Keith Cerny
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Planning for Opera America 2017

As The Dallas Opera prepares to host the OPERA America Conference in 2017, General Director & CEO Keith Cerny evaluates changes in the opera field since we last hosted this event in 1987.

published Sunday, July 3, 2016



Dallas — For the first time in 30 years, The Dallas Opera will be hosting the OPERA America Conference in 2017. This is a great honor for any company, and all of us at TDO are looking forward to bringing a new round of national and international attention to the extraordinary Dallas Arts District, its diverse range of top-quality resident arts organizations, the magnificent Winspear Opera House, and (of course) The Dallas Opera. (By way of disclosure, I am a Board member of OPERA America). These annual conferences, planned and managed by OPERA America, typically draw 500-600 representatives from opera companies of all different budget levels, and a cross-section of staff representing all major operational functions (e.g. General Directors, Music Directors, artistic administrators and directors of marketing, development, public relations, finance, education, technical and production). These conferences also attract participants from Opera.Ca (the national association for opera in Canada) and Opera Europa, which encourages sharing of “best practice” across major segments of the global opera community. There will also be opportunities during the conference for delegates to attend opera performances and workshops in Fort Worth.

In preparation for the conference, I’ve been reflecting on the years between 1987 and 2017—in particular, what has changed in the opera field, and what has remained relatively stable. From a national political perspective, President Reagan was in the White House in 1987, having won a very lopsided victory against Walter Mondale in 1984 (525 Electoral College votes versus 13). Mondale had made news during the race by appointing Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, who was at that time the first-ever female Vice Presidential nominee for a major political party. Thirty years on, the presumptive Presidential nominee for the Democratic Party in the 2016 election is a woman, also for the first time in American history. While this represents significant progress for women in the political arena, women conductors of major orchestras and opera companies still represent a tiny minority of the field, even in 2016. This disparity was one of factors that prompted me to launch the Hart Institute for Women Conductors last year, to help to break the “glass ceiling” for women leading orchestras in our field. (See one of my columns about it here.)

In evaluating changes in the opera field, as a whole, during this extended period, I would point to huge differences in both the economic model for opera companies, and programming of contemporary works. Going back 30 years and more, annual fund-raising was needed only to “top up” what couldn’t be covered through ticket sales and the draw from the company endowment. Those were the days! Even 15 years ago, a plausible, if ambitious, goal for a large opera company was 40-40-20 (i.e. 40 percent of revenue from ticket sales, 40 percent from annual giving and 20 percent from endowment). Today, for many companies, this goal seems like a pipe dream. The pressure on annual giving has not abated, and at one of the General Directors’ roundtables at the 2016 OPERA Conference in Montreal, some of my colleagues were actively discussing a future world in which ticket sales will account for a mere 10 percent of the budget—an unthinkable idea just a decade ago.

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Keith Cerny

One of the more startling changes over the last 30 years has been in the area of programming, particularly the role North American operas and premieres, and OPERA America has played a leadership role in development this repertoire through grants and other support. As I describe in another TheaterJones column, programming for larger opera companies 30 years ago emphasized European operas from the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries (and, sometimes grudgingly, more recent works). In 1987, there were seven North American premieres, according to the North American Works Directory hosted by OPERA America. These premieres included John Adams and Alice Goodman’s seminal Nixon in China, a new work by John Cage, and several smaller works. It also included the world premiere of a commission by TDO of Monkey See, Monkey Do, a children’s opera by Robert Xavier Rodriguez and Mary Medrick; TDO performed this opera on numerous occasions in subsequent seasons as part of its education program. Other premieres in 1987 included Richard Wargo’s A Visit to the Country, premiered by Greater Miami Opera. Looking forward to 2017, it clear that the pace of premieres has risen by many multiples. Not all titles for 2017 have been announced, and 2016 is still just half over, but in 2015 (our most recent year for which full data is available), there were an astonishing 44 productions of North American Operas (premieres and revivals)! To this list, TDO proudly added three world premieres: Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer’s Everest, Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Great Scott, and Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus.

In the area of mainstage programming, TDO’s 1986-1987 season included six titles (one more than the usual five): Andrea Chénier, Rigoletto, La sonnambula, La fanciulla del West, Il turco in Italia and Porgy and Bess. TDO’s 60th anniversary season includes the return of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s spectacular Moby-Dick (already a modern classic), two popular favorites (Madame Butterfly and Eugene Onegin), and two important works new to Dallas Opera (Britten’s The Turn of the Screw and Bellini’s Norma). By design, the season focuses more intensively on the core operatic repertoire, following the 2015-2016 season with its two world premieres and first-ever musical for the company, Show Boat. TDO also plans to present several contemporary works at the conference, as described below.

I don’t have data going back exactly 30 years for my next point, but it is also clear that gender parity has a long way to go in the opera field, lagging way behind elected politics (as noted earlier), government and academia, business, and even the military (where women can now serve in full combat roles). Historically, women have been well-represented in Level 1 companies in Development and Director of Education roles, and reasonably well represented in Director of Marketing roles. Women CFOs and Directors of Finance have increased their numbers in the field considerably over the last 25 years, and are now approaching parity with men. However, for the positions of General Directors, Music Directors and Directors of Production, women still lag far behind their male counterparts. More detail on these statistics can be found in one of my previous postings.

In celebration of TDO’s hosting of the 2017 OPERA America Conference, which aligns with our 60th Season, we have scheduled an exciting “mini-festival” for industry representatives and the general public. In keeping with TDO’s increased emphasis on contemporary opera and the innovative use of technology and projections, the company will present two contemporary works, a short world premiere, a special concert with projections, and an important bel canto classic, Bellini’s Norma. These performances will proudly showcase the special talents of both Music Director Emmanuel Villaume and Principal Guest Conductor Nicole Paiement. The specific events are as follows:

May 4, 2017: A concert performance of Arjuna’s Dilemma by Doug Cuomo, conducted by TDO’s Principal Guest Conductor, Nicole Paiement. This fascinating work includes an Indian quarter-tone singer, Western tenor, small vocal ensemble, and chamber orchestra. The orchestration is novel as well, including Indian tabla (drums) and jazz saxophone, as well as instrumentation familiar to audiences from traditional opera

May 5, 2017: A concert performance—with projections—of Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer’s stunning and powerfully poignant Everest, preceded by a world premiere “curtain raiser” by Talbot inspired by British mountaineer George Mallory’s attempts to summit the world’s highest peak. This performance will be conducted by acclaimed Music Director Emmanuel Villaume, and will include several from the critically acclaimed original cast, notably Kevin Burdette as Beck Weathers and Andrew Bidlack as Adventure Consultants guide, Rob Hall

May 6, 2017 (Matinee): A charming performance of The Magic Piano, combining  animated film and a live piano score performed by Derek Wang, a young protégé of Lang Lang

May 7, 2017 (Matinee): The final opera performance of the 2016-2017 Season: Bellini’s Norma with soprano Elza van den Heever in the title role, and Music Director Emmanuel Villaume conducting. Remarkably, this exquisite work, featuring some of the most beautiful bel canto vocal writing in the repertoire, has never been performed in Dallas

It is a happy coincidence that TDO’s 60th Season aligns with the opportunity to host the conference, and it has been a special treat for me to add additional programming to the conference week, designed to demonstrate TDO’s full artistic range even as it highlights the work of our two primary conductors. Based on the programming strategy that I have developed in consultation with the Board, these extra events at the conference also allow us to present more contemporary opera, and to incorporate innovative projections into the programming.

More details on these performances will be forthcoming, and can be found on

I hope to see you there!


◊ 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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Planning for Opera America 2017
As The Dallas Opera prepares to host the OPERA America Conference in 2017, General Director & CEO Keith Cerny evaluates changes in the opera field since we last hosted this event in 1987.
by Keith Cerny

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