Boston's Opera Entrepreneurs

Boston's Opera Entrepreneurs

Boston’s Opera Entrepreneurs

By Melanie Feilotter

The following article was reprinted, with permission, from Opera America magazine, Fall 2010.

“I brought my grandmother to a nightclub to hear our opera,” Brittany Duncan of OperaHub says, with clear delight. “She loved it.” It’s a story you’re perhaps most likely to hear in Boston, which supports close to 20 opera ensembles. There, the opera world evokes the realm of dance or theater, with diverse, artist-driven organizations that thrive through experimentation — with repertoire, artists, venues, structures. These companies often evolve from a kernel of an artistic idea, not unlike a business startup, but without the expectation of fiscal reward. Sheer dedication to the art form invites, even if it doesn’t guarantee, success. Obvious challenges aside, the artist-driven model eliminates some of the constraints of the traditional nonprofit business model and in so doing, allows for creativity and spontaneity.

Boston’s opera history is unique, to be sure. The legend of Sarah Caldwell looms large; she founded the Opera Company of Boston in 1958 and fearlessly staged American premieres and little-known existing works in unusual venues like churches and movie theaters. Caldwell’s company ceased operations in 1991 after a long history of financial turmoil, but a plethora of opera companies sprang up before and since that echo her entrepreneurial and edgy style.

Too Much Talent, Too Little Opportunity?

Boston is of course home to a wide array of top-notch educational institutions, including conservatories. It’s a rich training ground for emerging artists, and some companies are jumping in to provide opportunities in the face of too few artistic outlets. “There is no young artist program in Boston,” observes Dana Schnitzer, founder of MetroWest Opera, which started with a fiscal sponsorship from Fractured Atlas and is now acquiring nonprofit status. The Waltham-based company seeks to alleviate the problem with very specific parameters. To maximize opportunities for young artists, MetroWest performs “accessible” operas with big casts — 10 to 14 principals — which are then double-cast with covers (so, essentially triple-cast). Longwood Opera, in existence since 1986, also serves young artists with two annual productions and a summer concert series, all of a different ilk. “We try to do something edgy and contemporary every spring,” explains General Director and Co-Founder J. Scott Brumit. For their 25th season, he commissioned an opera by composer Jeffrey Brody and librettist Jim Saslow based on The Picture of Dorian Gray, “our third world premiere in 25 years.” In the fall, they turn to something more traditional. “Singers have a chance to do Mimì with us, and then go audition with more success and confidence.” 

The sheer number of singers in Boston ensures competitiveness but also inspires new methods of employing and refining their skills. Renee Hites, president of Boston Opera Collaborative, fosters an environment that is deliberately more supportive than competitive, not an easy balance in the world of singing. She also recognized the need to educate artists about business. Boston Opera Collaborative has a sophisticated membership-based model, extending a hand to singers, conductors, music and artistic directors who are at early to mid-career stage. As members, they pay a $100 fee to participate artistically and to assist in the administrative oversight of the company. “Structures like this allow singers and administrators to take ownership,” comments Artistic Director David Gram. New England Conservatory, with the same goal in mind, established a program to guide musicians in building practical skills like grant writing and budgeting, which, as Director of Entrepreneurial Musicianship Rachel Roberts says, “is built to complement artistic training.”

David Bass saw a different demographic need when he drew on the inspiration of his own seven-year-old son to start up North Cambridge Family Opera in 1999. “Some of his friends were in [the now defunct] Boston Children’s Opera, and I was impressed with just how much fun the kids were having.” Bass, a composer, proceeded to write an opera with his son based on Star Wars to attract youngsters and adults, and performed it at a local arts festival. The experience surprised him: “We began creating a sense of community that’s hard to find these days.” After a year, Bass, a chemical engineering Ph.D., left his corporate job to compose and focus on the opera company. He recruits students or graduates from the Longy School to provide vocal training to his young artists.

Unconventional Models and Music

Bass’s biggest challenge is finding repertoire, preferably with choruses, that kids of all abilities, and their parents, can enjoy but also sing well. Unlike traditional opera that starts with the premise of the professional singer, artist-driven companies are often defined by specific parameters or goals that can be (somewhat paradoxically) more liberating than confining. Boston Metro Opera for example, founded in 2008, focuses almost exclusively on premieres. General and Artistic Director Christopher Smith says, “We wanted to re-establish Boston’s reputation for new music with quality opera. It’s the nice thing about being non-traditional. There are so many artists in the area, but not quite enough opportunities for them all.” Last season, Boston Metro received 61 new works from composers worldwide hoping to be heard, along with over 200 song cycles and choral works. 

Intermezzo: The New England Chamber Opera Series, founded in 2003, commissions new works, much like Boston Metro. But the process is different, with Intermezzo employing more established local singers, directors and instrumentalists, paying them close to union scale and making the overall experience as close as possible to that of a big company, which often results in a fairly short rehearsal period. Guerilla Opera, an ensemble-in-residence at the Boston Conservatory, also focuses on contemporary music and themes, but operates on a smaller scale, typically with four instrumentalists, four singers and no conductor, in a 75-seat black-box theater. For Guerilla, promotion of new works is the stated goal. “I think older audiences recognize that their art form has a problem if it’s not creating new art. There must be new operas, and that’s where we’re coming from,” says President and Artistic Director Mike Williams. The differences in approach are striking; every company is akin to an inventor who’s found a new market to serve.

The issue of audience engagement invariably crops up in discussions of new works, and frequently these smaller companies are able to create an unexpectedly intimate experience. “There’s a quicksilver performance component that’s very striking to people,” says Williams. Boston Baroque, much like the companies focusing on new works, also strives to make audiences feel part of the experience, placing the orchestra onstage so that it “becomes almost an actor,” says Music Director Martin Pearlman. “We perform in a space that is small enough (1,050 seats) that people see the singers’ faces — it becomes a much more human kind of drama.” The well-established Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) has since 1980 also valued lesser-known or never-heard works of the 17th and 18th centuries. “The non-standard works are fascinating to our constituency,” says BEMF Executive Director Kathleen Fay.

My First Love, My Second Job

“Everyone has established their own niche,” remarks Opera by the Bay Artistic Director Beth MacLeod. In its ninth season now, MacLeod says for the past three years singers and artists have solicited her for jobs and roles; she no longer has to advertise. She also holds rehearsals in the evenings, to allow for daytime jobs. This commonality is striking: very few leaders among these smaller organizations have the luxury of staging opera on a full-time, paid basis. Intermezzo’s founder and artistic director, John Whittlesey, is a principal for a healthcare consulting firm. Boston Opera Collaborative’s Hites works for MIT’s annual fund. Even if the top spot at a company is paid, the artistic and music directors (assuming the positions exist) are often volunteers. “We were all really passionate about opera,” says OperaHub’s Duncan, referring to how the organization started. Duncan and her entire staff are volunteers, and they charge no admission to the full operas and excerpts that they perform everywhere from nightclubs to churches. “We wanted to get young people in, so we took away that price barrier to draw in the people who weren’t sure about spending anything.”

Adapting to Survive

The small companies are also united in a need and desire to partner and share resources. New England Light Opera, Intermezzo and Longwood regularly share repertoire plans with each other and discuss opportunities to cross-market. Opera Boston, one of the city’s two larger houses, advertises the season of Boston Midsummer Opera, offering incentives to patrons. Many companies’ websites advertise the seasons of others. MetroWest’s Schnitzer, whose attitude is not atypical, says, “I’m very careful with respect to what else is happening in the city, and I won’t program repertoire where there’s too much audience overlap.” She avoids new music or commissions, noting that “there are so many others that do this so well, I’m going to leave them to it.” As Opera Boston Director of Marketing and Development William Chapman observes: “It’s in our best interest to work around each other somewhat. Subscribers can’t be in two places at once!” 

Many see room to extend partnerships further; Opera by the Bay, for example, has a goal of reaching into schools with an opera program. Boston Metro will partner with a local church next year and hopes to use local students as interns. Artistic collaborations are also developing: OperaHub has worked with a number of music theater groups; Opera by the Bay hopes to use South Shore Conservatory’s orchestra someday, but hasn’t yet found a suitable space.

Partnership is still needed on the level of mentorship for emerging companies. Boston University’s Sharon Daniels, who runs the opera program, maintains the larger companies are very supportive of their smaller counterparts, citing a respect for the different artistic and production values within each organization. But the budget gap makes true collaboration daunting, especially for the small independent companies without institutional support. Most survive on ticket sales and individual donations, spending as little as $4,000 on an entire production. Mentorships and even partnerships with larger, more established companies could serve an important role and add another layer to the learning experience for artists as well as administrators. Boston Lyric Opera General and Artistic Director Esther Nelson is reaching out now to smaller companies to try some form of collaboration. But it must be done sensitively. “I am interested in exploring possible collaborations with some of these wonderfully creative smaller companies. Much of what makes the smaller companies so interesting is that they have much more flexibility and less marketing and funding pressure, and we don’t want to be the big elephant in the room crushing that creativity.”

More Opera, Please?

Lest we forget, Boston’s biggest audiences belong — though not exclusively — to the city’s two biggest companies, Boston Lyric Opera and Opera Boston. Together, they serve about 42,000 patrons annually. The other companies discussed in this article combined serve about 15,000 people per year. Seen as such, unrealized audiences still wait to be tapped — in a city with a metro population of six million. Several years ago, Opera Boston undertook a study of opera supply in the 1980s, and found annual capacity at 80,000 to 90,000 at that time. Based on that, says Chapman, “There’s still upside potential in this city if we get it right, and keep doing it right.” 

Doing it right, to Opera Boston, also means engaging in some unusual, esoteric repertoire, and bringing the audience along with it. BEMF’s Fay says “I believe opera is thriving in Boston because of such diverse programming.” Boston Lyric’s Nelson concurs. The key to opera’s vitality, she says, is to remain committed to new works. Nelson hopes to coax an already “loyal audience” to be as accepting of the new as they are of the old. And to that end, the smaller companies are already playing a crucial role, in reviving some of the curiosity that Nelson says was more typical of operagoers from another era. Indeed, whether it’s because of smaller or non-traditional venues like churches, nightclubs or schools, or because of audience cravings for something new, few of the smaller companies complain about attendance. Some audiences are ready-made, comprised of parents, friends, artist colleagues. But there is anecdotal evidence that those with no ties to the field are also venturing out. “New works create an audience,” Boston Metro’s Smith says. “The audience is making history, and they know it.”

Of A Moment

Amid the cultural riches, Boston, oddly enough, lacks a space to stage grand opera. For a long while after the decline of Sarah Caldwell’s empire, financial support for opera withered, deemed a poor investment. Slowly, that attitude is changing and “the fence is mending” in the funding arena, per Nelson, and that bigger venue may eventually become possible. But while money is a necessity to any business venture, it is by far not the only deciding factor in the success or failure of Boston’s non-traditional companies. The test lies with their willingness to embrace risk while still satisfying audiences. Catherine Peterson, executive director of ArtsBoston, takes a Darwinian approach, saying “some of these companies may just be tapping into a Zeitgeist — they may just be of a moment.” That ephemeral quality is an integral part of these non-traditional ventures, and it is the reason that when they thrive, they leave an indelible mark on the art form, no matter how long they stay.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Opera America magazine, which is a membership benefit of OPERA America. To become a member, please visit