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VOL. 132 | NO. 128 | Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Opera Memphis Using Grant to Reach Mostly Absent Audience

By Andy Meek

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Opera Memphis has been given a $28,000 innovation grant from OPERA America that will be used in part to facilitate a series of conversations around the opera and race. (Opera Memphis/Ziggy Mack)

Innovation isn’t necessarily the first word that comes to mind to describe opera. That’s one reason Opera Memphis’ award of a $28,000 Innovation Grant – among the first to be handed out by OPERA America, funded by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation – is interesting, to say the least.

Even more noteworthy, though, is what Opera Memphis plans to do with the money.

Ned Canty, the opera company’s general director, knows the art form comes with certain baggage that makes it somewhat unapproachable to too many people. Think the big soaring voices, many times singing in different languages, that help keep people who might otherwise be fans at a distance. And that’s unfortunate, Canty laments.

“Part of the challenge of opera is when people think about it, they don’t necessarily think about the art form,” Canty says. “They think about the trappings of the art form. Which is sort of like people liking or not liking football because of how big the parking lot is for tailgating or what time it opens during the day.”

OPERA America president and CEO Marc Scorca said members companies like Opera Memphis will be able to use the grant money “to pursue new thinking and experimentation.”

Part of what Canty’s organization wants to use its money for is to figure out how to get beyond the bubble of traditional opera supporters and bring new fans into the mix, especially minorities.

Which is why later this year, Opera Memphis will be convening a series of what could be described as salons – conversations that will focus on race and opera and how to bridge the gap between the art form and minority communities.

“I’m almost hesitant to identify what we’re trying to learn here, because I’m trying to be as humble as possible about this,” Canty says. “What I do know is that the demographics of our city and our metropolitan area do not match the demographics of our regularly attendance audience. And I’d like to know why.

As part of Opera Memphis’ plans stemming from its innovation grant, the organization is also planning things that include a reworking of its young artist program to be more of a fellowship program for young artists of color. Opera Memphis will also be pushing for early 20th century opera singer Florence Cole Talbert McCleave to be inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. (Opera Memphis/ Ziggy Mack)

“There are some very obvious answers I could point to that are historic. But it’s very easy to assume you know the answer to this kind of question.”

To that end, Opera Memphis is also planning things that include a reworking of its young artist program to be more of a fellowship program for young artists of color. That, Canty says, is to help Opera Memphis do what it can to address some of what he calls the “pipeline issues” that face the opera industry nationally.

Opera Memphis is also reaching out to partners now that might want to host the conversations it’s planning around opera and race.

Canty thinks Memphis is better suited than almost any city in the U.S. to host conversations like these.

“I would never say we’re trying to solve anything,” he said. “That always sounds a little arrogant. But I do know that we have not talked about these issues nearly enough as an industry, as an art form or really as a company. And we need to.

“And while I believe and Opera Memphis believes these are discussions that need to be had for the good of the city and that it’s part of our mission as a nonprofit to try to be a part of making the city a better place in whatever way we can, any futurist would tell you – anybody who’s looked at the demographics for the next 50 years in the U.S. would realize that even if this isn’t the right thing to do, to have these conversations and figure out why such a large part of our potential audience feels alienated from the arts, from opera … even if we didn’t want to do this for the right reasons, we’d still need to do it for the smart reason. Which is that if we don’t, we eventually go away.”

A large part of Opera Memphis’ initiatives tied to the new grant funding will come under the banner of the organization’s McCleave Project. That includes the conversations around race, reworking the young artist program and more, all of which are happening partly because of the legacy of African-American soprano Florence Cole Talbert McCleave.

A Detroit native, the opera star of the early 20th century relocated to Memphis after retiring. She taught music lessons from her home on Vance Street, wrote articles for the Tri-State Defender, gave recitals and brought major African-American singers here to perform.

As part of the new series of initiatives it’s pursuing this year, Canty said Opera Memphis will be pushing to get McCleave inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.

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