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Different Conferences, Similar Themes

By Perryn Leech, HGO Managing Director

Perryn Leech in Montreal

Attending conferences can be enlightening, inspiring, and occasionally frustrating, and you can certainly leave believing that the glass is very full—or very empty.

I attended the Opera America conference in Montreal last week and administrators and leaders from across the country circled back and forth on subjects similar to those at many previous OA conferences. New audiences: Who are they? How do we attract them? How do we make sure there is a new generation to support and further the art form? What is required to continue evolving the relationship between our city and its diverse communities?  We also took steps to move the conversation forward on the subject of cultural diversity, which in my opinion is vital to whether opera and opera companies have a future.

There is a continuous debate on the diversity of the opera audience and whether a wider public can be reached through programming alone. (Hint…they can’t!) The issue stems from a historical belief that introducing this European (and now rapidly emerging American) art form to that public will have a significant impact—and the belief that we therefore are imparting great wisdom, teaching them something new, and exposing the next generation to a new cultural experience. This is why the debate is long and unresolved!  

But we have not yet truly discussed how we nurture the diverse communities across our cities, include them in the fabric of our work, and most importantly develop our companies’ future leaders and ambassadors from within their communities—though this time we at least dipped our toes into these waters.  

The performing arts industry has been woefully behind in training and developing administrators, technicians, and staff members from diverse backgrounds, which means that despite our stated best intentions, we have very little diversity on our payroll. HGO is in the most diverse city in the country and yet we have been largely unable to truly diversify our staff and add different skills and views on how we evolve into the future.

The same is also true of our board leadership, the majority of whom again are from a very narrow segment of our community. This leads to a continuous, self-fulfilling “us vs. them” divide. Until we take a positive step forward to ensure that everyone feels that they can have a voice in how the company develops, this will remain. We must ensure that those with knowledge and insight can participate from the moment they express an interest in joining our opera community. 

I also attended the Global Cultural Districts Network (GCDN) meeting in Brooklyn, the ridiculously hot and trendy area where it is impossible to walk more than a block without hitting an insane amount of construction. The area has completely reinvented itself over the past two decades and is now an exploding cultural district (as well as a hipster hangout). The GCDN is a federation of global centers of arts and culture, and I was in attendance representing Theater District Houston.

The majority of dialogue among the North American companies focused on similar thoughts about new audiences and how to make cultural districts "authentic" to their origins and cities. Culture and cultural districts are important to any great city—they improve the quality of life for residents and encourage global tourism. There were great presentations from several centers of culture from around the world where the cultural districts have driven the urban regeneration of an area. But all of these districts were planned, developed, and implemented by the same small section of society that is the current audience—no matter the original tradition and culture of the area.

Performing arts groups and cultural districts face similar issues: How do we make ourselves open and inspiring places where the WHOLE community will come and will feel engaged and welcome? And how do we stay true to the tradition and culture of a country or region if the new cultural district is designed from an architect’s office in New York or Paris? It will be difficult to achieve cultural integrity if there continues to be such a narrow field of architects, planners, and leaders who are making all those future planning and delivery decisions, however creative their ideas or good their intentions.

After the conferences it seems clear to me that to truly move the needle we are going to have to be proactive in how we recruit and support the next generation of leaders, employees, and stakeholders—and cast a much wider net to find them.