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Oh, the Places You'll Go (With a Little Help)
Plato and Aristotle. Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Isaac Stern and Yo-Yo Ma. Jon Corzine and Barack Obama. Jay-Z and Rihanna. What could these people possibly have in common? Yes, these highly successful duos are from many walks of life and periods of time, but they do have a unifying thread — they all share a mentor-protégé relationship.
Mentorship, a developmental relationship between an experienced mentor and a less-experienced protégé, can be an important relationship in your career no matter what the field or area of expertise. For the person being mentored, the connection can yield advice to help advance a career. The mentor can gain from the development of a more capable colleague (among many other benefits).
The word mentor stems from Homer's Odyssey, in which the character of Mentor guides the young Telemachus through a difficult time in his life. Any person trying to establish him or herself in the opera field will attest that it can be difficult getting started, so this period is an optimal time in life to consider finding a mentor.
While there are many inspiring stories of mentorship in the opera field, Chari Shanker's contributions are felt in opera companies across the country. Until her death on August 19 of this year, Chari was a mentor to innumerable "opera pals," as she liked to call them. In her more than 15 years as director of production at Los Angeles Opera, and more recently at Opera Pacific, Chari cultivated an entire generation of production professionals. Allison Merritt, executive and production director at Opera Memphis, was one of them. "I remember our first phone call," Merritt said. "I was so nervous, but she put me at ease right away. We discovered we were both redheads, and that seemed to bond us immediately — silly, but true. She was smart, funny and a total smartass — I knew it was going to be a great adventure, which it definitely was!"
"That woman taught me a lot," Merritt continued. "She had an enormous impact on me because she taught me not just about how to hone my craft, but about life in general. She knew the benefit to one's soul in hard work and doing the right thing. Chari knew the benefit and importance of paying it forward. And she was full of clever, insightful and honest observations. She was passionate. She was crafty. She was completely hilarious. And she helped me become a better manager in life, not just opera. She believed in me and my potential, and to have someone like her feel that way about me was exhilarating and humbling."
Those who have established themselves in the opera field are "gifted with the compulsion to ignore common sense and devote themselves to 'art,' our particular brand of it being one of the most obscure and rarified corners of the art world," said Robin Thompson, producing artistic director of New York City Opera, when he spoke at her funeral. Opera is "an illogical choice, neither easy nor helpful when it comes to living in modern America. Chari Shanker, like many others, was incapable of saying 'no' to it, and our little corner of the universe is richer for it." Merritt added: "The opera field seems to be constructed largely of folks that want to share their passion for the art form and the business, sometimes even to the detriment of their personal lives! They want you to learn, they want you to know what they know -- no competitive nature from company to company, no 'intellectual property.' It's really inspirational and motivates one to pay it forward."
"In my mind, the thing that makes a mentor great is their acknowledgement of the rest of life," continued Merritt. "Chari taught me about managing life, not just opera. Life, while in this crazy business, takes serious talent to balance. We all know that. And that's a talent that can be developed by a great mentor — they want us to survive!" The bottom line is: don't be afraid to seek this kind of relationship — the opera field is teeming with support, but you don't get what you don't ask for.
In their book The Elements of Mentoring, W. Brad Johnson and Charles R. Ridley give insight into arranging the mentor-protégé relationship, mentor integrity, damage control and finding closure when a mentor-protégé relationship is no longer needed. Although focused on the corporate mentorship model, Elements of Mentoring can provide sage advice for any mentoring relationship. According to Johnson and Ridley, effective mentors:
Whether you've been singing for 30 years with loads of experience to share or you're a stage manager just out of college, there is one universal rule: be a good colleague. This is just as important to remember in a long-term mentoring situation as it is in a sitzprobe. If you'd like a mentor, ask someone you trust and respect — and do the same if you'd like to help a less experienced person find their way in this field. We can't support each other unless we respect each other.
- Know their protégé
- Expect excellence from their protégé
- Affirm, affirm and then affirm some more
- Be a teacher and a coach
- Protect the protégé when necessary
- Give protégé exposure to promote their visibility
- Nurture creativity
- Provide correction when necessary
- Accept increasing friendship and mutuality
- Be an intentional model
- Display dependability
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