Jorell Williams in Seattle Opera's "As One" at Washington Hall. Photo: Rozarii Lynch
Jorell Williams in Seattle Opera’s “As One” at Washington Hall. Photo: Rozarii Lynch

Founded in 1970, OPERA America has a membership that includes over 500 opera companies, educational institutions, affiliated businesses and other entities. For the first 30 years of its existence, the organization’s grantmaking exclusively focused on the creation and production of new work. Ten years ago, however, leadership shifted its mission to “put artists at the center of our work,” according to President and CEO Marc A. Scorca, who has led the organization since 1990.

“One might say, ‘Why doesn’t OPERA America just support companies that do good opera?’ But in our philanthropy, we support projects that point in a direction that we perceive will be beneficial to organizations and the field. We think of ourselves as a strategic grantmaker in that way,” Scorca said.

OPERA America’s grant programs help member organizations forge deeper relationships with community partners, empower individual artists, and advance racial and gender equity. “We want our members to recognize that they have an overarching responsibility to their communities and that opera can be an instrument for healing and progress,” Scorca said.

This can be challenging work, as it requires stakeholders to understand that “the ability to fail and make mistakes and take risks shouldn’t be framed as something negative, but a stepping stone to progress,” said Kristal Pacific, OPERA America’s director of social equity and grantmaking.

As opera faces demographic challenges that are already having a profound effect on its audiences and funding prospects, Scorca emphasized the importance of ensuring that “there are more voices, more styles of composition, and more styles available to the producers who will join in further down the creative pipeline.” According to Scorca and Pacific, cultivating a community-oriented mindset will also be vital to keeping the form relevant once COVID-19 abates and live performances return.

“Using opera as a conduit”

Inside Philanthropy’s recent survey of performing arts professionals—including development officers, foundation reps, donors and consultants—found that only 10% of respondents said there is “truly a growing trend toward more democratization of philanthropy with more and more examples that can be documented.”

Forty percent said “there are some good examples of democratization in philanthropy, but it is likely a trend that will happen very slowly over time.” (Check out all of our coverage of IP’s recent philanthropy surveys here.)

The findings resonated with Pacific, who raised funds for numerous arts organizations before joining OPERA America. “I’d also add ‘opaque,’ in terms of how funders act,” she said.

Pacific stressed that “democratization” is more than a series of mechanical tweaks to the grantmaking process. It requires a shift in philosophy. “What we’re realizing,” she told me, “is that we are using opera as a conduit—it really is to serve the needs of people, and our grantmaking serves the needs for people to express themselves or create something new in our grants to artists and companies developing new work.”

An evolving set of grant programs

OPERA America’s own 13 grant programs reflect that spirit of evolution. Pacific highlighted three grant programs during our chat.

  • Innovation Grants support one- and two-year initiatives that introduce, adapt or refine innovative practices. Awards range from $10,000 to $100,000 per year, based on the size of the applicant’s budget. These grants are supported by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.
  • Opera Grants for Female Composers: Discovery Grants back the development of new theatrical works for the trained voice and instrumental ensemble. Awards of up to $15,000 go toward workshops, readings, musical materials, production design, promotional materials and other associated expenses. The Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation supports these grants.
  • IDEA Opera Grants (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access) support composers and librettists who identify as African, Latinx, Asian, Arab and/or Native American in the development of new operatic works and the advancement of their careers. The Charles and Cerise Jacobs Charitable Foundation supports these grants.

A peer review panel of five to seven representatives spanning the field assesses grant applications submitted to OPERA America. Panelists provide feedback to all applicants who request it. “That feedback is huge,” Pacific said. “There’s so much discourse that happens in these panels, so much considered, and we want to be able to have those conversations and share those learnings with all of our applicants.”

The panel also provides feedback to OPERA America leadership. “We take our feedback very seriously and will adjust future application processes to make them less burdensome,” Pacific said.

For example, OPERA America’s community of panelists, artists and professionals repeatedly cited a lack of female representation in the ranks of conductors and directors. In response, OPERA America will roll out a new offering, Opera Grants for Female Directors and Conductors, through which it will pay half of the contract fee if the company hires a female director or conductor for the first time. “We’re saying, ‘this is something the field needs to do, let’s be intentional and let’s see if we can move the needle,’” Scorca said.

Strengthening the civic fabric

Encouraging organizations to develop collaborations with community partners is a top priority for many arts funders, OPERA America included. Scorca said, “Opera companies should think about not producing opera just for opera’s sake—although it’s important—but that opera can be a very popular instrument for strengthening the civic fabric of cities and communities.”

But Scorca said the nature of those relationships and funders’ role in galvanizing collaboration needs to evolve. “Too often, companies have thought about projects and then they go find partners in order to promote the pieces,” he said. “That is, frankly, nothing but short-term exploitation of an artistic overlap with the community; that just isn’t the way to strengthen the civic fabric.”

OPERA America’s Civic Practice Grants help member companies build what Scorca calls “pre-project relationships” with neighboring community organizations that have an equal stake in decision making, promotion and design from the outset. “What we have found is that the most valuable work occurs when the work is co-created and where there are strong, mutually beneficial, long-lasting partnerships that lead to the creation of work,” he said.

Cultivating a “different mindset”

OPERA America’s Civic Practice grants help companies invest in relationship-building before they start drawing up projects, for instance, by hiring consultants, attending town halls and engaging with communities.

That sounds intuitive, but organizations and funders often need help building community relationships. Many leaders are simply too busy with day-to-day operations to get the pulse on community organizations doing good work, particularly in regions undergoing rapid gentrification.

This work requires company leaders to embrace a shift in philosophy. Many of them have come up in a “conservatory” mentality that tends to focus on the end product—a flawless and memorable performance. OPERA America’s civic work asks them to “expand their view and skillset to embrace a role as cultural citizen, as engaged agents for civic betterment,” Scorca said. “That requires time and investment and persuasion.”

Scorca is happy to report that leaders “get excited” when asked to adopt a “different mindset than what they’ve grown up with. And that’s our work—to get them to adjust their viewpoint.”

Opera and younger demographics

Way back in 2014, I wrote a piece about the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s efforts to make opera more appealing to younger audiences. Seven years later, the sector’s leaders are still worried about opera’s ability to effectively appeal to millennials and Gen Xers.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the percentage of U.S. adults who attend at least one operatic performance each year dropped from 3.2% in 2002 to 2.1% in 2012. In 2017, it increased—to 2.2%. “Aging audiences are pointed to as an ominous indicator that this art form continues on a slow, inexorable death spiral,” wrote the New York Times’ chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini, who went on to note that the Metropolitan Opera’s average subscriber was 65 years old in 2019.

Faced with those statistics, directors’ first inclination may be to roll out “bold” and “edgy” programming that supposedly caters to younger audiences, thereby alienating older and more conservative subscribers and donors in the process.

Scorca, who has been on the job for over 30 years, told me this thinking is a bit too simplistic. “There are young people who want to see ‘Carmen’ and ‘La bohème’ and ‘Aida’ for the first time because these are works from the core literature. But there are those that want to see works that are theatrical and deal with topics about the world around us,” he said. “It’s difficult to generalize about what you should do to make young people more interested in opera.”

In fact, OPERA America’s research suggests that the people most interested in new and unusual work tend to be older opera-goers—for the simple reason that they’ve already seen the canonical works countless times.

Scorca said there’s less ambiguity around what motivates younger donors, as opposed to younger audiences in general. Confirming research from groups like the Art Funders Forum and the European Fine Art Fair, he said that young patrons “want to know their gift makes a difference in solving a problem or filling a gap. They want to know their gift makes a difference in a larger civic way versus just supporting a hobby.”

This is where companies’ civic engagement work in areas like healthcare and racial justice can pay dividends, Scorca said, as younger donors appreciate “impact beyond just the opera-sphere.”

The pandemic “erased the chalkboard”

I asked Pacific and Scorca for their takes on how individual donors’ giving differs, if at all, from that of their foundation brethren. The question speaks to professionals’ lingering concern that the individual donors who provide the lion’s share of the sector’s philanthropic dollars and often write huge checks for building renovations may not share foundations’ commitment to equity and inclusion.

Again, Scorca cautioned against falling prey to stereotypes. While he agreed that foundations often set the strategic grantmaking direction for a given performing arts field, he doesn’t rule out “fully activated, aware individual donors who understand what’s going on and want to help.” To his point, individual donors bankroll some of OPERA America’s most important grant programs, like the Campbell Opera Librettist Prize, funded by acclaimed librettist and lyricist Mark Campbell, and the Robert L.B. Tobin Director-Designer Prize, which recognizes promising stage directors and designers.

On top of all those concerns, COVID-19 has added another layer of uncertainty to opera’s trajectory. “Right now we’re finding every possible way to sustain our members to the other side of the pandemic and beyond,” Pacific said. But Scorca often reminds performing arts leaders to temper their expectations around what a post-pandemic world will look like. Audiences certainly miss getting together to watch live performances. But they’ve also grown accustomed to consuming the arts on their own terms, at their own pace and at a reasonable price. (Call it the “Netflix effect.”)

“I don’t buy into the notion that there will be a flood of desire for the arts once the pandemic is gone,” Scorca said. “We need to be cognizant that people have developed new habits and we need to meet them where they are to reacquaint them with the way we do business and the value of it.”

COVID-19 “erased the chalkboard in terms of how and where we did things,” Scorca said. “When we are able to safely reconvene, it’s my hope that people will think carefully about what elements of past practices they want to resuscitate and which they’re willing to let go of.”