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Assessing Your Career: Defining and Moving Beyond Plateaus
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Voices12/1/1999

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Emily Golden, Mezzo-soprano
Neither personal nor vocal development is static, so from time to time one has to take stock of short- and long-term goals. Some roles that I sang as a beginner, for example, are no longer appropriate to my voice and/or personality. This has prompted me to explore heavier roles, such as Eboli and Amneris, which suddenly seem to "fit." This simultaneously recharges my own creativity and encourages others to maintain interest in my work. The renewed musical exploration that comes with study is a welcome contrast to the over-familiarity of signature roles. For me, Carmen is a case in point: With over 250 performances under my belt, I need to guard against falling into a rut; similarly, those who have seen me in this role, no matter how many years ago, might erroneously believe they know the sum of my work. Performers and spectators alike need to guard against stasis, so a plateau of any kind should serve more as a springboard than a stopping place.

Marguerite Krull, Soprano
The biggest problem in moving from one level of the field to another is knowing when and how to do it. If you are still learning something at a Young Artist or Apprentice level, sometimes it is good to stay there a little while longer, soak up more information, and take the time to develop. At the same time, if you stay on any one level too long, you risk getting stale or "stuck" in that level. Basically, you have to go with your own feelings and sense of development. Talk to people whose opinions you trust, and avoid looking at other singers and how they travel the career path. No two voices are alike, and no two career developments are alike, so comparing yourself to others is rarely helpful. Ask yourself what your strengths are. What are some things you still need to improve? See if your current level is showing off your own strengths and feeding your own needs. If not, you may need to move on.

If it is time to move on, it may take the courage to risk saying no to certain offers. You may even have to do without singing work for a bit in order to establish yourself on a new level. This is the same if you are changing Fach. Moving to a new level or new Fach may mean going through a "dry" period, but if it is the right thing, you will come out farther ahead in the long run. It takes courage and a lot of faith—but the rewards are usually very rich!

Richard Harrell, Director, San Francisco Opera Center
An opera career has many seasons. While the passing of those seasons is different for every artist, there are basic issues that most performers face as they move through their careers. Two of the most basic areas of change revolve around companies that you work for and repertoire that you perform.

As I audition and meet young artists around the country, it is obvious which ones have a clear perspective regarding the programs for which they are auditioning, and which ones see all companies as a homogenized blur. There are young artist programs that cater to singers who are ready to enter the profession full time. There are also numerous programs that serve younger, less experienced singers. Young artists need to do their homework and know which is which. More important, they need to be very clear as to where they are in their own development, so they can audition for the right programs at the right time.

The same applies when deciding which companies to target. While a few singers make their Met debuts in major roles in their 20s, they represent a tiny fraction of working professionals. There are dozens of small and medium-sized regional companies that hire young singers for leading roles. An informed professional develops a realistic, multiyear game plan.

Repertoire changes with age and maturity. It is vital that an artist sing the right roles at the right times in his or her development. In auditions, young artists often present repertoire that is beyond them. Singers must find wise counsel regarding their repertoire; otherwise, their careers will not progress and they may just blow out their voices. For example, many bass roles are for older characters, and young basses hoot and growl in an effort to sound older — the effect is invariably dissatisfying. Artists must seek to build the self-knowledge that allows them to move gracefully into roles that suit their age and voice.

Ultimately, the central issue in managing the phases of a career is having an informed and realistic perspective. Artists must also have a clear-headed professional attitude, know and appreciate their own place in the world of opera, and understand how best to make their contribution.

Susan Narucki, Soprano
We all have certain yardsticks of achievement that we carry around in our heads, whether it's to give a vivid performance, sing at important venues, or simply to be the best that we can be. I discovered quite early that I had a special interest and ability to sing 20th-century music. After some years of experience, I had reached a plateau: I had an active performing schedule, but with a few notable exceptions, it was primarily chamber music and new music with smaller organizations. I felt that I had the experience and the ability to go further, yet it didn't seem to be happening. At the time, I began working with Janice Mayer & Associates. In my initial discussions with Janice, two things became clear: I hadn't expanded the circle of people I'd been working with for several years, and I needed to develop audition repertoire that would communicate my passion and expertise in modern repertoire. I also took a long hard look at my vocal technique and, with the help of a new teacher, undertook the task of making necessary changes. I won't pretend it was easy, but it was clear to me that in order to be ready for the opportunities I longed for, I had to grow and change. I am very fortunate, because the story has a happy ending — through Janice, I have opportunities to perform the repertoire I love in excellent circumstances (San Francisco Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, and two world premiere productions at Netherlands Opera), and through effort and study I have an instrument that serves the music better than ever. I believe that working together with people whom you trust to evaluate honestly where you are and what you have to offer is crucial to a happy life in our profession; but even though other people can point the way off a plateau, you've got to put one foot in front of the other and start walking.

Richard Pearlman, Director, Lyric Opera, Center for American Artists
Apprentice programs frequently provide the transition from "advanced student" to "young professional" status. At their best, these programs provide a golden opportunity to hone one's craft and observe the work of senior colleagues at the height of international careers. Apprentices must, however, always keep in mind that they eventually need to move beyond the nurturing environment these programs provide. A young singer who makes the "final cut" into a young artist program at a major American opera company is thus poised to make the leap into a substantial career. Some people use this opportunity judiciously; others just seem to spin their wheels. There are no easy answers to why some people have careers and others don't, but there are proactive steps a young singer can take in order to move on to the next level.

People with less then fully developed vocal techniques can coast, or they can once and for all solve the problems standing in their way. (This might involve a difficult reassessment of the relationship with one's current teacher.)

Some singers attend the minimum number of rehearsals as contractually required; others can be found avidly learning from the exampl
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