As purveyors of what is popularly considered to be an aging art form for the elite, we constantly struggle with the question of how to make our company and its purpose relevant for a modern audience. This, however, is entirely the wrong question to be asking ourselves. Opera is relevant. It is human. It has survived the passage of time and the onset of modernization specifically because its themes speak to us and to the struggles that we face as a society. The question is not how to make opera relevant. It is how to make opera accessible for newly emerging audiences.
In my position as the 2015-16 Weitz Family Fellow at Opera Omaha, I recently had the good fortune of traveling to Washington D.C., a city which I had never before visited, to take in the sights of numerous museums, memorials, and, of course, a few operas. Although I by no means experienced all of what D.C. has to offer, nor was this my goal upon setting out, I did see enough to gain an understanding of the qualities inherent in successful arts and cultural organizations.
National Museum of the American Indian
Self-described as “an institution of living cultures dedicated to the life, languages, literature, history, and arts of the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere,” this Smithsonian museum was by far my favorite of the National Mall attractions. The Museum of the American Indian is housed in a stunning limestone building evocative of towering cliffs and desert landscapes. All of its structure and design elements, from the east-facing entrance to the lofty dome above the atrium, are the result of direct consultation with Native communities and clearly reflect Native perspectives. These perspectives are explained to visitors through carefully curated exhibits; which do not attempt to cover the entire history of Native American populations, but expertly expand on carefully selected political, cultural, historical, and artistic topics intended to develop an informed and appreciative audience.
The museum serves as an effective educational resource due to its intuitive design. Every gallery is easily navigable, and each exhibit is encountered in a manner that feels completely natural. Visitors of every sort are able to gain new knowledge from engaging and varied displays.
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
While not the most prominent of national monuments—that title reserved for the iconic Washington and Lincoln Memorials—the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial is by far the most effective, the most moving, and most educational of those that I visited. The F.D.R Memorial is understated, subtle, and guides the viewer through the site in a natural and organic manner. Carefully chosen quotes throughout the memorial successfully convey the challenges, both domestic and international, of the president’s lengthy period of office (1933-1945). Interspersed are numerous waterfall elements, a nice nod to the National Park Service which the president worked tirelessly to expand. The obligatory statute is not a figure meant to inspire awe, but one intended to evoke familiarity. It portrays a humble man, seated, cloaked in a blanket.
Its intimacy makes this memorial so striking. Each turn in the path, each new quote imbues the viewer with an increased sense of who Franklin D. Roosevelt was, as well as the times and the people who surrounded him; and it is a statue of his influential wife, Eleanor, who bids visitors farewell.
Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung
The Ring of the Nibelung is a four-part operatic cycle (often referred to simply as “The Ring Cycle”) based heavily on German and Norse mythology. A great investment of time and resources are necessary for any company staging this operatic monolith, and the returns can be substantial, as many opera aficionados will travel internationally to see this “bucket list” production. It helps that the themes of the Ring Cycle are incredibly relevant. The destruction of nature, a quest for power, far-reaching corruption, and class struggle are all encapsulated in Wagner’s magnum-opus. Due to its length, however, it is vitally important for any company choosing to produce these four operas to seriously consider how best to engage its audience. Washington Opera did a spectacular job.
This production stood apart due to the strong resonance which its themes found with the audience. Everything about this production succeeded in striking a chord with the American viewer. The design team drew on national landscapes and familiar images for source material, and what better way to represent the fallen heroes collected by the Valkyries, than with portraits of American soldiers?
Three Points for an Arts Non-Profit
During my time in Washington D.C. I picked up on three traits that guarantee a successful encounter, characteristics that Opera Omaha also strives to embrace.
Our content should feel natural and make sense. Whether providing clear instructions on ticketing forms, taking steps to ensure ease of access to our website content, or simply checking to be sure that audience members won’t do a double-take at our super-titles, an intuitive company promises enjoyable engagement.
As a non-profit, we exist for the sake of our audience. Every decision we make, from tailoring our social media posts to finalizing our season lineup, should be done with the intention of engaging the community on a very personal level. When we care for Omaha, Omaha cares for us.
We should appeal to our constituents. In productions we want to create moments of great sympathy and engagement. In our marketing we want to induce excitement and opportunity. As we reach out to the community, we want to create programming that really matters.
These are not naturally quantitative traits, so it can be difficult to measure successful growth. Even so, it is possible to gain a sense of improvement (or stagnation), through communication with our audience and the Omaha community. So I ask you, as a company member to a passionate supporter, share your excitement. Get involved. Let us know what’s moved you, let us know what’s sparked your interest. Reach out to us. We want to learn. We want to grow. And above all, we want to be sure that our beloved art form is accessible to you.
Stella J. Fritzell