The Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions are like “American Idol” – only more demanding and dramatic.
Singers across the country, none older than 30, sing challenging arias, hoping to advance to the finals, which are held on the Met’s fabled stage in New York City. A triumph in the finals can lead to a major career. One soprano who got her start that way was Rochester native Renee Fleming.
This year, the Buffalo-area auditions – which begin Saturday in the Flickinger Performing Arts Center at Nichols School – will have a little extra pizzazz.
For one thing, Buffalo will be playing host not only to the local auditions on Saturday but to Great Lakes Region Auditions on Sunday. Saturday’s winners will face off against the top singers from the Michigan and Pittsburgh districts.
Plus, for the first time that the regional competition has been held here, the diva in charge is from Western New York.
Orchard Park High School alumna Melissa Wegner is associate director of the Met’s National Council Auditions. As a diva, she has unusual credentials. She does not sing for her supper. She scouts talent.
Wegner never would have imagined this job when she was a girl, playing violin with Buffalo Suzuki Strings, then singing in the Orchard Park Children’s Choir. But her current career is glamorous in its own way.
Wegner, 32, lives in Harlem and travels constantly. Such is her love for opera that even a typical day at the office is exciting.
Once, she caught sight of soprano Diana Damrau. “We have a cafeteria at the Met. She sat at the next table. I couldn’t eat.” She laughs. “I had to go back to my office.”
Another day brought another star sighting. “I went out to make a photocopy. And Dame Kiri te Kanawa is in there. I’m like, ‘What is going on?’ ”
Renee Fleming is in the picture. “Renee’s very sweet,” Wegner says. She says the same of famed tenor Lawrence Brownlee. “He’s so sweet.”
Life is a series of trade-offs, and Wegner is happy with the choices she has made. A practical person, she has always enjoyed the business end of things.
“Anywhere I was going [to college], I was going to do a double major,” she says. A graduate of the Manhattan School of Music and SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music, she majored in music and business.
“It would be impossible to pursue a professional singing career and have this job,” she says.
She enjoys the behind-the-scenes details, she adds. “I like the process of opera more than performing.”
They dream a dream
Recent triumphs and heartbreaks of the Met auditions were chronicled in the documentary “The Audition,” now available on DVD. It tells the stories of such singers as Ryan Smith, who won and tragically died. And Ryan Speedo Green, an African-American bass baritone who fell in love with opera when he was 14 and was taken to the Met to see “Carmen,” starring Placido Domingo and Denyce Graves. Green’s life has been a rags-to-riches story to rival “Billy Eliot.”
On Saturday in Buffalo, a handful of local singers will bring their own dreams to the auditions. They are Arielle Dye, Jenna Fishback, Kateri Gormley, Danielle McKay and Rachel Mikol.
The pressure is on. A phone call last week to McKay, 25, found her in a drugstore, buying medication for a sinus infection.
“I hope this goes away,” she said. “My vocal cords are swollen, and this is my first time auditioning! I hope I’m not making a mistake. I’m supposed to be on vocal rest.”
McKay, a graduate of Williamsville North High School and Buffalo State College, is excited nonetheless.
“There are going to be 40 singers,” she says. “I feel you go out there and do the best you can. You have fun. That’s the reason you’re singing. You love it.”
Fishback, 21, is also new to the Met auditions. A Nardin Academy alumna, she attends Ithaca College. She shares McKay’s positive attitude toward this weekend’s adventure.
“I’m just going into it thinking, it’s just another opportunity to sing and audition,” Fishback says. “I’m really excited to get the feedback from auditioning.”
Wegner will be ready with the feedback. Singers always request it, she says.
“They wait all night if they have to.” It goes without saying that she would wait all night, too, to offer it.
Luckily for the singers, Wegner is a calming person, with a lively sense of humor. She has big, dramatic dark eyes (her parents adopted her from a Colombian orphanage, and she is often identified as a Colombian-American soprano).
In 2009, she gained offbeat fame from a high-profile appearance on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” an episode in which she laughed a lot, cracked jokes and sang “Happy Birthday” to her mom, in addition to winning $50,000. Videos of that appearance are on YouTube, alongside videos of her singing modern opera.
Her job now is the result of several fascinating steppingstones.
For a while, she operated the supertitles at the Met, a fascinating task. “It’s like a very desirable freelancing skill,” she says. “That’s when I fell in love with opera, studying scores.”
Wegner has colorful tastes in opera. She loves Benjamin Britten. “ ‘The Turn of the Screw’ – it’s so creepy!” she exclaims. “And I love Handel. It’s open to so much different interpretation. It’s so amazing.” She sighs happily.
She applied for the audition job in August 2011. The person who previously held the position had left to pursue an MBA at Yale.
“Within three weeks I was hired,” she marvels. “It was one of those things, I thought, this was meant to be.”
“I’m in the learning and exploring process,” she says. “I’m so excited I get to work at the Met, to see and hear the greatest, every day and night.”