Learning to Work Together: Opera Companies and Academic Institutions
Opera America Magazine •
A Richer Experience for Audiences
In some cities, collaboration means local opera patrons experience a greater range of repertoire than they might otherwise. Opera Company of Philadelphia has developed a partnership with The Curtis Institute of Music to co-present one production each season, beginning with Golijov's Ainadamar in 2008. "We have always had a very strong relationship with Curtis," says David B. Devan, executive director of Opera Company of Philadelphia. "We learned there were certain pieces they wanted to produce for their singers, but the school didn't have the resources. It dawned on me that conservatories don't have a lot of marketing horsepower, but we were in a position to provide them with a substantially larger audience. We came up with an arrangement whereby Curtis would produce the show and we would market it as part of our season and then hand over the revenue, allowing them to pay their bills."
It is a win-win arrangement, according to Devan: "Curtis gets to produce at a top-notch facility, with full houses. We get a piece of repertoire we wouldn't otherwise produce. This year, with Wozzeck, we were able to put a great 20th century masterpiece in front of our audience, which helped take them on a journey through the canon." In 2010, Philadelphia audiences will enjoy a production of Barber's Antony and Cleopatra.
Mississippi Opera (Jackson, MS) and the University of Southern Mississippi (Hattiesburg, MS) have developed a different strategy for getting more bang from their producing buck. Maryann Kyle, who is director of the university's Southern Opera and Music Theatre, was looking for a way to improve production quality and create opportunities for her students. "Our production resources are less than spectacular, but our singers and orchestra are really strong." Kyle, who has sung several roles with Mississippi Opera, invited Mississippi Opera Artistic Director Alan Mann to hear her students in audition, after which the two agreed to move forward with a joint production of La traviata — as a trial. Mississippi Opera hired guest artists for leading roles; university students were invited to audition for smaller roles and to join with the Mississippi Opera chorus for the production. Costs were shared equally between the two organizations.
The experiment was a success, and the organizations have now produced three operas together, with performances in both Hattiesburg and Jackson. In addition to providing opportunities for the students, the initiative has helped build opera audiences in both locations. "Because of the quality of the singers and the production, we're able to bring in a more well-rounded audience," says Kyle. "And in Jackson, the students attract a ticket base of parents and friends."
The university also benefits from having Mississippi Opera guest artists in residence as they prepare for the production. "In addition to rehearsing for the opera, they are available to give a masterclass or an acting workshop," says Kyle.
"Contributors look really favorably on the collaboration," says Elizabeth Buyan, executive director of Mississippi Opera, who notes that alumni in and around Jackson are particularly interested in how the organizations work together. "You find more and more these days that people want to support educational opportunities. Every time one of those students goes to an audition for graduate school or an apprentice program, they have a role with Mississippi Opera on their resume. It is just huge for them. They get to perform on stage with professionals. It's not like a university production, where they have three months to rehearse an opera. They have to show up prepared and get it staged in our three-week schedule.
Sometimes, organizations are able to offer local opera-goers a richer experience simply by sharing information and planning ahead. Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) planned a production of Daniel Catàn's Rappacini's Daughter the same season as Cincinnati Opera's production of the same composer's Florencia en el Amazonas. This season, the drama department of CCM is producing Lorca's Blood Wedding, while Cincinnati Opera is producing Ainadamar, an opera inspired by the life of Lorca.
More Opportunities for Artists
Complementary programming is only one of the ways in which the two Cincinnati organizations work together. Their long-standing partnership, which developed over a number of years, was recently strengthened by a three-year grant from the Corbett Foundation, intended to formalize the existing relationship with collaborative academic programming, as well as enhanced young artist and internship opportunities.
"We complement each other in a number of ways," says Cincinnati Opera Director of Artistic Operations Marcus Küchle. "We've done several new works that we've been able to workshop with CCM students. Almost the entire cast for our workshop of Rise for Freedom: The John P. Parker Story came from there."
According to Robin Guarino, the chair of the opera program at CCM, opportunities like the workshop are invaluable for students: "They go into an interactive process where they are having to work with a composer. The other benefit is going into the community; they feel like they're making a difference."
Cincinnati Opera does not maintain a full-time singer training program, in part because of their schedule: "We are in production for only 10 weeks," says Küchle. "Really shaping artists takes a longer time." When the company needs singers for events outside the festival season, it relies on CCM talent. "They allow me to attend their auditions at the beginning of the semester. I also go to all their performances, so I am very familiar with the talent pool. When we have any kind of performance opportunity, I know who is there."
"I love the fact that the students do hit-and-run donor performances," says Guarino. "They need performance opportunities. In school, we're always micromanaging their technique, their craft, their presentation. When they have an audition, they will spend a week thinking about what they're going to wear. We want them to get in the habit of just going out there and doing it."
Similarly, Opera Company of Philadelphia relies on students from Curtis and the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) for the events and small mainstage assignments that other companies might cast from a young artist program. "Artistic Director Robert Driver and I go to all their productions, and our music staff hears the students twice each year in the Academy," says Devan. "It is great for the students to be able to sing in this amazing opera house. When we plan our seasons, we make sure we have an opportunity for AVA students and alumni to be in our productions. We also cast some Curtis students, and from time to time also from Temple University."
Vancouver Opera has a formal agreement with the University of British Columbia whereby two students understudy roles for the company's school touring program each season. According to Director of Education Michael Grice, the understudies have three to four performing opportunities each year. They also get a taste of the peripatetic life of a working singer: "British Columbia is about the size of France, Germany and the Netherlands combined. It's larger than the total combined areas of Washington, Oregon and California. Our singers get very used to life on the road!" The company also hears local university students in audition, "resulting, when appropriate, in recommendations for scholarships and grants, an
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