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Article Published: 14 Jul 2021

Opera Conference 2021

For the second year in a row, COVID restrictions made OPERA America’s annual Opera Conference an online event. The virtual model provided a remarkable degree of access and immediacy. Over three weeks in May, the conference brought together nearly a thousand registrants — more than has ever attended an in-person conference — for interactive streams that allowed viewers to feel up close with the speakers and catch up with colleagues in the live chat.

Over its three-week span, the conference focused on three key themes, all informed by the significant shifts that the past year has brought to the industry: “Artists at the Center,” “The Politics of Art” and “Achieving a New Normal.” On each Monday of the conference, a keynote speaker introduced the week’s topic; on each Wednesday, a panel of experts offered an in-depth discussion, followed by case studies.

Artists at the Center (May 10 and 12)

It was fitting that an artist — tenor Lawrence Brownlee — should kick off the conference. Since the onset of the pandemic, the hardship faced by opera artists has been immeasurable, but their creativity has been equally immense as they’ve redefined the art form for the digital sphere. Brownlee — a prolific producer of online content during the pandemic, as well as artistic advisor and a board member at Opera Philadelphia — offered a look at how artists can take on a more central role in shaping opera companies’ operations. “Board rooms are often filled with people who have excelled in business and other ventures, and sometimes ‘the art’ might get lost,” he said. “I want to make sure that we preserve the very thing that inspired board members to want to support the art in the first place and remind them of its intrinsic value. We must make sure that the art is always at the core of everything we do.”

Brownlee’s remarks touched off a spirited discussion among Wednesday’s panelists, who addressed the question “What does ‘centering the artist in the work of the company’ mean to you, and how do you describe the benefits of artist-centered work?”:

Karen Slack
soprano and artistic advisor, Portland Opera

"Centering artists in the work of the company in this period meant that leaders had to speak less, listen more, admit they didn’t have the answers, and commit to creating room for artists and new ideas to come to the front. Watching singers, composers, instrumentalists, and directors in our industry create innovative and often thought-provoking art has been a tremendous gift that I hope is acknowledged and supported when we return to live performances."

Yuval Sharon
artistic director, The Industry and Michigan Opera Theatre

"Artists in opera are often taught to trust the machinery of the institution and allow themselves to be taken care of, but before they know it, they can find themselves in a situation where they cannot do their best work or the opera that you’re working on is being marketed in a way that is completely different from what will be presented on stage. In all kinds of ways, all the producers have to do is involve the artists in the process and give them some authority to influence the overall work. And then instead of a sense of alienation and disconnectedness, they could achieve the unity that we all strive for when we create a production."

Artists at the Center: Lead Presentation by Lawrence Brownlee
Artists at the Center: Panel Discussion
The Politics of Art (May 17 and 19)

In her keynote address, Christia Mercer, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, provided a historical and philosophical background for politics in art, and in opera in particular. “As long as there has been public art, there has been a debate about its proper relation to the public,” Mercer said. “And insofar as opera is public art, it is political.”

“For decades now, arts organizations have understood their responsibilities in a fairly straightforward way: to be the best
organization of its kind, to promote the health and well-being of its art and constituents,” she continued. “Many of you have sought to support the flourishing of opera in America. And that has been a noble enterprise. But given our new knowledge, that kind of flourishing now seems inadequate. We now know that our community is ill; and we must attend to that illness.”

Wednesday’s panel responded to the question “What obligation do arts organizations have to engage with the important issues of today, and how can arts leaders make the case for taking positions that may be interpreted as ‘political?’”

Torrie Allen
president and CEO, Arts Midwest

"I believe the obligation opera companies have to engage with important issues is deeply rooted in the very DNA of opera."

Kimberly Reed
librettist and film director and producer

"It’s the obligation of arts organizations to simply recognize that everything they present is political. Each piece either reinforces our current power structures or phobias or discriminations or it holds them to account. If we don’t, the opera character who is the “Other” with a capital O will be reviled for their exoticism or perhaps even vaunted for that exoticism, the disabled opera character will be seen as nothing more than crippled, and the hysterical soprano really will somehow deserve to die in the end."

Cerise Jacobs
executive producer, White Snake Projects

"Now more than ever, art is political, and artmaking is a political act. There is no neutral position. When we choose to produce only so-called safe works from the traditional repertory without addressing problems inherent in these pieces, that’s not being neutral — that’s a political statement."

Tazewell Thompson
director, playwright, and librettist; director of opera studies, Manhattan School of Music

"I rejoice that there is such a mechanism as the theater — the opera theater — where writers, librettists, composers working together with singers, actors, musicians, and other artists can connect themselves to our world, pierce through its dark divisive density, and show to our fellow humans something of its mystery and violence and terror and inequities and oppression and pity and humor and love and our capacity to change."

The Politics of Art: Lead Presentation by Dr. Christia Mercer
The Politics of Art: Panel Discussion
Achieving a New Normal (May 24 and 26)

In his keynote address, Julian Chender, a manager at Accenture and a fellow at Kates Kesler Organization Consulting, discussed how opera companies can break down organizational silos, stressing the importance of interdepartmental collaboration to address issues like racial equity and audience development.

During the Wednesday discussion, a panel of leaders responded to the prompt “After a year of unprecedented artistic, social, and technological change, what structural or procedural changes can organizations make to increase their capacity to change, innovate, and progress?”

Lee Bynum
vice president of impact, Minnesota Opera

"Put in place diverse representation within the groups deciding what gets produced. The broader the representation of perspectives, the greater the organizational capacity to identify and circumvent blind spots."

Khori Dastoor
general director, Opera San José

"Prioritizing organizational culture — spending, time, money, and thought power to manifest the culture you want to support — is the most important investment a company can make in its own future and is the only real way to build a truly resilient organization that will absorb the next unforeseen challenge."

Jaime Martino
executive director, Tapestry Opera

"My answer now is the same answer I would have given before the pandemic. It’s about approaching first with empathy and compassion, and understanding that people are the best authority on what they need to be successful. It’s about reminding ourselves and each other that we are worth more than our output."

Rebekah Diaz
manager of community engagement and IDEA initiatives, Pittsburgh Opera

"We need to develop our own industry-wide, unique, and original best practices for what EDI really looks like for the opera industry. To date, many of these companies that have been embracing EDI principles have really adopted the corporate American model or the social services model. It’s fantastic, but it doesn’t really fit our needs, so I would love to see our industry begin to develop those metrics for ourselves specifically and uniquely."

Achieving a New Normal: Lead Presentation by Julian Chender
Achieving a New Normal: Panel Discussion