- Blake Hill-Saya
Locally Sourced Opera
Updated: Nov 19, 2020
The Farm to table movement has successfully reintroduced mainstream diners to the importance and intimacy of knowing where food comes from. The Locally Sourced and Fair-Trade labels on clothing and Coffee make us feel good about ethically leveraging our purchasing power. We have come to understand the difference between the feeling of a more corporate purchase and a grass-roots one. In my experience on both sides of the curtain, opera audiences and donors have not yet reached the same level of community minded satisfaction when it comes to investing in their local and regional opera companies. “Local” is a hard label to transcend as a singer or a company when audiences are not encouraged to consume local arts with the same kind of appetite and curiosity with which culinary communities consume new flavors, names or venues. The Hemingway/Hunter S. Thompsons of food writing, the sorely missed Anthony Bourdain and Jonathan Gold, inspired and revolutionized the appetites of their audiences. Because of their sense of adventure many are now hungry for new experiences and ready to see value in the most unlikely and unheralded culinary spaces. Opera has not yet been illuminated or democratized by any such egalitarian troubadour.
Somehow, no matter how we try, we singers can’t seem to get the message to penetrate that everyone sings everywhere. As free agents we go from team to team in all but very exclusive instances. I believe we have also not sufficiently empowered our audiences to trust their own senses enough to truly enjoy a performance and value it without a label, a brand name or a real estate marker to indicate excellence. We have not encouraged audiences to treasure and extoll a magical night of opera in a hotel foyer or a local auditorium the way they might remember the perfect Tacos al Pastor they had on a street corner in New Orleans at 2 AM. People trust their own taste buds, but rarely are they encouraged to trust their own taste in the classical arts. Some of the most transcendent performances I have ever been a part of have happened “in the middle of nowhere” and it makes me sad to think that the majority of those audiences didn’t get how good these musical moments were because they didn’t happen under an iconic chandelier, in a city center, or at a top ticket price. Here is a specific example of this tragic cognitive dissonance that has stuck with me throughout my life as a performer.
I was debuting an iconic role at a well-respected regional house and living as the guest of a host family, as one often does in regional opera, for over a month. We had really gotten to know each other. We had discussed our families, dreams and travels. They treated me so kindly, and this is not meant to reflect poorly on their generosity at all. I think the very fact that their intentions were so good illustrates my point all the more starkly. We were getting close to opening night. I was getting pretty nervous but also excited about this production, one that still remains, by all accounts, a memorable one in their history. I knew we were really going to deliver for this audience and I was proud of what we had built. The day before we opened I had breakfast with my hosts, and asked them what I thought was a pretty safe question, “so, are you guys getting excited to see the show?” They were donors, had served on the board, and were invested enough in this production to take me into their house for quite an extended stay. I was feeling like a pretty good return on their investment that morning. My host replied, “Oh no, honey, I am going to be so busy in the lobby I don’t think I’ll get to see the show. But don’t worry, we are flying to NYC next week to see it at The MET.”
I felt utterly frozen, like a frozen tube of grocery store biscuits in the freezer “just in case” when they were really looking forward to picking up fresh biscuits at the French bakery downtown. They, of course, had no idea they had so utterly negated me and my month of work in their community in that moment. This wouldn’t be the last time I heard in a regional opera setting these kinds of back-handed, self-negating utterances. Whether it was telling me they “had to hear me before they couldn’t afford me” or (if it went well) thanking me and my colleagues for “slumming it” in their town; these kinds of exchanges have always made me wince and think about the amazing people that work endlessly to make these productions possible. Local people making locally sourced community enriching art.
High quality opera as an unattainable ethos serves no one. It hasn’t served me personally when it has been used to make me feel bigger than I am any more than when it has been used to belittle me. I am not arguing that there shouldn’t be Michelin stars awarded to great chefs, or reputations for operatic excellence earned and upheld. I am arguing that peddling the myth that transcendent classical music can only happen in exclusive surroundings is universally putting a bad taste in mouths that could be rejoicing in new found flavors in serendipitous locales. It is also subtly making those who can’t afford the time or the ticket price in major city centers feel even more unwelcome or, worse, like what they canattend is substandard. That is utterly untrue and frankly detrimental to the entire art form. You can’t telegraph exclusivity and then wonder why a broader and more diverse audience isn’t showing up. We have to find a way to make people as hungry for opera and classical music in any venue, as they are for a pop-up bistro in a barn in upstate NY. I believe this is possible. Why? Because I am supremely confident in the quality of the offering.
Here is another reason that locally sourced and sustainable opera matters: it makes your property values higher! If you are a bottom-line kind of individual I encourage you to remember that having a little artistic home team spirit will add to the value of your home, business, and school district. Now there’s a gift that keeps on giving. David Brause, a New York based developer remarks in an article for Realtor.com when asked about where he chooses to invest and build, "I follow the artists—they're always the pioneers. If you have a neighborhood that's just a bunch of bankers and lawyers, you’re not going to find the vibrancy of artists, musicians, and chefs.” If he is thinking this way, why aren’t opera audiences, corporate sponsors, city officials and donors? It would also be great if, once the value of an area is increased by their presence, local artists were incentivized to stay and were not gentrified out, but that is another blog post.
Regional opera companies, and Festival Opera in particular, present an outstanding opportunity to build local morale, cultivate cultural diversity and to sustain a uniquely substantive performing arts landscape. The big opera houses and companies have their space in the ecosystem and they shine brightly on their own grand terms. The ruggedly independent and nimble regional house, however, is where careers are born, new ideas are given space to grow and the life blood of the whole art form is oxygenated. Making Regional opera a perennial Cinderella in the ashes is truly a missed opportunity and frankly a bit of a self-own.
Lastly, I will also say that if you want your local neighborhoods to be made more valuable by your local artists, don’t give every young conservatory student you encounter the impression that they have to leave their home town to ever be taken seriously as a talent. It is a lonely feeling as an artist to feel that you can never be “local” without sacrificing the “new car smell” on your career. Welcome your artists home, be proud of them and give them space to shine. Get to know your local artists, arts administrators and production crew members. Seeing a production made by those you know and love increases its power, especially if you feel like you helped pay for the new curtain, costumes or salaries of those who are embroidering your days with glorious sound. Every dollar invested in every production represents community pride and ownership in what makes your hometown richer. Show those young talents who are wondering if there will ever be a stage again to hold their souls, voices and dreams that you believe in them, you are holding space for them. Value them on their home field as much or more than they are valued in any away game.
We can all be the source of, we can all play a role in, and we can all be nourished at the table of locally crafted, living art. Now, more than ever, it’s time to remember that there is no place like home.