The Opera That Cried Wolf!

In what is turning into a regular guest slot we have a third blog installment by our friend Viswa Subbaraman, Artistic Director of the Skylight Music Theater in Milwaukee. Enjoy!.


Opera and orchestras are in crisis! The sky is falling! The world is ending! Well… sort of. I, like many of my peers running and working in arts organizations, am tired. It’s been a rough few years. We were the first to feel the hit during the Great Recession as people cut any unnecessary expenditure, and we’re the last to recover from the Great Recession as it takes time for donors to feel secure about the future and open up their pocket books. It’s a crisis, right? I don’t know. I think it’s more an opportunity. I keep looking at San Diego Opera with fascination – both jealously because in the past 10 years I’ve worked in opera, I would have given quite a lot to have those resources at my finger tips; and in horror that a group of supporters could simply decide that their community did not need opera any more.

Since my first blog on SDO, I’ve been asked by friends what I would do to fix it. It’s easy to talk about fighting for an art form or to criticize what I think is myopic thinking, but it’s a whole other challenge to figure out how to be part of the solution, so here goes:

I think SDO has an incredible opportunity since it looks as though some angels are coming out of the woodwork and the community has been fighting to save the company. It’s an opportunity to redefine how we think about delivering this old and venerable art. It’s an opportunity to go back to the reason opera was created in the first place – hint: I don’t think Monteverdi was worried about delivering traditional “grand opera” to his audience. In fact, I think he described Orfeo as a sung play. He created theater that blended music, acting, and art. I’d go back to that definition of opera.

I’d then take that definition of opera and look at the San Diego community. I think we in the arts forget that we are really a community service organization. We are delivering a service to the community and asking the community to provide millions of dollars to support our service delivery. (This goes back to why we’re non-profits – that whole generation of positive externalities in the community, etc..) The board doesn’t own the company. The artistic director doesn’t own the company. We are caretakers and stewards of these companies for the communities they serve. I’m not saying that our job is to simply give the community shows by request. We’re trained artists and artistic directors for a reason. Much like chefs in a restaurant, we bring an expertise to the table when we program a season, but more on that view of programming in a future blog.

So back to the community: One of my goals with Opera Vista was and with the Skylight is to figure out how my organizations fit the community’s needs. In Houston where the community was well served in traditional and grand opera by HGO and Opera in the Heights, we started Opera Vista to be their wicked little brother. It was a company that produced operas in dance clubs, outdoors, and in a proscenium theater, etc.. We were irreverent and educational for those younger generations of opera go-er who were intimidated by the thought of getting dressed up and going to HGO. We were also cheaper. We went where the other companies weren’t. (Though HGO has since filled the gap we left when I left OV). In Milwaukee, the Skylight is positioned between the Milwaukee Rep that does some musical theater, the Broadway touring companies that come through, and the Florentine Opera that does traditional grand opera. The mission of the Skylight is to do all forms of musical theater – from opera to operetta to musical theater – all under one roof. My goal has been to develop seasons that appeal to a variety of the public while also focusing each season on one shared aspect of our human condition. This current season focuses on Revolution and Freedom while next season will talk about Fairy Tales. We’re incorporating partnerships with other organizations, a discussion series, and an opera education program in a local bar. We’re trying to serve the community in a way that the others don’t. No company can be all things for all people, but my hope is that by being able to diversify our programming – how often can you see a Bollywood Fidelio and Hair in the same season – we can diversify the audience we serve in our community. 

San Diego Opera has a huge opportunity to redefine how they serve the various segments of their community. San Diego has a large Hispanic/Latino population. I know a great Mariachi opera that HGO would probably love to lend you. San Diego has a huge Asian population – how about checking out the music and operas of Huang Ruo? (I also have a great Bollywood Fidelio I’d be happy to send your way). Check out the work that Darren K. Woods is doing with David Little and a whole group of composers in Fort Worth. Target some of those smaller productions in neighborhood venues. Opera Vista has a great Daron Hagen opera that you can do in a club. While some may consider it watering down the beer, you’re actually creating a wonderfully diverse menu. Oh, and don’t throw the grand opera out with the bath water. HGO just sold out their fascinating Rheingold. There isn’t a ticket to be had! For a visionary production of grand opera! It can be done. We’re all tired. I know it. Not every single “outside the box” project will play, but I think it’s more fun to go back to that Monteverdi idea of theater with singing. At least we can have fun while we figure out the new business model for our art.

Viswa Subbaraman

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