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Leading the Way in OperaWednesday, August 15, 2012 By Nathan DePoint
What makes someone a leader in the opera world?
This was the premise behind Opera America's Leadership Intensive program, which I was asked to participate in this summer. Opera America's intent with the program (in its inaugural year) is to "identify the most promising emerging leaders in the field of opera administration and provide them with the skills and contacts needed to advance to an executive level position." To be asked was an honor as well as a very humbling experience, quite honestly. Only ten people from the United States were accepted, joining two participants from Canada and two from Europe, and I am proud that I was able to represent our vibrant company, Fort Worth Opera. Everyone's specialties varied greatly, from marketing and development to artistic and production – with different levels of experience. The youngest participant in the program was twenty-six, and the oldest was in his mid-forties.
The program itself took place at the Opera America offices in New York City and the companies represented included Washington National Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Vancouver Opera, Opera Santa Barbara, and Wolf Trap Opera Company, among others. To be honest, I was intimidated and decided that during the three-round application process, I somehow must have managed to trick everyone who interviewed me into believing I should be included in this group of talented, intelligent and passionate young opera professionals! But I am so grateful to be counted among them.
I wasn't sure what to expect from a full week of professional and personal exploration and growth, but I was determined to get as much out of it as I possibly could. Monday was a big-picture kind of day sharing our reflections on the Opera America conference in Philadelphia in June, plus more philosophical sessions about staff communication and producing the kind of work one believes in. Tuesday was the "artistic" day covering everything from how to work with artistic temperaments to having mock auditions. Wednesday was when we started getting into the specific skills required in our industry, i.e. public speaking, finding productions that are within budget (and how to keep them that way!), and how to successfully navigate our way through a business lunch/dinner. Thursday involved additional skill-specific sessions, including the impact of media and technology on opera, working with volunteers, building boards, and major gift fundraising. We wrapped up the week with some bigger philosophical discussions about the future of the opera landscape, how our personalities fit into the workplace, work/life balance, a great session with Kevin Smith talking about his experiences as general director at Minnesota Opera, and a session with two headhunters to discuss career paths, trajectories, and timings. Now that I've recounted all this, I can see how absolutely overwhelming the week might seem to those simply reading about it. Let me assure you, being in it was one of the most challenging and inspiring experiences I've ever had professionally.
I love learning about this industry and my chosen profession. I know Fort Worth Opera has given me a unique and safe place to begin shaping my beliefs about opera—what opera is, why our art form is relevant and why it matters today. It was exciting to learn how other companies do things in a much more in-depth way than the annual opera conference, as my only experiences in opera administration are with FWOpera. It was invaluable to sit around the table with a colleague from Philadelphia and another from Amsterdam while we hashed out what we see facing the art form in our individual communities. It's impossible to put a value on face-to-face discourse among peers. I have already started talking with the rest of the FWOpera's staff about some of the things I have learned through this process, and I am looking forward to doing more of the same in the near future. Overall, our team at FWO does a great job, especially considering the small size of our staff, but there are always ways to improve. These are the things I am focusing on as I return to Texas so that our patrons have the best opera company and experience they can possibly have.
I am still working through those forty hours spent around the table at 330 7th Avenue, but there are three things that I CAN tell you.
1. I walked away from that week more energized about this amazing art form than I have been in years, maybe ever.
2. I have a better sense of where I fit into the grander scheme of our industry, beyond Fort Worth Opera, and that the training, patience, and mentorship granted me by the amazing staff here at FWOpera is setting me up for success and a really wonderful future.
3. I now have thirteen colleagues--excuse me, thirteen friends—whom I can call anytime when I need to pick their brain or ask advice about my career advancement as I go along this path. I also have thirteen friends I can cheer on as their stars inevitably rise.
I cannot wait to see what the fourteen of us will do in the coming years in this amazing field of opera, and I am forever grateful to the FWO staff, board, and patrons for providing, and continuing to provide, such a fertile learning environment for me. I am also thankful to Opera America for including me in this experience and for seeing something in me that I didn't necessarily see in myself.
I don't know what opportunities the future holds, or how the impact of that week in New York City will unfold in the weeks, months, and years to come, but I do know that I have been changed, challenged, inspired, and bettered by my time spent there. And if even half of the fourteen feel the same way, opera's future is in good hands.