How are cultural leaders and practitioners addressing artistic and organizational challenges today? And how do they make room for creative and institutional growth, while facing shifting audience expectations and consumer behaviors? In this series of interviews with Center grantees, we offer a look inside the practices of many of Philadelphia’s leading cultural institutions and artists, their distinct characters, aspirations, and more.
Here, we speak to David Devan, general director and president of Opera Philadelphia whose first-ever opera festival, O17, takes place September 14–25. Supported by a Center Advancement grant, the festival features seven operatic happenings over the course of 12 days in six venues across Philadelphia. Performances include the world premiere of We Shall Not Be Moved, a chamber opera by composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and director Bill T. Jones, and the East Coast premiere of Komische Oper Berlin’s innovative production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Devan talks with us about the market research that informed the organization’s decision to present a city-wide festival, and the struggles and opportunities opera companies face within an ever-changing world of digital entertainment. See what the media had to say about the festival in our roundup, here.>
Opera Philadelphia conducted extensive market research with the support of a Center Advancement grant in 2014. What was the impetus for this research, and why did you decide that this was an important endeavor for the organization at that moment?
When we set out to conduct this research, we knew that after raising the artistic quality of our work and rebranding Opera Philadelphia to underscore our industry leadership, we needed to reacquaint ourselves with our audience. Across the opera world and the performing arts, subscriptions were falling, and it became crystal clear this was no longer the audience’s preferred way to engage with us. If we were to continue our track record of innovation and expand our civic impact, we needed to redefine how we relate to the public by understanding their wants and needs, and we needed to do it in a big way.
What we found was a hungry audience who wants artistically exciting material that is culturally relevant, but wants to experience it in a way that feels personal to them. This research was and is essential to our mission, and it became a turning point for us as we pivoted our programming and marketing strategies toward more sustainable and audience-satisfying models.
What inspired you to take the risk to present a city-wide opera festival in 2017? Why now?
We know that in order to fulfill all of our goals as an institution we need to be fearless. If we wait to take a risk, we’re going to die. But we also learned from both our market research and other industry models that our audiences would embrace this type of programming. Modern audiences, regardless of demographic, want things smartened up, they want to see challenging work. With so many entertainment options out there—not only on the stage or screen, but on phones and tablets—it’s not just a night out to them, and it can’t be. This hyper-urban festival model, the “Netflix-ing” of opera, presents it in a way that’s consistent with a lot of audience consumption elsewhere: as a binge-watching event. But it also allows those who prefer to subscribe to continue engaging with us throughout the season, and it lets those who want to try something new just dip their toe in. You get the best of all worlds.
What is the goal of the new festival model, specifically for Opera Philadelphia, and more broadly, for the future of opera?
I want to start by saying the festival model isn’t right for everyone—after doing the work and getting to know our audience, we knew that this scale was right for our community. It’s a risk, but it is a calculated one. So, I hope that, for the future of opera, the festival model doesn’t become the next “must-have.” Each company and each market is different and needs to be treated that way.
For us, our goal is always to amplify human connectedness and share the power of opera, and this new model allows us to do it bigger and better. By bringing together patrons who adore the traditional repertoire and local students enjoying opera for the first time, artists who are coming to do their best work and emerging talents just starting their careers—we hit this critical mass of diversity and creativity. We want to stir the pot and enhance the overlap of these different groups as much as we can.
We also want Philadelphia to take pride in what we’re doing, just as much as they take pride in being here. This work is created for and by this city, and we hope to give back the inspiration that it feeds us.
Who do you think are the 21st century audiences for opera?
Everyone! Maybe that’s a surprising answer, but it’s true. At any and every point in life, music can move us. Opera, too, can be a central force in our lives if we allow it to tell the stories of today, to open it up in ways that are meaningful for a 21st century audience. One of the slogans for Festival O has been “Opera is now open,” because we want our audiences to feel that opera can be part of all of their lives.
Opera Philadelphia has had recent success with new commissions, including the Center-funded opera Breaking the Waves, which was named “Best New Opera” by the Music Critics Association of North America. You described the work as “a catalytic moment in the company's history” in an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer. And three new operas will have their world premieres during O17. How do you see this approach to new operatic works influencing the future of the company?
Our new works practice is the most active in the world, and it’s crucial for the future of the company. We want artists to feel that they can come to Opera Philadelphia and do their most exciting, freeing, creative work—and [telling] fresh, contemporary stories that feel connected to their lives are a huge part of that. When combined with our Composer in Residence program and our Emerging Artists program, we’re really establishing an ecology of new music that’s always informing our creative direction.
This approach has also fostered so many deep, fruitful connections to artists and institutions that just wouldn’t be possible otherwise. This season alone, our partnerships with the Apollo Theater, Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Barnes Foundation, Hackney Empire, and English National Opera have encouraged us to grow as a company.
It’s funny to think that commissioning new operas, up until recently, was a radical thing for an opera company to do. We forget the art form has remained a cultural force for over four centuries thanks to the creative work done by every generation. We honor those artists, of course, by maintaining our commitment to the standard canon and producing it at the highest level.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in your field over the past decade? How have these changes influenced your work?
One of the biggest changes, of course, has been the industry-wide struggle to compete with the digital realm of entertainment. But that struggle has allowed really creative solutions to develop—and of course, technological changes have made it easier to connect with opera fans around the world who can experience new art at the tap of a screen. This influences how we connect with opera lovers on every level.
I've also been pleased to see that though it may lag behind similar industries, the opera world is slowly but surely diversifying. We at Opera Philadelphia strive to better represent our city and our world on stage and off. There is always more work for us to do, from commissioning more female composers to supporting artists of color who are too often underrepresented. Embracing the changing face of opera—or rather, the many faces of opera—informs every facet of our work.
How do you envision Opera Philadelphia in 5 or 10 years? How do you imagine that it might be different than today?
Well in five years from now we’ll be preparing for O22, with four festivals under our belt! My dream would be that we have made Philadelphia THE destination for artists who want to do their most imaginative and inspired work; that the top opera singers, conductors, directors, and artists all across this form are clamoring to come to our city and are rearranging their schedules to work here. That, in turn, will create the best possible artistic products on our stages, which will also have international opera audiences making sure that Philadelphia is high atop their travel wish lists.
I know we’ll continue to produce mind-blowing repertoire and expand our new works practice in the years ahead, bringing many more artists from across disciplines into the Opera Philadelphia family. I imagine that we’ll be happier and more inspired than ever, and I hope we’ll make Philadelphia proud.