Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Atlanta Opera Honors its Volunteers

April 10-16, 2011 was National Volunteer Appreciation Week. Non-profits all over the country honored the men and women who help us stay afloat – in many, many ways. We honored Atlanta Opera Volunteers at a reception on April 21, 2011 at The Atlanta Opera Center in Atlanta, GA. Without a doubt, The Atlanta Opera’s Volunteers are instrumental to our survival, and we are grateful for those who devote their time to The Atlanta Opera Family.

The gift of time and expertise is just as valuable as a monetary gift. Last year, Atlanta Opera volunteers contributed more than 6,000 hours! Volunteers help keep costs low and help us fulfill our mission of presenting world-class opera productions, while fostering education about this important art form.

There are many volunteer opportunities for opera-lovers in the Atlanta-area. Some are more traditional responsibilities including assisting with mailings, receptionist duties, filing, assistance at special events like Opera 101, Opera Chat, and Final Dress Rehearsals, but we also offer uncharacteristic opportunities that let our volunteers experience the day to day aspects of mounting an operatic production. Volunteers are needed to meet visiting artists at the airport and take them to their residences. This is often an artist’s first introduction to the city and The Atlanta Opera. After the set is loaded into the theatre, volunteers are needed to help set the light cues. The task involves standing and moving around on stage following the lighting director’s instructions as the cues are set. Volunteers are also asked to help monitor and coordinate chorus and principal auditions, which is always a thrill for opera lovers!

The Atlanta Opera also has an extensive archive full of historical data, media coverage, marketing materials, programs, and recordings. Volunteers review online and print media, clip, copy, catalog, and work with various departments to file company pieces that should be added to archival records. This incredibly important and time consuming responsibility is spear headed by Mary Ruth McDonald, who has created a comprehensive and organized archive that The Atlanta Opera can use as a resource, and that can ensure our legacy is properly preserved. At this year’s Volunteer Reception, we presented Mary Ruth with the Rachel Rosen Lehmann Award for her time and devotion to The Atlanta Opera.

Zurich General Director Dennis Hanthorn names Mary Ruth McDonald as recipient of the Rachel Rosen Lehmann Award. Credit: Tim Wilkerson.
In this age of digital media, The Atlanta Opera has changed a lot of its focus to how to reach audiences through social media and videos that inform and educate about opera. With the unfaltering dedication of board member and volunteer, Stewart Searle, who films, produces and post-produces all of our videos, we have expanded our online video library to comprehensively educate and inform the public using many forms of media – music, audio, and video. To date, we have had over 30,000 page views to our website! For Stewart’s incredible dedication he was presented with special recognition for his tireless efforts on behalf of The Atlanta Opera.

Stewart Searle (left) receives special recognition for his tireless work on The Atlanta Opera Video Library. Credit: Tim Wilkerson.
We, like all organizations, are understaffed for many projects that require a keen eye for detail and extra time, so we are especially grateful when a volunteer can step in and help us with incredibly important and necessary organizational work. It is not glamorous work, and it is not thrilling work, but it helps us stay organized and allows us to have quick access to information. Our 2010-2011 Volunteer of the Year, Denise Andersen, helped us with extensive filing and organizational projects that we would never have been able to do alone. She accumulated the most hours donated to The Atlanta Opera! For her time we are infinitely grateful.

Staff members Stephanie Cantillo (left) and Rae Weimer (right) congratulate Denise Andersen (center) on being the 2010-11 "Volunteer of the Year." Credit: Dallas Duncan.
Often we forget that Board Members are also volunteers. We have an exceptional board that devotes its time and resources to ensuring the future of this beloved organization. This year, we honored board member Dr. John O’Shea with the Rachel Rosen Lehmann Award for Outstanding Leadership in Fundraising. Dr. O’Shea continues to host cultivation lunches with donors, make telephone calls to thank patrons for their generous donations, and he also makes solicitation calls. Dr. O’Shea leads by example. He and his wife, Clara, are major donors to The Atlanta Opera and his passion for the art of opera and his belief in doing good things has benefitted The Atlanta Opera in more ways than can be measured. For his devotion and involvment, we are most grateful.

John O'Shea, and his wife Clara. Credit: Tim Wilkerson.
Thank you to all of our volunteers for their dedication to the art that sings. They are The Atlanta Opera’s uncompensated staff and more importantly, members of the opera family!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Industry Trends from an Intern’s Point of View

Our spring interns are nearing the end of their term here at The Atlanta Opera, so we’ve asked them to think about what they will take away as they move on to their next adventure. In this post, intern Victor McMillan gives opera lovers something to talk about – production trends in the industry – and opens the floor for discussion.


One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as an intern at The Atlanta Opera over the past several months is the need to be informed of what is happening in the industry. Every opera company is different with unique challenges specific to its local environment. In order to continue to grow and develop, it’s important to see how things are being done elsewhere, whether or not they have been successful, and what about this information could be useful. I have made it my mission to become a dedicated student of the industry and, as a result, have begun to develop a sense of industry trends.

I want to talk about three exciting things happening in the opera world that all have to do with changing the environment in which we experience opera. This involves change, in some cases, to the aesthetic elements of the production itself, but what is most interesting is how changing the entire environment can alter audience perception, as well as the potential for promoting enhanced artistic quality.

Atlanta Opera Intern Victor McMillan (left) helps volunteers prepare for Opera Family Day.

The Metropolitan Opera’s live HD broadcasts have rapidly become an integral part of the dissemination of opera to a broad public without access to live performance in the same way that Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts have for decades. The various camera angles and up-close views available to HD broadcast watchers offers, in my opinion, an expanded range of dramatic possibilities both to performers and audience members. The HD broadcasts afford the audience a proximity that allows for a more intimate experience and potentially more nuanced dramatic content. In addition, the backstage shots and interviews with singers further break down the barrier between production and audience. This change also has the potential to necessitate a new focus on previously underdeveloped aspects of an opera performer’s training and will perhaps encourage singers to reach even deeper into character development. There are legitimate concerns about the broadcasts as well. Some argue that filming influences directorial decisions in a way that is detrimental to the live audience (though the Met denies this). Another argument is that watching the production in a movie theatre takes away the critical element of hearing an unamplified voice. These are legitimate concerns; however, we have not yet reached a point (nor is it likely that we will ever) where people are choosing to see Met productions in movie theatres instead of the opera house. At this time, the broadcasts are a useful experiment in how audiences and performers respond to a different aesthetic environment.

Another recent example is the fledgling opera company OperaUpClose. Their production of La bohème, performed in a London tavern to an audience of a few dozen with little more than piano accompaniment, ran for months with sold out performances. The production won an Olivier Award, beating out English National Opera and the Royal Opera House. This stamp of legitimacy and cultural relevance begs the question: why is it that all of our “legitimate” operas happen on proscenium stages with orchestra in the pit and a few thousand folding seats in the house? Is the art itself contingent upon upholding a traditional viewing environment? The production is an example of how bringing audiences close and really making them part of the action has been well received critics as well as audiences. Not only does there seem to be a hunger for this connection but there is the potential for newfound artistry.

Finally, the Salle Modulable is a unique theatrical space designed for the Lucerne Festival, where an extraordinary variety of staging designs are possible. The concept is similar to a black box theatre in which there are many different configurations for the stage and audience seating. This flexibility affords directors the fewest possible limitations and a new world of spatial relationships between performer and audience. This type of space, long coveted by legitimate theatre actors and academics, is also highly suited to training as well as experimental theatre. Thus, the space, utilized by the Lucerne School of Music, will be highly beneficial to students in bridging the gap between training and practice.

All of these exhibit an effort to fully integrate audiences into the opera theatre experience. This is not just an opera trend. The recent 3D push in movies and television is aimed at the same thing, making observers part of the action.

As they relate to opera, I believe these changes have the potential to make the genre better. But is there something sacred about that fourth wall? Are we opening up a new possibility of what the lyric theatre can be, allowing it to develop and evolve as it should, or are we destroying a critical characteristic?

This brings me to my final point. Whether you think these things will save the genre or destroy it, are artistic or blasphemous, I hope that you will have an opinion and be inclined to share it. Ultimately, my goal for this blog post is to start a discussion. So, what do you think?