Opera's 21st Century Game Changers

San Francisco Opera | Photo: BSPOKE

San Francisco Opera | Photo: BSPOKE

(Paris, France) - Opera America’s 2019 conference is ongoing in San Francisco this week. This year’s event did sell out, congratulations to both Opera America and host company San Francisco Opera. Based on Janos Gerber’s San Francisco Classical Voice reporting, the program for this gathering of American opera’s movers and shakers is robust, meaningful and clearly focused on the very survival and success of opera going forward.  

“A persistent issue for Opera America is the ongoing difficulty of opera in America — building budgets, increasing audiences, finding ways to produce new works. ‘At a time when opera is faced with a combination of challenges and exciting opportunities,’ says Opera America President and CEO Marc A. Scorca, ‘field leaders have to draw on innovative ideas from within and outside the performing arts to thrive.’”

Who are opera’s global game changers for the 21st century?

When I happened to catch Metropolitan Opera Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin in Fast Company, I jumped out of my seat. Named one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business, this piece covered all sectors and every kind of professional imaginable. Hugely significant, a major breakthrough and key, breakout recognition. Maestro’s Opera America-esque quote: “We have to undo decades of thinking that this is an art form only for the initiated.” It appears he is doing just that, opening up rehearsals for high school students, working to create more one-to-one mentoring, as well as more accessible satellite venues across New York’s boroughs. Given The Met’s Mecca-like stature in American opera, this is huge.  But the fact that Fast Company recognized an opera conductor in a business piece speaks volumes and poses some critical questions.

LA Opera’s Christopher Koelsch, in a 2014 Barron’s piece on “The Business of Opera,”stated that "running an opera has a lot in common with running a fixed income portfolio." Writer Harold F. Pitcairn II also described the risk management and diversified portfolio-like aspects of building a successful opera company, in both financial and critical terms.  This would appear to be the current approach of San Francisco Opera’s Matthew Shilvock, managing change, some painful, to mitigate the company’s budgetary challenges. However, the company’s establishment of the Department of Diversity, Equity and Community on Monday marks a company and perhaps national opera industry first; I am aware of similar efforts by other companies, but this coupled with an ‘Opera is Alive’ brand campaign across all channels deserve recognition for creating uptake and interest beyond the opera-going public.  

If we look for opera innovation abroad, a few examples come to mind. 

In 2017, French business journal Challenges detailed the announcement of a 10-year co-branding partnership between music tech startup Devialet and Opéra Nationale de Paris, including the arrival of a Devialet retail boutique and "sound experience" inside the company's opulent Garnier house.In BloombergJean-Philippe Thiellay, General Director Designate, indicated that it was an ideal and novel way for Opéra de Paris to "to reinvent itself and open up to a changing world," and that the company is "convinced (that) behind each opera aficionado there is a geek...we’re seeking more tech partnerships.” To that, Devialet CEO Quentin Sannié took a risk and may ultimately win big. From Fortune Magazine: "The idea of setting up shop in the Opéra, a very traditional, nearly 350-year-old institution, wasn’t even conceivable. But we’re driven by the impossible, so we pitched them the idea. Charles Garnier was a maverick, a relatively unknown architect who created one of the most extravagant and innovative monuments of the 19th century—we could relate to his ambition.”  Clearly, the audacity and innovation of this French-grown startup appears to be meeting the needs of a distinguished legacy brand. But most importantly, Opéra de Paris is introducing, elevating, and, in effect, distributing new technology, storytelling and real-world, site-specific brand experience to a targeted, discerning audience (units are built to broadcast live Opéra de Paris performances). Opera is a real-time experience and ephemeral. Via Devialet’s technology, Opéra de Paris becomes a tangible, luxury product. 

It’s an acknowledgement that what worked in the 19th century doesn’t work in the 21st century.

Opera Australia’s Lyndon Terracini spearheaded the introduction of twelve,7-foot tall LED screens “which fly in and out, spin around, and move about the stage in unexpected ways. They hold custom-made animations and larger-than-life film content.” Per Terracini, they are integral to a “plan to ensure the company and art form’s survival into the future. It’s not an easy task, when opera companies all around the world are seeing audiences dwindling as costs rise.” Increasing the company’s sales income from $36 million in 2010 to $67 million in 2018, Terracini has accomplished this through staging more popular works, employing some high profile international singers, performing more musical theatre, and launching the hugely successful Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour program. Per Time Out Sydney, “the company’s ‘digital productions’ are the next stage in evolving the company but it’s something that Terracini has had in mind for a decade.” Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this piece as follows: “But it’s more than a purely financial move. It’s an acknowledgement that ‘what worked in the 19th century doesn’t work in the 21st century,’ Terracini says. Opera used to be a genuinely popular and democratic art form and attracted massive audiences with innovative and spectacular staging. But Terracini says that innovation stagnated, and that for many contemporary audiences seeing an old-fashioned opera set became quaint and a little like ‘visiting an antiques store’. He says the art form became ‘arrogant’, and couldn’t keep up with the advancements in film in the 20th century. Now opera is looking to film for a little bit of help, although the way it’s using that technology is entirely different.”  San Francisco Opera’s upcoming staging of 2018's Grammy-winning “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” - a San Francisco, Santa Fe and Seattle Opera companies co-production – almost certainly supports Mr. Terracini’s thesis, using digital screens throughout to stunning effect. 

The Los Angeles Times’ Mark Swed recently explored the phenomena of American opera innovators going to Europe to fulfill artistic mission and vision due to industry limitations and financial risk deemed too risky for most US-based companies, citing The Industry’s Yuval Sharon and his work abroad. Swed does an excellent job of taking the pulse of European opera while also examining our own domestic, financial considerations, as well as opportunities taken, lost and almost won. His perfect call to action: "It’s an old story that you have to make it first somewhere else before you can be taken seriously at home. But at the moment, we have a plethora of prodigal sons and daughters we foolishly ignore, thinking we either can’t afford them or aren’t ready for them, when it is just the opposite." So, why can’t we afford them and why aren’t we “ready”?  Lack of US government or other funding aside, opera innovation is already everyday business for small, startup-like companies like San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle, but the opportunity to significantly disrupt, reorient and reset the greater art form is waiting for bold teams with international reach - and muscular scale - to create and sustain tangible change for sustained business wins. 

In my opinion, that team is already in place at The Santa Fe Opera, the company perfectly positioned as Global Game Changer and Opera Innovation Leader. Led by General Director Robert K. Meya, with Artistic Director Alexander Neef and Music Director Harry Bicket, I remain convinced that this C-suite executive team will continue to enlarge the brand's global reputation, bold artistic footprint and business success. The 2018 season alone speaks volumes – Google these hash tags #sfoAlcina #sfoCandide #sfoRSJ #sfoAtomic; all clearly support my assertion, while Mark Swed's 2018 Los Angeles Times review of 'Doctor Atomic' absolutely reinforces. The Santa Fe Opera is our necessary and long-established operatic laboratory-as-factory, working at the vanguard of artistic excellence with bottom line, box office success. The company also acts as its own opera incubator, through its one-of-a-kind Opera For All Voices consortium developing new works. Add the company’s Key Change podcast, as well, which has quietly made the company a global opera thought leader. Returning to Mr. Meya, he is already Santa Fe’s somewhat unsung hero, spearheading SFO’s wildly successful $45 million capital building campaign. Like the Fast Company recognition mentioned in this story, I see an array of powerful, breakout avenues for Mr. Meya, ensuring that The Santa Fe Opera becomes increasingly top-of-mind recognized by business leaders and the general public under his leadership.  

Much continued success to all #OperaConf participants!


Originally published via LinkedIn on June 14, 2019.