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Learning to Lead
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Opera America Magazine12/1/2007

Editor's Note:
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Those who aspire to a career in law attend law school; those who aspire to a career in medicine attend medical school. Legendary leaders in the opera field have taken a variety of paths to their professional destinations — destinations that were, for some, unexpected. Whether they entered the field as stagehands or sopranos, most of these successful leaders have shown a knack for managing their own education, often identifying and seizing learning opportunities in the most unlikely situations.

Until fairly recently, few of opera's senior managers had formal academic training in management. As more and more colleges and universities offer study in the business of the arts, aspiring and established arts managers are increasingly taking advantage of them. However, there appears to be no consensus on a single "best way" to acquire the myriad skills it takes to run an opera company — or a department within one. Interviews with a number of senior managers within the opera field revealed a variety of approaches to managing one's education — both inside and outside the classroom.

Going Back to School
Kevin Patterson, general director of Austin Lyric Opera, spent several years working in production at opera companies before deciding to go back to school for an M.B.A. (His undergraduate degree is in voice.) "When I was at Palm Beach Opera, I saw that the production world was requiring more and more financial knowledge. Instead of budgeting a year in advance, we were looking two to four years down the road. There were accounting questions, marketing issues. I realized it was the optimal time to get an M.B.A." Patterson returned to his hometown for school and was able to supplement his classroom study with valuable realworld experience: "I had the opportunity to work for my older brother, a doctor who was putting together his own practice. I worked for him doing IT, marketing, event planning, presentations — I worked daily with the business manager. That experience, coupled with the M.B.A., taught me so much."

Susan Danis, executive director of Sarasota Opera, had no intention of applying her M.B.A. to a career in opera; she planned to go corporate. This turned out to be difficult: "It was the late 80s, there were no jobs, and M.B.A.s were a dime a dozen." After a brief stint on the west coast, Danis said, "I ended up in upstate New York, where there was this opera company that needed a managing director." Danis took the job — at Lake George Opera — and has been in the field ever since. "People ask me all the time if they should get an M.B.A. I don't think it will ever hurt you to know how to read a balance sheet, to have a sense of strategy. Business school teaches you to think in a certain way, to develop critical thinking skills."

Timothy O'Leary, who will become executive director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in January 2008, began thinking about getting an advanced degree while he was working as a stage director. "When you're in an opera rehearsal, you're in the room with all of these people who have tremendous educational backgrounds — singers, conductors, coach/accompanists — it seemed funny to me that administrators should have to just learn everything they need on the job."

When he began a full-time master's program in theater management, O'Leary was also the only year-round, full-time employee at Gotham Chamber Opera. Although it was challenging to balance academic demands with professional ones, the combination had its advantages: "On the day I realized I needed a cash flow projection, that very topic was covered in my budgeting and reporting course. I went to the professor and asked if I could do a projection for Gotham instead of the assigned project. Being in school was like having a tremendous team of consultants working with me."

"The M.B.A. gave me a whole new view on how I did my job," said Patterson, who took a job as director of production at Pittsburgh Opera as he was finishing his degree. "When I got to Pittsburgh, Mark Weinstein, the new general director, was putting into place new budgeting and marketing structures. Because we had both been to business school, I could relate to what he was saying. We talked about choosing rep in terms of global costs of production, marketing and development. We used to look at each production like a stock and try to put together a balanced portfolio for the season."

O'Leary offered a caveat for those considering a degree in arts management: "I don't think you should get an advanced degree right away. The coursework is so much more valuable if you have experience in a company first. It is always going to be true that your qualifications and reputation as a collaborator are more important than any degree, but it is also true that degrees are helpful — both in getting a good job and doing a good job. The huge difference with any arts degree is the financial implication. School is expensive, and a degree like theater management is not like one in law or medicine — you are not going to be able to pay it back as quickly. Just as it is a risk for an opera singer to spend a lot of money getting a degree, it is a risk for an arts administrator. You have to understand what you're getting into."

Lessons from the Masters
While advanced degrees have paid off for many, they are no means de rigueur. In October 2007, ArtSearch included listings for 107 available administrative positions; nine of those expressed a preference for applicants with advanced degrees, while only two required them. Members of the field have shown a growing appreciation for the benefits of formal study, but the possession of certain skills and attitudes seems to be ultimately more important than the specific manner in which they were acquired. Many of today's senior professionals spoke of encountering their most important teachers outside the classroom.

"I had really good mentors along the way," said Paul Horpedahl, The Santa Fe Opera's production director. "Some of those were positive, and a couple were negative — I learned the right ways and the wrong ways of doing things in terms of leadership, management, communication. Probably the one that stands out the most was Craig Miller, who was the resident lighting designer at Santa Fe for a long time. He was here when I was an apprentice, and what heshared with everybody was his incredible love of what he was doing, along with an incredible professionalism. You do the work, enjoy it and treat your colleagues with respect and concern."

"There are two people who are responsible for the standards that I have — Ben Baker and John Conklin," said Abby Rodd, who is technical director of Glimmerglass Opera. "Ben was the technical director at Long Wharf Theatre, where I had my first carpentry job. The first 10 things I built there I had to rip apart and build all over again, or Ben would have somebody else rebuild them for me. It's because of my time with Ben that I get along with John." Rodd is now responsible for the construction and running of four new productions each season. "It could be tempting, especially by the fourth show, to cut corners, but nobody is going to do that with John around."

Attention to detail is important, but so is an ability to see the big picture. "I had to learn that it's not just about the scenery," said Rodd. "John once chewed me out for not having a masking flat in for a rehearsal. For me, it was a low priority — I was focused on the details of the set pieces. But he explained that the singers, the dressers, everybody needed to know ex
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