Governance and the Artistic Product
Opera America Magazine •
Every opera production is a complex machine comprising many moving, delicate and unpredictable parts, so planning a successful opera season is a piece of almost impossibly sophisticated engineering. In addition to encyclopedic knowledge of operatic repertoire and creative and performing artists, season planning requires technical and financial savvy, intimate acquaintance with company strengths and weaknesses, and an understanding of what excites audience members — current and prospective.
What are the appropriate roles for trustees and staff in this complicated process? Kevin Smith, president and CEO of The Minnesota Opera, offers a concise formula: "It is the board's responsibility to hire staff and set policy. If they don't like what staff members are doing, they fire them."
This typical scenario, in which the board sets policy and staff make programming decisions within that policy, seems relatively straightforward. In reality, the lines are sometimes blurred as staff and board work together to make opera a vibrant, viable enterprise within their community. How can stakeholders most effectively work together to establish and maintain a company's artistic identity?
Articulating Artistic Ideals
Artistic policies and philosophies are as different as the companies they guide. In some cases, the only articulated requirement is that season plans present a reasonable, balanced budget. Other companies are bound by statements about company values and/or artistic goals.
"It is not, of course, so simple as applying a formula," says Evans Mirageas, artistic director of Cincinnati Opera. "However, we do have a starting point — a framework for our creative discussions which is: 3 plus 1. Three operas from the standard repertoire and one piece we call a 'stretch.' This is an opera that is new or unfamiliar to most in our audience. Last summer, we presented Florencia en el Amazonas, our first opera in Spanish." For the standard repertoire selections, according to Mirageas, the company looks for new ways to present familiar operas. Examples include Lucie de Lammermoor, Donizetti's French version of Lucia, or Lyric Opera of Chicago's Magritte-inspired production of The Barber of Seville.
"Once we've pulled together a possible season, penciling in artists and productions, we ask ourselves, is the overall feel consistent with our brand? Does it speak to our guiding principles of excellence, diversity, education, exploration and fiscal responsibility? Are there opportunities to continue our practice of developing partnerships with local arts and cultural entities? In conjunction with our 2009 Spanish Season, for example, a number of other arts organizations are programming Spanish-themed productions, concerts and exhibits, to help us celebrate Spanish culture and the Hispanic and Latino communities in Cincinnati.
"It is the role of the company's artistic director to lead the process for determining the company's repertoire. So, I work alongside a team that includes our general director, production director, marketing director and director of artistic operations. This means we are deliberately embracing an interdisciplinary, holistic approach to artistic planning. The idea that an opera season springs fully-formed from the head of one individual is alien to how we operate."
The Minnesota Opera does not use an underlying formula when planning seasons; instead, company leaders think in terms of an overarching philosophy. "Opera has a variety of components — musical, dramatic, physical, visual," says Smith. "Is it your philosophy that you want to raise all of these at an equal rate, or do you begin by focusing on the musical? What is your point of view? What makes you different from any other opera company? What we have discovered over time is that if you have a point of view, you do better work." Thus, the company's artistic choices are governed by an artistic philosophy inspired by the idea of bel canto, stated as follows: "Bel canto values, which emphasize intense emotional expression supported by exquisite technique, inform every aspect of the company's programs, from repertoire selection, casting and visual design to education and artist training."
The company's articulated emphasis on expressive singing provides a context for many other decisions, according to Smith. "We believe the physical components have to be there in a meaningful way to support the singing, but, for instance, you might have to reject a fantastic scenic design because the rake is too steep to allow an effective performance. You don't put a costume on someone that distracts from their performance, that restricts their ability to breathe, or that makes them look fatter than they are."
"When it comes time to spend money you don't have, you need to understand the company perspective," continues Smith. "If you rent a show and a costume is not working for your principal soprano, you have to do something about it. When producing opera, you are dealing with such an unwieldy thing. If you know what's most important to you from the outset, that can guide your decisions."
Anthony Freud, who became general director of Houston Grand Opera in 2005, made sure he fully understood and supported the company's philosophy before committing to the position. "When I was approached about the job, I was very keen at the interview stage to ask about the board's ambitions for the company. I was forthcoming about my own ideas, but I was also very concerned to ensure a harmonious match between the board's ambitions and my own views. It seems such a fundamental, significant issue in which a general director and a board have to be of one mind."
When Freud took the helm, staff and board worked together on a strategic plan that resulted in a freshly articulated mission statement: "Houston Grand Opera is recognized nationally and internationally for world-beating artistic excellence and innovation. HGO enjoys dynamic, proactive and deepening relationships with the stakeholders, constituencies and communities which it serves. Our company exists to contribute to the cultural enrichment of the city of Houston and the nation by producing and performing world-class opera and creating a diverse, innovative and balanced program of performances, events, community and education projects which reaches the widest possible public."
The new mission reaffirmed the company's long-standing emphasis on innovation and community engagement, providing a clear rationale for the commitment of significant company resources to The Refuge, a large-scale community oratorio that told the journey stories of immigrants to Houston from Africa, Vietnam, Mexico, Pakistan, India, Central America and the Soviet-era Jewish community.
The mission also grounds initiatives like the company's five-year series of operas by Benjamin Britten. "When I introduced the idea of a series by Britten, I took a little time to explain to the board why Britten, why these operas, how they relate to the repertory," says Freud. "We are looking at five-year time spans related to developing the audience, taking them on a journey, finding new ways of engaging them. That, too, is an inherent part of our mission."
"Those who are responsible for the artistic program need to be free to devise plans to think in terms of long-term repertoire development, long-term artistic development," continues Freud. "I am always very conscious of explaining how new proposals relate to the mission and strategic plan."
Presenting the Season
"There is nothing more complicated or sophisticated than planning a season," says Smith. In addition to providing a balanced,
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