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David Devan.

Opera Philadelphia Director David Devan on Going Digital and “Inclusive and Equitable Artistic Practice”

In this series of interviews with Center grantees, we offer a look inside the practices and philosophies of Philadelphia’s cultural leaders to discuss how they and their organizations are addressing this moment’s unique challenges and their ambitions for enhancing the city’s cultural life in the future.

David Devan has been with Opera Philadelphia since 2006 and is the company’s general director and president. In 2017, with support from a Center grant, Opera Philadelphia launched O17, its first ever opera festival, which continues annually. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company is presenting its 2020–21 season digitally through its recently launched Opera Philadelphia Channel.

For Opera Philadelphia’s latest Center-supported project, composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek are creating a new work called The Listeners, which is set to make its US premiere in 2023.


What are you learning about presenting digital performance and audience engagement through your new Opera Philadelphia Channel? 

We have learned that dedicating resources for purpose-made cinematic work can yield some remarkable and durable artistic work that has the capacity to simultaneously attract new audience members and engage current audiences that have a thirst for innovation and new experiences. Digital performance also has little history or heritage in our form and genre, so it is not weighed down by past practice, which has created a more inclusive space for artists of a wide range of identities to have a voice and opportunity.

How do you envision the future of Opera Philadelphia’s annual festival model with regard to digital technology? What new opportunities does it offer?

We see the Opera Philadelphia Channel being an integral part of our artistic practice and our consumer experience, including with an annual fall festival. We are considering premiere screenings and releases of new films as part of the festival experience. These will provide further opportunities to explore the possibilities of contemporary operatic expression by a diverse pool of artists.

How do you think the effects of COVID-19 will change the performance sector in the years ahead?  

We are starting to understand that we are on the cusp of permanent and substantial change in consumer behavior, philanthropy, and artistic content. Our early data and experience suggest that buying behavior will be radically different than past patterns. Philanthropic choices are shifting to ensure arts organizations are participating in reducing inequity in their work throughout the entire enterprise, and an inclusive and equitable artistic practice will create new kinds of artistry within our genres. Our experiences also suggest that past buying behavior, research data, and practice cannot be used in determining how these changes will look. Instead, we must rely on current practice, experimentation, and constantly listening to our community and supporters. Being nimble and responsive to nuances in people’s post-pandemic aspirations will have to be the hallmarks of organizational culture.

Tell us about your forthcoming project The Listeners, which received a Center grant in 2019. How has the pandemic affected the development of this new work?

The Listeners is a co-commission from Opera Philadelphia, Norwegian National Opera in Oslo, and Lyric Opera of Chicago, with music by composer Missy Mazzoli and a libretto by Royce Vavrek—the same team who created 2016’s Breaking the Waves. The pandemic required that we adjust the calendar for the development and performance of the work while maintaining the development process and production concept. The world premiere presentation has been delayed from this spring to fall 2022, in Oslo. Opera Philadelphia will present the American premiere in spring 2023. Our casting and representation on the production team for women and BIPOC artists was intentionally inclusive and representative before the pandemic and remains so.

Soprano Kiera Duffy in Breaking the Waves, 2016, composed by Missy Mazzoli and produced by Opera Philadelphia. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier.
Soprano Kiera Duffy in Breaking the Waves, 2016, composed by Missy Mazzoli and produced by Opera Philadelphia. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier.

What do you believe are the necessary questions cultural institutions must be asking themselves now with respect to their commitment to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion? What actions should they be taking? 

Many cultural organizations, including Opera Philadelphia, have varying experiences with and participation in systems of power and privilege that make necessary conversations about race, racism, and oppression complex. We all need to do sustained work to create an inclusive space and culture that aims to be free of discrimination, bigotry, and hate. As organizations, we need to develop new inclusive, anti-oppressive policies that aim to provide solutions to dismantling oppressive and discriminating systems within the not-for-profit arts and culture sector. We also need to be prepared to counter the voices advocating racist views and moral inadequacies based on race. In addition, we all need to commit to a process of examining our mission to ensure that it promotes inclusive and equitable operations at every level of the organization—board, artistic work, staff, and suppliers.

Thinking about your organization’s post-pandemic future, what are you most optimistic about?

The results of expanded, inclusionary, and equitable artistic practice and the opportunities of our digital streaming channel to provide new artistic expression and widen participation. As an organization, we have made innovation a central part of our mission and our work, and I am looking forward to applying that dynamic power to lead true change that is in relationship and in step with Philadelphia and the opera community.