A Legacy of Leadership
Opera America Magazine
Each year, OPERA America honors leaders celebrating their 10- and 25-year anniversaries with an opera company. The recipients of this year's service awards hail from companies from across North America whose annual budgets range in size from less than $1 million to more than $25 million. Some of the companies dominate the opera scene in their cities, while others are part of a vibrant local opera ecology.
Running an opera company is challenging in the best of times, and today's uncertain economy makes it extraordinarily difficult to plan the seasons ahead. But with hard-won wisdom gained from many years of experience, these artistic and general directors strike a tone of cautious optimism as they share their learning and confirm their commitment to quality and creativity.
Under the leadership of Speight Jenkins, Seattle Opera has seen tremendous growth over the past quarter-century. Jenkins is quick to share credit for the company's success: "My staff, almost to a person, has been with me for almost 20 years. We know how we work. Their dedication to Seattle Opera is complete, and this has been a huge factor in whatever success Seattle Opera has had. Any my board, ever since I came, has been completely supportive. I came with the board's guarantee of artistic freedom, and they have supported wherever I've gone."
Seattle Opera has long had an association with the works of Richard Wagner, and under Jenkins the company has strengthened its reputation for Wagner productions. "I eagerly came to Seattle because the Ring tradition was here. I really wanted to present all 10 Wagner operas in new Seattle Opera productions." He also had goals for consistent quality across all repertoire: "I wanted to be as meticulous and theatrical as possible, in a way I feel one can in a stagione situation. Opera is great theater — voices are 51 percent, but there's another 49 percent that you've got to do. I also believe very strongly in balancing casts. If you have one great singer who stands out, you're not doing the right kind of opera."
As Seattle Opera entered the 2008-2009 season, Jenkins recorded a video address, posted on the company's Web site, which acknowledged the effects of the troubled economy while affirming the company's commitment to quality. "I believe we are important to Seattle," says Jenkins. "We're going to keep producing opera, and we're going to figure out how to do it in a way that is more efficient but just as exciting. I don't want to just limp through this."
"We've balanced our budget for the past 15 or 16 years, but if your only focus is balancing your budget, it's a house of cards," he continues. "If that's your only concern, you start to drop quality, then you drop people, and the house of cards falls down all around you. We must figure out how to turn out consistently important opera while spending less money. The audience needs more than ever to be entertained. You entertain with Parsifal as much as with L'elisir d'amore. I'm very proud of what Seattle Opera has done, but I don't believe you're ever any better than your last curtain."
"This is a weird time we all live in now," says John Bowen, who founded Opera Vivente (Baltimore, MD) 10 years ago. The company has made a specialty of unusual repertory, performed in English in an intimate venue. "I don't know anyone who is not worrying. But I've been surprised at the rapidity at which we've grown. We have an ever-increasing audience and donor base to the point where we are wondering how much longer we can stay in our current venue."
Opera companies across the country have found it sobering to see established institutions go out of business, and for Opera Vivente the hard times struck close to home when Baltimore Opera was forced to close its doors. But even though Opera Vivente was born as an "alternative" to the larger company, Bowen has no intention of changing course or attempting to fill the gap. "If we were to do Bohèmes and Aidas in the original language, in what way would that be Opera Vivente? I have always felt there is a place for both kinds of company. From the beginning, we had a clear vision of why we should exist. That self-knowledge puts you in a good position to deal with all the things you couldn't possibly anticipate."
"Running an opera company really tests your commitment to an art form, to an idea. And it really does, on a daily basis, force you to examine why you do what you do. It is a total life commitment."
In these challenging times, Bowen calls on all opera lovers to demonstrate their commitment. "Around the new year, everyone sat on their money and waited to see what the Fed was going to do. I got tired of hearing this. I told people, you have to be the stimulus yourself. If you have $50 and there is an art form you enjoy, you should buy a ticket or make a small donation. I think the solution is for people to step back and say, 'What do I want my world to look like? What am I going to miss if it's not around next year?'"
"There have been so many changes in the opera world in 10 years," says Susan Danis, executive director of Sarasota Opera. "Some of them have affected us, some of them haven't. Sarasota is a unique environment, and I am lucky to be here. It's not that I haven't worked hard, but we have an amazing patron base, and an amazing board that is totally committed."
Danis describes Sarasota Opera upon her arrival as "a community-based opera company that was much more volunteer-focused." She worked closely with all company stakeholders to reconfigure the staff and board, and to position the company for growth: "Everyone was committed to the organization moving forward, and we engaged everyone in the process. We found a place for everyone, even if it was no longer a seat at the board table." Over the last decade, the company's annual budget has grown from $3.2 million to more than $8 million, and a $20 million renovation of the opera's 1926 historic theater has been completed.
The company has an active education program, which includes the Sarasota Youth Opera. Members, who range from eight to 18 years old, perform in choral settings, participate in the mainstage opera season and mount their own dedicated opera production, which is often a new work. "I've been committed to the ongoing commissioning of new works for the Sarasota Youth Opera," says Danis.
Danis has also worked strategically to develop a fall season. "My first year, we did a single concert with piano, which grew to three recitals. Then we added orchestra, and last fall we finally went to fully-staged." That production, The Barber of Seville, performed to 94 percent capacity, and 18 percent of the ticket buyers were new to Sarasota Opera.
Sarasota Opera is one of the few winter festival companies in America. In addition to attracting those who enjoy Florida's temperate weather in February and March, the company has drawn opera aficionados to its Verdi Cycle, which will present the complete works of Giuseppe Verdi, and the Masterworks Revival Series, which produces neglected operas of significant artistic merit. With the Verdi cycle nearing its end, says Danis, "We are looking at what our niche is going to be next."
"I never like to think about repertoire in terms of one season at a time," says Brian Dickie. "I like to think in three- to five-year spans where you can do a body of work. It's about curatorship, rather than just one-offs where every season you think, 'Now, what will we do next?' I think we are in the business of doing somet