Auditions: Finding the World’s Best

Photos: Dirk Eusterbrock
Brian Dickie, former general director of Chicago Opera Theater, serves as head of auditions.

The search for new opera talents takes Brian Dickie all around the world. The former general director of the Chicago Opera Theater and current director of the “Neue Stimmen” auditions is on a mission: to give those performers a chance who truly have the ability and stage presence for a major singing career.

There’s only one thing that makes Dickie’s normally sunny disposition turn cloudy: missing lunch. Unfortunately, that happens all too often when he’s crisscrossing the globe as a member of the “Neue Stimmen” jury. From Munich to Copenhagen, from Mexico City to St. Petersburg, Beijing, Sydney and Cape Town. Year after year, he and his fellow jury members travel to 17 cities to evaluate hundreds of sopranos, tenors, basses – some days it’s dozens, one after the next. Yet when, after numerous mundane versions of Puccini’s aria “Nessun dorma,” he finally hears an inspiring rendition, he instantly forgets his growling stomach. “Suddenly there’s someone on stage who bowls me over,” he explains. “Someone who surprises me, someone with true talent – that moment when everything comes together. It’s always a huge relief and you start to believe again” (Brian Dickie). As he describes the experience his eyes twinkle euphorically behind his stylish glasses.

Brian Dickie travels around the world to oversee the preliminary-round auditions.

In addition to technique, musical presentation and vocal performance, the 74-year-old also judges the candidates on their artistic presence. He’s searching for more than just a golden voice; he’s looking for young performers who understand the music with their entire bodies – from the head and the heart. That’s important, since audiences today not only want to hear an Isolde who can sing Wagner, but also one that Tristan can fall in love with. Dickie is thrilled every time his patience is rewarded. “It’s a mistake to decide too quickly, as if to say, ‘That’s good enough.’ It’s not good enough for me,” he explains. After more than five decades working in the arts and over 15 years in the “Neue Stimmen” jury, he well understands how important it is to be given that first chance. After all, he was given his, although not as a singer. He was 20 years old in the early 1960s when he was hired to work at the Glyndebourne Festival in the UK. “It was the first successful job interview I ever had,” he recalls. “And it set the course for my personal development in the following decades.” Later he became the festival’s general director. His position as artistic director of the Wexford Festival in Ireland also gave him plenty of opportunity to hear young singers perform and assess what they were capable of. During his time as general director of the Chicago Opera Theater he staged 18 premieres, including crowd pleasers such as Orfeo, Death in Venice and Nixon in China.

Even when he’s jetting around the globe, his friends, colleagues and sponsors know what he is up to. That’s because he blogs about his experiences, his encounters and his discoveries, posting almost every day and even including photos. Accessible at, the blog bears the appropriate title “Life after 50 years in opera and still counting.”

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