Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Taking Care of Business

For the past several years I've been attending the annual Opera America conference because, in addition to affording me a chance to see lots of friends who work in regional opera companies, such conferences allow me to get a handle on problems facing the opera professionals who form both a national and global community. Past conferences have raised such thorny issues as what to do about cancellations by major artists and burnout of administrative staff. Continuing challenges include providing adequate services to minority audiences and 504 (handicapped) constituents as well as finding new means by which General Directors can transform ineffective members of their Boards of Directors into aggressive fundraisers (instilling an increased sense of ownership in the company seems to be the key to the solution). Although the theme for this year's conference in Dallas was "Leadership and Visibility," San Francisco Opera's Terry McEwen -- who is a Vice-President of Opera America -- did not attend. Sources later told me that McEwen was vacationing in Hawaii.

As expected, part of the talk at January's conference centered around money matters. The need for financial guidance is quite real in light of the Reagan administration's new tax laws and the impact of such tax codes on income received by nonprofit organizations as a result of donations by corporations, foundations and individuals. One important area touched upon was the all too easily overlooked value of testamentary gifts. For those who have never thought of helping a nonprofit institution at the time of their demise, I'd like to suggest naming an AIDS-related service organization or arts institution as a beneficiary in your will so that it can receive the cash value of any insurance policies and other assets which are left behind.

Educational matters dominated many discussions for, at present, the opera community is the only art form in America whose professionals have developed a full-scale educational program for introducing opera into the school curriculum. With an eye to the future, members of Opera America (which defines itself as the professional service organization for producing opera companies) have come to the realization that the time to start recruiting audiences is not when they are well-heeled yuppies with disposable incomes or young couples trying to raise a family, but rather when, as pre-pubescent children, they are most receptive to new ideas and experiences. It was agreed that, at this early stage in their lives, a continued exposure to opera might produce maximum long-term yield. One can only hope so for, without new audiences, the health and welfare of this 400-year-old art form would be in grave jeopardy, indeed.


In addition to trying to find new ways to attract the yuppie market, this year's Opera America conference addressed the need of its member companies to service the ethnic and minority groups in each of their respective communities. In recent years, demands voiced by the hearing-impaired and physically challenged have had a profound impact on physical access to auditoriums, the use of infrared listening devices and special programming (such as operas performed with sign-language interpreters). One General Director confessed that the handicapped had once threatened to close down his performances unless his opera company gave them a fair shake.

Such confrontations only prove that it is often quite necessary to bring political pressure upon those organizations which talk a lot about "giving back to the community" but merely give lip service to the idea. Several times, when discussions turned toward an opera company's responsibility to not just take from the community in which it performs, but to give back to the community as well, I reminded people at the conference that their talent as impresarios gives them the power to produce AIDS benefit concerts in cities across America. Some reacted positively to the suggestion; others demonstrated marked caution and reluctance to explore such goals. Although it was obvious that some General Directors did not want to rattle the beads of their conservative boards of directors, others are still fighting so hard for their own survival that they are as yet either unwilling or unable to share the proceeds from a gala fundraiser with another nonprofit organization.

If, therefore, I loudly voiced my feelings about AIDS and its impact on the operatic community each time a valid opportunity presented itself during the 1987 conference, I did so for one simple reason. Had I not raised the matter, it would have been all too easy for the people attending the Opera America conference to duck the AIDS issue by claiming that the topic never came up for discussion.


A new approach to the operatic art form was examined at this year's conference through excerpts of music theatre works which had either been created for video or adapted to television from the stage. The most formalized of these was a documentary on the making of Philip Glass's Akhnaten (which included scenes from the world premiere production in Stuttgart as well as slides from the Houston production which represented the opera's American premiere). Another documentary was devoted to a production of Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach. Some of the pieces shown at the conference were extremely interesting; others a little too hard on the eyes. It was through the shorter works -- such as Slow Fire and The Doo-wop Cinema -- that both the exciting potential and the disappointing limitations of video opera were made clearly visible.

A crucial point raised during the conference was that Opera America's membership needs to be a little more flexible when it comes to acknowledging where the new frontiers of opera are really being tested. A report from the Level 4 companies urged the organization to reconsider the previously-rejected applications of arts organizations which are producing and performing new opera/musical theatre works even when such producing entities may not define themselves primarily as opera companies.

The hitch here is that, while many General Directors are afraid to confront the risks involved in producing world premieres and/or experimental works, they don't really want to share their power with younger, less conservative impresarios who are doing the grunt work of creating new repertory aimed at tomorrow's audiences. This unfortunate kind of elitism reminds me of the early days of the gay liberation movement, when conservative middle-class faggots would constantly protest the "embarrassing" presence of leathermen and drag queens at Gay Pride Celebrations.

The hard and bitter truth is that, just as the gay community had to learn how to accept and celebrate its diversity, the only way this nation's professional opera community is going to survive is by acknowledging that we're all in this together. Fresh blood and new concepts are not only invaluable; they must be embraced if America's professional operatic community is honestly going to explore the realm of "Opera Into The Eighties And Beyond." Therefore, I'd suggest that Opera America's more conservative members bite the bullet and recognize that, with the number of opera companies in America having doubled over the past 20 years, they can no longer keep a tight hold on all the power within this extremely interesting industry.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on March 5, 1987.

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