Misunderstanding Opera at The Management Level

Osborne_OperaIn a recent online article at the wfmt radio website, I read this article ostensibly announcing the appointment of Ashley Magnus as the new General Director at Chicago Opera Theater.  COT is perhaps best known for the tenure of the brilliant general director, Brian Dickie, from 1999-2012.

At a time when my commercial company, Quill & Quaver Associates, in New York is undertaking a huge project in storyworld design for engaging audiences with Opera, I find aspects of Ms. Magnus’s sentiment in respect to the travails of Opera to wrankle, especially her expressed; and inaccurate, understanding of Opera historically as “The old school, ‘Gods and men’ – scale epic works” (sic.).

Maybe she has  been misquoted or something said taken out of context?  Who knows, but the current challenges around declining audience attendance for Opera has nothing whatsoever to do with the works that comprise the canon.  Moreover, does Ms. Magnus really think that “…love stories of human experiences that I have found in contemporary works” only exist in Contemporary Opera? Or, perhaps she doesn’t actually know the canon well enough?

The point I am endeavouring to make here is that if you truly want to look at how to grow Opera as a relevant artform in the 21st-Century, you need to understand the egregious attempts in distorting it for audiences in the second-half of the 20th-Century through to, and including, modern day production aesthetics as exemplified in Conrad L. Osborne’s extraordinary discourse, Opera as Opera.

Concomitantly, a ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’ approach to fix the problems confronting Opera cannot be solely achieved, as Ms. Magnus would have us believe, by concentrating on new work or 2nd. productions as a cure-all approach.  This is both fatuous and naive.

Why do Opera managements never engage in pursuing data-driven and empirical research into how to make Opera more attractive to modern audiences?  But, yes, they do I hear you say – and you are correct. But do COT (and other comparable opera companies in the USA) know the previous and revelatory research findings into this question by academics at the Guildhall School of Music in London for example, or, have looked at the ground-breaking action-based research of the Audience Lab. department at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden?  I’d be prepared to wager a small bet on the likelihood that they don’t.

And therein lies the core of the problem. You have to have a strategic vision that is supported by a weight of evidence drawn from longitudinal research.

American orchestras, by contrast, are starting to get very much better at understanding audience engagement strategies based on this approach to problem-solving whereas, I am afraid, too many U.S. opera companies keep running the same playbook year in and year out.  And it will be the death of them or, at the very least, will see them transmogrify into entities that no longer represent Opera as the core of their existence.

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