<em>Arjuna\'s Dilemma</em>&nbsp;at&nbsp;the OPERA America Conference
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OPERA America in Dallas

Gregory Sullivan Isaacs reports on the recent OPERA America conference hosted by The Dallas Opera. With thoughts about performances, and transcripts from important speeches.

published Monday, May 29, 2017

Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
Everest at the OPERA America Conference


Dallas — OPERA America came to town a couple of weeks back. You may not have heard of that organization because it serves a highly specialized profession. It is a nationwide organization made up of opera companies, large and small. Most music lovers know about the few big ones, like the Metropolitan Opera in New York and Chicago’s Lyric Opera. They may also know about their local opera company which exist, and even thrive, in more cities than you might imagine, from Pensacola to Des Moines, to a surprisingly excellent small company in Amarillo.

This year’s annual conference was hosted by The Dallas Opera, which, as you might imagine, put on a splendid show. The glitterati of the opera world all seemed to be here in the crowded lobby of Dallas’ downtown Sheraton Hotel. There was an array of management types and some top executives from companies of all sizes, intermingling with their counterparts. There was also an impressive claque of composers and a swarm of singers.

According to self-reported numbers, there were 491 attendees.  Opera companies are grouped according to annual budgets with the top level pegged at over $15M. Ten companies at this level were represented. The last category, level 5, is for companies with a budget under $250,000 and there were ten of them as well. The four other levels in between had 61 companies at the conference. The budget level with the most companies in attendance, 24, consists of groups with a budget range of $3M to 15M (level two).

This is how some of the professions checked out, grouped into “networks.” There were 81 in the Artistic Administrators’ network. There were 27 in the Trustees’ (board members) network. The one for artists took the prize at 83, and there were 17 in a network for critically important members of Opera Volunteers International.

Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
Arjuna's Dilemma at the OPERA America Conference

An aside: Without volunteers, the arts in America would be a sad affair indeed. They are, as the song says “the wind beneath their wings.” They raise funds, awareness, and camaraderie. They do a myriad of support tasks that would bust every single budget if they were paid staff.

It was a remarkable assemblage.

After one glance at the extensive program, with as many as five or six events scheduled simultaneously, it became immediately obvious that I would only to be able to attend a scattering of sessions. All of them were of great interest and, frequently, the wide variety of choices created conflicts and difficult decisions.

So, how did all of this come together?

How indeed! I addressed my questions on the subject to someone who would know: The Director of Marketing and Communications for OPERA America, Patricia Kiernan Johnson.

Even such a large and varied event works best with a main theme or a limited set of general, but industry-specific challenges that can be effectively addressed in a group setting.

“This OPERA America conference was titled ‘Creating Collaborative Change,’” Johnson wrote an email response to my inquiries.

The fact this title proffers is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for arts groups to survive on their own. But there is also a question that goes along with that fact, namely, “Good grief, why do we even try?”

“We framed the overarching concept of this year’s conference [Creating Collaborative Change[ with the following theme description,” Johnson wrote in her detailed email. “Partnership is embedded in the creation of opera itself. Across the country, artists and producers collaborate to bring compelling stories to life through music and theater. This instinct for cooperation positions opera to be a leader as the arts seek new ways to strengthen communities.”

So, the five fully packed days explored how opera, which itself is a collaborative crazy quilt that brings Rube Goldberg’s assemblages to mind, can become an agent for change among the very differently purposed arts originations whose solitary struggles may be playing out no further away than right across the street.

Johnson continued: “There are also other themes we threaded throughout the conference, that are connected to the main theme, which we summed up as:

  1. Leadership by Experimentation and Learning
  2. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Opera
  3. Effective Partnerships and Collaborations
  4. Connecting Traditional Works and New Operas to Today’s Audiences.”

The sessions were grouped by subject matter and then organized into different paths through the scheduling labyrinth specifically designed for marketing, production, general directors—in short, all the different functions that an opera company requires. This meant that multiple sessions were going on simultaneously, preventing me from attending more than a few. But, they all looked fascinating and were hosted by the top experts in their various fields.

The cornucopia of classes and ambitious scale of the proceedings brought a favorite quote to mind, by American architect and city planner/urban designer, Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912). Although it is obsessively about his own craft, it has universal appeal for all the arts.

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”

The next conference will be held in Saint Louis and the invitation to attend came from Timothy O'Leary, the General Director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis since 2008. It was delivered in his well-known and charmingly dry wit, and it got quite a chuckle.

“I want to thank everyone associated with The Dallas Opera—the staff, board, and Keith Cerny—for all that you did to set the tone for this conference and fire our imaginations. As next year’s host company is Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, I really appreciate your setting an impossibly high bar."

I must agree.

But, let’s return to the opening session, which presented excellent spoken essays from a series of distinguished leaders. Two of them that particularly impressed will be printed here in full.

A third speech reprinted here in full, one that received a standing ovation, came from Zenetta S. Drew, the Executive Director of the Dallas Black Dance Theatre since 1987. She titled her remarks "Creating Change: Equity, Diversity and Inclusion" and, as she usually does, she took a fresh and original look at the oft–discussed subject matter, with plain spoken examples, that will surely remain a rumination that demands regular reconsideration.

Since The Dallas Opera was the host, General Director and CEO Keith Cerny delivered eloquent opening remarks. When it comes to collaborations with other arts groups, I am reminded of something he said seven years ago. In an interview with Cerny when he first arrived to lead The Dallas Opera, I asked him if he had any immediate plans. He said, “I plan to walk across the street.” What he found there was the Dallas Theater Center and its creative director, Kevin Moriarty. That “visit” gave birth to a co-production of The Lighthouse, a modernist chamber opera with words and music by Peter Maxwell Davies. My review of that groundbreaking production is here. You can also read Cerny’s summary of the entire conference (far better and more inclusive than my efforts here). Cerny’s welcoming speech follows below.

After that, the eloquent speech, by the marvelous librettist Gene Scheer, is also reprinted in full. It transcends both poetry and prose and reminds us of why opera is so important and why we all work so hard to preserve and assure the future growth of this vital art form.


Remarks from Keith Cerny, The Dallas Opera General Director and CEO


Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
The Dallas Arts District Panel at the OPERA America Conference


“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. On behalf of everyone at The Dallas Opera, it is my honor and privilege to welcome you to OPERA Conference 2017. We are delighted to host the conference, for the first time in 30 years, and are very grateful to OPERA America for their excellent work in preparing for and executing this important event.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Creating Collaborative Change,” and in many ways Dallas represents the perfect location for a discussion of this topic. The Dallas Arts District is based on “The Sasaki Plan,” which was adopted by Dallas City Council in 1983. This District represents the largest urban concentration of performing arts spaces in the country, and well over one billion dollars in investment. In a short radius from this hotel there are three disparate performing halls, three exceptional museums, an innovative urban park built over a freeway, an outstanding symphony, artistically significant dance and theater companies, a nationally ranked arts magnet high school, and a first-class science museum.

The Dallas Opera moved into its purpose-built opera house in the fall of 2009, during the worst of the Recession. The company faced significant financial challenges, which required immediate action. It also needed to develop a reputation as a “bridge builder” and “connector” to earn the right to raise funds to stabilize the company and to continue to develop its artistic reputation.

The Dallas Arts District provided a key element of the new strategy for TDO as it navigated this difficult period.  In addition to implementing traditional responses to the financial downturn, such as cost reduction and temporary reductions in programming, The Dallas Opera reached out to develop new relationships, in the Arts District, in North Texas, both nationally, and internationally. Some of the company’s most important collaborations include:

  • Engaging the Artistic Director of the Dallas Theater Center, Kevin Moriarty, to direct Peter Maxwell-Davies’ The Lighthouse and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro
  • A marketing, Board, and artistic collaboration with Dallas Black Dance Theatre in TDO’s first ever musical, Show Boat
  • free public simulcasts to Klyde Warren Park, drawing crowds of up to 7,000, in partnership with the AT&T Performing Arts Center
  • Seminars and presentations at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, tied to TDO’s programming
  • An art song series entitled “Music and Masterpieces” at the Dallas Museum of Art
  • Collaborations during the conference with the Crow Collection of Asian Art, the Nasher Sculpture Center, and Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
  • Even our special programming for the conference represents an important collaboration with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, as these performances are preview events for their international Soluna Festival.


Outside the District, we have also collaborated closely with Texas Ballet Theater, Southern Methodist University, the University of North Texas (Denton), the Dallas Holocaust Museum, the Meadows Museum, Dallas Children’s Theater, and for our simulcast series, The Star in Frisco and AT&T Stadium in Arlington, home of the Dallas Cowboys.

These collaborations have allowed us to “Make the case” for the opera’s artistic quality and innovation, raise awareness of the art form among an increasingly diverse population, and enhance our reputation as an engaged community leader.

In closing, we are delighted to be hosting this conference, and collaborating on several events with the Fort Worth Opera Festival. Later this morning, you will have a chance to hear from five of my colleagues across the Arts District, and understand their personal perspectives on the opportunities and challenges arising from collaboration.

I know you will enjoy it!” 


Remarks by librettist Gene Scheer

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Principal Guest Conductor Nicole Paiement and Everest composer Joby Talbot, photographed in 2015

The speech by Gene Scheer was a standout, even in such august company. This is not all that surprising, since Scheer is one of the great librettists of our time. But what he said was quite a surprise. You could feel the stunned reaction in the room when he finished. It was not a lofty paean, filled with hyperbole and an excess of erudition expressed in overly complex sentences. Rather, it was a heartfelt cri de coeur, admittedly slightly over the word limit. But Scheer defined our goal in simple plain-talk that only highlighted their import. He said that “in the end, we are in the business of connecting our audiences to the sublime.” This is an awesome, even overwhelming, mission for mere humans to accomplish. The sublime? Really? Oh, is that all?”

Scheer builds his case for such an extraordinary goal on something to which we can all relate and requires no effort on our part to achieve such a nirvanic state—that first jaw-dropping time when you viewed the Grand Canyon.

My clumsy attempt to summarize Gene’s remarks only manages to trivialize what he had to say. So, here is what he said in full.

“I find it interesting that support for the National Endowment for the Arts and support for the National Parks system are being threatened simultaneously. What are our national parks but places where we can tune out the temporal, the everyday distractions, and connect to something that reaches a place, as Wordsworth put it, that “lies too deep for tears”?

You want to connect with the sublime? You want to feel human? Go stand in front of the Grand Canyon.

Claude Levi-Strauss argued that in the modern world, “Art, poetry and music are the national parks of the imagination.” What a beautiful idea. What is my hope for opera? It is that we create places where the wilderness of the mind can be preserved.  Make no mistake; it is not just the ice caps that are being threatened, but also something deep within our hearts that connects us to our own humanity and to each other.  How else can we explain our country and our world?

The human voice has always been the primary thread that sews us all together. The genius of opera has been to weave this thread into a magnificent repertoire.

So now it’s our turn. For there to be a future for opera, clearly we need diverse voices and stories. We need to reflect our world as it is—as we are. But, regardless of the stories we tell, we must remember that in the end we are in the business of connecting our audiences to the sublime. That’s what we do. So, in the operas that I want to hear in the future, glorious vocal writing will be at the center of the experience.

Because it is the individual voice lifted in song that is the plumb line that reaches beyond the didactic, beyond the surface of things to the deepest well of meaning.

So, what do I hope for? I hope that in the future if you want to feel the promise of being human…you can go stand in front of the Grand Canyon. Or if it’s too far away, go to the opera.”


Remarks from Zenetta S. Drew, Executive Director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre

Photo: Courtesy
Zenetta S. Drew of Dallas Black Dance Theatre

“All of us are aware that our nation is and has been experiencing a legitimacy divide in many segments of society, including our religious, economic, racial, and political structures for many years. The arts are not exempted from this divide and from its impact.

There is a growing awareness that diversity, equity, and inclusion are no longer a mere consideration but now a reality of absolute necessity for all of us. Despite the increased numbers of minority-focused artistic ventures, it is still whites who primarily decide which people and works will be produced, mounted, or will receive mainstream exposure.

To be truly successful and considered validated, you must be justified and legitimized in your existence. Therefore, art and cultural endeavors that originate from a form that people don’t recognize ultimately don’t receive the Art World’s “mafia seal of approval” to become known and sanctioned as “high art.”

The demographics of ethnic, social, and generational changes of the 21st century demand that we in the arts change how we do our business not just for our collective cultures, but also for the survival of our individual institutions.

The widespread impact of this “legitimacy divide” on funding equity, audience development, and institutional growth for minority organizations, individual artists, and non-traditional art forms that results from historical and societal differences creates a set of disparate performance expectations and creates competition with mainstream organizations.

Some of the expectations of comparability with mainstream groups are:

  1.  For minority groups to be expected to perform against the same quantitative and qualitative measures.
  2. To create equal appreciation and appetite for your work in order to be relevant.
  3. You must engage audiences and produce outcomes by conforming to same methods, resources, and behavior models.


What is missing or absent from the conversation? It is the lack of understanding regarding the origin, development, and societal changes that have historically limited some and benefitted others.

So let’s have that conversation today. What do we know to be some of the impacts of this legitimacy divide for the arts but we don’t talk about? How About?

  1. Separate but unequal is really OK.
  2. Minorities and non-traditional art are optional and not essential to the vitality of the arts ecology in my city.
  3. Partnerships, collaborations, and audiences are to be created for the primary benefit of the mainstream organization and not vice-versa.
  4. Excellence is never the automatic “performance expectation,” and there is a penalty if you out-perform your mainstream counterpart (whether you are an artist, board member, organization, audiences or even donor).


Example: A minority group received a $1 million interest-free bridge loan for its capital campaign. The funder said it had never had a loan repaid by any group. They did not expect payment, so they booked it as a grant. When the minority group returned several years later, the funder advised that their board never expected to get the money back, so it was considered a grant to them.

At the same time, others who were operating in deficit positions were getting half-million dollar grants yearly.

"Sorry, you exceeded our expectations."

Result: Penalty for over-performing.

Another question to explore is: What types of actions, both conscious and unconscious, marginalize the forces for equity? In other words, where are our blind spots?

Even though racial attitudes have evolved during the last half century, America has not entered a post-racial society, and many persons who respond positively to pressures of political correctness are still unaware of how their attitudes and ethnic preferences have delegitimizing consequences for others.

Example: An African-American Dance company performed a groundbreaking work last year to disco music and themes, and a critic’s review stated: “the dancers looked like prancing fillies.”

This is reminiscent of discussions where sportscasters used animals for descriptions of black athletes. How do you build audiences, seek program funding from anyone who doesn’t know the organization, or uplift the artists? This word/picture was an unconscious bias that marginalized the work and perceptions of legitimacy.

Question for us today: How many in this room believe the critic would have ever used this description in their review of The Rockettes?

For a third impact, let’s consider the difference between diversity and inclusion? What does “welcome” really mean? Or, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”


A Diversity Invitation

Picture this...You are invited as a guest, not asked your preference for the meal, seated at the far end of the table with other guests who are also diversity guests, unaware that a special reception was held prior to the meal, and during dinner that is what everyone is talking about. You are only invited to participate in the conversation for polite comment. The host makes a public statement to let everyone know you have been sponsored and that you have not paid full fare for your meal. Yet, when dinner is over, YOU are asked to come be in the photo (front and center).

This type of invitation ultimately becomes an image proposition for the host.

However, picture this...


An Inclusive Invitation

You are invited to join the dinner and asked food preferences in planning the meal, seated in the midst of all other guests, invited to share fully in the dinner conversation, and asked how you would like to provide value for your meal at some equitable level.

When asked to join the photo, the placement is natural, and there is an ambiance of respect and authenticity.

This type of invitation ultimately becomes a value proposition for both the host and the guest.

Example: In 2016, the Dallas Opera partnered with Dallas Black Dance Theatre in its production of Show Boat! And, the experience was the most rewarding collaboration we have done.

It began with a salon discussion, involved board engagement, marketing exchange, equitable financial compensation, inclusion in pre-concert education materials, and a post-event cast party for 200 persons hosted at our facility. This was indeed a first.

So, what do all of us need to do to dismantle barriers that perpetuate, marginalize, and delegitimize sectors of our arts?

  1. Recognize that we all have blind spots and biases in today’s society.
  2. Rather than project our intentions on the behavior of others, we need to talk, hear, and incorporate the ideas of others who represent different cultural backgrounds.
  3. Our goal must be to create organizations, boards, staff and yes, audiences that build trust, respect, and mutual support.
  4. And, to do this, one must be willing to relinquish the power of personal preference and be vulnerable, open-minded, willing to learn from others, and exhibit humility and patience. (Traits that have been asked of minorities and non-traditional groups for years.)
  5. Finally, we must... Recognize that building bridges is not a join-up process; but a focused commitment to attaining a positive result regardless of the long journey ahead.

Art is a wonderful, subjective thing that can only be defined by the person engaging with it. And our opinions do matter as a society. Society was wrong during Van Gogh’s lifetime. The quality of his paintings did not change; the materials didn’t become more expensive, and the subject matter is no different. Only one thing has changed: our opinion of them.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we in the arts must bridge this legitimacy divide. America has created the most wonderful tapestry of people on earth. We collectively should be able to create the most wonderful tapestry of arts and culture that civilization has ever seen




Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
The Magic Piano at the OPERA America Conference


There were five marvelous productions during the convention. One, surprisingly, was not an opera. It was an animated film entitled, The Magic Piano. The soundtrack for it was all music by Chopin, excellently played live by Derek Wang. It is not a surprise that the pianist was so outstanding, albeit young. He studies with superstar Lang Lang.

This film is a fantasy about a clever girl and her erstwhile best friend. They take an amazing journey on an old piano, found in annex next to the dumpster. The motivation is that father is gone. He left her to find work in another city because everything had crashed where they live. She is devastated and is very very much missing her father. The old trashed piano suddenly becomes a flying machine. The magic piano takes off, with the two children aboard, in search of her father. They have many adventures, but I won’t give away the surprising ending.

On Thursday evening, The Dallas Opera presented Arjuna's Dilemma, by American composer Douglas J. Cuomo. The work premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2008, and has a libretto based on the Bhagavad Gita.

This is a 700-hundred verse excerpt from the Hindu epic Mahabharata and thus discusses many of the Hindu concepts.

The text records a dialogue between prince Arjuna and Lord Krishna before a big and important battle against a usurper of his kingdom. Arjuna is conflicted; he wants to win but is unhappy about killing his fellow humans.

Arjuna was portrayed by Tony Boutté, who sings in Sanskrit. Krishna, as befits a god, is sung by a combination of Afghan singer Human Khan and a female quartet made up of Katrina Golka, Audra Methvin, Alyssa Martin and Lindsay Amman.

A chamber orchestra was brilliantly conducted by Nicole Paiement, Principal Guest Conductor of Dallas Opera. It consisted of 12 instrumentalists (a combination of a string quartet as a base and added some winds, including a jazz saxophone soloist, a piano and a lot of percussion). The score was an amalgamation of Hindu and Western music. William Cusick provided some projections. The text, a combination of Sanskrit and English were helpfully projected like supertitles.

This is a most effective work and the stew of some of the wide array of world’s musical languages is a path that will be followed by more and more composers.

Since I had already seen and positively reviewed the Norma, I thought that I would skip it because of the tightly packed schedule. Then, I found out that the soprano portraying Norma, Elza van den Heever, had to withdraw because of a family emergency, and the role would be taken for this final performance by the Italian-Canadian soprano Aviva Fortunata (what a cool last name for a last minute replacement).

Any performance of Norma is shaped by the singer in the role. This was obvious in this case. Fortuna brought energy and a vibrancy that everyone on stage picked up. The opera was very different. Kudos also needs to be heaped on Maestro Emmanuel Villaume, the music director of The Dallas Opera. He immediately locked in on Fortunata’s style and concept of Norma and how to sing it. As a result, we were able to hear two very different concepts of this famous bel canto masterpiece almost in a row.

In addition, The Dallas Opera revived their world premiere production of Everest, by Joby Talbot. The elaborate plot of the book and subsequent films examines the inter-personal relationships between the climbers and those they left behind. Gene Scheer’s libretto is a marvel. (Of course, what else would you expect from a writer that reduced Melville’s Moby-Dick to a manageable length.)

Much was changed. There were only projections (the first production had a set and projections), and they were marvelous. Singers were changed and Villaume transformed the opera from the podium. As always, Villaume’s energy and fully digested concepts about what he is conducting clarifies any score. And so it was here. I would like to hear the original production with Nicole Paiement to fully realize the contrast.

Other performances were presented by the Fort Worth Opera as part of their season. I did not attend, once again hampered by the crowded schedule. Both Voir Dire and Carmen were the same as when I reviewed them before (you can read those here and here).

My biggest regret is that I couldn’t attend the FWO’s Frontiers, featuring a portion of new works over two days. In fact, Voir Dire came from this very workshop two years ago.

The whole conference was enlightening and networking opportunities abounded. But, when it was all over, I needed a nap. Thanks For Reading

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OPERA America in Dallas
Gregory Sullivan Isaacs reports on the recent OPERA America conference hosted by The Dallas Opera. With thoughts about performances, and transcripts from important speeches.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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