Jan. 23, 2024

Bridges: The Role of Mentoring after Concert of Arias

Patrick Summers coaching former Butler Studio artists Andrea Carroll and Nicole Heaston during a rehearsal for Falstaff this fall. Photo Credit: Lawrence Elizabeth Knox

For a few intensely talented young artists each season, the Butler Studio at Houston Grand Opera is a vital bridge between academic and professional life. What is the necessity of this bridge, especially when apprenticeship in all fields increasingly feels so outmoded? Turns out the metaphorical bridges are just as important as the real ones.


One of the greatest of operas is Richard Wagner’s longest: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg), the only major Wagner opera not based on mythology. The opera is based on a real person, Hans Sachs—a 16th-century shoemaker who was also a prolific poet, musician, and teacher. Having learned his crafts from elders, he then became a famous mentor, both of shoemaking and of highly formalized poetic and musical verses. Indeed, the whole enormous plot of Meistersinger revolves around the idea of apprenticeship in art: how does one become accomplished enough at something to be considered a professional? Who sets the standards? And the bigger subjects of Wagner’s opera reflect those facing the arts right now with chilling clarity: how can a beloved art simultaneously advance with new ideas while holding its past in reverence? How important are our artistic lineages? Every day of any serious artistic life involves these questions.


Professional training in opera is much like professional training in anything: a talented young person learns their craft by apprenticing with those who have more experience. Professional training is not school, but a bridge beyond academia, training with professional expectations and standards. Mentorship is not about “mastery,” but about the sharing of values for a lifetime in the profession.


In an artistic apprenticeship like the Butler Studio, there is always a merry joust between technique and talent; each needs the other, but they are not the same. Talent is as innate as a fingerprint or an eye color, and it can’t be faked or changed. Technique is the discipline that feeds the talent, providing the tools it needs to thrive and protect itself: breathing, vocal production, musicianship, work ethic, professionalism, acting—all of which are learned techniques. Of course, young artists learn these techniques in conservatories, and some have propensities for certain areas more than others, but a professional apprenticeship dials that training up to 10.


The one artistic area available to singers and coaches but not to other classical disciplines is words. Opera singers, wherever their origin, are forever dealing with words: the words they sing, of course, but also how they sing them. Different languages sit on each voice slightly differently, and idiosyncratic vowels in each language self-teach a lot about singing. Poetry distills language much as music distills emotion, so an understanding of poetic forms is vital to training. Words unveil dramatic vistas for actors, and singers and coaches learn to view them through a composer’s ears. Words are a huge part of the daily life of mentor and mentee: the right word at the right moment can change both sides of the relationship—and so can the wrong one.


Vital words also change their meaning over time—we’ve come to view the word discipline as vaguely being about rules, a “do-this-but-don’t-do-that” kind of paradigm—but its truer meaning is revealed in the word disciple: someone who upholds the traditions of something because those traditions are meaningful and great. Those of us who love opera care deeply about its future, so we delight—in hilariously nerdy ways—when we connect to traditions and colleagues of the past. This is a deep motivator of every great disciple of anything: feeling where you came from, artistically, and fulfilling the dreams of your mentors. Proud ancestors hover in the tops of theaters, symbolically, for many artists.


Because of the considerable competition young singers face during the Concert of Arias, it would be natural to assume that admission to the Butler Studio is one of the prizes of the night, or at least the end of an already-long road. But actually, winning a prize at Concert of Arias does not mean certain admission to the Butler Studio—the competition itself is judged on its own, and admission to the Studio is a different conversation and set of considerations. There is no set number of Butler Studio artists nor prescribed set of voice types; in theory we could choose to take 10 talented basses and no one else, though we would be very unlikely to ever do that. Admission to the Butler Studio is the beginning of a multi-year journey of mentorship at HGO.


Thankfully, it is now accepted that an artist’s apprentice years don’t have to add to the difficulties of being young—and there is an effort to mitigate the daunting number of individual things at which one now must be proficient. Many of these qualities wouldn’t have occurred to artists even a quarter-century ago: social media presence, erudition on camera in talking about opera, tax proficiencies from different states and countries, Instagram takeovers, and crowdsourcing, to mention only a few. The Butler Studio is a supportive and generous environment that gives young artists their best chance at success. But if the apprentice years are more equitable and pleasant than they used to be—something at which we constantly work—they are no less tough. It is a scary thing to walk on a stage and have your voice vulnerably emanate from inside you, with no help from a microphone, and fill a hall with music and drama, carrying a legacy of studies on your shoulder, all within the realization that some people will “get you,” and some won’t. Here’s another thing about the Butler Studio years: colleagues from younger years remain so throughout a career, so the apprentice years can help artists not feel so alone in an isolating profession.


Here is what a healthy professional mentorship hopes for: happy people who become happy artists, because the reverse is not automatically true. Accepting what an artistic life can and cannot give you is a big lesson of one’s apprentice years, which are usually two or three years at HGO, but not limited to that. Art is a panacea for those who love it, but it can’t, or shouldn’t, define the entirety of a person. There are a lot of definitions of success, and learning the individual meanings of those is a big part of
an apprenticeship.


The Tennessean author, Will Allen Dromgoole (1860-1934), who also had deep ties to Texas, wrote 7,500 poems and 5,000 essays in her prolific life, including the sole poem for which she is now remembered, The Bridge Builder. The iconic poem is about the importance of mentoring, albeit with her era’s limited scope of who belongs amongst the learned. Several poetic metaphors overlap in her poem, which is about an old man at the end of a long day of travel who chooses that moment to build a bridge across a valley. A pilgrim asks the elderly man why he is taking the trouble of such labor when, at his age, he will not benefit from it:


The builder lifted his old gray head;
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followed after me to-day
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm that has been as naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him!”


By Patrick Summers, Artistic and Music Director

about the author
Patrick Summers
Patrick Summers is the Artistic and Music Director, Sarah and Ernest Butler Chair, at Houston Grand Opera.