It's no secret that we live in the age of information. And that computers dominate our lives. However, as more administrative functions can be accomplished by computer, general directors need to free up their staffs' professional time to allow for more creative pursuits.
OPERA America was formed in 1970 with the key objectives of sharing information and establishing a stronger network for communications between America's opera companies. The recent and rapid penetration of the fax machine into the business community has helped to bring some opera companies into the late twentieth century. Yet, in too many other ways, the operatic community has been slow to take advantage of the technology at its disposal. Several years ago, when a top staff member of a major opera company was asked why he insisted on doing payroll extensions manually (instead of letting the computer perform such a function) he answered, "I don't mind. Besides, I like doing it this way."
While other businesses have upgraded their computer systems (out of the need to remain competitive), budgetary restrictions have forced many nonprofits to keep systems upgrades a low priority. That's why Kevin Smith, the new Chairman of OPERA America's Communications Committee, insists that one of his pet goals will be the creation of an electronic database to serve the operatic community. The primary function of such a tool will be the compilation, sorting, and distribution -- at electronic speed -- of information relative to the opera industry. We cannot here sufficiently stress the need for such a database (which would operate like an electronic bulletin board).
Precious time and money could be put to infinitely better use if everyone involved in the operatic community had access to a customized database designed to serve the industry. An electronic BBS (which could be accessed from any PC operating with a modem) might have a perversely egalitarian effect on a community where the sharing of information is a vital yet all-too-often unfulfilled goal. Users would be able to download data on a 24-hour basis and any opera company (from the smallest regional arts organization up to and including the mighty Metropolitan Opera) could come on-line simply by dialing a toll-free number.
In addition to documenting performance dates, casting information, and who to contact for any possible need, an electronic database would allow members of the operatic community to keep track of which artists routinely canceled engagements, which productions were available for rental, and which foundations were giving what types of grants. Reviews for each and every production could be filed electronically so that the acutely unfortunate --but traditional --prejudice toward music critics from the Northeast sector (a prejudice which is sadly reflected in OPERA America's Media-Watch kit) could be eliminated for once and for all.
Personnel seeking new positions could become aware of job opportunities as soon as they became available. Impresarios seeking partners for new productions (as well as those wishing to rent or sell their sets and costumes) could post general messages to the community. All this information (and much more) could be used to compile statistics, identify trends within the industry, generate reports, and help people working in our community to perform their jobs in a more efficient manner. The daily updating of an electronic database could easily be managed by a Sysop working at OPERA America. Without a doubt, the money each company saved on long distance phone calls (especially those dedicated to informational wild goose chases) would be enough to cover a yearly membership fee for access to an operatic database.
Just think how an electronic BBB could help during an operatic emergency. Suppose a major artist canceled an appearance and a replacement had to be found on short notice. No matter where he was when he received news of the cancellation, an impresario could instantly access OPERA America's database to find out which singers had that role in their repertoire, where such artists were performing at the moment, how they could be reached and their approximate fee schedules.
Although this task -- and many others -- could easily be accomplished with computers, here's how a lot of information is currently documented within the operatic community: People keep private little lists in their heads (or in card files secreted away in their offices) and treat their stash of information with a tremendous amount of territoriality. Meanwhile, because of their lengthy editing requirements, the monthly, quarterly, and annual publications distributed in hard copy by OPERA America, Central Opera Service, and Musical America become outdated by the time they reach consumers. All too often opera's administrative personnel waste time and money by doing things "the way they've always been done." The bottom line is that time is money. And, whether we like it or not, the arts are a business. It's high time for OPERA America to establish a database which can distribute email and be accessed by one and all. Otherwise, an industry which fetishizes tradition will continue to cripple itself with its own myopia
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This article originally appeared in the August 1989 issue of Opera Monthly magazine.