MInnesota’s arts community is still recovering from the first phase of the pandemic which caused venues to close. But the resilience of arts organizations, especially those presenting opera, was on display in mid-May when Minneapolis hosted a major opera conference.
Opera America is the service organization for North American opera companies, comprising 202 professional companies and over 2,500 additional affiliate members. Its annual conference is the largest gathering of administrators, administrators, funders and advocates in the field of opera. The recent event held in Minneapolis was the first in-person conference since the pandemic hit North America in early 2020.
Programs included a joyous celebration of live performances and an introspective examination of the need for domain-wide change.
Indeed, opera companies change. Opera America pushed and galvanized the ground around ways to become more important players in civic life.
Opera America leads change through its work around equity, diversity, and inclusion of composers commissioned, stories told, artists employed, staff hired, administrators recruited, and audiences served. Its funding programs support commissioning, especially of works that tell uniquely American stories and diversify the age-old canon created by European composers. And his spurt of innovation in presentation and community engagement influences the course of the art form’s development with the slogan “Moving Opera Forward”.
These developments have accelerated during a confluence of societal changes. Not only have opera companies faced the complete shutdown of physical performances during the pandemic and the loss of all ticket revenue, but they have also wanted to respond to societal judgment after the murder of George Floyd, the growth of income disparities that widens the wealth gap, and the changing habits of audiences that have not resumed their pre-Covid attendance patterns.
“Any of these factors could have knocked us out, but all of this happening at the same time, and for all of us at the same time, has forced the pitch to think very deeply about who we are and who we want to serve,” said Ryan Taylor, president and general manager of the Minnesota Opera.
Companies are grappling with their role in communities. The conference asked the question: “What is the mission of an opera company in today’s world?” Many themes would resonate with business leaders across industries: racial equity, social justice, digital transformation, next-gen strategies, and post-pandemic customer behavior.
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I participated in a conference session on “sustainability”. This session and many others have focused on forward-looking themes. For instance:
- The keynote featured acclaimed Minnesota author Kao Kalia Yang, whose memoir, The song poet, is the basis of a Minnesota Opera commission by composer Jocelyn Hagen, slated for performance in the spring of 2023. Afterwards, a group of racially diverse opera practitioners discussed the primary mission of an opera company at a time when the fight against inequality is a major societal issue. theme. They asked if “performance of the highest quality” should always prevail or if there were other important roles for opera companies to play. The session looked at ways to “awaken our potential as engaged cultural citizens committed to economic, social and racial justice.”
- “Dismantling Opera Elitism” was a general session the following day, featuring opera conductors in conversation with Greg Cunningham, Director of Diversity at US Bank. In a workshop, participants examined the practices of their organizations and discussed ways to remove barriers to participation in the art form.
- Several sessions focused on digital strategy, where practitioners who have invested in online programming during the pandemic presented their approaches and lessons learned.
External events over the past two years have made this gathering a watershed event, says Minnesota Opera’s Taylor. “As a domain, we were able to move quickly on the things that needed to be done. Instead of incremental changes, due to the pandemic disruption, we can reimagine how we want to move forward,” he says. “The level of speech has changed.”
As a result, says Taylor, “we need to reallocate resources to align the business and its art with our values.”
At Minnesota Opera, this process is well underway. It affects everything from who gets hired and how, who’s on stage, what’s commissioned, who sits on the board, and how the company uses media to tell its stories. Taylor describes a series of unfiltered podcasts, The scorein which three African-American Minnesota Opera staff members share stories that “bring black, indigenous, color, queer, trans, and non-binary people into the discussion of ownership and access to form of ‘art’, 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 to go and find out for yourself the changes taking place. Opera is reinventing itself, as it has done many times 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 freelance consultant and writer for clients in culture, media and philanthropy.