Opera is both thriving and struggling. There are more talented, qualified singers coming out of music conservatories and universities than ever. There are many small, intrepid companies popping up and adding their distinct profiles to the arts scenes from within their communities. And yet companies that felt indispensable are closing, even in New York City, the supposed culture capital of the country. It always comes down to the same problem; money. Opera is expensive to produce, requires creative, innovative and committed administrators to find the funding, and highly trained, skilled artists to bring to life. And whether the company has a multi million dollar endowment or survives on grants and the support of one major donor, money is always the thing that keeps the company heads from sleeping at night, and what determines if a company stays afloat or sinks with a troubled economy.
But what does that mean for the artists who have chosen to make opera their life's work? We too are stretched financially, finding our fees have shrunk and our jobs have gotten fewer with the closing and downsizing of so many opera companies. Where does this leave us -- and what can we do as we helplessly watch our art form strain and suffer under the weight of uneasy financial times?
My answer is that we shouldn't feel helpless. We should agree to be part of the solution and make a commitment to advocate for our art form. While I have mentioned opera advocacy in many of my previous columns, I'm embarassed to admit that until recently I wasn't aware that OPERA America has a registered lobbyist working in Washington, representing the interests of opera companies and artists in front of Congress, the White House and Federal Agencies. Why is this important? For several reasons; First of all, although artistic non-profits currently receive very little federal funding, the fact is that the grants they do receive from the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts), because of the rigorous nature of their application process and the authority then bestowed on the projects and organizations awarded, leads to eight raised dollars for every grant dollar awarded. Not to mention that the more money granted to the NEA, the more money they are able to distribute to American arts organizations. More money allocated to the arts through the federal government means more emphasis placed on the importance of culture in our society. Making the federal government and society at large more aware of the positive trickle down effect greater financial support of the arts creates in our economy and our society is a hands-on effort in which artists can actively participate.
When I spoke with OPERA America's lobbyist that I mention above, Brandon Gryde, he reminded me that artists are uniquely positioned to gain great attention for the importance of the arts from both the government and the general public. We are the face of opera, and have the power to engage the public and ask them to further support of our message. And the message is further emphasized when we join together in a unified voice, which is why OPERA America has created Opera Advocacy Day on October 29th, which is a part of National Opera Week (October 23-November 1). It costs us nothing as artists to lift our voices in support of our art form, and we can no longer leave this responsibility only to the opera administrators. If we want to continue to be employed, and continue to create the art that makes society a better place, we must take part in raising awareness about the impact opera can have on a community, a country and a society. We artists know firsthand the incredible transformative power this art form has on our lives, and we can take responsibility for spreading that message to the government and the general population. OPERA America has created a document about how artists can become activists, and it gives five compelling, tangible reasons to participate:
1. Increased federal funding increases private donations.
2. Artists personalities and public personas give them automatic platforms and built in audiences for encouraging change.
3. Artists create the ideas that can initiate change, but only if they particpate by reminding lawmakers that they are important members of the workforce and taxpaying voters.
4. The arts have the ability to bring issues of social justice and inequality to light in new ways
5. Artists have the responsibility as members of our society who HAVE been exposed to opera and discovered the transformative, all-encompassing nature of a story told through unamplified voices set to music to share the joy and importance of what we do with as many people as we can reach both onstage and off.
What if every person who had training as an opera singer, director, stage manager or conductor was willing to join together and create an artistic revolution? What if each of us agreed to find someone who has never been to an opera and provide them free tickets? What if we offered to visit schools and talk to them about what we do? What if we used social media to tweet our congress people reminding them of the necessity of having arts supported in our society and the economic boon jobs in the arts can create in a community? What if we worked together creating new solutions that educate the public about what it is that we do and how and why they could potentially find experiencing opera enriching and entertaining?
When you consider the number of people in the U.S. who are either making their careers in opera or have studied classical singing, you realize that there are enough people to join together and create the message that the arts are important, and that what we do as classical singers should not be marginalized. The two biggest obstacles to producing opera in the United States are finding donors and reaching new audiences, which are two issues that result from the same problem; the fact that not enough people in the United States even know that opera exists, let alone understanding how powerful experiencing an opera can be. We as artists need to come together and tell them. Our livelihoods, and the very existence of our beloved art form depends on it.
Here's what you can do today:
- Visit the National Opera Week page on OPERA America's website. This link will give you concrete ways to participate in Opera Advocacy Day, October 29, and throughout the year.
- Use your social media platforms to ask your fans to participate as well. Artists and current fans of opera can come together to bring our message to a larger audience.
- Stay informed about the government's support of the arts. Tweet, call or write (send a letter through the Performing Arts Alliance) members of Congress and local representatives and let them know that the arts matter to you -- their constituents and voters.
- Perform places that wouldn't otherwise hear opera. Not only does this give you an opportunity to perform, it gives a new audience a chance to hear an unamplified voice.
- Talk to people about what you do. Engage strangers in conversation and educate them about what it means to be an opera singer
- Invite people to your performances. Your taxi driver. The waiter in your restaurant. The guy working in the bike shop. Your florist. Offer them discount codes or comps if you have them. Remind them that tickets to operas can be extremely affordable.
- Give back to opera companies. If you can't afford to donate money (and I know a lot of artists definitely don't have expendable income -- believe me), buy tickets to their performances, retweet and share their social media blasts, send letters to the editor of the newspaper if you feel the company isn't getting enough press coverage and volunteer to spend an afteroon in a school singing for kids.
Change begins with one person at a time. If every person who aspired to become or is already making their living as an opera singer or in the opera field found one person who has never been to the opera and facilitated their first experience, we could really get somewhere. If we all contacted our representatives and let them know that opera matters, and why, they would be forced to listen. Look at it as a contribution to your future income as well as a contribution to society's betterment through arts enrichment. Or just look at it as a way to share this unique and wonderful medium of making art with people who deserve to know it exists.