments before they move into the highest ranks of professionalism."