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People Make Opera
Bill Richardson
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Opera America Magazine12/1/2007

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Banff, Alberta, located in heart of the Canadian Rockies, is an inspiring place. Set amid the natural splendors of the area is The Banff Centre, a globally respected arts, cultural and educational institution.

It was there, in August, that leaders in Canada's opera community came together for People Make Opera, a three-day colloquium organized by Opera.ca and The Banff Centre. Issues of governance were front and center at this event, which focused on artistic direction, staff management and board responsibilities. Following presentations from experts in these fields, participants took part in smaller breakout meetings, where they exchanged their respective companies' views on these matters. The atmosphere was upbeat and collegial, with artistic directors, board members and senior administrators freely exchanging ideas, shared concerns and challenges.

Also present at the event was Bill Richardson, the new host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Saturday Afternoon at the Opera radio program. Here is his insightful description of People Make Opera.

"In which operas do mountains figure?"

That's a likely sounding question for an opera quiz. William Tell comes to mind right away. Wagner's operas, mountains in themselves, are a regular "cragslist" of possibilities. La Sonnambula has an Alpine setting; so does La Wally, and isn't it in the third act of Carmen that Don Jose joins the smugglers and gypsies in some kind of high-altitude grotto where cards get read and bad things are accurately foretold?

Mountains find a place elsewhere in music, of course. There's Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony, and Hovhaness's Symphony No. 2, "Mysterious Mountain" and Lord knows what would come to light if the great god Google were consulted. Even without its intervention, there's ample evidence, both in music and in literature, of the power of mountains to console and to alarm — to inspire.

Inspiration was key for the members of Opera.ca when they gathered in Banff in August; inspiration and information, in equal measure. Ringed by the Canadian Rockies, the 50 or so administrators, board members and volunteers from across the country, had they wanted to settle on a motto, might have remembered Hillary's "Because it's there." But it's the sage Dr. Seuss who offers what might have been the most salient motto: "Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting… So, get on your way." It was practicality, more than fancy, that dominated the agenda.

People Make Opera was the theme of the three-day colloquium, held August 10 to 12 at The Banff Centre. Playwright and librettist John Murrell set the tone for the working weekend in his welcoming remarks by noting how Pauline Kael was fond of comparing opera and film: Both are hugely complex operations that bring together workers from many different disciplines. It shouldn't work and sometimes it doesn't, but when it does, when all those diverse minds are brought to bear, something like a miracle occurs. The question, then, is how best to sharpen and focus this deeply human enterprise so that the miraculous takes place more often than not; how best to ensure that the deeply human but fragile mechanism on which opera relies — the human voice, singing — is sustained by a well-oiled administrative machine?

Friday evening's student performance of the recent opera Frobisher by composer John Estacio and Murrell was an eloquent way of setting the stage for the weekend's work, an apt reminder that the art is what it's all about. Three keynote speakers brought their experience and expertise to bear. After each of their informal presentations, the participants broke up into three smaller focus groups to discuss what they'd just heard, to share information about their own organizations' practices and to raise questions. Session moderators summarized the major points raised around their respective tables for the larger group when it reassembled.

The Dance of Board and Staff
Aaron Milrad, of the Toronto law firm Fraser, Milner, Casgrain, spoke to the complicated issues of organizational governance: the necessary, delicate and sometimes fraught dance of board and administration. Milrad stressed that nonprofits need to pay attention to the recent, well-publicized lapses in governance that have rocked the private sector. The public, properly, is more alert now than ever to the possibility of the misuse or misappropriation of funds, and accountability to donors, members and stakeholders has taken on a new prominence. His wide-ranging presentation touched on such points as diversity, conflict of interest and sidestepping difficulties of governance through a mutual clarity of expectations.

Milrad's remarks jumpstarted a lively discussion in the smaller groups. It was clear that practices vary widely around such issues as attracting new board members, length of term, monitoring board performance and succession planning. Discussion points included the following:
  • Establishing financial requirements of board members; different ways of applying what Milrad described as the "give, get or get off" rule
  • Mentoring practices; forming alliances between seasoned board members and young professionals; potential candidates for future service
  • Implementing systems of self-evaluation for board members on an annual basis
  • Staggering terms to avoid the mass exodus phenomenon
  • Vigilance about maintaining a good mix of backgrounds and professional skills among board members
  • Empowering board members to drive the organization forward
  • Striving for an ethnic mix of the board that reflects the demographic of the community

The Interplay of Dreams and Reality
If Milrad's presentation was mostly about practicalities, Peter Hinton, artistic director of English Theatre at Ottawa's National Arts Centre, spoke mostly about ideals. He spoke about dreams and realities, and about the intersection of opera and theater. Articulate and plainspoken, he wondered why the two communities are so often divided. In the U.K., he pointed out, it's common for directors to move from serious theater to family theater to opera. The skills and ideas acquired in one can be brought to bear on the other. He suggested that North Americans saw less fluidity. Hinton also spoke candidly about the surfeit of artists, the paucity of work and the difficulties of developing an involved audience. He raised the highly hypothetical but important question: What would happen if it all just went away? Would anyone notice? Would there be a sufficient outcry that something would be done, or would it just be allowed to wither?

The essence of Hinton's remarks can be found in a Jeannette Winterston essay from which he quoted. She tells of hearing Britten's Death in Venice. On first exposure, she had a hard time with the music. Then she heard it again, and again in different circumstances. Over time, and with work, it lodged with her. She got it. But it wasn't immediate. Art is effortful, she says, which raises the question of whether or not, in a fast food world, we're ready to sacrifice instant gratification for the sometimes hard work of understanding what's new. Hinton made the point that art is long term, and that artists require a home, a place to be nurtured, to experiment, to grow in confidence. Why do we need opera? We need it in the same way we need dreams: to make reality bearable.

Hinton's passionate and provocative speech struck a resonant chord; in the smaller groups, many more questions were raised than answers were given. This seemed only right, since it was a speech that encouraged b
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About the Author: Bill Richardson is the host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Saturday Afternoon at the Opera radio program.
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