Bringing opera to the masses

Now in its fourth year, Opera Memphis' 30 Days of Opera is underway this month, taking the traditional art  form to non-traditional venues all over the city. The brainchild of General Director Ned Canty, the program delivers on their mission to introduce opera to the masses.
“I wasn’t born in Memphis, but I got here as quickly as I could,” Ned Canty, the General Director of Opera Memphis is known to say. Canty is the force that brought a new wave of change to the company since his arrival in 2011. Under his guidance, the organization has continued to be and active and vital company, acknowledged nationwide for its unique ability to build and sustain connections to new audiences. Through cross collaboration with other arts organizations and original programming – two words rarely heard in the world of traditional opera – Canty has built an opera company that is truly accessible and inviting to the community.

With 30 Days of Opera, the company takes the show on the road to perform at local festivals, farmer’s markets, public parks, children’s playgrounds, and more. If you haven’t caught a street corner show yet, check out their remaining schedule. 
  The Playground King, an original opera for kids, was performed at Shelby Farms and Overton Park
Canty, who relocated to Memphis from Philadelphia in 2011, discusses his infatuation with his adopted city, taking risks in uncertain economic times, and why he is willing to take a chance on  opera.
What appealed to you about making the move to Memphis?
I wanted a city that was big enough to have a lot going on, but small enough that I could get to know my colleagues, and that I could get to know my audience, and that I could see the needle move. Really, that is pretty much the definition of Memphis. We’ve often called it a “Goldilocks” city – it’s not too big, not too small, it’s just the right size. If we want to do something with the Dixon or the Brooks or the Ballets – really, anyone – they’re a phone call away. Other cities are not like that. They’re not as collaborative artistically or culturally as Memphis.
 Ned Canty, General Director of Opera Memphis

You came to Opera Memphis in 2011, during a time of heavy economic crisis for a lot of major arts organizations. What was your action plan for faring in the middle of the recession?
It was a tricky couple of years and we had to make a full examination of what is our mission, who is our audience, who could be our audience. We needed to figure out what are the most important things about what we do and how do we maintain those while also taking whatever resources we can to build the audience of the future.
What was your “step one?”
Make it through a single year. Try to get to know everyone, get to know the stakeholders, get to know the city. Get some trust and some awareness and really try to figure out what made the company tick, what made the audience tick, all of those things. In some ways, I was fortunate because when I got here the next season had already been planned. What I did was cast and staff them.
When you have something like opera where you only have a couple of productions, when one of them doesn’t sell well it’s very hard to diagnose. Was it the show? Was it the fact that there was a Tigers game that night? Was it the fact that there was a snowstorm that weekend? Usually it’s some combination of a bunch of things. It took about a year to get to a point where we could diagnose what we thought the problems were and then start acting on solutions.
 The 30 Days of Opera crew performing at Whole Foods
The challenge was, how do we maintain what we’re already doing – producing opera at a high level for people who already love opera – but also show the city that there’s more to us than being a producer of content? It’s not enough anymore to be a producing organization. All of us need to be civic organizations.
Your first success at commissioning a new opera for the company was “Ghosts of Crosstown” in 2014. How did that idea come to be?
First, the idea was we want to create a new opera; that idea was here from the beginning. But that takes money, and resources and time, so I wanted to make sure I understood the city at least a little before we made the decision as to where to go. I wanted to make sure that the piece felt like it was owned by Memphis, that it belonged to Memphis. Originally with Crosstown, we talked about doing an existing opera in the building. The thing for me that really made the building make sense was it cut across every barrier that existed in Memphis. Everyone that you meet that grew up in Memphis can tell you a story about that building. It doesn’t matter what age they are, what race they are, what gender they are, what region they are. Any of the barriers that exist in the city are obliterated by that building. To take this building that has sat vacant and transform it into something that is so vital was just really exciting.
We had 300 people there [for the premiere]. Most of them had never been to an opera before, and they were sitting there listening to new opera. So not only was their first opera, it was new American opera. For our traditional audience, it was the first time we really started to get to that point where they felt like they could dislike something and say, ‘That style of music was not really for me, but I loved that one.’ Giving an audience permission to not love everything you do is important because if you try to please everybody all the time, you have very watered down art.
After “Ghosts of Crosstown” the company took even bigger leaps with “30 Days of Opera.”
In terms of audience building, I think that has our widest reach. What is most important is giving people a sample of what opera actually is, rather than what they see on the TV, and the best advertisement for opera always is opera. Standing ten feet away from an opera singer singing, unamplified Puccini, Mozart, Wagner - it is a visceral experience that cannot be recreated. It is for many people the lightning bolt they need to get them involved.
By doing 30 Days of Opera we’re doing two things. First, we have this massive opportunity for sampling. We give people a little taste and then say, ‘If you liked that, come to this concert. If you like the concert, come to a show.’ We also have, going back to the beginning, part of that mission of re-definition. The idea with 30 Days of Opera is to try to reach every single person in Memphis we possibly can and say to them in the most personal way possible, we want you to come see what we’re doing. There’s no better invitation than a personal invitation.
Why take a chance on opera, period?
People should come to an opera because it is a completely unique sensory and dramatic and musical experience. For me, opera is about the extremes of life. It’s about when you first fall in love and the extremity of that; it’s about when you lose the person you love and the extremity of that. These are the things that make us most similar. These are the things that make us human, these are the things that break down barriers. No matter who you are, you can hear and listen to a particular aria, watch a particular opera and feel connected with that story. People don’t know they can do that…until they go.

Read more articles by Erin Williams.

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