Adaptistration: In Reverse

Kim Witman of the Wolf Trap Opera Company has organized a cross-blog event for today’s announcement of the WTOC 2010 season by doing guest blog posts and interviews in a few places across the blogosphere. Kim contributed a wonderful opera oriented essay during the 2007 Take A Friend To the Orchestra Opera initiative and her guest post today is a wonderful evolution of that idea…

Kim Pensinger Witman Director, Wolf Trap Opera & Classical Programming

Thanks to Drew for the guest post opportunity! In the spirit of his wonderful blog, I write today about how Wolf Trap Opera bucks some of the more conventional practices of opera casting and production, constantly rejiggering its operations in service of its mission.

Last Things First. And Fast.

Here’s how seasons are usually crafted in the opera world: Management decides on a mix of repertoire that gives the company its best chance for artistic and financial success. Depending on the size and profile of the company, this is done anywhere from 18 months to 5+ years out. Then, a multi-year casting process is begun, typically from the top down, nailing down the marquee roles first, and progressing to the smaller roles. If the opera in question is a star vehicle, the choice of the piece and the big name are simultaneous; otherwise, the opera itself comes first.

Because our company exists to serve the needs of the next generation’s finest singers, we do this in reverse. And we not only do it backwards, we wait until the last minute.

We start with about 1,000 applicants in October, then hear as many as we can (usually 400-500) in live auditions across the country in November. In December, we pick operas that fit the best singers we’ve heard that year. In January we choose production and artistic teams (conductors, directors, designers, staff), and in February we tell everyone about it! (And, of course, in June, the curtain goes up.)

It’s a crazy insane thing to do, for the turn-around is lightning fast. And for a company with just two fulltime and one part-time staff members, it requires the wearing of dozens of hats, sequentially and simultaneously. But the thing is, for decades it has worked. It lets us hire the best singers we hear instead of only engaging the ones who fit predetermined roles, and it gives them the best chance for success.

The Miniature and the Monstrous

WTOC has two venues available for its opera productions. One seats 375 and the other seats 7,000. (My adrenaline surges just writing those figures.)

A 375-seat house (The Barns) is a beautiful, intimate thing. The singers learn to be honest and thorough in their performances. The sound is crystal clear. And, to a certain extent, costs are controlled because the size of the house limits the size of the orchestra and cast. Unfortunately, the combination of only 375 seats and a commitment to reasonably affordable ticket prices (this year at $32, $56 and $72) means that the box office take is an even smaller percentage of budget than in most companies.

Having 6,000 people attend a Bohème performance (as we did last August) at the Filene Center outdoor amphitheatre is an amazing thing. Makes the singers feel like rock stars. But the realities of doing opera in a large road house are sobering for a small company. Even at 6,000 people (with tickets priced from $10-$68 last year), we lose money. And if the show doesn’t have man-on-the-street recognition like Bohème, well, it’s off the table.

The Rubber Meets the Road

This year, as we surveyed the results of our auditions, we realized that we had the makings of astonishing casts for three operas, none of which would draw enough folks to the big theatre. We’d lose our shirt and more. And so, we adapted.

All three operas will be in our small space, and our technical team and crews (thank you, interns!) will work around the clock to build us three brand new productions for The Barns. We’re not walking away from the amphitheatre entirely – 4 of our singers will get to perform some Gounod and Bernstein on the National Symphony Orchestra’s Romeo and Juliet night. Will we yearn for the roar of the crowd that’s still ringing in our ears from last summer’s Puccini success? For sure. But not enough to force a fit. And who knows what next year will bring?

I read Adaptistration daily, and although Drew’s world is orchestral, not operatic, the core message comes across loud and clear. This is Wolf Trap’s 40th season, and we plan to adapt, evolve, and sing for at least 40 more!

Catch all of Kim’s guest posts by visiting her blog for a complete list.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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