We hosted a small symposium this past weekend. Kim Pensinger Witman and I were fortunate enough to attend the Opera America Conference in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, and were both inspired and challenged in the seminars which we attended. But oftentimes our artists are bypassed from these larger discussions, or they’re expected to listen but not participate actively…the general directors dictate the tone and flow of the conversation. (It’s not a criticism – the GD’s are the ones who deal with those overarching principles on a daily basis…they should be the folks to initiate the discussions about strategy and the state of our art.) We wanted to give our singers an opportunity to join the conversation.
We called our two-day event Recitative: Plain Talk About Opera, recognizing that what we wanted to do wasn’t glamorous or sparkly…not aria-like in the least. We wanted to raise the questions that the singers/directors/artistic admins were pondering, but maybe hadn’t had the opportunity to discuss. And we asked a group of people who understood our demographic to help us with these discussions.
(Have I mentioned that, by and large, opera people are generous and helpful and agreeable? The colleagues who assisted with these discussions – artistic administrators and general directors and singers and conductors, from companies in our own market to Left Coast-ers, and even a representative from the Continent! – surely were… we are indebted to them for their time, their thoughtfulness, their candor. Opera people are indeed pretty cool.)
It was a fantastic, provoking, sometimes heated two-day discussion. I was struck very early on with two observations: firstly, that there was such a passionate feeling towards both the art form and the collaborative structure of the art form. (not a surprise, certainly, but it was a wonderful realization of the intensity of feeling.) Secondly, that there were so many people who had started as singers who were now deeply involved – as artistic administrators, casting directors, general directors – in a non-performance aspect of the art. Do they contribute to the discussion as administrators? Most certainly. Do their words hold a different weight because they know firsthand what it’s like to biff a high note in public or trample over an overture in rehearsal with a respected conductor? I think that they might. They know what it feels like to perform at the top of their game. They’ve been moved by an exceptional performance, whether as an onstage colleague or an audience member. It’s invaluable information…and sure, a lot of it can be learned. But maybe not all of it.
It’s not an unusual path, for sure…transitioning from singer or actor to artistic or general director. I’m glad that there are so many people leading companies who, at one point, made the noise…stood in the spotlight…took the curtain call…and ultimately realized that they were meant to support the art form in a different way. Raising a virtual toast to transitions!