Keith Cerny
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On the Prowl for Opera's MVPs

General Director and CEO Keith Cerny reflects on finding talent for the off-stage leaders and staff required to run an opera company, and how the Internet has changed talent recruitment—probably forever.

published Sunday, October 4, 2015



Dallas —  Staffing in all but the very largest opera companies is an elastic situation. Companies typically have a year-round staff (in TDO’s case, around 35 people), which grows many times during the production season (often increasing by 200 or more in Dallas as we add conductors, principal singers, chorus, orchestra, dancers, stage crews, stage managers, directors and designers, among others). As a producing company, we regularly assemble new teams for each production. Some work groups have a stable core roster (e.g. our chorus, orchestra, and stage crew), to which we add more personnel as needed, but we are always looking for talented new people to improve our efficiency and performance, onstage and off. The Dallas Opera is currently recruiting a new Chief Financial Officer, following the retirement of our previous CFO, which has inspired me to reflect on how much recruiting personnel for opera companies has changed in the last 20 years.

Finding great singers for our productions is, of course, central to our artistic mission. However, the process by which opera companies audition singers for opera productions has changed very little over the last 100 years, let alone the past 20. This is a decidedly “low tech” process: you need a piano, the auditioning singers, and a space with a decent acoustic in order to gauge their potential “fit” for a particular repertoire or role. (For my past thoughts on auditions and personal branding see this Off the Cuff.) If we are very lucky, and can schedule a “house” audition in the Winspear Opera House, we can hear singers in the actual environment in which they will perform; that being said, we can also get an excellent idea of how the singers will sound in a more basic location, such as a rehearsal studio. (Hearing singers performing a specific role in a live opera performance is, of course, the ultimate “audition.”) Technological advances have made relatively little difference in the auditioning process, and possibly even contributed to its detriment. Online services such as YouTube allow us to “hear” singers without needing to travel, but like all good tools, it can be overused.

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Keith Cerny

As a first introduction to young singer, online services and audio links can give me a general sense of his or her vocal range and sound quality, fit with chosen repertoire, and stage personality, but this remote approach has its deficiencies. For example, there is no way to accurately judge the power of the singer’s voice. (I have found, though, that online services can give insight into the focus of the sound). Impressions about a singer’s tone quality may not be completely accurate, either, depending on the quality of the recording. All in all, I find that when I hear a singer live for the first time who I have only heard before on the Internet, my impression of their voice changes significantly, around one time out of three—which just means that my colleagues and I will continue to rely heavily on in-person auditions for the foreseeable future.

Hiring great singers is just one vitally important element of running a successful opera company, though. We also need to recruit marketing, development, production, artistic, and other personnel, too. When writing about recruiting, the media often uses the term “job market,” and like all markets, there is supply (candidates for jobs) and demand (open positions). Before the wide adoption of the Internet, this job market was challenging for both sides of the hiring process, in that—unlike the stock market where there are stock brokers and “market makers”—the non-profit arts market had only limited resources to connect supply and demand. Executive recruiters, while very valuable additions to the hiring process, were typically engaged to fill only the most senior positions (e.g. General Directors or CEOs). Hiring arts organizations lacked big budgets to advertise vacancies, especially relative to commercial businesses. Candidates would find it difficult to learn of the wide range of opportunities, especially outside of their own geographic areas, and relied heavily on “word of mouth”—with mixed results. OPERA America has always done its part (I remember subscribing to a paper-based list of job vacancies nearly 30 years ago), but in general it was difficult to connect the right people with the right job openings.

The Internet has changed this “market making” aspect of recruiting tremendously. Now, many arts leadership and staff positions are routinely advertised by industry specialist sites (e.g. OPERA America, American Symphony Orchestra League, Chronicle of Philanthropy); large, mid-sized and boutique recruiting firms; and even publications (e.g. Musical America). Occasionally, the very top position of the largest companies will not be advertised, probably to discourage an unwelcome flood of applicants, but by monitoring a dozen or so sites, almost all of which are free, any job seeker can “keep tabs” on opportunities across the U.S. This is a very different situation from the corporate world, where executive recruiting firms generally do not advertise the jobs they are recruiting for.

These non-profit recruiting sites allow any company to share the news about vacancies, for the cost of a few hundred dollars, which allows hiring executives to generate a strong list of qualified applicants very quickly. When TDO’s Music Director Emmanuel Villaume and I were recruiting our Artistic Administrator position last year, we had over 50 applicants, around half of whom were well-qualified for the position. (The Artistic Coordinator search did even better, with around 60 applications and well over 50 percent being qualified). The only downside of this new age is that it is so easy to apply for positions, people will click a button to send in their digital cover letters and resumes for positions for which they are not a particularly good fit. This makes for a lot more work for the recruiting executive (or recruiter).

Still, as any seasoned recruiter will tell you, sometimes the best candidates aren’t actively looking at all, and need to be encouraged by a persistent recruiter to apply or be considered for a position. Capable search consultants will routinely call and contact several hundred potential people in a search, either to source candidates, or solicit recommendations from current leaders in the field. Hard work is still required to find, screen and evaluate candidates, especially for senior positions. As one of my friends in the Executive Search business likes to say, “That’s why it’s called search, and not just find.”

If the Internet has created a “market maker” role for talent, some aspects of hiring haven’t changed. In particular, hiring companies and recruiters will continue to need to screen candidates in three distinct areas: the capabilities and experience of the candidate relative to the job requirement; references from the candidate and other executives in the industry; and the candidate’s ability to fit with the culture of the hiring organization and existing leadership team.

Once the candidates have been sourced and screened, successful hiring (in my experience) involves identifying a short-list of half-a-dozen or so well-qualified individuals whose references check out. At that point, “soft skills” and fit with the existing organization becoming the deciding factors. As I have written about in before, I value teamwork as a core principle. Some of the other cultural elements that I focus on in hiring include: genuine interest in the mission of the company (even in job functions far removed from the stage, such accounting and finance, it helps if the candidates have a passion for what we do), collaboration within and across business functions, creativity, positive attitude, and focus on productivity over internal politics.

In my career as a leader in opera, consulting and technology, I have always greatly enjoyed finding and bringing on board outstanding new talent. There are few experiences in the work world more rewarding to me than hiring someone who I thought was outstanding, and having them perform even better than I might have hoped for or expected. This is true whether I am hiring a composer, a singer, a librettist, or a Marketing Director. So, in that vein, if you, or someone you know, is a strong candidate for our CFO position, and has a genuine passion for opera, please send them our way (here’s the info). And thanks for doing your part in helping The Dallas Opera continue to fulfill its mission of producing great opera while serving the entire community.

◊ 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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On the Prowl for Opera's MVPs
General Director and CEO Keith Cerny reflects on finding talent for the off-stage leaders and staff required to run an opera company, and how the Internet has changed talent recruitment—probably forever.
by Keith Cerny

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