What Success Looks (and Sounds) Like

In this March 7, 2012, photo provided by the Metropolitan Opera, Nadja Michael performs in the roll of Lady Macbeth during a
In this March 7, 2012, photo provided by the Metropolitan Opera, Nadja Michael performs in the roll of Lady Macbeth during a dress rehearsal of a revival of Verdi's "Macbeth,'' at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The 43-year-old German commanded the stage as she conveyed her character's vile lust for power and contempt of vulnerability in her debut at the Met Thursday, March 15. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Marty Sohl)

Knowing where to place the goalposts is the first step.

I run a small opera company whose engine is a small group of prodigiously talented singers, hand-picked during an annual talent search. We choose these people every autumn, then we put together a performance season tailored to their profiles, and they spend the following summer with us -- rehearsing, working, practicing, learning, performing. We are invested in every single one of them, but predictably, some of them are more at home in a training program than others.

Part of getting ready for our annual audition tour is reminding ourselves what success looks like. Too often, people who work exclusively with young professionals lose sight of the ultimate goal and think that excelling in our training environments is the same as possessing the goods to win in the world at large. Fatal mistake.

The challenge is to pick future candidates based not on their likelihood of excelling in this temporary, somewhat artificial environment, but rather on the odds that they will still be distinguishing themselves ten years from now. Seems obvious, but it's surprising how often we confuse these two things. Universities often cater to students who are academic rock stars and then don't give them the tools to survive in the work world. And even in this hybrid young professional environment where I sit, the temptation persists.

And so, as I work through the final several hundred applicants for our upcoming nationwide auditions, I remind myself that hindsight is 20/20. We can't predict career trajectories, but there's much to learn by tracing backward from former singers who are thriving in the "real" world. What do they have in common, artistically and temperamentally? What were their biggest challenges when they were on our turf? Which hills are scalable, and which are deal-breakers?

Then I remind myself of what the goal sounds like. I have a playlist of 1,497 arias (at the moment), representing a wide range of iconic singers performing the gold standard repertoire. I need to remember what it feels and sounds like when a true pro tackles these challenges, rather than only setting my sights on the best possible student version.

And finally, I struggle to put personal preference aside; to be able to recognize when my favorable impression of a singer is the result of their musicianship and personality resonating with my own. It's not about me. It's not even about them at 25. It's about who they will become, and what they can be.