Keith Cerny and Emmanuel Villaume
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Smells Like Team Spirit

In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny writes about the importance of having an eye for the right team.

published Sunday, September 7, 2014


Dallas — As regular readers of this monthly column will know, I have written about the role of the General Director & CEO in defining an opera company’s strategy, developing compelling programming, managing complex technologies onstage and off, leading the company’s branding efforts, and ensuring efficient operations. One important area that I have not described before, which is of particular significance to my own leadership style, is the role of the General Director and CEO in talent recruitment and team-building. In fact, one of the great thrills for me of this unique job is identifying superior talent, whether it happens to be artistic, financial, or operational, and developing an environment where these individuals collaborate to produce the best possible result. In the corporate world, the wisdom and benefits of teamwork, both within an organization and without, is widely accepted. In the arts world, by contrast, there persists a widely shared view, left over perhaps from Lord Byron’s heroic-yet-romanticized ideal, that great leaders stand alone. Personally, I couldn’t disagree more. My own view is that recruiting an extraordinary artistic and business team and creating the right pre-conditions for effective collaboration, accounts for much of the success of any arts organization. That being said, every leader has to define and develop the most effective strategy for his or her organization.

There are six primary aspects to the job, which allow me to fulfill my dual role as both the artistic head of the company (General Director) and the business head (CEO). All of these elements are critically dependent on smooth and efficient teamwork within the organization, between staff members and the Board, and in fostering a positive and dynamic relationship between the organization and the broader community. The key elements are as follows:

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Ian Derrer
  • Board and community relations. Everyone has a boss, and the General Director and CEO is responsible for developing a strategy for the organization, presenting that strategy to the Board and securing its approval, and building (or fine-tuning) an organization capable of executing that strategy. Since opera companies are so heavily dependent on annual fund-raising and endowment draw to balance revenue and expenses, the General Director and CEO (GD & CEO) is also intimately involved in working with the Board on the company’s fund-raising efforts. The GD & CEO does not appoint Board members; however, the tone that he or she sets in the Board relationship is one of several elements that determine whether serving on a particular Board is viewed as a “plum” opportunity in the community, or more of a chore. The General Director and CEO must also build strong working relationships with other artistic and business leaders in the community and, indeed, The Dallas Opera has made artistic collaboration, and the associated teamwork in the community, a top priority as we partner with a wide range of organizations
  • Personnel recruitment and team building. One of the most important aspects of the General Director & CEO role is the ability to construct a top leadership team on both the artistic and business sides. This team can be created through a combination of nurturing existing talent in leadership roles, promoting new leaders from within, and bringing in artists and executives from outside (whether from the opera world, other non-profits, or the corporate sector). I will describe below five major artistic appointments I have made since moving to Dallas over four years ago. On the business side of the company, in my current leadership team, two were in place when I arrived, two more were already in the organization in less senior roles (i.e. internal promotes), and three were brought in from outside. In every case, I have assessed not only the innate skills of each person, but also how they interact with their peers and other staff within the organization. And, as I have brought in additional personnel to complete the team, I have also given major consideration to how they will interact with senior colleagues already in place.
  • Leading programming, commissions and casting. One of the most exciting aspects of the General Director’s job is leading programming, identifying unique co-production or rental opportunities, commissioning new operas, and casting principal artists. In my time at TDO, I have moved the company to a team-based artistic approach; meaning, I have encouraged a free flow of ideas in all four areas from more than half a dozen different individuals within the company, including the music director, artistic administrator, production and technical directors and others. While the ultimate decision (and responsibility) rests with me, I find that soliciting a range of ideas, and discussing a wide variety of options with my leadership team, leads to a much superior result.

  • Marketing, PR and Development. Ensuring that strong leaders are in place for Marketing, PR and Development are vital, as ticket sales and fund-raising account for the majority of any opera company’s revenue (although a strong CFO and well-run Investment Committee can ensure that the organization maximizes its return from the endowment). Having worked with many different opera companies over the last 15 years, I have noted that, often, the most significant challenge is fostering close communication and collaboration between Marketing, PR and Development. Generally speaking, this is because both Marketing and Development operate their own customer “loyalty” and special event programs, with the potential for overlap that can lead to interdepartmental frictions. I have also seen instances where both the Marketing and Development leadership want to control the PR messaging to serve their own needs, when, in fact, the PR messaging needs to serve the Board and the entire organization. In TDO’s case, we are very fortunate to have three separate leaders in these three areas whose ability to work together is even stronger than their impressive individual leadership skills within their own departments.

  • Artistic and financial operations. Having worked for a variety of businesses over the years, I believe that opera has more “moving parts” per expense dollar than almost any type of business, due to the extraordinary range of artists and supporting personnel required (e.g. singers, dancers, orchestral musicians, stage crews, wig and make-up artists, rehearsal pianists – the list goes on and on). One of my friends in the accounting and corporate finance world once equated the operational complexity of TDO—a business with $ 15 million in annual expenditures —with several of his clients generating a billion dollars in annual revenue. When everything in an opera company is going smoothly, no one notices artistic and financial operations, but as soon as something goes wrong—a sick singer, a damaged projector for supertitles, a flaw in a physical set transition—the impact is as immediate as it is obvious! Good teamwork encourages good communication, which minimizes the risk of problems developing in the first place. It also encourages leaders at the top to develop robust “backup” plans when a particular risk seems excessively troubling.
Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
Keith Cerny and Emmanuel Villaume

Since moving to Dallas four years ago, I have focused on three interrelated artistic objectives to raise the company's international stature while maintaining its reputation for artistic excellence; all of these have been enhanced by my emphasis on teamwork. The first objective has been to establish our program of new commissions, building on the relatively recent success of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's Moby-Dick in 2010. In fact, TDO will present three world premieres in calendar year 2015—an extraordinary achievement for any opera company, of any size. These commissions have required every part of the organization—artistic, production, technical, financial, marketing and development—to work together seamlessly as we prepare for preparatory workshops and eventual premieres. As the first entry in this series, we will present the world premiere of Everestthe first opera by renowned British composer Joby Talbot, with a libretto by Gene Scheer, beginning in late January. My second artistic objective has been to expand the range of operas, composers and productions featured on our stage, and to present more “neglected gems” of the repertoire, as well as more 20nd and 21st century works. Once again, when TDO presents less familiar repertoire, it requires that we deepen our collaboration within TDO to include the artistic creative team of director, designer, choreographer, lighting designer, etc. My third artistic objective has been to bring the gift of opera to the broader community through free public simulcasts at AT&T Stadium, Klyde Warren Park, Annette Strauss Square, and Sammons Plaza. During the past three years more than 40,000 people have experienced opera in this way. These simulcasts involve essentially every person in TDO, as we work with our media partners, outside technology firms, and the Cowboys and Klyde Warren Park organizations to bring each simulcast to life.

Over the last 18 months, and in partnership with the Board, I have made five important artistic appointments that define the artistic “team at the top,” and will position the company for even greater success in the future. The first was the appointment of Emmanuel Villaume as TDO's new Music Director —only the third Music Director in the company's history. Emmanuel enjoys a stellar international career and has already contributed greatly to the company as a musician, an ambassador for The Dallas Opera, and an artistic “talent magnet” to help recruit famous singers, directors and designers. The second was the appointment of Nicole Paiement as the company's first-ever Principal Guest Conductor. Nicole has already conducted two successful contemporary operas in Dallas (Peter Maxwell-Davies’s The Lighthouse and Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers), and will return to conduct the world premiere of Everest in late January and early February, 2015. Additionally, in the wake of the announcement that Jonathan Pell was stepping down as Artistic Director after thirty years experience with TDO, I hired Ian Derrer from Lyric Opera of Chicago as our company's new Artistic Administrator. Going forward, Emmanuel and I will continue to shape the company's artistic program, with strong support from Ian, who brings an impressively diverse background as a singer, director, and opera administrator. A few weeks ago, TDO announced the appointment of the distinguished pianist, coach and artistic administrator Brian Zeger as Chair of the Judges for the Dallas Opera Guild Vocal Competition on April 18 and 19, 2015. For the first time in the competition’s history, the four-to-six finalists will be accompanied by The Dallas Opera Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Emmanuel Villaume. And, earlier this summer, TDO announced the appointment of tenor—and former Operalia winner—David Lomeli as the company’s new Artistic Coordinator, working for Ian Derrer (a spreadsheet is available upon request—I’m kidding, of course!).

As we prepare for the start of the 2014-‘15 Season, The Linda and Mitch Hart Season Opening Night Performance on Oct. 24 of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro will showcase the rewards of such meaningful artistic collaboration. In addition to the outstanding international cast, several of whom are making American debuts, the production also marks the welcome return of Dallas Opera Music Director Emmanuel Villaume to our podium. Since last year’s production of Carmen, Maestro Villaume has performed at La Fenice, Covent Garden, Juilliard and Rome Opera—as well as major opera houses and concert halls in New York City, Oman, Eastern Europe and Canada. Building on the theme of teamwork and collaboration, these performances of Mozart’s timeless classic also signal the very welcome Winspear Opera House debut of Dallas Theater Center Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty who, working with our Principal Guest Conductor Nicole Paiement, created a darkly dazzling chamber opera production of a modern-day classic, Peter Maxwell-Davies’s The Lighthouse at the Wyly theater in 2012.

Please plan to join us—I know you will enjoy the fruits of our collective labors!


◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in Below is a list of previous columns:

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Smells Like Team Spirit
In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny writes about the importance of having an eye for the right team.
by Keith Cerny

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