Q & A: Paul McNamara On The Dutch National Opera Academy’s Opera Course: Its Aims, Philosophy, Expectations & Practical Aspects

By Alan Neilson

Paul McNamara is a man with a varied career, indeed! Born in Limerick in the west of Ireland, he originally followed a path that took him, via the Royal Irish Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music in London, into a successful singing career in which he performed quite a broad repertoire of tenor roles with a strong focus on Wagner, Strauss and the early 20th century, centered on houses in Germany and Austria.

Like many singers, he spends a lot of his time on the road, but Berlin has been his home base since 1999.

However, McNamara is not a person with a passive approach to life, and he soon branched out in other directions. He was a founding director and former CEO at Opera Collective Ireland during its early years. He also operates as a freelance casting and career consultant, and teaches, in particular, at the American Institute of Musical Studies’ summer program in Graz. He is the Opera Advisor to the Arts Council of Ireland.

In 2019, he took up a new role as Artistic Leader of the Dutch National Opera Academy (DNOA), the collaborative masters program in opera performance of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam and the Royal Conservatoire The Hague, a two-year program for young singers wishing to forge a career as opera singers.

He kindly took time out of his busy schedule to talk to OperaWire about the DNOA opera performance program.

OperaWire: What does the DNOA opera course offer its students? 

Paul McNamara: The Dutch National Opera Academy, which was set up some twenty-six years ago, evolved from the opera class at the Royal Conservatoire, The Hague. Its then director, Frans de Ruitter, asked the late Kenneth Montgomery to set up the program. As putting on opera is a resource-intensive and expensive undertaking, the idea of collaborating with the Conservatorium van Amsterdam came about, and the DNOA was born. The program was subsequently led for many years by the Scottish tenor Alexander Oliver.

Unlike a master’s degree in voice, our principal subject is “performing opera” rather than singing. It’s a fully integrated approach to training singers as they prepare to make the transition from full-time study to the operatic profession. In this regard, while we are very much an educational program in a university setting, we combine this with operating like a production company, mounting three to four productions each season. It is a two-year course with a comprehensive curriculum aimed at equipping the students with the skills that they will need as they enter the market, which is now more challenging than ever!

It goes without saying that a reliable, healthy and functioning vocal technique is the basis for a sustainable singing career. That said, the potential for frustration is enormous, even for a young singer who sings technically well, as landing the job opportunities they would like to have can be very difficult.

There are so many other indispensable career skills that are also needed, but these are rarely a theme incorporated into undergraduate courses, and this is where programs such as the DNOA come into play. In addition to voice lessons and several one-to-one coaching sessions per week, our students follow a demanding schedule that incorporates drama and embodiment classes, a master research module, audition training and other professional development skills.

Their time at the DNOA is really spent honing skills, but it also gives the students time to figure out who they are as singers, as artists and as people. Over the two-year period, they are able to explore these aspects of themselves and ideally graduate not only with an understanding of what they are doing and why, but also with a clear and pragmatic sense of where they want to go and where they belong. Without this, the potential for frustration and disappointment is enormous.

One of the main pressures today is peer pressure, not least through social media. Everyone tends to know what everyone else is doing: who has gotten onto a specific program, who won what competition and who is engaged where. Is it useful information? Maybe, but when students spend too much time looking at everybody else’s trajectory instead of concentrating on their own one, it’s not!

When I do master classes, it has happened that someone will bring an aria, and when I ask them, “Why this particular aria?” they respond, “X won Cardiff Singer of the World with this. It’s a great ‘competition’ piece”. My reaction is that it might have been a good aria for them, but what about you? Is it what you should be singing?

This heightened awareness of what everyone else is doing is something new. Thirty years ago, this certainly wasn’t the case.

Another problem faced by young singers is that the opera industry often expects quick results; time is something that the young singers are not given. Yet it is something that is vitally important so they can discover their correct path and what the next correct step for them should be. This is what we want to address at the DNOA.

The course has evolved a lot over the years, and we are always looking to respond to the changing demands faced by the graduates. Performance psychology is now playing a more important role, for example.

Achieving a healthy balance between personal wellbeing and achieving excellence is, I would say, central to the ethos of both the Royal Conservatoire The Hague and the Conservatorium van Amsterdam.

OW: What advantages are there for a young singer opting for the DNOA opera course rather than a place at an opera studio? 

PM: We live in a time where, at least in some ways, the training of young singers is more focused than ever. Most opera companies worth their salt maintain a Young Artist Program or studio.

A coveted place in a good studio attached to a major company can be the perfect springboard for a young singer, but it is important to draw the distinction between the education provided in a conservatoire context and the practical experience one can gain at a studio, assuming the right roles come your way!

These days, many young singers think a studio is a must, but I always stress that it is just one possible route, although without question a valuable one for the right person. But is it the right path for everyone? They will need to not only face off a lot of competition to land one of the places, but, more importantly, be in a position to ‘take the ball and run with it.’ Students often forget that taking the studio route is not the equivalent to a beginner’s contract. The advent of so many studios combined with a reduction in the size of ensembles means that at the end of two years at the studio, their time is usually up and it’s back to the starting line again.

One of the things I enjoy most about my job at the DNOA is being able to look at what the singers need for their development and program repertoire accordingly. I don’t have to try to serve two masters: the singer and the company!

OW: What expectations do you have for the students when they finish the course?

PM: Anyone heading off along this path does so with a huge amount of talent, skill, ambition, and dreams. I think the job, even the duty, of any educational program, in any area, is to do all that can be done to enable and empower people to follow their own path, whatever that might be.

Obviously, we’re not fortune-tellers and we cannot guarantee a career. No one can do that! But what we aim to deliver is the best possible training for each student at a particular point in their own trajectory. I want our graduates to be skilled and equipped to make informed decisions and thereby make their way in the world, come what may.

It’s hugely heartening to see how our graduates have progressed. After two years at the DNOA, they seem to know what the job entails, what to expect and they fit in well. They are not stressed by it. Our recent graduates have found positions in houses such as Cologne, Frankfurt, Hannover, Stuttgart, Strasbourg, Paris and various Dutch companies.

It is also important for graduates to be able to recognize the right opportunities and, more crucially, the wrong ones and learn when to say “no.” Saying “no” is always an option. It’s something young singers often don’t realize, but we hope our course prepares them for these circumstances. The stakes are always high.

OW: What is the selection process like for a place in the DNOA opera course? 

PM: Auditions take place annually. They take place in several rounds over consecutive days, culminating with two days of group classes, individual coaching sessions, and an interview for the twelve singers that make it into the final round for the six available places.

Obviously, potential plays a role in who we select, but the singers also need a certain level of technical skill. If there are too many technical issues, they can become the focus of the two-year program and compromise the ability of a singer to get the most out of the course.

One essential element we are looking for in the applicants is a desire, whether an ember or a bonfire, to communicate. This is very important.

After that, I’d say the main criteria in selecting the final six students is whether we feel we can make a difference and contribute substantively to the singer’s development. This is a responsibility that we take very seriously, as the students have to invest an enormous amount of time and resources into the project.

OW: Do you train students on how to approach auditions?

PM: We do our best at the DNOA to instill an understanding that ultimately the singers are responsible for their own performance, and not how other people perceive them; they have no control over that. Easily said, I know, but as a singer myself, I’d say this understanding can save a lot of heartache in the long run.

If you go to an audition fixated on the result, it is not going to be very helpful. Your job is to go in there and to create a moment. A moment in which it is not ‘you’ standing there but the character. It is the ability to be in the moment. I spend a lot of time on panels and competitions, and there are times when listening to a singer, you just stop writing; you are forced to put your pen down and listen to what they are saying because they have something to say. This is what you want!

Singers must learn that they’re not going to please everybody all the time, and that’s why it is important that their personal identity, be it artistic or personal, is not defined or too dependent on others. It’s hard enough that career opportunities are often beyond one’s own control without sacrificing personal autonomy along the way.

OW: Earlier, you talked about the importance of psychology. Do you teach the singers how to deal with criticism?

PM: There is no job in which you are subject to as much feedback as a singer. Everyone has an opinion: intendants, casting directors, conductors, colleagues, dressers, the people who do and who do not buy tickets because you’re singing, and of course the press. You must learn how to deal with it, when to take it seriously and, most importantly, when to park it.

OW: Each year, the DNOA presents a season of staged works, which appears to include a number of lesser-known works. How do you select the operas for performance? 

PM: I started going to the opera at the Wexford Festival Opera when I was sixteen. This meant that from the start of my opera-going days, I was confronted with repertoire that was very much off the beaten track, and it is something I stayed with. There is a lot of excellent repertoire out there that rarely makes it to the stage.

Of course, the great advantage of doing lesser-known repertoire with young singers is that it encourages them to find their own way with a particular role. They cannot go to YouTube and find twenty recordings of the arias they will be singing. They must take the score and embark on their own process rather than copying others.

Nevertheless, we do all we can to ensure that all students gain experience with as broad a repertoire as possible. Along with productions of “Cosi Fan Tutte,” “Der Zauberflöte” and “Die Fledermaus” in the last few years we have presented operas by Carl Heinrich Graun, Haydn, Pauline Viardot, Krenek, Argento and Judith Weir, among others. By the time they graduate, the students should have between four and six roles in fully staged productions under their belt.

While the aim is to provide a repertoire that is both rewarding for the singers and that the DNOA is playing its part in the operatic ecology of the Netherlands by giving audiences the opportunity to encounter works not being done by other companies.

OW: What support do you receive from outside professionals?

PM: I guess the advantage of having a program that is not run by a director or conductor is that we are in a position to bring in different creative teams for each production. This is vital for the singers as they learn to deal with changing personnel and a broad range of styles and approaches.

The time students spend at the DNOA is not only about learning and training but also about developing professional networks that will be of use to them when they graduate.

In addition to the core teaching team, we have a large faculty of visiting teachers and guests, the majority of whom are working on the international opera scene. They are all aware of the context: they are coming here to contribute to the education and training of the young singers, and they are fully aware of the responsibility that brings. The seriousness with which they recreate the professional environment whilst at the same time providing a safe and supportive space for the singers to develop is wonderful.

Of course, the support doesn’t only come via our guests; we also benefit from a very successful and long-established partnership with the Residentie Orkest The Hague, which joins us for one production each year, as well as with other high-profile ensembles such as the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century. One of the many positive aspects of the vivid music scene in the Netherlands is how such organizations don’t just “tick boxes” but truly invest in creating opportunities that have real impact and are of real value. As a result, our singers graduate having sung regularly with professional orchestras as well as with ensembles from our parent conservatoires.

OW: Do you offer training in specialized areas? 

PM: The aim while the students are here with us is really to encourage them to explore who they are, to explore their parameters, and to identify their comfort zone. We try to provide as broad a repertoire as possible. When we did Graun’s “Cleopatra e Cesare,” it was with a period ensemble and was historically informed. It is not necessarily a piece suited to every singer. But even if they decide that they never want to sing baroque repertoire ever again, it’s good to have experimented in your early years so that you are able to make informed decisions later. It is better to realize that before you sign a contract!

OW: How would you judge your success? What would you like to have achieved here by the time you retire? 

PM: That is a really good question. What is “success?” One thing is clear: for anyone wishing to embark upon this path, the potential for frustration and hurt is enormous. I think being happy and content is of vital importance.

I think if we manage to make a real difference to the students who pass through the DNOA, that is the most important thing for me; I would probably judge that on the wellbeing, happiness, and contentment of the graduates. If someone wants to sing at La Scala and they sing at La Scala, then they are likely to be happy. But there is no guarantee, and one needs to understand that.

I am part of a team, and if we facilitate, support and resource people to go on their individual paths in a way that makes sense for them and in which they can find happiness, then we have been successful. I think it should be the same for all educational institutions. Everyone has different motivations as to why they set off on a particular path; where that path might lead is another question. Our job is to support them on their way.


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