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OPERA America's Action-Oriented Think Tanks
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Opera America Magazine6/1/2008

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OPERA America's Conference is the largest and most visible annual gathering of the opera community — but it is not the only time opera stakeholders come together. Throughout the year, OPERA America convenes meetings of industry leaders around specific topics. Although the discussions vary in size, scope and regularity, they share a common commitment — a commitment to action. Participants not only discuss challenges, they identify steps they can take, from the incremental to the profound, to advance the field.

OPERA America's New York location — along with its new teleconferencing capacity (see page 19) — makes it easier than ever to bring people together around important topics. The 2007-2008 season brought a number of opportunities for OPERA America members to discuss, plan and act.

National Trustee Forum
The National Trustee Forum convenes twice each year and consists of 15-25 trustees who meet to discuss company developments from the governance perspective. These meetings not only allow trustees to learn from each other, OPERA America and invited guests, they also help OPERA America understand issues facing trustees and consider how the organization might address these issues through programs such as Field Services, board consultations (in person or via teleconference) and regional meetings. In January 2008, the group met in conjunction with the OPERA America winter board meeting and the inaugural National Opera Trustee Recognition Awards.

As part of the meeting, John Borstel, humanities director for Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and co-author and illustrator of Liz Lerman's Critical Response Process: A Guide for Getting Feedback on Anything You Make from Dance to Dessert, introduced the Critical Response Process, which seeks to provide a format for stakeholders to share ideas and reactions in a way that gives everyone ownership. Borstel led the group in exercises designed to show how the technique might be applied to the governance and management of an opera company.

During the meeting, several topics arose that would benefit from further exploration and broader dissemination via OPERA America publications such as Opera America magazine or TrusteeLink. OPERA America will commission articles on three topics, detailed below. In addition to drawing from points raised and examples cited at the meeting, writers will interview other experts, learn more about field-wide trends and best practices regarding the topic in question and/or schedule follow-up interviews with members of the National Trustee Forum who were vocal around the topics.

Artistic Policy / Repertoire Policy / Quality Assessments
Who has formal policies? What is the appropriate and effective role of the board in articulating and assessing vision and quality? How is the board's role balanced with the expertise of the staff?

Governance as an Art / Casting the Board
A producer keeps an eye out for promising new talent, nurtures inexperienced artists over time and ultimately puts together the best possible team of creative and performing artists for each production. How does a governance committee think about identifying, casting and coaching trustees to put together the best board for a company?

Critical Response Process
How might we think about the work of a board as a work of art? How might the Critical Response Process apply to the work of trustees as they assess their own work and the work of their opera company?

Singer Training Forum
The Singer Training Forum is a group of stakeholders in singer training — voice teachers, coaches, artist managers and leaders from programs housed in both educational institutions and opera companies. The objective of the Forum is to strengthen mutual understanding, improve practices across the field and encourage collaboration among the network of professionals who share a devotion to the art form.

In 2007, two distinct events grew out of the Singer Training Forum:
  • A summer 2007 workshop for voice teachers was presented jointly by Des Moines Metro Opera and the National Association of Teachers of Singing. The workshop was designed to foster collaboration and cooperation among academic and opera company training programs. It included seminars and opportunities to see what singers go through in a professional young artist program. Members of the Forum were enthusiastic about this effort, and many expressed an interest in designing similar workshops in their areas.
  • Forum members presented two panel discussions at the annual conference of the National Association of Schools of Music in November 2007. The topics, identified at the spring 2007 meeting of the Forum, were Preparing Singers for a Career Beyond the Studio and Assessing Ability and Hiring Voice Teachers. This was the first time opera professionals were able to meet with deans of music schools (many of whom are not familiar with the specific needs of singers vs. instrumentalists) to ask questions and share concerns.

The Singer Training Forum meets twice each year. At the fall 2007 and spring 2008 meetings, the group identified several areas of concern and specific actions to be taken over the course of the next year.

Recommendations: Many young artist program applications require recommendations. This puts a tremendous burden on those who work with young singers. It was noted that most colleges use a common online application now. The recommendation form is neutral in terms of particular recommendations but specific in description of the person. There was enthusiastic support for the development of a standard online form for young artist program applications and recommendations. OPERA America will learn more about online application and recommendation forms used by colleges and consider ways in which similar mechanisms might be adopted by opera training programs.

Dramatic Voices: It is difficult to provide appropriate performing opportunities for these singers while they are students. Although many of today's universities and conservatories make every effort to choose repertoire based on the singers in the program, young singers often do not have the stamina for an entire role in heavier repertoire. Once they leave school, these singers have difficulty finding placement in young artist programs, most of which are looking for singers who can perform chorus and a few small roles in the mainstage season, and/or participate in an outreach tour of a children's work. Opera professionals need to work together to create a safe place — or series of places — for these singers to develop. Through regular communication, some are already finding ways to "share" singers, allowing them to participate in appropriate opportunities (concerts, covers) as available. It was suggested that OPERA America work with members of the Forum and others to create resources to assist those who work with young singers with large voices. Ideas included:
  • Create a list of prominent singers with dramatic voices, what they sang and when they sang it.
  • Put together a panel of singers with dramatic voices and have a master class with singers at various stages of development.
  • Make a list of well-known dramatic singers who also teach.
  • Have an online chat with a large voiced- singer — perhaps a "personality of the month" for ArtistLink, OPERA America's e-newsletter for singers and other opera artists.

NATS Survey: Industry professionals continue to seek a closer association with the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS). To this end, the Forum is developing a survey of NATS members to learn more about them, enco
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