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Engaging a Diverse Community
Laura Day Giarolo, Director of Learning & Community Engagement, and Alexa B. Antopol, Research & Reference Librarian
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Original Content10/17/2011

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The title of a pre-conference seminar from Opera Conference 2011 was especially relevant last week as three different reports and announcements stimulated much thinking about how opera companies — and all performing arts organizations — can do a better job of engaging a diverse community.

National Public Radio's Deceptive Cadence blog posted about two notable mentions of opera in the New York Times: an incidental (and unflattering) reference in a restaurant review and a front page article about the success of the Metropolitan Opera's fundraising efforts last year. In "Is Opera Stuff (Only) Rich People Like?", Anastasia Tsioulcas used the language of the Occupy Wall Street protests to ask readers about opera's status as an elitist art form. Twenty-four hours later, Tsioulcas knew the answer to her question was a resounding NO: Opera is for the 99%.

Reader responses to the NPR Classical blog debunked many of the public myths about opera attendance, such as ticket price as a barrier to entry, and addressed other important issues, such as how opera is represented in popular culture and embraced by public figures. "Movies and other popular forms of entertainment TELL the general public that opera is an art form for the old and the wealthy," noted a reader called Kaschries. OperaNed added that "the biggest challenge is that for decades, directors of 30-second commercials pots have used opera as the punchline anytime they needed to say 'Hey, isn't this boring?' They traffic in visual shorthand, and they worked hard to make opera effective shorthand for boring/elitist/fat people. And they have a decades-long head start." As to ticket prices, reader Operapreneur pointed out that "the price to see your first opera, almost anywhere in the country, is cheaper than a tank of gas." Charles Stanton put it best on Facebook, where NPR Classical posted a link to the original blog post, saying, "It is more an issue of prioritization. No one, including the federal level of decision makers, puts the arts at top priority. Therefore, it does not seem of value to pay $30 to $50 for a ticket. Conversely, $200 for a sporting event seems like a bargain. Paying $10 each morning at Starbucks is no problem. If the arts are valued, people will go. Period."

Earlier in the week, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy released Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy at a Grantmakers in the Arts conference in San Francisco. The report makes the case "that more foundation funding in the arts should directly benefit lower-income communities, people of color and disadvantaged populations, broadly defined, and that more resources should be allocated to expand the role of arts and culture in addressing the inequalities that challenge our communities....By doing so, philanthropy can shape a more inclusive and dynamic cultural sector, as well as a more equitable, fair and democratic world." Much of the report is derived from statistical analysis of giving trends from the Foundation Center combined with the National Endowment for the Arts' 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts and additional information from the Urban Institute's National Center for Charitable Statistics, and the findings indicate that "the vast majority of [funding for nonprofit arts and culture] supports cultural organizations whose work is based in the elite segment of the Western European cultural tradition — commonly called the canon — and whose audiences are predominantly white and upper income."

Striking about the report is that it only goes so far to "follow the money," only noting that the majority of funds were received by "encyclopedic institutions...none of them is rooted primarily in non-European aesthetics, or founded and run by people of color." As noted on page 10 of the report, "many ‘general purpose' arts grants undoubtedly have the intention of benefiting the general public...the [Foundation Center's data] do not capture some grants whose purpose is to broaden and diversify audiences for mainstream cultural organizations, a portion of which do serve lower-income populations, communities of color and disadvantaged groups. In addition, these figures do not include data about grants under $10,000, which, if included, might shift the percentages." In other words, the report only studies the institutions who receive funding, not what they actually do with it.

But it's important to note the myriad ways of experiencing opera and engaging with an opera company these days, as demonstrated by many of the commenters on the Deceptive Cadence posting mentioned above. For example, the individuals who attend community-based performances or simulcasts in public parks or baseball stadiums (or who experience the art form through radio or HD broadcast, or rebroadcast on public television) are more likely to represent their community's diversity. Perhaps it is time to expand the definition of "audience" beyond the number of tickets sold to a mainstage performance, to include the total population served by all of an organization's activities.

Many opera companies and other performing arts organizations have established partnership programs with public schools across the country to supplement the arts education available within the school. While this report notes that the work done by teaching artists "is expanding the scope of artistic practice and the role of the arts in improving the lives of disadvantaged populations," it does not quantify the diverse populations being served by such programs or include them in an organization's impact within the community. The success of an organization in reaching and serving diverse populations — at least as far as this report is concerned — appears to be tied directly to generalizations about the ticket-buying audience and donor base. One prominent success story that interweaves artistic traditions is that of Cruzar la Cara del la Luna (To Cross the Face of the Moon), the world's first Mariachi opera, commissioned by Houston Grand Opera through HGOco's Song of Houston: Mexico 2010 project which was recently released on CD. This pioneering work about the nature of the immigrant experience struck a universal chord, with sold-out performances in Houston in 2010 (both at HGO's Wortham Center and the city's Talento Bilingüe) and an outpouring of emotional response from audiences at Paris's Théâtre du Châtelet. As a reviewer for Classical TV said in his report from Paris, "This was heartfelt, sophisticated, shockingly melodic music that is direct and brimming with emotions....At the end of this moving work, Théâtre du Châtelet shook with applause. You could hear weeping (I was not alone in getting teary-eyed), but most of all you heard the shouts of joy at the discovery of something wonderful and fresh." Perryn Leech, managing director of Houston Grand Opera, has received inquiries "from quite literally all over the world, and we are hopeful that...these will lead to future opportunities to show that relevant new work is not only needed, but can also engage new audiences and broaden the appeal of what we all do."

These sentiments will be expounded upon at Opera Conference 2012: Creative Resurgence. The wave of creativity is sweeping the opera field, compelling us to rethink our conventions and find new and exciting ways of reaching the 99%. Innovative artistic and administrative practices are re-envisioning the art form and simultaneously increasing opera's impact in the larger cultural community through works like Cruzar la Cara del la Luna. Be part of this creative resurgence and look forward to learning more in Philadelphia, June 13-16, 2012.
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