An Oral History with Margaret Genovese
On February 15th, 2020, arts administrator and consultant Margaret Genovese sat down with OPERA America's President/CEO Marc A. Scorca for a conversation about opera and their life.
This interview was originally recorded on February 15th, 2020.
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation.
Margaret Genovese, arts administrator and consultant
Margaret Genovese is a Senior Partner in the consulting firm of Genovese Vanderhoof & Associates (GVA). She was recruited from the Houston Grand Opera to be the Director of Planning and Community Relations for the Canadian Opera Company by its General Director Lofti Mansouri, and she is proud that she was on the management team at the COC that introduced “Surtitles” to the international opera community. Among many awards and accolades she has received such as the Robert Johnston Award for Excellence in Human Resources in the Arts, she has started her own consulting firm, become a well known teacher in the cultural sector, and written two short books: HOW TO GET THE BOARD YOU NEED (Orchestras Canada, 1997) and THE ART OF THE VOLUNTEER (The Council for Business and the Arts, 1993).
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Marc A. Scorca: Margaret Genovese, thank you so much for being here at the National Opera Center. You are here frequently and have frequently been a presence throughout the life of OPERA America, so we're just delighted that you're here today. The oral history project that we're doing is to really just look back into the early years of OPERA America, to understand some of the dynamics that our predecessors were dealing with, and how our progress today was really built on moments of achievement in the past. But I wanted to start by just asking you about you and opera. How did you discover opera or opera discover you?
Margaret Genovese: Oh well, I'm the least musical opera professional you could possibly imagine. But I came out of regional theater, and I always thought from a very early age that I belonged in opera - even though I wasn't particularly musical; can't carry a tune. But I always thought that I would like opera people better than I liked theater people. And I saw opera at a very young age. I saw the first collegiate performance of Amahl and the Night Visitors that was done by Walter Anderson, who went to the NEA and was the first African American department head at the NEA. It was apparently the first college production. And it made me cry.
Marc A. Scorca: And where was it?
Margaret Genovese: It was at Antioch college in Yellow Springs, Ohio and it made me cry. So a good beginning to opera, clearly. And then I went to opera in junior high school and high school because I lived in the Boston area. And we used to see Sarah Caldwell's productions. So I remember going to dress rehearsals and hearing a Flute, I think I heard and Bartered Bride and a whole bunch of stuff. But I sorta didn't get opera as an art form. And so all through college, where I did a lot of theater with people who also became professionals in the business, I kept going to the opera over and over and over again, because I kept thinking somehow it was the art form for me, but I couldn't get to it exactly, if you know what I mean. And I had these two friends in college who were both six foot four men, who were opera fans. And they kept saying, "Oh Margaret, you will love opera. Opera will suit you, its so dramatic." But you know, they kept taking me to the opera and I would be like, "It's not like theater. The production values are so weird." And I went to dress rehearsals where singers were still on book sometimes, which had struck me as unprofessional because I came from theater. So I saw opera... When I was in graduate school in Dallas, I subscribed to The Dallas Opera. I heard Callas sing. I mean, I have seen a ton of opera. And then I moved to Houston after graduate school to work for the Houston Grand Opera. And I bought an opera subscription because the Houston Grand Opera was the sexiest opera. It was the sexiest arts organization in the entire state of Texas. There was no question: if you wanted to be an arts management professional, you had to work for the Houston Grand Opera.
Marc A. Scorca: When did you get to Houston Grand Opera?
Margaret Genovese: Golly, dates me, doesn't it? '74 or '75.something like that.
Marc A. Scorca: And when did David Gockley joined the company?
Margaret Genovese: Well, he'd been there about three years before. And so several things happened. Part of me knew I had to work for the Houston Grand Opera, because it was the hot performing arts organization in the entire state of Texas. But here I was not really liking opera exactly. But now having seen like 34 operas...my test in any marketing terms, no one would ever test drive that often. And then I saw Carlisle Floyd's Bilby's Doll with Catherine Malfitano, and she sings the aria about watching her mother burn at the stake, as a witch. And I'm from New England. I know about the witch trials; I know about sea captains and stuff, and all of a sudden it made sense. And there was like this moment where it was like the light switch went on. And I thought, "Yes, that's what everyone's been carrying on about for the last 34 full length opera productions that I know that I've seen in life.” Suddenly it made sense to me. And then David Gockley went to Brown, as did I, as did Jack Mastroianni, who was there and they discovered there was this Brown graduate who was literally across the street at Alley Theater. And so they courted me to move to the opera. But now that I got it, I was absolutely willing to be seduced to come and work for Houston Grand Opera.
Marc A. Scorca: And your job was in ...
Margaret Genovese: Marketing and Communications. I went to work for Martha Munro, who had been at San Francisco Opera and Martha taught me tons about the nuance of the business, how you describe things, what's the proper way to write copy that opera people will understand is operatic - because she had been in San Francisco.
Marc A. Scorca: In the 1970's, I was an intern in a marketing department, at what was then Opera Company of Philadelphia. And our mailing list was typed onto sheets of paper that you would put through the Xerox machine onto labels. And in order to determine what list pulled more effectively, I would sit for hours and put red dots or blue dots or yellow dots on cutout response forms on the brochure. So that way we could track which list. Marketing, when you started in marketing, when I was an intern in marketing, was very rudimentary.
Margaret Genovese: Absolutely. I remember when computerized ticketing came to Houston and it was called the Bay Area Ticket Service or something like that. And it was all brought in for sports and somehow we, the arts groups were going to get stuck with a very rudimentary, very old sort of Ticketmaster-ish system; it was very rudimentary.
Marc A. Scorca: These are early days of direct mail.
Margaret Genovese:...early days of direct mail, and I can remember when I came to Toronto, where they were truthfully very far behind. I mean really far behind. We were nice to donors who went fox hunting with Prince Philip, and things like that. I mean it was very rudimentary. And there I inherited a system where they type them on kind of like silk. And you ran them through some kind of mailing device, and it would imprint individually the brochures. And I discovered later that these silk things were unbelievably non-fireproof. In those days, people used to smoke in offices. I mean, a miss lit cigarette and the whole building apparently would have blown up. Who knew? Right? And I remember ones in the theater, where they had like metal plates and you stamp them. Oh, it was very rudimentary.
Marc A. Scorca: And of course this was even frankly before telemarketing, because telemarketing wasn't really a part of the picture.
Margaret Genovese: We did renewal because, I (like many people of my era) were trained by Danny Newman and we did do some phoning. We always did phoning. In those days, you used to try to get your board members or your volunteers to do the phoning. And you still see that in some small markets and it's incredibly effective. Just incredibly effective. I had some paid phoners. In fact, my first paid phoner was Bill Gillespie who went on to have the first Ring in Australia. And he started...he was on sick leave because he'd had had eye surgery and somebody in my department found him at Miller Outdoor Theater attending a performance, and he said he'd like to volunteer. And so the next thing Bill knew is he was calling, doing all the renewal phoning for the Houston Grand Opera that year.
Marc A. Scorca: And this was in the 1970's.
Margaret Genovese: Yeah, this would have been in the middle to late '70's.
Marc A. Scorca: It's funny that you mentioned Danny Newman. When I lived in Chicago, he and I lived in the same apartment building, and on Sunday evening laundry detail I would get lectures about direct mail and brochures and so much, frankly, if you read Subscribe Now, that Danny says in the book still has validity. You need to translate it into a more modern era. But there's great validity in so much of it.
Margaret Genovese: Oh, no question. I make my students still read it. Because Danny had a lot of trouble with the modern vocabulary. He always said marketing was going to the grocery store. And in a way, because he couldn't shift his vocabulary, he got perceived to be really old fashioned too early. So in marketing and fundraising teaching, Dory and I still use Subscribe Now and we use Harold J. Seymour's book from the early '50's called Principles of Fundraising. And Mr. Seymour was the first head of fundraising for Harvard, and he had run the war bonds campaign for FDR. So if you lose the history of the science of revenue development, I think today, (and I find this with teaching) you list something that the ancient Romans often knew, like in Roman comedy, is that human nature doesn't change very much. You know, if you're asked to do something by somebody who is a prominent individual whom you respect or fear, you're likely to do whatever it is they ask of you. It's totally common sense and it's just we as people. But when I went to the Houston Grand Opera, I went originally as the communications assistant to Martha, but Martha was really more of a press person. She loved dealing with the international press. She was very opera literate, which I was not, but she didn't actually know a great deal about marketing. And I had just graduated from my arts administration program, with my fresh degree. And when Martha left, overnight I became the marketing director, and I had actually never placed an ad. So I give David Gockley many thanks in life that he gave me that job.
Marc A. Scorca: Was the learning on the job part of the 1970's reality, or does that still pertain today?
Margaret Genovese: Oh, I think it still pertains today. The hardest thing to hire today is a marketing director with instincts, because everyone thinks it's numeric. You know, like people don't have that sort of gut response to what the product really is about. I had students this summer who told me the reason you would go to this Pinter play was because the subject matter was infidelity. And I thought, who would go to a play about infidelity because of the topic? I mean, would you be taking your spouse with you that you thought was erring? Why would that be the ... you have to have a certain instinct for the customer, you know?
Marc A. Scorca: So when did you go to Toronto from Houston?
Margaret Genovese: I ended up in Toronto January of 1979.
Marc A. Scorca: Why the move across the border?
Margaret Genovese: Lotfi Mansouri. I met Lotfi Mansouri at an OPERA America marketing workshop and he was a new general director in North America. And so he came to the course in Santa Fe, along with a number of other general directors - like Bob Heuer was there. I mean it was kind of impressive as to who came to the seminar to learn enough about marketing, so they could hire marketing staff.
Marc A. Scorca: So let's pause there for a second. We're going to come back to the 'Margaret goes to Canada' story in a second. I went to a marketing seminar in Santa Fe in the mid '80's. But you are doing those from earlier.
Margaret Genovese: Yeah, this would have been maybe the summer of '78 or the summer of '77? And Lotfi and I hit it off, and I told him at one point that my parents had been Canadians. And so I think he thought it would be easy to get me across the border, which it turned out not to be. But I think he thought he'd have an ace in the hole. Plus Houston Grand Opera. God, we did every possible experimental thing in marketing when I was there. I mean, David just was trying to convert the world to opera.
Marc A. Scorca: What did experimental look like in those days?
Margaret Genovese: Oh, well: free. Opera in English. In many ways we were cloning what a Kurt Herbert Adler had done at San Francisco, which is why Martha Munro ended up in Houston, because she had worked for Mr. Adler. But you know, things like free opera in the park; messaging that was not using foreign language titles for the operas, like Barber; embracing every new advertising technique we could find. So we did billboards, we did television, we did radio, which the San Francisco Opera in fact did not mostly do, because they were so sold. They had such high sales ratios. Whereas in Houston, we were a little more pioneer. And so anything that came along, David was eager to try, including the year that he had done an algebraic equation. You know, when you figure out what the response rate is to your season ticket brochure. So he did the matrix, like A and B and C and D, and he figured out that we had to mail something like 835,000 brochures. And if we had the same response rate, we would have enough subscribers to fill Jones Hall. And so I inherited the marketing program the year that we were doing that.
Marc A. Scorca: Did it work?
Margaret Genovese: No, it didn't work for a variety of reasons. One was that we had an English language series that was very hard to sell, including Monday night. Sometimes things don't sell because of the way they're packaged. I actually credit David for letting me learn how to package better. Because I would figure out that the reason something wasn't working was not that our messaging, our verbal communications were wrong. It was simply that there was something wrong with the original design, the framework, which is why Monday nights are hard to sell in Houston, Texas in English. But you name it, we did it. We were the first to do television.
Marc A. Scorca: All of this experimentation and you meet Lotfi. Lotfi is interested in bringing some new energy to the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. You hit it off, and you go across the border. Was it very different in Canada from the US in terms of dynamics at that time?
Margaret Genovese: Oh, we were so retrograde at the Canadian Opera Company and we were the biggest company in Canada. And the oldest. We had a database where everybody had - what do you call the thing that comes after your name? Like Esquire and PhD - our whole database had Esquire and PhD and MA and stuff on it, which does not fit very well in computers. And we were nice to people because they were related to royalty who didn't give us a dime. And Dory and I started work the same day. And we also discovered we had the same job description. And Lotfi had had so much trouble hiring revenue staff that we figured that he probably thought one of us would - if he started hiring two at a time, maybe his odds would increase. We could never get him to tell us that was the truth, but we always suspected it. And then about day two, Dory and I went out for Chinese food, and I said, "Well I'm more of the marketer,” and he was more of the fundraiser because he'd been working for Joffrey, and so we sort of divided the territory. And I actually have a paper napkin from that dinner in which we divvied up the work between us, and never told anyone. We just divvied it up and went ahead and did it.
Marc A. Scorca: So there you are in the 1980's at the Canadian Opera Company and arts marketing, opera marketing is beginning to become a little more scientific, a little bit more organized...
Margaret Genovese: For a long time, there was no one in the opera business in North America who was called marketer. There was, I believe, Patrick Veitch and me. Danny Newman was Press Representative or something. Margaret Norton was Box Office Treasurer. I mean the pickings were slim. And if you had anything that looked like a marketing job, you were called a communications officer. So the field was really small and then people completely resisted the word 'marketing'. Like there was no sense that it might be a neutral business term. And that was very true in Canada. I mean, people objected violently if you called it a product or if you used any...
Marc A. Scorca:...really made it a commodity...
Margaret Genovese: A commodity. And you know, I have an MBA, so I have been known to call things a product. And people really resisted it, but they also resisted notionally, especially in Canada, and this is...well...let me give you the scenario. Dory and I sort of divvy up the revenue streams. But we need a patrons program. And I say, "I know how to do a patrons program. We had one in Houston that Jack Mastroianni ran." So the first individual high-end giving program in Canada was a direct steal from the Houston Grand Opera's brochure for its presidents level giving. And I suspect that was a direct steal from The Met, because there's no sense in reinventing the word. To this day, I see that copy on websites all across the United States and Canada, all from that brochure from Houston that Jack designed. So in Toronto we are launching a president's circle kind of level thing. And we are taken out to dinner by the head of the Council for Business and the Arts in Canada to tell us that no individual in Canada will give $1,000 to the arts as an individual, because he's the corporate guy. And Dory piped up and said, "But we already have 44 donors at that level or higher." So patrons level giving was invented in Canada by the Canadian Opera Company on a direct steal from Houston, and possibly from the Met. It's like there's a lineage often. Canada's only contribution to the literature of fundraising really is the development of the corporate sponsorship. So someday - I always feel in my old, my dotage - I'll write the history of arts marketing and the history of arts fundraising. But I haven't reached my dotage yet. But the corporate sponsorship was Canada's contribution, which was that you bought an evening, and you called it the X, Y, Z corporate evening. Maybe you gave a party, you bought an extra 50 pairs of tickets. You got a program stuffer. That was a Canadian contribution. And the guy who invented it, who was a Canadian, proselytized all over the US, sent by the Ford Foundation, just like Danny Newman came to Canada, and did it in Britain. So all over the UK, you look at the sponsorship verbiage and it's still from - and that was very early. That would have been the 70's.
Marc A. Scorca: Now once we get into the early 1980's in Toronto... projected translations. Did they really change the marketing potential of an opera company?
Margaret Genovese: I think for those moments - always when you had to bring the first time buyer. In a way our inventing of them was partly a response to having done a concert performance for the opening of Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto. And Julius Rudel conducted and it was an opera in concert and I'm pretty sure it was Capriccio. I meant to look it up, but I think it was Capriccio, and we had a whole audience of high end donors, opera donors and it's the opening of the Toronto Symphony's new hall and everything. No one had the faintest idea what was going on stage. It was huge, lustrous cast. We printed little libretti for people. And it was a concert hall, so it was fairly light. You could actually read the libretto if you wanted. But no one had the faintest idea what was going on. And after that, we were all sitting around the management table and saying (that) it's really hard to take very first time goers if they don't have the faintest idea what's going on. Or you say to them, you have to study up - which, in a throwaway society, telling people you have to study to enjoy it adds an extra layer to selling. So to me, it completely changed. We had so many opportunities at the Canadian Opera Company, because we were such aggressive marketers and fundraisers that we constantly had new people coming. I had all these ticket pricing programs and we did outdoor opera at the Harbor front under a tent, and you could sing along and we did all this audience outreach. But then you would worry that you'd get them to the big hall, and it was no longer in English and so forth. So suddenly we got over that barrier. We could suddenly take the newbie in a controlled environment where you could supervise the food and drink and the quality of the seats and people being nice to them at intermission. You know you can control a lot of your variables for the first time attender. But what we couldn't control is how they would respond to what was going on, on stage. So to me that changed it, because you never have to be worried ever again - unless they can't read or they don't read the language the surtitles are in.
Marc A. Scorca: So at this point then also the marketing field is growing in population. People are beginning to enter arts marketing, opera marketing as a professional specialty.
Margaret Genovese: Yeah. But they're not very well trained.
Marc A. Scorca: And the population grew because companies realize that earned income, it had to be a part of their growth. And companies were in a growth mode, so they need to build the audience. But they weren't well trained, you say.
Margaret Genovese: They're not well trained. They're not well trained because what they forget is: everyone is so fixated on finding the young audience. When you and I were first going to the opera, people were delighted that we were there when we were 18. We were the young audience that was found. So there's no particular reason to assume, given human nature, that new, younger audiences will continue to be found. I find that statistically, a kind of a difficult thing. But what I would say is, we can guarantee a much better first time experience. But back to the training. So the thing about the training is, people forget that you have multiple age cohorts. And in fact, there was a great seminar one year at OPERA America, and I never could get anyone ever to send me the stuff for it, but some guy in Texas, and it was like, what kinds of media do different age cohorts respond to best? And it was totally useful. And basically it said you couldn't give up any of the means of expression. You couldn't assume it would all be social media. You couldn't assume it was all Facebook. You couldn't assume it was all direct mail. You actually had different audiences, who had different communication patterns and ways that they access data. And so now we have generations trained. A couple of things...one is the fixation on the younger audience where the much older audience are much more likely to be your legacy givers. The age cohorts stop at 65. Well, I know people who go to the opera in Toronto who come with their moms and the person I know might be 65 and her mom's 90. They're different generations. They have very little in common except they're mother and daughter, they're blood relatives. Then we have the whole myth that you can't sell packages. To the point that I don't even call them subscriptions anymore. I call them bundles, trying to get around what appears to be a very negative vocabulary. But of course you can get a person to buy a bundle of activities. Make the price right, add a few perks and they'll come five, six times a year. And it saves you all this other chazerai, right? Then you have people who simply don't know any of the basic rules of salesmanship. So you get all of these fancy, pretty art piece brochures that they've produced 7,000 of, and then they won't give them to you because they're too expensive per unit. Well, believe me, after I did 800,000 pieces for David Gockley a million years ago, we have lost a certain amount of awareness-building, because we used to do all that direct mail to people. And we used to insert newspapers. You can still insert The Sunday New York Times in most markets, because it comes in a plastic bag. If you're in Louisville, you can stuff The New York Times with your season brochure. People don't know how to buy it.
Marc A. Scorca: Even though you're no longer a marketer, you're still clearly a marketer.
Margaret Genovese: Well, I teach.
Marc A. Scorca: Okay, fair enough. So I do want to explore that, because this is about talking to you, Margaret, and you worked at Canadian Opera Company for roughly 10 years. And then consulting began to be the way you went, and you gave up the solo opera company affiliation. Was that a really courageous act for you around 1990?
Margaret Genovese: No, not really. To be candid, it was because we assumed that we would ultimately follow Lotfi to San Francisco. Dory and I assumed that we would ultimately follow him. We'd go back to the United States. And a couple of things happened. One was, Lotfi was not one to go in and just roll heads. He had a degree in psychology. He was sensitive to the fact that people resist change. So he would try to earn people's trust and then evaluate. So we had a little bit of time off, Dory and I, and we kept getting offered little bits of work. So we did a little of this and a little of that and stuff like that. And then a couple of things happened. I decided I didn't want to live in San Francisco, because I found it provincial. And our relationship with Lotfi changed. We became more like senior colleagues. We'd always loved working for him and everything, but suddenly our relationship changed. He was more like a friend. I used to stay in his house. So we continued always to work for him. We did the campaign the year we had to move. I did all the communication strategies with Jake Heggie the year we had to move the opera subscription audience. I did all of that with Elena Park. I found him three marketing directors or Dory found him three marketing directors. We worked on the capital campaign for the renovation of the opera house. But in a way our relationship - and I went out there when Doug Allen died suddenly. So I kept going out and running the department for six months or something like that, because the staff knew me, and I could run the department. But Toronto's a very wonderful place to live, you know?
Marc A. Scorca: Well I love Toronto, but the life of a consultant is different because your relationship with your clients can be in certain ways franker, more honest, because you're in and you're out, and you're paid to deliver the message. And yet you don't see a project through to fruition necessarily. It's a kind of time limited relationship. So did you find the operating dynamics of being a consultant equally satisfying?
Margaret Genovese: Ah well, if I can insert Dory into this conversation, even though he's not here...he found it harder than I did, because he wanted a project to absolutely maximize and do the absolute best it could possibly do. And I would say to him sometimes, "Sometimes if people just make a small improvement, they feel they got their money's worth, and they've been able to say that was a good experience. 'We went from A to B; we didn't get all the way to F’." And I think he had a lot trouble with that. But not everyone you deal with as a consultant are really the sharpest knives in the drawer. And I find that sometimes when I do workshops like for the province or something, it's not that you're trying to dumb it down, but you're trying to make a group of people feel that some kind of activity is possible for them to do. And it's not about a highfalutin consultant saying, "Well, if you invested in a better system, and you had Tessitura and you had all this stuff"... You have to kind of deal with the raw material you're actually dealing with. And I had less trouble with that than he did. Because when you run a department, you can hire the brain trust you want. You're going to hire all the smartest people you can find. When you're a consultant, you are given the parameters. I had someone in OPERA America a year or two ago...I had this one little idea, and their artistic director sought me out to tell me that this one little idea had just changed their universe.
Marc A. Scorca: How wonderful.
Margaret Genovese: Isn't that nice? But it was a little idea, right?
Marc A. Scorca: Not a big rewrite of the program, but a little idea.
Margaret Genovese: It was just something that had occurred to me when I was walking through the building and I thought, "I must remember that." And then we became recruiters very quickly, because once I determined that I was not going to go to San Francisco, I had to find a new Margaret. I had to find someone to be me to work for Lotfi. So in many ways, that was my first official search. And then we found Ann Ewers for Utah.
Marc A. Scorca: Because you have such a big scope: a couple of questions here. So you've mentioned a few Titans in our field, David Gockley, Lotfi, you mentioned Mr. Adler, you mentioned Sarah Caldwell by name. Danny Newman. In the Mount Rushmore of opera in America, these are big names. Are there a couple of people you think of as the true benchmark leaders you've known or worked with?
Margaret Genovese: Well that list is actually pretty complete. I mean Danny changed the face of how we saw (sales). One thing about Danny that people don't really know, he felt you had a relationship to your audience and you had a responsibility to your audience. It was almost like a covenant, if you want a religious word. And sometimes when you see things that happen, where arts organizations have really mucked up their relationship with that audience. That's a primary thing always in Danny's mind, is that you owe them something too. You have blandishments and a great discount and they're gonna come and see operas that in a billion years they would never thought of coming to. But you have a relationship to them, to make sure that they're well treated; and that you address them properly; and you are nice to them; and you send them stuff. So Danny was very influential in my thinking. And the other thing was, he was never afraid to try any way to sell. And I'm fearless about selling. David. Oh, David. David's belief in opera as a living art form, and always wanting to have new things going on and the ability to do it in all these bizarre spaces. When we were outdoors at Miller Theater, we were doing Susannah and El Capitan. We weren't just doing little Bohèmes and Butterflies all the time. Treemonisha was done there. He was all for pushing that rep. And although working for a man who had a million ideas a day about how to sell had its moments of fear, he absolutely believed that he could find new buyers for opera. And I do believe constantly you can't let the battle down to find new audiences. But I am much more cynical. I don't think ultimately if you're the VP of marketing of the big opera company, your job is not conversion. Your job is treating the people you found fantastically, so that ultimately they become donors. I'm all for having new people come to the opera. But let us not forget, our job is to fill those seats. Artists need audiences. That's our job. Make the budget; then we can convert. And people don't like it when I say that, but I believe it to be true because empty houses do not allow you to get converts. But in terms of the other people. Sarah, I think. I saw her productions in high school, because she was really innovative. Lotfi was a fantastic manager. He'll never get enough credit; he was a really good manager. Read people well and a good manager. All those other people, Mr. Adler basically invented (them?)... But I never knew where they emanated from, because you remember he had that dream team a while. He had Ann Farris working for him and Bob Darling, and a whole bunch of other people who were all young and hot and hip. And Martha, I suppose. So he had his own little brain trust and all those things like the Merola program and Stern Grove and everything. That all vastly expanded under him. So I didn't really answer the question, but...
Marc A. Scorca: Well no, you did. And you talk about David in his pioneering view of American opera in the 1970's and today, 45 years after you joined Houston Grand Opera, there is an American opera repertoire. There are so many companies doing new or existing American opera in big or small spaces, traditional, nontraditional venues. So do you feel pleased with, proud of the world of opera today?
Margaret Genovese: Oh very much so, but I also think sometimes we have very short memories, because if you really look back at the history and times of those companies, it wasn't like people weren't doing premiers. I mean there was all this Canadian opera product, at a time when the Canadian Opera Company from a fiscal point of view was very ill-equipped to mount new operas. And they did quite a lot of full length Canadian operas, as did other companies. In a way, we've had the explosion now and that's wonderful. But I used to sometimes say to young marketers, don't ever say it's the American premier, call New Orleans first. And then after you call New Orleans, call the archivist at the Met, because you could be dead wrong. Because there were all these people out who knows where, who decided that some local legend deserved to have an operatic treatment. And we look at the history of opera, Salieri and all his compatriots...even what we can think of as the standard repertoire is really a 20th century device, I think. But I query, I question deeply what I keep hearing, is that one of the reasons you're doing this new rep is because you're going to attract a younger audience. I don't believe that. I think younger audiences, because they were raised on Aladdin, are actually extremely conservative first time attenders. They go to operas whose names they recognize, because their grandparents saw it. It's people like me who go to all the (new rep), and since I went to the New Works Forum, I'm becoming the queen of indie opera in Toronto, I just want you to know. I've seen more new product and I'm on my way to see more new product than you could possibly imagine. I googled everybody who came from Canada, what the hell? But I don't believe that at all. There is that audience that does the Laurie Anderson performance, art blah-di-blah, dance, Fantasias and things. That is an audience for new opera. But those people won't come to Rigoletto. And the absolute newbies, if my students are any examples of, their first, their first ballet was Swan Lake.
Marc A. Scorca: So are you content then with companies that understand they have different audiences now?
Margaret Genovese: Oh, I think we always had different audiences, and I think that was one place where David Gockley led me down the primrose path a million years ago. He had a chart in his office, in his handwriting. And the idea was you saw opera for free outdoors, and then you saw opera in English, and this is pre surtitles, so then you would ultimately see the Otello in Italian. And one day - and working for David was so good for my head, because he's so smart - I sat in the office and I thought, "No, I need to learn to value each of my discrete audiences, and if I get crossover: fantastic. I'm a star." But they're discrete audiences, and I must learn to talk to them as a discrete audience. I must value them as a discrete audience, but I bet I can raise money from all of them. It's just a point of view, right? But I was always made to feel badly, because if I didn't sell enough subscriptions at the outdoor thing, then that somehow meant we had failed. And we didn't fail at all. We were producing 10,000 opera goers outdoors.
Marc A. Scorca:...who thought well of Houston Grand Opera.
Margaret Genovese: We were a good citizen. You know, you should get some points in life as a major institution for being a good citizen. And San Francisco I think always knew that. I think that Stern Grove and stuff, and they did brown bag opera and stuff. That's being a good citizen.
Marc A. Scorca: And in San Francisco I mean it goes back to Luisa Tetrazzini and (Enrico) Caruso singing outside.
Margaret Genovese: But even in that era, you'd go outside at Stern Grove and it would be Carol Vaness. It was hardly unheard of singers. So I don't think we give ourselves enough credit for being good citizens. But I know that when you do that thing for the boards, and you have that as one of your questions. I absolutely completely agree with that Marc, because why would anyone fund you? Why would anyone care about you? Why would anyone try to save you, if you did not have a good relationship with the people in your community? It doesn't make any sense to me.
Marc A. Scorca: Let me ask a final question. You're teaching, so you have the newest people who are entering our field. And Margaret, you and I both have been in the business a long time.
Margaret Genovese: We've had the privilege...
Marc A. Scorca: We've had the privilege. So the people you're teaching today aren't the age of what might've been your children. They were the age of what might have been your grandchildren. So we're talking about a multigenerational sweep here. And what is the most important kind of connection you try to make between young people and their predecessors?
Margaret Genovese: Well first of all, I try to impart on them that one of the things about being a marketer (or a fundraiser for that matter) is you must actually learn the history of the institution for which you work. You must know why it is called, you know, Opera Romboyd or something. And people don't even take the time to do that. They didn't know it used to have a different name. I have these conversations sometimes and I say, "Oh, is that when so-and-so was your general director.” No idea. So the historical past should perhaps be embraced. I don't call them young people. I call them younger people. The first thing is they have very little attendance exposure. So now before they can start the class, they have to go see five things, especially in art forms they know nothing about, because they have, in many cases, never bought a ticket. And so I actually try to make them do really basic things like go to a box office in person, buy a ticket on the phone, and also buy one online. Have the whole distribution possibilities. The papers are scary. This is the first time I ever saw ballet, Margaret. It's the first time I ever went to the Symphony. I have a student who subs with the AF of M in her city and she did not know on the night she went to the theater that the box office would stay open until curtain. And she went racing over before six o'clock to pick up a ticket - and she's a musician. She actually subs with the local symphony, but never bought a ticket. So that's the first thing. And then the other thing is I try to really impart to them the joy of being an audience member. Because if it doesn't speak to you, why would you do this for a living? It's the 24-7 life on many levels. And if it doesn't speak to you... I am a huge attender, so in that sense, I'm a good role model. Perhaps not in other ways. I use bad language in class sometimes. But I try to really say, "You've got to see it. You can't have a knee jerk response if you've never heard early music live, you gotta go here early music live. You can't just assume that it's not for you." And so I spent a lot of time pushing the envelope of that. And I am very concerned about the inability to deal with other age cohorts. And some training programs, everybody is an age cohort. It is a better learning experience if they're more varied...some people are in their forties and have kids and things like that. Because otherwise you're still in that kind of 'I was a university student' bubble, and there are other people in the world and you're going to have to talk to them.
Marc A. Scorca: What's the one thing you really look forward to in the opera world (in) the next 10 years? What are you really looking forward to?
Margaret Genovese: That's an excellent question. On a professional level, Dory and I spent a lot of time fussing about endowment building and so on and so forth, because we're so worried that ticket prices have exceeded the grasp of your basic audience and because you always run the risk in those big halls. You know, you're going to have the complete down and out who can't afford more than 10 bucks. And then the people who are spending $285 to see something. So you don't want opera to accidentally become ever more Trumpian frankly. Just because people can afford $285 for a seat doesn't actually mean that's what you ought to be charging them.
Marc A. Scorca: It will certainly distort their expectation and lead to the potential for greater disappointment at the end.
Margaret Genovese: Absolutely. And I'm a big fan of putting all students on the floor on rush tickets. We have historically had some architecture problems in selling opera because some of the venues we're in are just so gigunda. And so the experiences that you have...and then you get all that pressure to try to sell out a house that is just too big. Jones Hall in Houston that I sold for years, which is the same size essentially as the War Memorial and the O'Keefe Center: they're hard to sell. They are of varying quality though. The War Memorial is a much better experience up in the gods than the other two. On the other hand, the O'Keefe had fabulous sightlines. So even up in the gods you could see. So I think we have some physical plant issues that still haven't really been resolved. I'm worried about pricing going out of...but what am I looking forward to? When you've always been a very diverse art form...I think the fact that we continue to embrace our diversity, our cross cultural casting, our cross gender casting and so forth. We've always been in the vanguard of that. I think we should pat ourselves on the back more. To me opera has the potential of being the most successful art form, always. Multilingual, international, multimedia. We have it all, so I think we just continue to exploit those virtues of us, as a field.
Marc A. Scorca: It's a kind of a wonderful way to look forward, to recognize the assets that we have in this art form - the work we have to do, but the assets we have to do it.
Margaret Genovese: Oh yeah.
Marc A. Scorca: It's always such a pleasure to talk to you, Margaret. It is a masterclass. And thank you for being here today. I know you're working with the leadership intensive and we'll catch up soon.