Auditions at the Met Hit Sour Note - by Alexander Geiger

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"How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" a visitor to New York once asked. "Practice, practice, practice," was the apocryphal answer. The route to fabled stage of the Metropolitan Opera Company, as Antonio Jenkins(1) found out, may be even more arduous. And failure to gain admission to the exclusive club that includes the likes of Pavarotti, Domingo, Fleming, and Terfel does not necessary demonstrate the existence of illegal discrimination.

The Met conducts weekly open auditions during the season before a panel of judges. If a singer passes this test, he or she may be recommended for a stage audition with James Levine, the Met's artistic director, who has the final word. The odds of getting even a stage audition are long. During the 1992-93 season (the year Mr. Jenkins applied), 211 singers performed for the judges and only six received a stage audition. We do not know whether any of the six were subsequently invited to join the Met company of the Met's Young Artistic Development Program.

Antonio Jenkins, who is an African American man, performed for the Met judges in January 1993. The judges' reviews were not favorable. Said one: "Well, there's a basic sound, but not much technique. Starting to wobble. Top squeezed. Sings effortfully and without much musical feel, even in English." According to another judge: ". . . he's pushing like mad, produces high notes through his nasal passages. He has good diction but at the expense of any possible beauty or maximum resonance - sings everything forte." The kindest of the four judges observed that: "1. Wide throb in a big voice. 2. Text very clear; brighter, more forward than Calaf. Not solo material for [the Met]. I notice he was [an understudy in] Porgy and Lohengrin, etc. Excellent avenue for his gifts and small roles or medium roles in smaller companies."

Mr. Jenkins was not recommended for a stage audition with James Levine. Feeling understandably aggrieved, he commenced a lawsuit against the Met instead, alleging unlawful discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In so doing, he has given us an excellent illustration one of the requisite elements of a Title VII claim: In order to prevail on a claim of unlawful discrimination based on a denial of employment, the claimant must show that he was qualified for the position in question. In this case, the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (Keenan, Judge) found that Mr. Jenkins had failed to show that he was qualified for the position in question, and therefore dismissed his claims of unlawful discrimination. The dismissal was subsequently affirmed on appeal.(1)

(1) Jenkins v. Metropolitan Opera Association, Inc., 213 F.3d 626 (2d Cir. 2000)

Copyright © 2000 by Alexander Geiger. All Rights Reserved.