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Playing Your Part Offstage
Lisa Bury
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Voices12/1/2004

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Lyric Opera of Chicago is a large chamber ensemble. All employees — artists, ticket office staff, stage hands, development staff, chorus, orchestra, education staff, board members and other volunteers, artistic/production/technical staff, facilities staff, and more — play an important role. Our roles are interdependent: just as a singer needs costumes, wigs, makeup, and orchestral and choral support during a performance, the administrative staff needs to collaborate to make Lyric’s product, the main stage productions, as special as possible. And, as we all know, this work is fueled by dollars, some in the form of earned income (i.e., ticket sales), and some in the form of contributed income (i.e., contributions).

A key component of Lyric’s fundraising efforts is connecting our donors (a non-profit organization’s “shareholders”) as frequently as possible with those who create our artistic product. This connection can be an intimate dinner with our general director, a donor appreciation luncheon for 250 with a board member and an artist at each table of donors, or a weekend brunch with a Lyric Opera Center for American Artists’ member’s sponsor. The goal of such events is to inspire the donors to increase their “investment” in Lyric by giving them the “inside scoop.” We hope that they’ll then choose to purchase more tickets for the current season, renew their subscription tickets for next season, and renew or, better yet, increase their gift.

In order for this to happen successfully, we — the allcompany we — must give command performances. When artists attend a donor event, their role is to share what motivated their career in opera, how they traveled the path to Lyric, and what a typical day/night in the opera house is like for them. Board members and development staff will handle anything directly related to fundraising. The artist’s main mission is to give the donor a peek into his or her life in opera.

How can young artists superbly play their offstage role at a donor event? Listed below are several crucial “dos and don’ts:”

DO respond to the invitation in a timely manner. DO dress appropriately. A complete invitation includes information regarding attire. If you don’t agree with the appropriateness of the invitation’s requested attire, consider it to be your costume for the occasion. Here is a handy guide:
  • Business attire – a dressy ensemble for the lady, i.e., a skirt with jacket, a dress, or a pants suit; suit and tie for the gentleman
  • Casual attire – no denim unless your host specifically requests it; no largely naked area of one’s body
  • Cocktail attire - above the knee dressy dress or a very dressy pants suit for the lady; suit and tie for the gentleman
  • Black tie – floor-length gown for the lady; tux with black tie for the gentleman
  • White tie– even dressier floor-length gown for the lady; tux with tails with white tie for the gentleman


  • DO arrive on time. If you are running late, do call the host and let them know. If you don’t have the number, call the artistic staff and ask them to help. They will be delighted to do so. Most likely one of them will be on the receiving end of the phone with the development staff member who is turning somersaults because the biggest donor of all is seated next to you and you’re not there yet. If you do not plan to attend at the last minute for any reason, call or have someone else call the artistic staff immediately. They can handle anything as long as they know about it. Otherwise, you’re leaving the donor at the altar.

    DO greet your table host first and thank her or him. At a seated event, the table host is typically a board member, event chairman, or senior staff member, and hopefully their name tag will identify them as such. If it is not readily apparent who this person is, there is no need to worry. The table host’s job is to make sure everyone at the table is introduced and that conversation flows smoothly amongst the guests. Therefore, 99% of the time, they will greet you as you approach the table. Next, introduce yourself around the entire table.

    DO try to divide your conversation time equally between the persons seated to your immediate left and right. FYI - the rule of thumb of seating is that the most important person is seated on the table host’s right.

    DO converse, even though it sometimes is a little tough going. After thanking them for their support of Lyric Opera, I regularly ask the following questions to begin conversation, all of which can easily be modified by replacing Lyric Opera with the name of the company where you are performing:
  • What has been your favorite opera so far this season (or any other variation on the question – last season, you entire life, least favorite, at the Met, in Rome, etc.)?
  • How long have you been coming to Lyric Opera?
  • Did you ever study music yourself?
  • Do you travel to hear opera elsewhere?
  • I loved such and such about so and so’ s performance. What did you think?
  • When all else fails, ask them if they have fun plans for the weekend. Try it. You’ll be amazed what people say and it will be so much fun!


  • DO write a thank you note immediately. If you forget for a week, send one anyway. It is never too late. The note need not be fancy or long: “Thank you very much for a terrific evening. It was a pleasure to meet you and I so enjoyed our conversation about opera. I hope to see you sometime soon in the opera house.”

    DON’T neglect to R.S.V.P. Generally speaking, it is fine to bring your significant other. It is not appropriate to bring your in-laws, out-laws, or any other guests. And it is not appropriate to attend if you were not invited. The number of meals is determined by the invitation response list, and events in general are expensive for the company. If any questions arise, please ask the artistic staff.

    DON’T be shy about requesting an alternative meal such as a vegetarian meal in advance. The sooner the event planning staff knows, the better. If you requested it in advance, and you’re served something else, gently remind the wait staff. They’ll do their best to serve you correctly.

    DON’T begin eating until your table host does, which is usually after he or she sees that everyone has been served — unless she or he says, “please begin while the food is warm.” Or after someone else begins. Then you may begin as well so that they are not alone in their error. (This truly is correct etiquette!).

    DON’T panic if you sit down for dinner and see a very formal dinner setting. Simply use the silverware from the outside in from course to course (Etiquette books have excellent pictures to memorize as a cheat sheet if you know in advance that your dinner will be really fancy). If you’re lost, follow your table host’s lead. And whatever you do, DON’T use your linen napkin as a tissue. (I have seen this happen more than once. If this need arises, it is best to excuse yourself and head for the restroom).

    DON’T overindulge in food or drink. DON’T share any information you do not wish to be repeated. As my former boss, the late Ardis Krainik, once told me, “Dearie, never forget…if you don’t want anyone to know, don’t tell anyone!”

    DON’T forget to thank them for their support of the opera company with which you are performing. While requests to attend donor events are not typically included in a singer’s contract (at least not at Lyric), they frequently
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    About the Author: Director, Women’s Board Activities, Lyric Opera of Chicago
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