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Article Published: 08 Nov 2020

Innovation Forges Forward

While the pandemic dashed nearly all of opera companies’ plans for 2020, it has also stoked creativity. Outside-the-box thinking can be seen in the most recent round of projects to receive support from OPERA America’s Innovation Grant program. Several of the projects — including Opera Cultura’s new multimedia opera Mi Camino and Opera Memphis’ Project Zauberverse — seek to connect with audiences virtually. Nearly a third of the Innovation-funded projects address racial equity, providing opportunities for BIPOC artists, creators, and administrators. And in a first for OPERA America’s grantmaking, an award has gone to an initiative, from the Center for Contemporary Opera, directly addressing climate change.

All told, 13 Innovation Grants, totaling $980,000 over two years, fund projects in a variety of areas: civic practice, new business models, and career development programs. Launched in 2016 and funded by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Innovation Grant program is designed to support projects that address artistic vitality, audience experience, organizational effectiveness, and community connections, with the goal of sharing replicable successes with the field.

Business Models and Practices

Center for Contemporary Opera:
Carbon-Neutral Opera
Following the example of several European opera companies, the Center for Contemporary Opera will address the climate crisis not only through its onstage programming, but also through its business practices. The Center for Contemporary Opera will use its grant to program repertoire that explores environmental issues, while also seeking to reduce the carbon footprint of its productions.

Portland Opera:
Eastside Arts Hub Project
Portland Opera will establish best practices for making its artistic and administrative home, the Hampton Opera Center, a performance, rehearsal, and event space for local arts companies and nonprofits. The procedures will provide a blueprint for other opera companies seeking to explore similar program options.

San Diego Opera:
Opera Hack 2.0
San Diego Opera will host Opera Hack 2.0, an online-based hackathon for experts from the theater and technology sectors. Spurred by the results of an industry-wide survey, the participants will collaborate and discover new ways that technology can create solutions. A total of $15,000 will be awarded to three winning groups. All participating groups will be invited to share their solutions on operahack.org to encourage further opportunities for collaboration. (SDO’s first Opera Hack was the recipient of a 2018 Innovation Grant.)

Sani Diego Opera's first Opera Hack
Sani Diego Opera's first Opera Hack (photo: courtesy San Diego Opera)
Civic Practice

Opera Omaha:
Holland Community Opera Fellowship — Impact on Organization
Opera Omaha will partner with industry professionals on methodology for evaluating its Holland Community Opera Fellowship, its program sending artists into the community to act as ambassadors and forge partnerships. The company will write a case study on its findings and continue its developmental evaluation, and then will use the results to refine program assessment tools that can be shared with the field. (Opera Omaha’s Holland Community Opera Fellowship received a 2017 Innovation Grant.)

A Holland Fellows event hosted by Opera Omaha
A Holland Fellows event hosted by Opera Omaha (photo: Thomas Grady)

Opera Saratoga:
Opera Saratoga Memory Center Residency Initiative
Opera Saratoga is launching an engagement-centered music therapy program for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. It will serve memory centers across seven counties in Upstate New York. Facilitated in partnership with Songs by Heart, an organization specializing in music therapy for those with dementia, this program will be the first of its kind at any U.S. opera company.

Technology and Storytelling

Eugene Opera:
Animated Digital Set Projection Collaboration
Eugene Opera is partnering with University of Oregon’s School of Art + Design on an experiential education process in which design students, working with the company’s creative team, will create an animated digital set. This project will reconfigure an existing Magic Flute set with surfaces for projected animations.

Michigan Opera Theatre:
Lead Storyteller and Digital Media Specialist
Michigan Opera Theatre is creating a new position — lead storyteller and digital media specialist — charged with curating and communicating stories of mission-driven impact to the broader community. This person will act as an embedded journalist, covering all MOT programs and capturing the experiences of the company’s patrons, musicians, guest artists, and program participants. The goal is to support growth in audiences, partnerships, and contributions — all critical to MOT’s strategic plan.

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

IN Series:
Cardwell-Dawson Resident Artist Program
IN Series’ new Resident Artist Program will be the nation’s first emerging artist program exclusively for singers of color. Named for Mary Cardwell Dawson, founder of the National Negro Opera Company, the program will give young artists of exceptional potential a two-year platform to gain skills needed for professional exploration and development. This program aims to transform IN Series’ opera productions into a welcoming, multi-colored space.

American Lyric Theater:
Opera Writers Diversity and Representation Initiatives
American Lyric Theater’s Opera Writers Diversity and Representation Initiative will increase recruitment of gifted BIPOC artists to the company’s nationally acclaimed Composer Librettist Development Program. The company aims to identify and remove barriers for BIPOC artists to participate in the Composer Librettist Development Program, and to make changes to the program and organizational structure to ensure that ALT, in its mentorship of composers and librettists, can meaningfully address diversity and equity.

The Glimmerglass Festival:
Breaking Glass 2: Embracing Inclusion
The Glimmerglass Festival is building on its Breaking Glass project, a podcast and conversation series about art and social issues, to embed a 360-degree approach to equity, diversity, and inclusion within all areas of operations — from artistic to administrative, written policies to board leadership. Led by a task force of staff, artists, board members, and consultants, the company will develop tools and procedures to evaluate and implement an effective EDI policy that can be shared with the field. (Glimmerglass’s first Breaking Glass program received a 2017 Innovation Grant.)

Glimmerglass' first Breaking Glass program
Glimmerglass' first Breaking Glass program (photo: Karli Cadel)

Nashville Opera:
HBCU: Opera Bound!
Nashville Opera and Tennessee State University are joining forces to present HBCU: Opera Bound!, a collaboration aimed at increasing the presence of Black artists and administrators in the opera industry. An eight-month series of online master classes, led by prominent Black opera artists, will offer training tailored to the needs of HBCU students.


Opera Cultura
Mi Camino: The Pandemic Story of Farmworkers and Day Laborers
Opera Cultura will commission composer-librettist Héctor Armienta to create a new song-cycle opera, Mi Camino, inspired by stories of immigrant farmworkers. Through song and video, the work will explore immigration issues and show the impact of COVID-19 on the immigrant community. The project is intended to create dialogue about the pandemic across the multicultural community of Santa Clara County, California — one of the hardest-hit regions in the U.S.

This article was published in the Fall 2020 issue of Opera America Magazine.