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For the Love of the Game: Considering a Career in Opera Administration
José Rincón, Artistic Services Coordinator, OPERA America
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Original Content9/30/2009

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Most opera administrators working today probably did not enter college with the goal of working for a nonprofit arts organization someday. I know this was the case for me when I began studying voice as an undergraduate. In fact, I was unaware of arts administration as a field until, as a college senior, I was offered a chance to design some marketing materials for a production of Orpheus in the Underworld. By that point, I knew I lacked the same hunger for a performing career as some of my music school colleagues, but I'd retained my passion for opera as an art form and wanted to devote my energy to instilling the same passion in others.

After catching the behind-the-scenes bug as an undergraduate, I went on to pursue a Master's in arts administration. Whether or not a graduate degree in the field really adds value to your prospects is open to debate, but my grad school experience provided me an invaluable structured transition between my academic and professional lives.

My fellow arts administration students at Florida State all had similar stories. We studied music in college, but for a variety of reasons decided that our passion and talents would be better utilized on the administrative side. We did not feel like failures, but were rather excited to be designing mock season brochures for XYZ Opera Company while strengthening our ability to defend the value of the arts through lively classroom debates. Courses in grant writing and research methods rounded out a curriculum meant to prepare us for the type of work we would encounter once we entered the field.

But the college experience has its limitations too, and some things you just don't learn until you're on the job. I asked some of my accomplished colleagues who were trained as artists for their advice to prospective arts administrators. Here are their responses, combined with my own on-the-job experiences.

Question Your Biases
"I would say that the biggest issue to keep in mind when transitioning from artist to arts administrator is that it is not enough to look at any issue from just your point of view. I've known artists who transition to arts administrators that let their personal views cloud the larger view or issue at hand. Examples run the gamut from opinions on voice types and vocal technique to personal tastes in repertory. To be successful you have to think about the production style of the company and consumer tastes of the audience. I like to say that if I were to program only the operas that I wanted to see I would have a marvelous time, but there would only be four people in hall to listen. Always work to see an issue from as many different sides a possible. It allows you to work with different types of people and gives you the flexibility to manage their expectations effectively."
— Kevin Patterson, general director, Austin Lyric Opera

Learn the Nitty-Gritty
"My best piece of advice is to take advantage of things along the way in your career that right now you might not think will be useful later on. Watch how a general director of a company you're singing with handles patrons, take a business course on the side — really learn what a profit and loss and a balance sheet look like, etc. They may seem drab and unimportant now, but having those skills will help you if you decide to make the transition to administrator."
— William Florescu, general director, Florentine Opera Company

Make Your Own Opportunities
Moving up the chain of command in the nonprofit sector can be difficult. Proven fundraising ability is a prerequisite for most executive-level positions, and a company may look outside of the organization to fill these top-tier jobs rather than move someone up internally. Fledgling and seasoned administrators alike can be proactive about their professional advancement by identifying an unmet need of the organization, or audience, or both, and creating projects that respond to these needs. Such projects will probably mean more work for the same pay but it is a demonstration of initiative that can make a person stand out from the crowd.

Do Unto Others…
While this may seem like a no-brainer, it cannot be overstated. The nonprofit arts community is very small and interconnected, and it is just as easy to build a bad reputation as it is to build a good one. Treating people with respect and courtesy, regardless of their job title, is an essential component to a successful career.

In Conclusion
I encourage any young opera artist to consider opera administration not as a Plan B to a failed performing career, but as a noble endeavor with real value. The field benefits from administrators who have an inherent love for their art. The hours can be grueling, no doubt, and progress can be hard to measure, but I have yet to find something more rewarding than knowing I spend my day trying to bring more truth and beauty into the world.

"I became a general director because my many years as a singer (retired from that) and stage director (still active) taught me an appreciation of the myriad factors that go into making an opera happen. Becoming an administrator allowed me to be a part of all of it, from fundraising to production to casting to union negotiation to donor relations. Being involved on all of these levels has created a deeper and richer appreciation for the final product in this art form we all love so much. I can't imagine doing anything else!"
— William Florescu, general director, Florentine Opera Company

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