Thaddeus Ennen was nervous.
And why not? The 20-year-old Simpson College junior from Buffalo Center was about to sing “Madamina” from the opera “Don Giovanni” in front of about 50 faculty members, guests and fellow students in Lekberg Hall.
That’s not why he was nervous.
Gayletha Nichols was the reason. She was in the audience, and that changed everything.
Nichols, a 1979 Simpson graduate, is now the executive director of the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions. She travels the country, hearing auditions and scouting young talent.
An encouraging word from Nichols could launch a career. That cuts both ways, however.
Two brave Simpson students – Ennen, a baritone, and Shelby Hendryx, 20, a senior soprano from Cedar Rapids – had agreed to participate in a mock audition for Nichols as part of her return to campus Sunday night.
Ennen wore a sports coat; Hendryx a black dress.
First, however, just to make sure their nerves were on full alert, the two students listened as Nichols described her journey from a young woman in Attica, Iowa who was too shy to enjoy speaking on the phone to one of the opera world’s most important figures.
“If I had known what the path was, I might not have taken it,” she said.
Nichols began taking voice lessons at age 16 from a Simpson instructor, then went to college here.
“You have friends at other schools,” she told the music students. “They don’t do half of what you do. Your department here is really quite special. The success of the alums speaks for everything.”
She described how she was in Milan, Italy last November, visiting with Richard Walters, ’78 – “You have no idea how big he is in the field of publishing” – and tenor John Osborn, ’94, who was performing in an opera in the city.
Nichols said they began laughing, thinking about how three college graduates from a small college in Indianola, Iowa, could end up together in Italy.
“We couldn’t have imagined anything like that in our lives when we were at Simpson,” she said.
She also offered several pieces of practical advice, including:
- Set short-term goals. “Always give yourself something that is attainable for you to work on.”
- ”The greatest artists of our day are those who keep studying.”
- It’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of becoming fluent in other languages. “Whatever you do, don’t miss a language class. Ever.”
- ”Don’t buy furniture. Don’t buy anything that keeps you in one place for very long.”
- “Auditions are interviews, you know. The more you do, the better you get at them.”
- ”Try new things. Be brave.”
Which brings us back to our two Simpson performers. Auditioning before Nichols is like asking Michael Jordan to critique your jump shot.
Ennen went first. He may have felt nervous, but his voice didn’t give it away.
Nichols sat in the front row and smiled. Afterward, she asked if he would begin a real audition with that particular aria.
Ennen said he would.
“It’s a lot easier to get out of myself and into the character,” he said.
“You want to show as much of your artistic personality as you can,” she said.
She advised Ennen to make certain every hand gesture serves a purpose. “Be precise,” she said. “If you believe it, I’ll believe it.”
And then she added, “I thought you did a great job.”
Hendryx was next. She sang a piece from “Die Fledermaus” and momentarily forgot the words, but recovered quickly and continued.
Nichols complimented for keeping her poise. She then advised her to work on her internal sense of rhythm.
Hendryx called the experience “terrifying, to say the least. I feel a lot better now that it’s done. It was incredible advice. I’m going to have to ask her about the first part again, because I was so flabbergasted that I was done that I went kind of blank.”
Ennen, too, was pleased.
“It is a great opportunity, and it was quite amazing to get that feedback,” he said. “And that’s real feedback that you’re not going to get everywhere.”
Bernard McDonald, the director of opera at Simpson, said, “Gayletha’s visit was fantastic for a few reasons. Simpson’s students received first-hand advice, based on decades of experience, about how best to succeed in the profession; had a master class about presenting themselves in audition; gained valuable contact in the professional world of opera; and gained a perspective on their own training and the quality of music provision at Simpson, from an expert consultant at the top of the profession, who is also proud to be a graduate of Simpson College.”
That was something Nichols repeated often to the students.
“I just want you to know how special this time is,” she said.