WNO Opera Institute at American University

Washington National Opera

Program Name

WNO’s Opera Institute is an intensive three-week summer training program for dedicated young singers from around the country who are interested in a career in opera. Designed to help students prepare for college performance programs and beyond, aspiring classical singers take courses such as opera history, acting, musicianship, and diction, in addition to participating in lessons, coachings, master classes, professional workshops, and performances of art songs and opera scenes.

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About the Program

This inspiring three-week summer program brings passionate, dedicated young musicians together in the nation's capital to experience opera in a professional and nurturing environment that only a world-class opera company can provide. Aspiring classical singers thrive from WNO Opera Institute's intense and focused curriculum, which prepares students for college performance programs and beyond.

The Program

When students arrive for the first day of Opera Institute at American University, they audition for the entire faculty. Each student then is assigned an art song and opera scene to be studied, memorized, and performed during the course of the three weeks. Daily coaching sessions, individual voice or piano lessons, and various classes help the students prepare these pieces and grow as performers. A taste of "real life" as an opera singer is savored in master classes and seminars with professionals in the business. Past presenters include Harolyn Blackwell, Richard Stilwell, Ron Raines, Elizabeth Bishop, and Denyce Graves, and topics covered include vocal health, breath support, and audition preparation.

The Performances

Performance opportunities are major elements of this program and critical to the learning process. Students receive priceless advice on how to become confident, communicative performers. The Opera Institute provides three performance opportunities: the Italian Art Song recital at the end of the second week; the Opera Scenes recital at the end of the program; and, for selected students, a performance on the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage.

At the 2017 Institute, singers will be able to compete in the Schmidt Youth Vocal Competition held at American University on Sunday, June 18. Students have the opportunity to perform, receive feedback, and win cash prizes. Past adjudicators and clinicians include Sherrill Milnes, Cynthia Lawrence, and Nicholas Muni. The Schmidt Youth Vocal Competition is sponsored by the William E. Schmidt Foundation; for more information, please visit www.schmidtcompetition.org.

A Typical Day

8:55 AM - Arrival
9:00 - Morning Class: Acting, Italian Diction, or Ear Training
10:00 - Master Class with Guest Artist
Noon - Lunch
1:00 PM - Afternoon Class: Opera History or Chorus
2-5:00 - Individual vocal coaching, private lessons, rehearsal, practice time
5:00 - Announcements, adjournment
5:30 - Dinner
7:00 - Practice and Homework Time
9:00 - Group Activity
10:30 - Lights Out

The Classes

Over all, students can expect a curriculum and assignments that are creative and challenging, including readings, research papers, and daily homework assignments.

Opera History

Students explore historical periods of opera and various composers from each era, beginning with Baroque Opera and continuing through present-day examples. They explore different genres of opera, learn opera terminology and performance tradition, and participate in an in-depth study of style and language through library research on selected arias and operas. Class preparation culminates in attendance at a performance of a professional opera production.

Acting Class

This exciting and fast-paced class quickly reviews the technical fundamentals of being on stage, which students add to their knowledge base and apply to their experience as singing actors in an opera, operetta, or musical theater. For example, this class gives students both the theory and practice of exploring techniques used to depict emotions in a standard opera scene.

Italian Diction

This class is designed to help students understand basic Italian pronunciation; learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) rules; distinguish between clear and unclear Italian diction, as demonstrated by current performing artists; and prepare for their Italian Art Song Recital.

Ear Training and Sight Singing

Using an innovative approach, students will study concepts in music theory (such as key signatures, intervals, etc.) tailored to their level. They will also learn the emotional responses those concepts elicit–sight singing and ear training become easier while interpretations become more vital and artistic.

Voice Lesson

A major goal of the Opera Institute is to encourage proper vocal health and management. Each student receives three lessons throughout the course of the Institute. These lessons focus on continuation of vocal development: breath management, intonation, and musicianship, based upon the need of each student. Students are given repertoire appropriate to their level of singing, based upon faculty recommendation. They work on their pieces pedagogically in their lessons.

Other classes and workshops include Movement, Chorus, Vocal Health, Resumé-Writing, and more.


"Opera Institute really gave me a feel of what a college experience as a vocalist would be like. The amount of written work we received in conjunction with the work we had to put into our music gave me a realistic sense of time management and responsibility."


"Every day there was a new set of challenges to overcome that would make me a better musician in the future. This program taught me not only how to improve myself musically, but showed me what it takes to become a professional singer and how to create a career for myself if and when I attempt to make a career out of classical singing."

Admissions Information

Program Application

Application Deadline: Monday, January 20, 2020.

Application requirements include an essay, letter of recommendation (1), $25 application fee and photo. Résumés are optional. Start your online application here!

Audition Information

Opera Institute accepts live and video auditions. Students eligible to audition should be 15-18 years old and already engaged in in-depth vocal study with an interest in pursuing a musical career in opera. Singers currently should be studying Italian Art Songs.

Audition Requirements

Please prepare two art songs; one must be in Italian. Arias from the standard opera and operetta repertoire are not permitted. Musical theater selections are also not permitted. Art songs such as those in the 24 Italian Songs and Arias and similar are suggested. Repertoire that does not fit these requirements will not be heard. Selections must be memorized. If attending a live audition, please bring two copies of your music with you. An accompanist will be provided; students are not permitted to bring their own accompanist.

Live Auditions

Live auditions are strongly preferred by the judging panel for students who live within a 3-4 hour drive from Washington, DC. Schedule your live audtion at operainstitute2020.youcanbook.me.

Video Auditions

Students should only submit a video audition if they are not able to attend a live audition. Students must announce their name, the name of their selection, and the composer of their selection at the beginning of the video; be dressed for an audition; and have the camera set to show a full-length shot of them for the entirety of their performance. Videos must be uploaded as part of the online application by Monday, January 20, 2020.

Audition Dates

Live auditions: The Kennedy Center:
Saturday, February 1 and Sunday, February 2, 2020
The John F. Kennedy Center
2700 F Street NW
Washington, DC 20566

Schedule a live audition at operainstitute2020.youcanbook.me.

Video auditions:
Must be uploaded as part of the application and received by January 20, 2020.


The Kennedy Center welcomes all applicants.

All audition and program locations are wheelchair accessible.

If you have questions about accessibility or accommodations, you may contact the Office of Accessibility directly at (202) 416-8727 (voice) or access@kennedy-center.org.

Application Requirements

In addition to an audition, students must fill out the online application form and submit additional materials which include:

  • Essay: Your essay must include answers to all 5 questions and may not exceed one typed page. Please submit only Word or PDF files; Pages files will not be accepted.
    • Describe why you want to attend the Opera Institute.
    • Describe how you would benefit from the program.
    • Describe one of your most gratifying experiences as a singer.
    • Explain what areas you feel you need to work on as a singer.
    • Explain your goals for the future, both short-term and long-term.
  • Photo: Upload a photo cropped to show the student from the shoulders up; no hats or sunglasses may be worn. Professional headshots are permitted but neither required nor expected. These photos are used only to identify applicants in review. Please submit only files in JPG, JPEG, PNG, or TIFF formats.
  • Letter of Recommendation: Applications must include one letter of recommendation from a teacher. Students are responsible for communicating with their teacher to ensure that the recommendation is received within three days of the application deadline.
  • $25 Application Fee: The $25 application fee can be paid via credit card, debit card, or PayPal. While these methods are strongly preferred, please contact Institute staff for other options if they are not feasible for you.

Optional Résumé: Students also have the option to submit a résumé. Résumés may only be one page (one page total; not front-and-back). Please submit résumés in Word or PDF files; Pages files will not be accepted.

Tuition & Scholarships

The costs below are for the three weeks of the 2020 WNO Opera Institute:

Tuition - $2,000
Housing - $1,200
Total - $3,200

Opera Institute has partial and full tuition scholarships available for students with financial need. However, all students are encouraged to find additional funding through businesses in their community, their schools, and local music societies. Some students even have created their own benefit concerts!

Scholarship applications are separate from the online application, and must be received by February 3, 2020. Applicants should not wait to hear if they are accepted to request financial assistance. If accepted, you may be required to confirm or deny your participation in the Institute, and submit a non-refundable deposit, before your scholarship application can be processed.

Please do not fax or email scholarship applications. Completed applications should be mailed to:

Education/Opera Institute 
ATTN: Scholarships
The Kennedy Center
P.O. Box 101510
Arlington, VA 22210

Students applying for scholarships must provide:

  • Proof of annual parent/guardian income (IRS 1040/1040A)
  • A statement of need; Note: This statement should describe any financial considerations not apparent in the proof of annual parent/guardian income and scholarship form. It is not a description of the students need for training.
  • Completed Scholarship Form.


"I expected a simple program that would mildly prepare me for life in music college. It was more important than I could ever have imagined. I feel vastly improved by this program." 


"The intense, conservatory style of teaching and emphasis on performance helped me eliminate distractions and excel in performances and develop new, solid habits for practice and study."

Faculty & Guest Presenters

Through the extensive connections of a world-class opera company and a top university, Opera Institute at American University has an impressive team of faculty members and guest presenters. These hand-picked professionals are among the talented and accomplished in their fields, and are dedicated to working with young musicians.

Because classes are kept deliberately small, students get a maximum of individual attention and have the opportunity to study with multiple coaches.

Cindy Oxberry serves as Opera Institute's director and senior faculty member; she has been working with the program for seventeen years. Ms. Oxberry is an opera director who earned her bachelor's degree in opera theatre at The Hartt School and her master's degree in voice from Manhattan School of Music. She pursued a career as a professional singer, singing a diversity of roles with companies such as New York City Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Chautauqua Opera, Central City Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, and the Connecticut Opera Association. Now a full-time director, Ms. Oxberry works around the country with numerous opera companies, festivals, and universities and colleges directing, judging competitions, teaching master classes, and training the next generation of young singers.

Patrick O'Donnell, vocal coach, earned his BA from Yale University, his MM in Piano Performance from the University of Maryland, and his DMA in Chamber Music and Vocal Accompaniment with Martin Katz and Eckart Sellheim at the University of Michigan. Concert appearances in the Washington, DC area include the White House, the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater and Millennium Stage, the Library of Congress, and the Embassies of France, Italy, Monaco, Columbia, and Brazil. As a lecturer on art song, he helped design and teach a course entitled, "Arts Songs, a Guided Tour--Lecture and Live Performances" sponsored by the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences at the National Institutes of Health. For opera, he has presented pre-concert lectures for the Washington Concert Opera, and he has given presentations on opera, music theater, and cabaret for the Smithsonian's Resident Artist Program. He enjoys collaborating on fund-raising concerts for the Washington Concert opera, a highlight of which was a performance in March 2011 with acclaimed mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade. Dr. O'Donnell has appeared as a master coach and featured guest artist at the Fairbanks (Alaska) Summer Arts Festival, and serves as head vocal coach of the Washington National Opera's Opera Institute at American University, where he also teaches opera history. He is currently on the faculty of Levine Music and also teaches at George Washington University, where he has served as music director for several university productions including Anyone Can Whistle, Hair, Sweeney Todd, Urinetown, and A Little Night Music. He was featured in the university's production of The Cradle Will Rock where he appeared on-stage in the role of the composer, Marc Blitzstein. As a member of the voice faculty at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, Dr. O'Donnell coaches singers in both the undergraduate and graduate degree programs, and this year has been teaching a survey course in American Musical Theater.

Under the leadership of Ms. Oxberry and Dr. O'Donnell, Opera Institute faculty and students create together an encouraging and professional environment that has been inspiring young musicians for more than a decade.

Learn more about our other faculty members and guest presenters.

American University - Campus Life

Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center enjoys a strong partnership with American University. Its faculty, staff, and students play a large part in the successful organization and professionalism of the program. All classes for Opera Institute are located in the Katzen Arts Center on campus, the design of which enhances this program's multifaceted and creative nature.

A majority of our students choose to live on campus at American University during the program. (Participants also have the option to live at home and commute.) Students get a real college experience while residing on the north side of campus, conveniently located across the street from Katzen. Music undergraduates from American University serve as the Resident Assistants (RA's), providing supervision, planning events, and acting as "musical mentors" as they build relationships with the students. The RA's plan fieldtrips around the city to see sights such as the national monuments, Smithsonian museums, and more.

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Family and friends attending performances? If you are from out-of-town and would like to visit Opera Institute for one of our performances at American University, please visit this website for information about Directions, Parking & Hotels.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does Opera Institute ever accept anyone who is not in the 15 - 18 year age bracket?

Students who are 19 years old who are currently in high school are welcome to apply. However, we do not accept anyone younger than 15 years old. Part of Opera Institute's goal is to prepare students for college music programs. The latter part of high school is the best time to audition.

Will my audition be scored differently if I submit a video rather than audition live?

No. The live auditions and the video auditions are judged on the same rubric and by the same judges. No preference is given to either type of audition.

Can I bring my own accompanist to the audition?

Students auditioning live must use the provided accompanist. Students will not have the opportunity to rehearse with the accompanist ahead of time, although they will have the opportunity to discuss tempo and markings. Our accompanist is excellent–you will be in good hands.

What if my teacher recommendation is not completed by the application deadline?

Students are responsible for communicating with their teachers to ensure that recommendation letters are received within three days of the application deadline. Please contact us immediately if you have any issues so that your audition is not disqualified.

When will I find out if I was accepted?

All applicants should be notified within three weeks of the final live audition date.

What does it mean to be on the waitlist? What if I wish to withdraw from this list?

Opera Institute creates a waitlist each year which will remain open until the start of the program. Once students have been told they have been placed on the waitlist, they will only be contacted again if a space becomes available and we are able to invite them to attend the program. We cannot estimate how many will be accepted from the waitlist. Please contact us as soon as possible if you would like to be removed from the waitlist; there are many deserving students eager to be a part of the program. In general, students placed on the waitlist are believed by the audition panelists to be capable of completing Opera Institute's challenging curriculum successfully. Students accepted from the waitlist usually perform very well in the program.

Which airport should I fly in to?

Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) is the most convenient to American University and is approximately 30 minutes from campus during rush hour by cab. Washington Metro (subway) trains run daily from Reagan National Airport into downtown Washington on the yellow or blue lines. To get to AU, transfer to the red line at Gallery Place station or Metro Center station in the direction of Shady Grove and get off at the Tenleytown/AU station. Dulles International Airport (IAD) is about 45 minutes from campus, and Thurgood Marshall Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI) is about one hour from campus. Students are responsible for getting to the AU campus on the scheduled arrival date. Airport shuttle services may also be an option.

What will I do during weekends at Opera Institute?

Since the majority of our students choose to stay at American University during the course of the program, you will spend the weekend with your classmates and new friends. Resident Assistants (RA's) plan weekend activities throughout Washington, DC to places such as the Smithsonian, the National Cathedral, the zoo, etc. There is also time on the weekends to use the practice rooms at Katzen Arts Center, work on homework, and relax...a bit.

Are there vegetarian and vegan dining options in the American University dining halls?

Yes. The dining facilities at American University are capable of handling nearly all dietary needs.

Does Opera Institute ever accept applications after the deadline?

Applications must be submitted by the deadline to be considered. If an accepted student chooses not to participate in the Institute, the space will be offered to a waitlisted student who has auditioned; spots are not opened to additional applicants.

Can I participate in the Opera Institute if I have a conflict during the dates of the program?

Opera Institute participants are required to attend all Institute events and will not be excused for conflicting performances or programs. Students must be available to participate in the full three weeks of the program.

What repertoire will I perform at Opera Institute?

Institute students will be assigned an Italian art song and an opera scene to study and perform as part of the Institute. Students will sing for all faculty members on the first day of the program. Using this performance as a guide, age-appropriate repertoire will be chosen based on the individual and combined needs of the current students. No music is assigned prior to the Institute. Italian art songs focus on solo singing; opera scenes focus on character and ensemble. Arias are usually not included in opera scenes.


"I learned so much, and it was wonderful to interact with such a professional group of instructors and musicians! My musical ability has improved tremendously!"


"You guys were amazing. Best RAs ever! The Katzen Center is a great space with an awesome location for both on and off campus students. The dorms were good and AU is beautiful."

WNO Opera Institute at American University

Application Deadline: Monday, January 20, 2020.

Application requirements include an essay, letter of recommendation (1), $25 application fee and photo. Résumés are optional. 

Major support for WNO is provided by Jacqueline Badger Mars.

David M. Rubenstein is the Presenting Underwriter of WNO.

WNO acknowledges the longstanding generosity of Life Chairman Mrs. Eugene B. Casey.

WNO's Presenting Sponsor


Additional support is provided by Washington National Opera Council and the U.S. Department of Education. The content of this program may have been developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education but does not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education. You should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Kennedy Center Education

Major support for educational programs at the Kennedy Center is provided by David M. Rubenstein through the Rubenstein Arts Access Program.

Generous support is also provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

The content of these programs may have been developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education but does not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education. You should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Gifts and grants to educational programs at the Kennedy Center are provided by A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation; Sandra K. & Clement C. Alpert; Annenberg Foundation; Bank of America; Bender Foundation, Inc.; The Honorable Stuart Bernstein and Wilma E. Bernstein.

Michael F. and Noémi K. Neidorff and The Centene Charitable Foundation; CMA Foundation; DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities; Dr. Gerald and Paula McNichols Foundation; Estée Lauder; Exelon; Ford Foundation; The Gessner Family Foundation; GRoW @ Annenberg and Gregory Annenberg Weingarten and Family; Harman Family Foundation; The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust; Herb Alpert Foundation; The Isadore and Bertha Gudelsky Family Foundation, Inc.; iTheatrics; The J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation; Jim and Heather Johnson; The Karel Komárek Family Foundation; the Kimsey Endowment; The Kiplinger Foundation; The King-White Family Foundation and Dr. J. Douglas White; Natalie and Herb Kohler and Kohler Co.; Laird Norton Family Foundation; Macy's; The Markow Totevy Foundation; Dr. Gary Mather and Ms. Christina Co Mather; Linda and Tobia Mercuro; Little Kids Rock; The Meredith Foundation; The Millennium Stage Endowment Fund; The Morningstar Foundation; 

The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation; Myra and Leura Younker Endowment Fund; NAMM Foundation; National Endowment for the Arts; Newman's Own Foundation; Nordstrom; Oath Foundation; Park Foundation, Inc.; Paul M. Angell Family Foundation; The Irene Pollin Audience Development and Community Engagement Initiatives; Prince Charitable Trusts; Rosemary Kennedy Education Fund; Dr. Deborah Rose and Dr. Jan A. J. Stolwijk; Rosenthal Family Foundation; Mr. and Mrs. Albert H. Small; The Stella Boyle Smith Trust; Target; The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates; The Volgenau Foundation; Volkswagen Group of America; Dennis & Phyllis Washington; Wells Fargo; William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust; and generous contributors to the Abe Fortas Memorial Fund and by a major gift to the fund from the late Carolyn E. Agger, widow of Abe Fortas. Additional support is provided by the National Committee for the Performing Arts.