2 min read March 2022 — Opera Carolina is managed like a business and that is why James Meena, artistic director, thinks they must change their business model and rethink the ways they deliver the product, which is classical music, to younger audiences. If they don’t do that they will be out of business, he told Invest:.
What’s the role Opera Carolina plays in the Charlotte arts & culture industry?
We always have a responsibility to sustain the traditional repertory that we embrace at the opera, the standard grade operas that people expect to see and hear, even if it’s from the first time, we have that responsibility, but that’s less than 30% of what we do at Opera Carolina.
As we have seen Charlotte and society in general change, particularly since the Great Recession, we have diversified our business model substantially. There is a greater emphasis on education from the standpoint of lifelong learning and getting young people, and not so young people, involved in what we call artist advancement, mentorship and training opportunities. This is a large part of what we’ve been doing at the office for ten years. Going forward it’s going to become an even more significant part of our business model.
How does your organization support further DEI expansion in Charlotte?
We’ve been working very thoughtfully in diversity, equity and inclusion, and civic engagement for quite some time. The civic engagement platform is something we officially put in place at Opera Carolina in 2017 to work directly with community organizations to leverage the opera art form as a means of connection.
For example, we do what I call celebration concerts with our Asian partners, with our African American partners, with our Latino partners where we will take their traditional music and create eclectic concerts celebrating our musical and cultural diversity. Most of the time these concerts are free or very low-cost to the public. For example, our annual concert with the Asian community, will highlight Asian artists alongside our resident company performing music in Chinese or Korean. To have an African-American tenor, for example, singing a piece in Chinese sends a very clear message that music is universal.
We’ve been working in this arena for quite some time now and our last big project was a Martin Luther King-themed opera called I Dream that we performed in September — Our first show back after almost 20 months of COVID insanity at the Belk Theater.
Last March we produced a new opera called The Falling and the Rising, which celebrates the men and women of our military. Through our Civic Engagement initiative, we worked with veterans’ organizations, interacting with veterans who probably would never go to the opera, and utilizing the art form to connect people interestingly and uniquely.
What are you doing in terms of education for the community in Charlotte?
Opera Carolina has a thirty-year history of serving regional schools with education programs that align with NC curriculum standards. Our education Programs are a major part of what we do at the Opera. This year we will be launching what I would call a bold and aggressive plan to expand our education programs so that we’re providing yearlong sessions, voice lessons, classes, masterclasses, performance opportunities for young people.
How has the influx of new residents to the region impacted Opera Carolina?
One of the things that’s amazing about Charlotte is that it has been growing and diversifying. It has become a very attractive city for artists to live and work in. We have more than 20 artists who are opera singers and pianists as part of our resident company. Many of these artists have either moved here or have decided to stay in Charlotte after school to build their careers here rather than going to New York. No other opera company in the US is investing in regional talent to the extent Opera Carolina is. We’re very proud of the artists who live and perform in our community.
How are you working to excite the next generation about the opera?
Our challenge at the opera is to invest more in connecting in significant ways with younger audiences. And it’s not just a matter of communication, it’s a matter of adapting the art form and changing it in a way that then speaks to them.
A good example is we just performed Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which is a classic opera. It’s more than 230 years old. We modernized the production. So instead of setting it in the 18th century, we set it today. All the costumes look like something you would see in a movie. Everybody was staged in a way that looked very modern, and it was interesting hearing the audience’s reactions because our older, more traditional audiences didn’t like it. But the younger audiences loved it because they saw elements of the show that were familiar — like iPads and Starbucks coffee cups.
How do you envision the future of classical art performance given all the recent transformations?
What we know is that classical music does speak to all audiences. But, it is very much a matter of delivery. How are we delivering the product? What does the product look like? The future of classical arts depends on how creative and innovative the institutions are in delivering that product. We’re going to find over the next decade that there will be companies that are stuck in the mud that, just like any business, don’t innovate, they don’t move forward, they survive.
Successful companies are going to be those who are innovative in how they maintain the customer base while expanding the base. First, one has to realize that the customer base is changing and will continue to change. We must modify the product and how we deliver the product for future customers, or we will be out of business.
What are your immediate priorities for the organization?
The immediate priority is rebuilding the customer base after COVID. We’re still seeing some residual concerns and reticence on the part of customers to get out and go to events and go to performances and participate.
Maintaining our finances is another priority. Our finances right now are very good. We’ve run surpluses the last several years and there’s cash in the bank. We are making sure that our strategies are such that the financial health of the organization continues to be strong.
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