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Recognizing Opera`s Trustee Leaders
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Opera America Magazine4/1/2008

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Music, rhetoric, visual art — the experimental art form conjured by a group of Italian scholars over 400 years ago has been a collaborative endeavor from the beginning. Today, it takes a staggering number of personnel to make an opera production truly sing: from sopranos to violists, riggers to wigmakers. The ongoing success of an opera company also relies on the collective efforts of individuals devoted to fundraising, marketing, financial management and other crucial administrative tasks. The volunteer leadership of an opera company — its board of trustees — plays a vital role in the successful management of a company’s operations.

In January 2008, with the generous support of U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management and the steady leadership of Frayda Lindemann, OPERA America launched the National Opera Trustee Recognition Program to honor trustees for exemplary leadership, support and audiencebuilding efforts on behalf of their opera companies and the communities they serve.

“It was an honor to be appointed the first chair,” said Lindemann, who is vice president of the Metropolitan Opera and member of the boards of OPERA America and Palm Beach Opera. “We want to encourage the relationship . between the professional staff and the trustees, because the trustees really do a great service for their opera companies. First of all, they help to secure the resources needed to sustain the companies, and we cannot produce opera without resources. They act as advocates for the genre, inviting friends and relatives, making business contacts for the opera company and generally stimulating interest for the performances. They also have to oversee the financial and legal well-being of the companies. This has become more and more important because the government has become increasingly interested not only in the for-profit, but also the nonprofit realm. We have to be sure that everything is done correctly. Trustees serve to monitor the overall performance of the opera company. Many have years of performing experience, and their ears and eyes are very well cultivated.”

As the service organization for opera, OPERA America has long supported and promoted the service of trustees. Beginning in the 1990s, the Trustee-Volunteer Resource Center provided ongoing professional development through a series of newsletters and bulletins. President and CEO Marc A. Scorca travels across the country to meet with boards and offer strategic planning counsel and other customized consulting services. In 2005, OPERA America launched the National Trustee Council, which acts in an advisory capacity to help define governance issues facing opera companies nationwide, to identify and share best practices and to shape OPERA America’s programmatic response to pressing governance issues. The Council meets annually and shares resources through mail and e-mail correspondence. Also in 2005, OPERA America welcomed the first opera company trustee to its board: Barbara Leirvik (Cleveland Opera). She has since been joined by Lindemann and Louise Gaylord (Opera Santa Barbara).

The National Trustee Council provided invaluable counsel as OPERA America designed the National Opera Trustee Recognition Award. Led by Lindemann, members of the Council including Patricia Compton, Fred Good (Cincinnati Opera, Dayton Opera), Meredith Hathorn Penick (New Orleans Opera Association) and Ruth Orth (Pensacola Opera) reviewed the nominations, selecting four honorees who represent companies of differing sizes. It was a daunting task, as each nomination made a strong case for a very individual relationship between a trustee and his or her opera company. “It was very, very difficult,” said Lindemann, “Every application seemed compelling.” After much deliberation, the committee selected Betty W. Healey (Opera Birmingham), Sally Levy (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis), Jane Robinson (Florida Grand Opera) and G. Whitney Smith (Fort Worth Opera).

Each of the honored trustees has provided extraordinary financial support to his or her opera company. Healey is the single most generous donor in Opera Birmingham’s history, and has personally underwritten nine productions to date. Sally Levy most recently made a leadership gift that launched the effort to design and build a new 25,000 square foot facility, completed in 2006, that consolidates Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s administrative, rehearsal and community outreach activities. Levy has also provided support for the John D. Levy Master Classes, public workshops for the company’s young artists. Jane Robinson and G. Whitney Smith have been tireless fundraisers for their respective companies, setting a strong example by hosting events in their homes and working with development staff to secure additional major gifts.

In selecting the first recipients of the National Opera Trustee Recognition Award, the committee considered not only financial support, but also demonstration of consistent and informed leadership, responsiveness to specific opera company needs and goals, involvement with audience development efforts and advocacy on behalf of the company in the public and private sectors.

Many of the nominees have a long record of service with their opera companies: Levy has been an integral member of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis family since the company’s founding in 1976. “We were just hoping to get through the first year. We cleaned apartments and furnished them, and we picked up singers at the airport. It was very personal, and we got to know the singers, many of whom have gone on to wonderful careers. Little did we dream that Opera Theatre would be the success it has become.” Healey was one of the founding members of the Birmingham Opera Guild and subsequently served as its president. “Several of us wanted to form a supporting group for the opera,” she said. “We invited our friends, and they invited their friends.” Robinson became a Young Patroness of the Opera at what was then Greater Miami Opera in the late 1960s and been involved with the company every since.

Such long-term volunteer support is tremendously important to companies across the country. “Opera Theatre has always had a wonderful and active volunteer base,” said Levy. “It is one of our great strengths. Volunteers do everything from fundraising to ushering at rehearsals.”

Healey, too, has provided exemplary volunteer service. According to General Director John D. Jones, “If you attend any Guild or Opera function in Birmingham, you’re likely to see Betty Healey behind the scenes — bagging purchases in the Opera Shop, getting more cookies on the table or bringing a box full of artwork for a silent auction. And where else would Violetta’s camellias come from other than Betty’s front yard? Her enthusiasm for the company is unmatched; she is known as the “opera lady” for her advocacy in the community.”

Robinson, who now serves as president of Florida Grand Opera, estimates she spends at least three days a week in the company’s offices in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, and says: “When I’m not there, I’m working from home or meeting with donors.” She says the office of president is a culmination of a life-long journey: “I have the ability to use my professional background in marketing and business at a time of life when most people are retiring. I get to work with young people who respect what I know — and I learn from them, too, of course. I feel that in retirement I’m working harder than ever.”

Distinguished service is not always measured over multiple decades. Smith’s involvement in Fort Worth Opera began i
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