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VOL. 131 | NO. 97 | Monday, May 16, 2016

Opera Memphis: If You Sing – Anywhere – They Will Listen

By Don Wade

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For everything else opera might be, Ned Canty has made it his business to see opera as opportunity.


The general director for Opera Memphis, when Canty came to town five years ago the company was in decline.

“We knew where we were going if we didn’t try anything new,” he said. “Nationwide, between 2000 and 2010, there was a 30 percent slide in the national opera-going audience and we tracked precisely on that number.

“The recession coincided with the end of a big capital campaign, so we had just been asking people for big gifts. So we got a double-whammy there. We had enough money and assets that we couldn’t have gone bankrupt, I mean, I would have had to have tried incredibly hard to bankrupt the company … and now we’re pretty good.”

For their efforts, Opera Memphis received the Excellence in Innovation Award at the recent conference for nonprofits hosted by the Alliance for Nonprofit Excellence and Nonprofit Quarterly. Also picking up awards: Peter Conerly, executive director of Synergy, for nonprofit leadership; The Lisieux Community as outstanding nonprofit newcomer; and Lauren Young, executive director of the Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation, for philanthropic leadership.

Canty and Opera Memphis have taken innovation to new heights, especially when you consider that many people, be they in Memphis, New York or Chicago, view opera in a “uptight, elitist, rich, top hat and monocle kind of way – and that’s just a fact,” Canty said.

But remember, he sees opera as opportunity.

“The nice thing about that is, since most people come in with that as a starting point,” he said, “when you can explode that, go sing opera on Beale Street or have an opera singer sing Carmen and then sing the Tennessee Waltz, and people see the same person creating this music, that’s a plus.”

But the innovation has not stopped there. Canty has taken opera to dog parks and each September they do something called “30 Days of Opera” and show up daily at a different place around Memphis and perform arias for free.

It wasn’t all just for the sake of being different or trying to appeal to a wider audience and reach younger demographics. Although that was part of it.

Canty also viewed this approach as sensible, a way to test new things on a smaller scale with less risk while simultaneously growing the Opera Memphis brand.

“A large part of the attraction of (30 Days of Opera) was when we started it we were only doing three operas a year,” said Canty. “And when you have three operas a year you can’t afford to fail. If one of them is a stinker, you’re dead.”

The 30 Days of Opera initiative took them just about everywhere.

“We learned if we go into a coffee shop or a restaurant, if we sing an aria people feel like it’s the most awesome, magic thing, love it, tweet about it, tell their friends about it,” Canty said. “If we sing a second aria, they go, `That’s beautiful, but I was talking to my friend, I was working on my novel …’ And if you sing a third, then you’re starting to turn people off. From a marketing perspective, you want to keep the sample short and sweet.”

On the other hand, when they sang at a dog park the people – and apparently, the dogs – wanted more.

“Now we do a whole set of songs just for dogs every year because people wanted it. People come just for that. It’s opera for dogs, so we do songs about other dogs, cats, and food. Things dogs would like. So that’s pretty much it. I have dogs myself and that’s pretty much all they’re interested in.”

So, yes, this is innovation without limits.

“We went to the Artistic Lounge and sang John Adams, which is very avant-garde opera, and we had guys freestyle rapping over the top of it,” Canty recalled. “The Memphis music scene is always going to intersect and find that area of common ground.

“Every year we sing on the corner of Sam Cooper and (East) Parkway. The first time we did it I thought somebody’s gonna yell at us or tell us to move. We have been kicked out of a couple of places. Like Target, just because they didn’t know what to do with us. People come in and start singing and it’s like, `What’s going on?’

“The idea has been to try things out and if they fail, they fail,” he said. “We have built our new season model around flexibility.”

One aria at a time.

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