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Opera Conference 2009: Making Opera Matter
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Opera America Magazine7/1/2009

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OPERA America’s annual conference offers a range of professional development opportunities, from formal programming, such as seminars and panel discussions, to informal sharing of experiences and ideas.

Opera Conference 2009, held during a time of considerable economic uncertainty, was an important occasion for opera stakeholders to come together and wrestle with some complex questions: Does opera matter? Is it just another traditional art form competing for attention in an increasingly crowded entertainment marketplace? Does opera have the capacity to connect meaningfully to contemporary issues and social concerns? Do opera companies respond effectively to unmet community needs?

Houston Grand Opera (HGO), host of Opera Conference 2009, is attempting to respond to such questions through HGOco, which produces an eclectic menu of programs in collaboration with a broad range of community partners. On the last day of the conference, attendees went on location with HGOco to visit the Dow School, home of MECA (Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts). The day included inspiring student performances, as well as a spirited discussion among a diverse group of Houstonians: Franci Crane, HGO trustee; Anthony Freud, HGO general director; Shirin Herman, Houston Independent School District Multilingual Department; Anita Lundval, Neff Elementary School; Alice Valdez, MECA; and Andrea White, first lady of the City of Houston.

Toward the end of the conference, participants broke into working groups, where they were given an assignment: If your company was given a substantial grant to be used toward “making opera matter” in your community, how would you spend it? After an initial burst of ideas, many reached the same conclusion: It is impossible for a group of opera professionals, working alone, to design an effective program. To make opera matter, engagement with a broad range of community stakeholders is essential.

The conference also provided learning opportunities tailored to various professional specialties. At Opera Conference 2008, OPERA America brought together a group of individuals who had recently taken their first job leading an opera company. The group of new general directors reconvened in Houston, joined by a few more recent recruits. While governance issues dominated last year’s conversation, this year, unsurprisingly, the economy was front and center. “Most of us felt that we were in a better place with our boards,” says Kevin Patterson, general director of Austin Lyric Opera. “For me, I was still working on board issues and felt that the economy was actually helping me to do so. My a-ha moment came from someone with many years of experience as a general director. He concluded that his expectation for board members’ direct participation in fundraising was unrealistic. He felt that by far the greatest value a board member can bring to fundraising is the access they provide to their social and business networks.”

In addition to focused discussions around development, education, marketing, governance and production, there were plenty of opportunities to learn about new art and artists. On the first night of the conference, the New Works Sampler, performed by students from the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University and University of Houston Moores School of Music, featured excerpts from a number of recent premieres and works in progress. The inaugural Director-Designer Showcase, a program of The Opera Fund, gave talented teams an opportunity to present their concepts for productions of four important North American works. And Houston Grand Opera presented a beloved classic (Rigoletto) as well as the world premiere of André Previn and John Caird’s Brief Encounter, which received a repertoire development grant through The Opera Fund.

OPERA America’s conference has been enlivened in recent years by the participation of a growing number of individual artists. Some of their reflections on their time in Houston are included in the pages that follow.

I asked myself: What am I doing independently to further the education, (and thus the growth) of our art form/industry? This question can be asked by anyone from administration to creative staff and artists. Who is willing to help develop the next generation of publishers, house managers and artistic staff? We do not need to be part of an organization’s education/outreach program to contribute.

— Michael Cofield

My most significant learning experience was gaining the insights and experiences of the range of professionals involved in the production of opera. The vibrant and seasoned community seemed to be hungry for the future and what it holds. There was no fear.

— Amy Axelson

Opera companies are at a crossroads. The struggle to balance the artistic and business concerns is perennial, but the decisions in today’s economy seem even more poignant. This year’s conference offered an exciting and vivid glimpse of a possible answer. Several opera companies are making community partnerships a core focus. Various panels and a site visit to Houston’s Dow School offered incredible insights into the process and results of these innovations. I was so encouraged to hear about the new audiences who are now involved in opera and the new donors who are attracted to the organizations. Opera is taking on new and vibrant forms, and it is exciting!

— Hope Carlson

The highlight of the conference for me was the first working group on Friday afternoon. I loved being thrown together with people from all different parts of the country (and world!) and seeing how they individually — and collectively within their respective companies — approach the challenges they face in building up their companies: planning and executing a full season, organizing the budgets, increasing their education and outreach program, and generally trying to find their particular relevance in the communities they serve.

— Kala Maxym
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