BSPOKE Brand Consultancy

Santa Fe: The Davos-Sundance of Opera

Photo: James Mowdy, BSPOKE

Photo: James Mowdy, BSPOKE

(Santa Fe, NM) - BSPOKE’s June 2019 blog covered Opera’s 21st Century Game Changers, citing companies making #OperaInnovation central to their brand identity, ethos and vision. The blog’s positive response, received across LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, was unexpected but wonderful. During The Santa Fe Opera’s opening weekend, I was honored to receive General Director Robert K. Meya’s personal thanks for highlighting SFO in the piece. After thanking him for his generous comments, I said, “…of course, because it’s all true!”

Now that Santa Fe’s 2019 season is in the books, I’ve spent several weeks reflecting on what this opera factory in the high desert really is.

De Santa Fe à Paris

In late July, we learned that Alexander Neef, Santa Fe’s Artistic Director, had been chosen as L’Opéra National de Paris’ new General Director, beginning in late 2021. Concurrently serving as The Canadian Opera Company’s General Director, the fact that Mr. Meya and The Santa Fe Opera attracted an opera world executive of his caliber speaks volumes; surely Mr. Neef recognized the leading role SFO occupies in North America, its high-value position in the opera ecosphere, full-service company operation, built-in brain trust and beyond-sterling reputation. It was therefore a pleasure to meet Mr. Neef at the Opera Club about a week after the big news broke. My partner and I were as efficace as possible, introducing ourselves while congratulating Mr. Neef. We asked one question: “What was it like chatting with Emmanuel Macron?” Mr. Neef expressed how the President of France had made him feel at ease, completely focused on him and their conversation - refreshing to hear for obvious reasons. Bravo, Mr. Neef.

Opera’s Davos-Sundance

Staying with the Macron-Elysée theme, I see Santa Fe as opera’s Davos-Sundance, a storied place where power and influence convene once a year. Like Davos, The Santa Fe Opera has an in-the-know, upper echelon reputation among the industry’s powerful, successful and celebrated. Not surprising since Santa Fe is a lifestyle capital steeped in Old World history and unparalleled natural beauty. The company rolls like Sundance (Film Festival), too, where players do business, network, see breakout or experimental work while taking a break from coasts or capitals to chill out in this laid back yet sophisticated spot. Some evidence:

  • Walking into the opera club to find Ailyn Pérez, Patricia Racette and Michael Fabiano deep in conversation, Patricia’s wife Beth Clayton and Michael’s husband Bryan M. Fabiano nearby. A delight to catch up with Ailyn about her then-upcoming Nedda in Pagliacci /Cavalleria Rusticana at The Dutch National Opera, Patricia on how her Kostelnička would be my first (in Jenufa, the season’s sleeper hit), and Michael on his summer break, some funny asides and thoughts on his fast-approaching 2019/20 season.

  • During an intermission, noticing that a pair of signature horn rims were attached to British Scenic and Costume Designer extrordinaire Leslie Travers. A pleasure to discuss aspects of his upcoming 2020 Rusalka at Santa Fe.

  • Chatting with New York City-based Director RB Schlather about his Cosi Fan Tutte, and then saying hello to University of California President Janet Napolitano, whom we’d met before in California.

  • Unexpectedly running into friend and Grammy-winning (R)evolution of Steve Jobs librettist Mark Campbell, hanging out and laughing with him, Opera Theatre of St. Louis' PR and Marketing Director Anh Lé, OTSL Artistic Coordinator Madaylyn Mentor, Opera Parallele Executive Director Debbie Chinn and her sister. We were all there for Renée Fleming’s one night only performance of composer Mark PutsLetters from Georgia.

  • A spirited intermission chat with Curtis Institute and Metropolitan Opera’s Miloš Repicky, The Pearl Fishers Conductor Timothy Myers, and soprano Gabriella Reyes (this season’s Musetta in SFO’s La Bohème and Liú in The Met’s 26OCT Turandot).

These moments and many more reveal how Santa Fe is not only a crossroads for industry movers but political shakers, including regular annual attendee and opera lover Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

The Future Of Opera?

In an August 2019 Broadway World interview, writer Maria Knockin asked General Director Meya for his thoughts on how the company is sometimes compared to The Salzburg Festival. Mr. Meya’s response was gracious and pitch perfect, but this supporter, donor and advocate believes that opera itself could learn a lot from SFO!

SFO stands out for aficionados, but not for the reasons one might expect. When seasoned opera lovers visit for the first time, they’ll realize there’s not only a better way to enjoy opera, but also to create, preserve and transform it into something bigger. The SFO brand experience is world-class, yet relaxed. Meaningful, one-of-a-kind and unforgettable also apply. It’s also the most ideal place in North America to introduce someone to opera, a place where performance, art and nature collide in an accessible, joyous and multi-sensory experience (hello best sunsets in the west).

But it’s also built to succeed. Because of its layout and construction, Santa Fe is perhaps the country’s most exciting and welcoming opera space, especially since guests aren’t segregated across sections or floors. Operagoers move easily once inside, where, based on ten years of personal experience, individual expression is welcomed and encouraged. People also seem to be happier here. Delightful conversation with strangers comes easily and often, which I’ve yet to see recreated in other opera venues. In couture, jeans, tux, cowboy boots or polos, from parking lot tailgating to pre-performance cantina dining through to performance and intermission, a night at SFO is equal parts glam, fun, illuminating and accessible.

Investment Grade Incubator

BSPOKE’s conception of #operainnovation grew from the realization that opera is the original gig economy; that the artists, new concepts and small companies critical to opera’s growth are, in fact, startups. In order for gifted individuals and bright ideas to fully develop, business incubation is required. Enter SFO.

For singers and technicians, Santa Fe's apprentice program is one of the world’s most sought after training experiences. While consulting with the company in 2015, I saw firsthand how young artists and technicians experience intensive “building the plane while flying it” training, apprentices paired with established artists and technicians, the greater ensemble powering the season. Past apprentices include Oscar-winning “Black Panther” costume designer Ruth E. Carter, Joyce DiDonato, Mark Doss, Michael Fabiano, Brian Asawa, Samuel Ramey and Joyce El-Khoury.

In addition to applying their training across most if not all productions, apprentice singers perform at various special events around Santa Fe and, in 2019, at the annual gala. But the program’s most critical value-adds include the Apprentice Singer Showcases, high profile auditions that draw opera management (agents) from around the world, as well as artistic leads from companies around the country. Two (2) nights of Apprentice Scenes also provide singers and technicians with center stage opportunities to explore classical works separate from the season in full, glorious costume - say hello to instant singer brand development, identity and loyalty. Just like tech startup pitch nights in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, these high-stakes auditions and career-building performances on the SFO stage are the operatic equivalent of make or break product demos, pitch decks and pitch sessions for agents, companies and audiences, who themselves are the equivalent of VCs, investors and adopters.

But human capital is only part of the equation. The development of new operatic work drives this industry’s growth, especially with new audiences. The Santa Fe Opera delivers again with Opera For All Voices, a consortium of companies led by SFO, incubating new works through ideation (product development) and live performance, proving that testing and product launches apply here, too. Case in point: OFAV’s “Sweet Potato Kicks The Sun” makes its world premiere in Santa Fe this week. Following “the galactic mishaps” of title character Sweet Potato, composer Augusta Read Thomas and librettist Leslie Dunton-Downer’s new work features globally-recognized musician and beatboxer Nicole Paris, demonstrating the exciting and evolving petrie dish of opera innovation for which this company is becoming recognized.

Once introductions are made, contracts signed and investments committed, which singers, artistic works and incubated endeavors become successful? Profitable? Will they meet a need or want in the marketplace? Will they successfully “scale up” if adopted en masse by industry and audiences alike? Which artists and works will become “unicorn” legends or new inductees into “the rep”? As in any business situation, it’s about managing risk, making data-based decisions, a gut feeling and lots of luck. But given the company’s reputation as an always revenue-producing “opera factory” and its 60+ years of being in the black, artists, technicians and new works have a fighting chance for regional, national and global success.

Owning and Growing The Brand

As a supporter, donor and fan-advocate of the company and its apprentice program, it was an honor to meet with Program Director Gayletha Nichols and Associate Director Kathleen Clawson this summer to discuss Opera Singers are Brands, a BSPOKE training first conceived and launched at SFO in 2015. It was during this discussion that I began formulating ideas around what brand SFO could be, much thanks to both leaders for their time, this discussion and resulting inspiration.

So, what does an 21st century game changer look like? Over the course of ten years, including several weeks in Santa Fe this past summer, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience various facets of this one-of-a-kind-business.

Per the BWW piece, Mr. Meya’s stated vision for the company includes honoring “the legacy of (the) company,” and “(building) our international profile.” One example of honoring SFO’s legacy while raising international profile is the 2018 Capriccio co-production with Garsington Festival in the UK. Also, the company’s relationship with Alexander Neef will undoubtedly translate into stronger French and European connective tissue. Taking the 10,000 foot view from above, everything Mr. Meya pledged is possible when SFO fully owns its already clear, opera world unicorn status (my brand identity opinion), simultaneously expanding beyond the opera safe space to be a bold, game-changing force on the global innovation stage. I also believe that SFO already has the ‘think bigger’ confidence to walk through an opened door, claiming and owning what’s already theirs in North America and beyond. Like Rusalka sans tragedy, there’s only one company currently making bold leaps outside the opera pond. The Santa Fe Opera should join them…perhaps they already have? <Wink emoji>

Technically, The Santa Fe Opera is a festival, which means the company’s truncated season creates incredible operating efficiencies. Per Mr. Meya in BWW: “It is fortunate that we are a festival because that makes our business model more efficient. Our year-round staff is only ten percent of our summer staff. That is one advantage and another is that we’re located in a city that draws tourists. People come to Santa Fe, New Mexico, for more than just opera, so ‘The City Different’ with its internationally famous opera company is truly one of America's great summer tourist destinations.”

Mr. Meya’s statement provides excellent context for the company, especially in relation to The City Different’s significant international draw. But does an efficient festival business model indicate a lesser opera company? Of course not. Are operations any different than companies with full seasons? Not at all. My point is that SFO doesn’t need to qualify itself in this way on the global stage. This qualification has little to no resonance outside opera circles, where it’s a technical classification. The same could be said for any “operatic” or “arts” qualification some attach to SFO.

Meya also discussed fundraising in the BWW piece: ”Our operating budget is around $25 million a year. Of that, 40% comes from fundraising, 40% from ticket sales, and 20% from co-productions, rentals, retail offerings, along with other sources. We have a perfect balance between our two major sources of income, fundraising and ticket sales. That, to me, is a sign of our healthy fiscal position. The base of our fundraising support is our incredible board of directors. They are extraordinarily generous and extremely engaged. They are the best board of directors I've ever experienced at any organization. We build on their base with our production sponsors, our patron program, our memberships, and all the other vehicles for fundraising.”

Meya’s response aligns with comments he made at an early August donor luncheon, specifically, that the company had already reached $9.1MM of its 2019 $9.3MM fundraising goal. Meya also mentioned that SFO was “redoubling funding” for the company’s education and community engagement arm, led by Andrea Fellows Walters i.e. where the Opera for All Voices incubator lives. Another takeaway was that 40% of new ticket buyers were from New Mexico, demonstrating significant, regional “stickiness” for brand SFO.

Given the company’s aforementioned Davos-Sundance qualities, sterling reputation, international endeavors, high-level innovation and profitable, full-service, growth-oriented operation, there’s only one conclusion. The Santa Fe Opera is a Global Brand - full stop.

Going Bigger

What do bold, global moves look like for The Santa Fe Opera? Insights, questions and hints:

  • SFO’s core business will always be opera. How does it become the Guggenheim of Opera to the world at large? Or, in relation to its season, the Apple Conference of Opera? (see #AppleEvent and #WWDC)

    • Perhaps research global brands across many sectors, reviewing mission, vision and approach. Find commonalities and absolutely note all ‘there is no box’ brilliance. What motivates these brands? How are they predominantly known to the general public as “the brand” for their sector?

    • Bold main stage programming means bold social, digital and real, in the world brand moves, too. Opera America’s new #MEETOPERA campaign is a beautiful, global opportunity, as is the OA Education gathering in Santa Fe at the end of October.

    • Perhaps develop a bolder, global application of SFO mission, specifically: “Foster an understanding and appreciation of opera among a diverse public.” Hint: may not include an operatic performance

  • How does SFO build top of mind brand name recognition inside and outside the opera world, as a broad and highly authoritative innovation leader? How might these efforts align with SFO’s current strategic plan, already-in-motion projects and new, no-one-else-is-doing-it brand initiatives?

  • If Yannick can do it, so can Robert, Alexander and Harry. Once again my thoughts return to the Fast Company piece where The Metropolitan Opera Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin was named one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business, this quote in particular : “We have to undo decades of thinking that this is an art form only for the initiated.” SFO is already a nimble enough force in the opera world to make their infinitely accessible brand of innovation relevant and resonant to the broader world as well as innumerable business environments, scenarios and situations. New markets for financial and share of mind gain are primed for SFO to join the global innovation conversation.