I’m glad to introduce you to Annie Burridge, Senior Vice-President for Institutional Advancement for the Opera Company of Philadelphia. I had a chance to get to know her during the Opera America Leadership Advance, and I think her experiences will resonate with many “reformed singers.” Here’s her story.
How did you get your start?
Technically, my theater career began at age 6, when I was the Littlest Indian in a production of Peter Pan. My mom was a music teacher, and there was always music in our house. I sang all through school, was in musicals and community theater productions. I earned an undergraduate degree from Pennsylvania State University, majoring in Vocal Performance and minoring in Business. (There’s some classic foreshadowing for you, because even though I didn’t really know what Arts Administration was, I thought it sounded interesting.)
I had success and support at Penn State, but didn’t really know whether I was competitive on a larger scale. I did some graduate school auditions, and got a good offer from New England Conservatory. Right before starting the program, all of the incoming students auditioned for a spot in the Opera program, and I was extremely fortunate to be one four sopranos selected. (The entire program was capped somewhere around 25 singers) I worked with John Moriarty, and sang Mrs. Wordsworth in Albert Herring and Cunegonde in Candide. I was really happy with the opportunities that I was given while in school, but found my outside auditions to be a little less successful: I did a pay-to-sing in Salzburg one summer, but didn’t have much luck in the YAP realm until the December after I graduated. Des Moines Metro Opera called on December 23rd: they needed a Gretel for their January Opera Iowa tour, and even though I hadn’t had a live audition for them (I had sent a recording of Zerbinetta’s aria, because they had programmed Ariadne auf Naxos for the summer season), they offered me the role. I did the tour, and stayed on for the summer season. The following spring I did the Pensacola Opera Young Artist program.
It sounds like you were on your way!
Maybe, but it didn’t so much feel like I was on my way. On one hand, I felt incredibly grateful to have those professional opportunities; I learned so much! It was extremely frustrating. I knew that I could tackle difficult repertoire (Lulu, anyone?), but it didn’t seem to matter. It also didn’t matter that I was a good writer, or a natural planner. I rewrote my classroom presentations for the DMMO school tour, but having that eye for strategic planning didn’t make directors more likely to hire me. I had this whole host of talents that simply didn’t transfer over.
Ouch. That’s a hard place to be.
It was. When the Pensacola program finished I went home to Philadelphia – I had met a guy named Paul in between my residencies at DMMO and Pensacola, so I had some incentive. (He’s now my husband.) And I took an administrative job at the University of Pennsylvania to earn some money, as I was just tired of being poor. One of the perks of the job was that I could take classes at Penn for free, so I signed up for a Marketing class in their Non-Profit Administration program. After the first two classes I knew that I had found my thing, and weeks later I was offered my first arts administration position.
Huh! Did you make the decision to change right then?
Yes. It was a big moment for me. I’ve always been someone who commits fully to a career path, and I felt I needed to choose either the administrative career or the singing career – I didn’t want to dilute my impact in either arena by only giving it half my attention. I discussed it with my husband, cried for about an hour, and then made the switch.
Million-dollar question: was it worth it?
I had an epiphany in the car one day shortly after making the switch: I remembered the sitzprobe of Madama Butterfly at Des Moines, and just being moved to tears at the beauty of the music, the complete experience. I remembered sitting alone in the audience during a rehearsal of Barber of Seville in Pensacola when I was covering Rosina, listening to the overture,and again being moved to tears that opera was my job. And I realized that the moments that stuck with me the most weren’t moments in which I was actually singing. It was a revelation. So short answer? Indeed it was worth it. I call on the experiences that I had as a singer daily in my current position (Ed.: Annie oversees all the development and marketing efforts for OCP.) – my knowledge of the industry and passion for the art form allows me to inspire the people with whom I work and interact. I also feel so much more ownership in my current role at OCP than I did as a singer. I can watch a rehearsal and know that my efforts made a huge portion of this production happen. My traction with donors and the financial health of the organization dictates that I am part of the artistic process. Granted, if it were up to my personal preferences we’d be doing all Britten, all the time! But I enjoy being the person who represents our stakeholders and larger community in those discussions. And finally, those skills that I felt were underutilized when I was singing – writing, planning – I’m using every day.
It’s rear-view mirror time: What advice would you give to someone who is struggling through a dilemma similar to your post-Pensacola frustrations?
Be honest with what you want your life to look like. I was lucky in that I had some blazing arrows pointing me to my place in the industry, but I still have pals who are struggling through these decisions.Think about what you want your life to look like 5, 10, even 20 years down the road. What’s your ultimate goal? How can you pick up the skills that will get you there? Some people need to remain close to the creative process, so they might opt for teaching over an administrative job. Some may want to cobble five or six different kinds of performing jobs into a career. I knew that I wanted to be involved at the highest level of artmaking, and it became clear to me that I wasn’t going to be able to reach that level as a singer. I wanted to be a part of the biggest game in town, and I wanted to be a big part of it.
I think you’ve made it! Do you have any parting words or wisdom?
My boss’ motto is to be nice to everyone, all the time. It’s a small industry, and once you build those relationships you’ll have a network of people to ask for advice and help…because soon that assistant will be running the program for which you’ve dreamed of working. It always pays to be nice.