Friday, April 27, 2007

Conference Day 3 - My Space and YouTube and Blogs, Oh My!

New Media

A definition for purposes of discussion: anything that’s not “traditional” (print, terrestrial radio, TV) media.

So therefore: blogs, web pages, podcasts, YouTube and other streaming media, MySpace… you get the idea.

Artists, Unions

Our colleagues on the stage are a big part of the equation, for in order to dabble in these new areas, concensus must be reached on things like fair use and intellectual property.

It was called to our attention that a lot of the artist agreements that are permitting some new media projects to go forward are negotiated at the local (not the national) level. Increasingly, the performers themselves are joining with companies to recognize the importance of trying to find how the whole world of opera (and, by extension, our mutual participation in it) fits into all of these new opportunities.

A useful way of thinking about this: Acclimate and bring the artists and staff on board in the same way we think about the process of cultivating donors.

Bait and Switch

We’re spending a lot of time this week (and this is not new…) talking about attracting and keeping “younger” patrons. (In opera, that means anyone who doesn’t have an AARP card) To that end, immersion in the new media is an attractive proposition. Clearly, by finding me here, you know that Wolf Trap is already participating in this new chapter. Do I think it’s the answer to our marketing prayers? Well…

A cautionary tale that was mentioned this morning is worth repeating. If our hip cyber-efforts don’t bear any real relationship to the product, we won’t keep a single new recruit past the first performance. Even if we get the attention of a new patron, and s/he buys a ticket, if the experience doesn’t live up to the promise of the ├╝ber-sexy marketing, we’ve won the battle but lost the war. This by no means makes any of the many kinds of satisfying opera experiences inferior. Just incongruous with some of the hype that's beginning to be generated. Sell opera for what it is, and neither apologize for nor mislead folks about what it isn't.


That said, I’m newly inspired to keep WTOC’s presence alive in the blogosphere and in podcasts (and, dare I say on YouTube?) this summer. After having surveyed the landscape and done some research, I believe we might be ready to jump in a little deeper. And I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t think there were ways to accomplish it with the blessing (and participation) of artists, staff, and other colleagues.

The corollary problem of human resources hasn’t been solved, though. We all jump on this bandwagon because it’s “free.” As Milton Friedman reminded us, there is no free lunch. Somehow, you always pay. Someone has to develop the content, capture the images and sounds, edit the data, write the blog, design the pages. So the remaining few weeks before our production season begins in earnest will be spent furiously chipping away at all of the other chores (schedules, travel, supertitles, budgets, program copy) so that when the music starts, we’ll be able to do something creative with it.

Remind me of this in June.

South Beach

By 6pm tonight, we had reached the OCSP (Opera Conference Saturation Point). Actually went over to South Beach, dipped our toes in the water and people-watched. (Shhh. Don't tell anyone at the office. They think we're talking opera around the clock down here.)

Heading back home tomorrow night. Big choral concert on Sunday. Back in the office Monday. Have a good weekend!

Conference Day 2 - The Medium in Which You Grow

View at left from my hotel room balcony. It's a good thing, too, because it's pretty much the only part of Miami I'm seeing aside from hotel conference rooms...



Marc Scorca (Opera America CEO) reminded us that we in the opera business are prone to “thin-slicing” (how many times have you assessed the merits of a voice in 10 seconds?). We, however, don’t want empower our audiences – specifically those elusive new opera-goers – to thin-slice us out of their lives. Hearkens back to yesterday's discussions about taking care of new attendees.

Absorb and Transform

My colleague and I agreed that we love hearing composers speak about their music. Typically, because words are not their media, composers are reticent to spend a lot of time talking about their work. But exactly because they’re not accustomed to wordsmithing, their conversation is refreshingly free of the posturing and “spin” that dog most experienced lecturers.

Guest speaker Osvaldo Golijov charmed us with his comments and excerpts from his recent work. (Although, I will admit that the Ainadamar percussion developed from gunshot audio samples was tough to listen to.) One of his scripted comments that stuck with me: “Opera absorbs and transforms human experience into song.” It’s by no means a universally-held belief, but Golijov maintains that all genres and idioms deserve to be incorporated into this thing we call opera, to the extent that they allow this transformation.

Food for Thought

Dana Gioia, head of the NEA, spoke eloquently. I can’t begin to summarize, so I’ll resort to a few thought-provoking fragments:

  • The 21st century is increasingly electronic and private. The performing arts are communal.
  • Our problem is not about money, it’s about the fact that our culture doesn’t honor the arts .
  • We have failed to create good entry points.
  • It’s not about supply, it’s about demand.
  • It’s not about the ticket price, it’s about desire.


And finally, actor Eric Booth gave us cogent “etymology breaks” –

Culture: the medium in which you grow (remember biology class? I can't stop thinking about this...)

Connoisseur: one who is adept at coming to know: a Master Learner

And More

The balance of the day included a session on the advantages and challenges of running an opera company in a city that is home to multiple companies, a discussion on conductor training in the U.S., and an absolutely stunning dress rehearsal preview of Anna Karenina. More tomorrow.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Conference Day 1 - Demand!

We're in Miami for the Opera America conference!

Today, an entire day spent in the company of colleagues from Marketing Departments, in a seminar called "Creating Demand." Lots of geek-talk about analyzing ticket inventory and price points.

Thoughts From Day 1

Demand is not a static variable

To someone on the outside of the the marketing/box office equation, the idea of a bunch of us sitting around all day talking about raising ticket prices is a little tough to swallow. After all, aren't opera tickets already too expensive? You'll be relieved to hear that we weren't looking for ways to get rid of student tickets, standing room, or affordable dress circle prices. Rather, it was a frank acknowledgement of the notion that when we have a "hot ticket" (a gala, a "Top Ten" piece with a big star), we shouldn't be hesitant to consider those ticket prices and resultant income as a tool to balance the budgets of our other repertory.

What to promote?

Somewhat counter-intuitive. We tend to spend marketing dollars on those pieces that "need it" - if the rep includes Monteverdi and Verdi, well, it's probably clear which piece needs more butts in seats. The controversial fact is that the audience for the Monteverdi is pretty predictable. Some might even say it is finite. And it will come from among those folks who are already well acquainted with the company. Does the Traviata need promotion? Possibly not per se, but the value of marketing the hell out of the "hot ticket" has far-reaching implications in driving new ticket-buyers to the company. Once they've crossed that line, then we have the opportunity to cultivate them.


Those new people - do they stay? Where do they go? “Thousands of new patrons are being attracted every year. The majority of them don't come back. It wasn't our mission to answer the larger philosophical and artistic questions begged by this fact. Rather, the discussion was all about ways to "hold the hands" of new patrons and structure their experiences with the company (both in the theatre and afterward) so that they will consider becoming part of the family.

Word of the Day

I love listening to consultants; it always enlarges my vocabulary. Today's word - "operationalize." (Insert your own definition.)

Conference Mode

I'm not particularly good at this. Have to work against my natural instinct to sit in the back of the room and speed through the halls with my head down and my nametag covered. Thank heaven I never really had to depend on "networking" to get a job...

It is good to chat with colleagues that I haven't seen in a while. And it's particularly refreshing to sit back and take in the thoughtful and insightful comments of experts in the field. But I always come away feeling pretty schizoid - in equal parts invigorated and discouraged. We'll see where I end up by Saturday night.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


I spent last weekend in an opera-free zone, at a retreat in the Blue Ridge. In addressing the growth of giant mega-churches, a speaker mentioned that the decision to involve oneself in a more traditional worship environment (smaller congregation, no big screens, less reliant on slick production values) is increasingly counter-cultural.

Going to the opera has never been a mainstream pursuit, but somehow I never considered it part of the counter-culture. But the parallel struck me hard enough that it stayed with me for days. It's neither good nor bad. Just an observation.

Fresh 2 Opera

Stumbled on this Welsh National Opera site last week. Adore it.

Total Immersion

In a hurry to close some loops at the office this morning before dashing off to the Opera America Conference for the next few days. Will report daily from Miami!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Bisy Backson

My old VW Bug used to idle fast on occasion. Spinning its rpm wheels for no good purpose. I spent the entirety of my recent time off work slowing down my internal engines so it didn't feel as it I was spending my life on speed. And it has taken me almost exactly 10 days to lose all of the ground I gained. What is it with this speed addiction?

I feel like Christopher Robin in his "Bisy, Backson" (Busy... Back Soon...) mode.

Virtual Master Class

I've been following Jason Heath's "Virtual Master Class" project over at the Double Bass Blog. (I like Jason's writing, and I found the blog because my son plays double bass. In case you were wondering.) Players submit an audio file for consideration, he posts it, and anyone can listen to it online and give feedback. I wonder if such a thing would be interesting (or helpful... or entertaining) in the opera world.

A Raid on the Inarticulate
(“And so each venture is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate.” T.S. Eliot)

We are working feverishly on plans to fund and carry out a professional recording of this summer's Volpone production. I have spent an entirely inappropriate proportion of these last two weeks speaking to producers and record labels. Now mind you, I know nothing about the business or mechanics of making a professional recording. Inarticulate doesn't begin to describe the level of my ignorance on this subject.

My colleague Chris has loaned me a number of music industry books that I dig into feverishly after each telephone conversation with a recording professional. Master use license, statutory royalties, digital distribution rights, mechanical royalties... You get my drift. Perhaps if I had a legitimate music industry or arts admin degree, I'd know these things.

Anyway, my own personal raid on the inarticulate proceeds apace. If it makes it possible for us to get a good recording of this marvelous opera out there in the world, then it was well worth it.

(P.S. If you have any advice, my email address is at right. If you want to send money, I'll come collect it myself:)

Macy Gray

I heard a terrific radio interview with R&B singer Macy Gray this week. She was talking about the difference between singing and acting, responding to a leading question that seemed to indicate that they might have similarities. Her answer was so quick and unequivocal that it made me think hard. She allowed that singing was easy because all she had to do was let herself out. Acting, on the other hand, demanded subjugating all of those deep-seated personal feelings and becoming someone else. (Yes, I know where you method actors are going with this, but I'm making a somewhat sweeping point so I can get to the main event.)

Assuming that there is truth (and I believe there is) in both of those statements, the tension in the job of the singing actor becomes clear. It's so hard to explain to a performer that in order for us (the audience) to feel, it's sometimes important that the singer not feel too much. The most potent emotion, when felt deeply and indulged in thoroughly, will not necessarily make it past the footlights. I am in awe of those singers who manage to be true to themselves, use their personal resources wisely, and yet allow the audience to be the final repository of the message.

On a more technical level, Daniel Helfgot talks about the "third line" - an interpretive “answer” to the two parallel lines of music and text; a result of their combined meaning. Just as these two elements don't reach combustion until they're fully informed of one another and completely integrated, the synthesis of character and emotion really isn't fully formed until it's sent out to another person. That's why confessional singer-songwriters (whom I adore, and who I always wanted to be...) have the most resonance with a listener who has shared the specific life experiences about which they sing. But a truly exceptional singing actor can take a seemingly random and foreign circumstance (i.e. most opera plots) and sent the essence of it straight into our hearts.

OK, I'm not even going to go back and try to edit all of that. Apologies for whatever circular logic or non sequiturs it contains. :)

They promise that spring will return to the mid-Atlantic this weekend. And they better be right. See you in a few days when the mercury tops 70!

Monday, April 16, 2007

Back in a few days

I had planned to blog this afternoon but I'm too disoriented by today's terrible events at Virginia Tech. I spent part of this past weekend on the campus of the University of Virginia (visiting my daughter), and came away with the infusion of energy and adrenaline that I always get from being surrounded by college students. It was so difficult today to hear about all of those young lives lost. And I was immediately bounced back in time to the third week of April last year when our incoming young artist Robert Samels and his colleagues were killed in a plane crash.

So far all of the Tech students that my family knows are well and accounted for. But it still hit kind of hard. As, by all rights, this kind of thing should. Makes you wonder how people in parts of the world where this kind of thing is a regular occurrence manage to get from day to day.

Opera blogging will resume later this week.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


If you don't read The Washington Post, you should devote a few minutes to this piece from last Sunday. Joshua Bell played his Strad in a DC metro station, and pretty much no one cared.

Surprising? Well, perhaps not. The Post called it an "experiment in context, perception and priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste."


You get what you pay for, right? Plunk down $100 for a front orchestra seat somewhere, and the performance damn well better be good. In fact, if it's not, you should probably start lying to yourself pretty quickly so that you don't feel bad about spending the money. Hence, the "Emperor's New Clothes" aspect of many high-profile expensive experiences with the arts.

Conversely, if the music is free, how good could it be?


If a guy in a T-shirt and baseball cap has to put his case in front of him at a subway stop, does that automatically say anything about the quality of the music he's making? If the trappings of a musical experience don't make the aesthetic decision for us - if we have to listen or look ourselves and decide - then we don't trust our own perception enough to know what we like and what we don't.

Then again, perhaps these folks did listen for a few seconds and decide they didn't like it.


A tough one. Be late to work because the sound of Bach swirling around the subway was seductive? For some people, this is a no-brainer. And there's no judgment or criticism intended. If your job security is threatened by a late arrival, I'd be hard pressed to convince you that Bach was worth it.

But I don't think that was the case for a large portion of these 1,000+ commuters. It's more about our unwillingness to accept even pleasant intrusions. The children all tried to stop and stare and listen. That says it right there. (Probably too easy for me to pontificate because I'm still coming down from the high of two weeks' vacation, but more of that later.)

An Unblinking Assessment of Public Taste?

I don't buy into this one. The many variables at work here pretty effectively trump the way "taste" enters into the equation. And taste implies choice of one art form over another, rather than an abstract level of quality.

Pick a genre. If the music were jazz or bluegrass, and the musician were equally acclaimed, I believe the scenario would've played out similarly. In yesterday's online chat, Weingarten noted that "Nearly 20 years ago, Bruce Springsteen did a similar thing in Copenhagen, where he joined a street musician to perform "The River." Not many people noticed him, either."

For every complex problem there is an easy answer, and it is wrong. (H.L. Mencken)

If you have another 10 minutes to spend on this, then skim through the online chat with Gene Weingarten. I have absolutely no clear thoughts about this experiment, except that I'm so glad the Post did it and wrote about it.

Peace comes dropping slow. (Yeats)

I'm back in the saddle after some time off, and I can't decide whether I never want the effects of my vacation to wear off, or if I'd better get back to busines as usual. I have a speed addiction. It has served me well all my life, but I need to temper it. It's astonishing how much clarity can be gained by sacrificing speed.

And so, I'm determined to stay in low gear for a little while, enjoying the traction.

TAFTO 2007

My contribution to Adaptistration's 2007 TAFTO (Take a Friend to the Orchestra/Opera) is due to be posted on April 11. Check it out, and while you're there, read all of this year's contributions.