It's been an eventful and rewarding year for the Dallas Opera. Yes, I know; I can detect you raising an eyebrow at such a remark but, the fact is, despite the continuing doom-and-gloom in the nation's financial sector and its devastating impact on the arts; and despite the necessity of cancelling our revival of the brilliant Katya Kabanová, 2011 has been a milestone year for this company.
You're doubtful, I know. But let's run quickly through a few of the highlights, which included a landmark collaboration with the Dallas Museum of Art to breathe life into Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's luminous new song cycle, A Question of Light; phenomenal audience response to last spring's production of Rigoletto, in particular the gratifying debuts of Paolo Gavanelli in the title role and hometown girl Laura Claycomb as his daughter, Gilda, in a portrayal that earned her the coveted "Maria Callas Debut Artist of the Year" award; and nearly unprecedented critical acclaim for TDO's epic revival of the late Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's stunning production of Boris Godunov, with Mikhail Kazakov leading an all-star ensemble cast (in a production proclaimed "a world treasure" by Opera Warhorses).
This was also the year in which General Director and CEO Keith Cerny launched his thought-provoking "General Director's Roundtable," bringing both local and national perspectives to bear on the greatest challenges facing the performing arts today. It was the year in which we announced a new chamber opera series scheduled to open in March with Peter Maxwell Davies' ghostly 1980 opera, The Lighthouse, in artistic collaboration with the Dallas Theater Center. This brand new production will be conducted by the renowned Nicole Paiement and directed (in his opera debut) by DTC Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty.
2011 also saw our most glittering and successful opening night ever, FIRST NIGHT, and our second, well-received, free outdoor simulcast for picnickers lounging comfortably on the Winspear lawn. The Opening Night Simulcast, in collaboration with the AT&T Performing Arts Center, was especially memorable for me because emcee Ron Corning (WFAA) tapped me to act as his impromptu side-kick on the red carpet. I not only made my "big screen debut" that evening but later, during the intermissions, I kicked off my heels to wander barefoot through the grass interviewing members of the audience about their experience.
On the financial front, this was the year in which the Dallas Opera earned a $10 million matching gift from an anonymous donor by building the Cultural Renaissance Endowment Fund. It was also the year in which the company achieved key financial milestones through aggressive restructuring of TDO's operations and several successful fund-raising campaigns, without sacrificing the artistic quality for which the Dallas Opera is known and admired. The deficit for Fiscal '12 is slated to be half that of the previous fiscal year, and expenses have been cut by nearly one-and-a-half million dollars. At this point, the company is on-track to be "back in the black" by the end of the 2014-2015 season.
One of the most gratifying developments this year was the response of our loyal subscribers to the unexpected cancellation of a much-anticipated production. One in five subscribers asked that, rather than receiving a refund, those monies be applied to company operations. It was a tremendous vote of confidence at a very tough time!
However, arts-savvy TheaterJones readers may not be aware that some of our biggest strides this year were made in the areas of education and community outreach. This past spring, we decided it was time to restructure and re-imagine our entire arts education effort, leading to a host of new initiatives. These included giving complementary seats to local music teachers and their students in restricted view areas of the Winspear Opera House as part of the "TDOSightlines" program. We also created "TDOSkillSets" to give hands-on access to high school and college students studying music or preparing for a career in the performing arts; "TDOSneakPeek," which allowed music teachers to bring their students to experience a final dress rehearsal of one of our mainstage productions; and our ongoing "TDO Student Rush" program, that provides bargain-priced best-available seats (with a valid student I.D.) at the Winspear Box Office prior to each performance.
Over the summer, besides our popular "Baritones & Beachballs" summer events program, we launched "CampTDO" and "TDO In a Suitcase"—collaborating with area after-school programs (DASN, PACE) and the award-winning Big Thought to bring more music-centered creativity into the daily lives of our children.
Working closely with TDO professionals and the opera and voice departments at both SMU and UNT, we recently created a new, hour-long production of a charming work by the then-18-year-old Georges Bizet (later known for The Pearl Fishers and his immortal Carmen) about young love thwarted—but only temporarily—in Doctor Miracle. We have presented this delightful work (with a new English language translation by TDO's James Hampton) at NorthPark, in the Winspear, in several performances at the Dallas Children's Theater, and in school auditoriums and community centers across North Texas. Everywhere it has been performed, kids and their teachers and parents have responded with warm, enthusiastic applause.
Despite its storybook sets and costumes, we're not treating this like some throwaway "kiddie" opera, but giving Doctor Miracle the respect it deserves (which explains why classical music critic Gregory Sullivan Isaacs took the time to see and review the production for TheaterJones). This gentle, romantic comedy has given TDO the opportunity to engage more children than ever before, and we fully expect to triple the number of students reached—to a staggering 30,000—by the end of this current season. And this is just the first series of steps towards increasingly ambitious education and outreach goals in upcoming seasons.
This isn't about meeting the minimum requirement to qualify for grant monies; it's about making opera real to future generations of North Texans. In the attention-grabbing cacophony of contemporary urban life, we must find new ways to get "on the Android screens" of tomorrow's philanthropists, board members, subscribers and patrons. Working digital-hand-in-glove with smart and energetic outfits like TheaterJones, the Dallas Opera hopes to eliminate the last of the outdated stereotypes that continue to mis-identify opera as an artform "by white people, for white people" (This, despite an established history of color-blind casting at TDO since the 1960s) and to make every Dallas Opera production one of this community's most exciting, engaging and meaningful entertainment options.
TDO's artistic quality has never been higher. The financial recovery plan is working. We have made ourselves "Collaboration Central," and our commitment to your overall experience has never been stronger. So, be forewarned: we're kicking off our shoes and chasing after you and your children in 2012—and this time, we're not taking "no" for an answer.
Jennifer Schuder is the Dallas Opera's Chief Marketing Officer and Director of Community Outreach. In 2012, look for periodic blogs from General Director and CEO Keith Cerny on TheaterJones.
◊ Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of year-end essays by members of the local arts community. The first was by actress Emily Scott Banks, the second by Artes de la Rosa artistic director Adam Adolfo. Through the end of the year, look for reflections from others. If you're interested in contributing an essay, email Mark Lowry at email@example.com.