Like many others, I was shocked and saddened to learn about the cessation of the OperaWorks™ training program in August 2018. OperaWorks has touched the lives of many singers, teachers, directors, coaches, artist managers, and arts administrators since its inception in 1987. I was fortunate to attend the teacher training program in 2008, and it was an incredibly transformative experience.
What does its closing mean for OperaWorks founder and director Ann Baltz? She shared with me her thoughts about OperaWorks and what projects are on the horizon.
What made you decide to step away from being artistic director of OperaWorks?
As OperaWorks grew and expanded to year-round programs and productions, my administrative responsibilities increased as well. At heart, I am a creator and an educator, and I’m comfortable with taking risks. I realized a few years ago that I had become careful in my decisions because I felt responsible to so many more people.
I have a Post-it® note on my computer that asks, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” After reading that every day for several years, I took the risk to leave the known and leap into the unknown. I was eager to have more time to continue as a consultant, speaker, teacher, writer, and creator of new productions that speak to social issues. OperaWorks grew out of an exciting “What if . . . ?” and, with the increased administration and responsibilities that go along with a growing business, I had lost that inner spark.
How has OperaWorks evolved over the years?
The concept for OperaWorks began in 1986 and, from 1987 to 1989, we established two-week programs in Tampa and Pittsburgh. Our first program had five faculty who taught performance techniques, musical improvisation, Alexander Technique, and individual coachings—all of which formed the core of OperaWorks.
Following a 1990 winter program in Phoenix, my husband [conductor, cellist, and professor] David Aks, and I moved to Northridge, California, where California State University–Northridge became the new OperaWorks home. Workshops and improvised performances in New York City and Los Angeles began in 1997. In 1998, our Los Angeles summer programs expanded to a four-week Advanced Artist Program, adding a two-week Emerging Artist Program in 2003, a Voice Teacher Program in 2008, and a two-week Winter Intensive Program in 2013.
The advantage of running an independent company is that I could easily add to our programs’ courses as needed for new demands in the industry. For example, 18 years ago, I added daily yoga followed by marketing, career planning, and social media to every program. It’s exciting to see other programs and schools starting to add some of these classes now.
What were your goals in the beginning?
My goal for OperaWorks was never to train singers to be international stars, but rather to bring out their unique gifts and to teach it in a positive way that addressed the whole person. What I am most proud of is that through OperaWorks, we gave each person the permission and encouragement to discover their own creativity. It is really amazing what performances singers can give when they are not afraid of being wrong.
Following their hearts, doing the work required, being prepared, and stepping outside the traditional career toward unexpected opportunities has led them to careers in the arts where they feel authentic and fulfilled.
How is life different now?
I gave myself six months after I stepped away to reorient myself. I took two long train trips by myself, took a couple of trips with my husband, made lists of all the things I now had time to do, ignored the lists, and tried to not feel guilty about being so unproductive.
I thought I would bounce right into something new in a month, but it really did take six months to feel like myself again—the risky, creative self. I have more time to imagine now.
What do you miss most about OperaWorks?
I miss being with the OperaWorks faculty. I loved working so closely together, gathering every day for lunch, discussing which singer had had a breakthrough, which ones were starting to doubt themselves, and coming up with solutions.
Many on the faculty had been with OperaWorks for years, so we trusted each other. What I gained the most from working with them was being surrounded by their excellence, curiosity, openness to new ideas, generosity, and patience to let each artist discover their own voice. That type of pedagogical gift is rare, and I miss that kind of egoless collegiality.
I also miss having the support of the organization to produce concerts or issue-centered performances to promote peace and understanding. Our Arts for Social Awareness Project was a dream come true: integrating my artistic skills with my social conscience. I’m excited that I will be creating these kinds of projects for schools in the coming years.
Anything you don’t miss?
What I don’t miss is the relentless pressure of working long hours year-round at less than minimum wage to run a non-profit with a very small budget and staff. It had been a labor of love but, without the time or energy to balance that with creative endeavors, I realized that it was time for a change.
What does life after OperaWorks look like? What new adventures will you embark upon?
Life after OperaWorks is evolving. In January 2019, I had the opportunity to speak about creating pastiche operas at the National Opera Association conference. I continue to teach as a guest artist in conservatories and universities and in other summer programs. I am also writing a book about my teaching, I have some music in my head that needs to come out, and I have taken up Flamenco dance for fun.
Anything else you would like to add?
The person who has been my rock is my husband David Aks. Since OperaWorks’ inception he was willing to go on this journey with me, supported and encouraged me, comforted me on the bad days, made me laugh, taught his OperaWorks classes like a god, and took care of tasks during the programs that weren’t in his job description. None of this would have happened without him.
To learn more, visit www.annbaltz.com.