Opera Companies Reinventing Themselves
Minnesota’s arts community is still recovering from the early phase of the pandemic that led to venue closures. But the resilience of arts organizations, particularly those that showcase opera, was on display in mid-May when Minneapolis hosted a prominent opera conference.
Opera America is the service organization for North American opera companies, boasting a membership of 202 professional companies and more than 2,500 additional affiliated members. Its annual conference is the largest gathering of the opera field’s administrators, trustees, funders, and advocates. The recent event held in Minneapolis was the first in-person conference since the pandemic hit North America in early 2020.
Programs encompassed a joyous celebration of live performances and an introspective examination of the need for field-wide change.
Indeed, opera companies are changing. Opera America has pushed for and galvanized the field around ways to become larger players in civic life.
Opera America is leading change through its work around equity, diversity, and inclusion in composers commissioned, stories told, artists employed, staff hired, trustees recruited, and audiences served. Its funding programs support commissioning, particularly of work that tells uniquely American stories and diversifies the centuries-old canon created by European composers. And its push for innovation in presentation and community engagement is influencing the course of the art form’s development with the tagline, “Moving Opera Forward.”
These developments have accelerated during a confluence of societal shifts. Not only did opera companies face the complete shutdown of physical performance during the pandemic and the loss of all ticketed income, but they also wanted to respond to the societal reckoning after George Floyd’s murder, the growth in income disparities that is widening the wealth gap, and the shifting habits of audiences who have not resumed their pre-Covid attendance habits.
“Any one of these factors could have knocked us out, but all of these happening at once, and to all of us at the same time, has forced the field to think very deeply about who we are and who we want to serve,” says Ryan Taylor, president and general director of the Minnesota Opera.
Companies are grappling with their role in communities. The conference posed the question, “What is the mission of an opera company in today’s world?” Many of the themes would resonate with business leaders in any sector: racial equity, social justice, digital transformation, next-generation strategies, and post-pandemic customer behavior.
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I participated in a conference session on “sustainability.” That session and many others focused on future-facing themes. For example:
- The opening keynote featured the highly praised Minnesota author Kao Kalia Yang, whose memoir, The Song Poet, is the basis of a Minnesota Opera commission from composer Jocelyn Hagen, slated for performance in the spring of 2023. Afterwards, a racially diverse group of opera practitioners discussed the core mission of an opera company in an era when addressing inequities is a prominent societal theme. They asked whether “performance at the highest quality” should always lead or whether there are other important roles for opera companies to play. The session looked at ways to“awaken our potential as engaged cultural citizens dedicated to economic, social, and racial justice.”
- “Dismantling Opera’s Elitism” was a general session the following day, with opera leaders in conversation with Greg Cunningham, chief diversity officer at U.S. Bank. In a workshop, attendees examined practices in their organizations and discussed ways to remove barriers to participating in the art form.
- Multiple sessions focused on digital strategy, where practitioners who invested in online programming during the pandemic presented their approaches and lessons learned.
The past two years’ external events made this gathering a watershed event, says Minnesota Opera’s Taylor. “As a field, we have been able to hit fast forward on things that needed to be done. Instead of gradual shifts, because of the pandemic interruption, we can reimagine how we want to move forward,” he says. “The level of discourse has changed.”
As a result, Taylor says, “We have to reallocate resources to bring the company and its art in line with our values.”
At Minnesota Opera, that process is well underway. It’s affecting everything from who is hired and how, who is on stage, what is commissioned, who serves on the board of directors, and how the company uses media to tell its stories. Taylor describes an unfiltered podcast series, The Score, in which three African American staffers at the Minnesota Opera share stories that “bring Black, Indigenous, people of color, queer, trans and nonbinary people into the discussion of ownership and access to the art form,” amplifying “the voices of those in the field who are pushing the boundaries of what opera is, who it is for, and how it can transform us and our communities.”
If you haven’t been to the opera lately, maybe it’s time you go, and experience firsthand the changes afoot. Opera is reinventing itself, as it has repeatedly done over the centuries, reflecting and challenging the times we live in, and continuing to engage and inspire audiences.
Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media, and philanthropic sectors.