Community Engagement and Outreach in Opera

Community Engagement and Outreach in Opera

Kerriann Otaño: Okay, Cris. Today, I’d like to talk about the role of community engagement and outreach in opera today.

Cris Frisco: What I think is interesting is that it’s something you’re so passionate about from the administrative angle, but it’s not something we talk enough about from the artistic perspective—and it’s something we have to get singers passionate about from the performance angle. We’re not so good at defining how important a part of the modern singer’s job this is and how connecting and engaging with the audience needs to become part of their artistry—it’s not a separate part of your contact, it’s just a different venue for making art.

KO: That is the art. You know, I was preparing to do a talk recently, and according to the National Endowment of the Arts, 97% of Americans don’t regularly go to the opera, which is shocking to exactly no one, right? That means that every community engagement opportunity, every performance at a school, every pop-up concert has the potential to be someone’s introduction to opera—and that’s a serious artistic responsibility, not just because of what it pragmatically means for the art form’s longevity, but because of what it means for us as people who feel passionately about sharing opera. We should want people’s first exposure to opera to be joyful and inspiring.  

CF: I think the trap we often fall into is that we’re not always bringing the best work to these situations. We have a choice about how someone’s first introduction to opera can go. It can be amazing and have incredibly high artistic value or we can phone it in and present something that’s just OK.

KO: Yes. In that case, we have only succeeded in confirming their biases and apprehensions about opera. People already have an idea in their head of what opera is and that it’s not for them. And so every opportunity that we get to perform in public spaces is an opportunity to counteract that preconceived notion that opera is not for everyone. 

CF: One thing I talk about with my students is how so many singers have the preconception that outreach and engagement are something they have to suffer through to get to do the thing they actually want to do. To be fair, I don’t think anyone’s great artistic life dream is to do a school outreach show. But all these things are such an underrated chance to practice being an artist. Especially in America, where we just don’t do a huge number of performances, this your chance to repeat something until you truly know it. If you can sing “Largo al factotum” at nine o’clock in the morning in a church basement, outdoors, or at a school every day for a month, you really can sing it on any stage. 

One of my favorite sayings is that we only have three days of peak vocal health every year. And every other day of the year, we’re compromised to some degree. So doing this for a living means you need to figure out how to sing the other 362 days. You better have technique, you better have strategies for still being a great artist even if the voice isn’t doing exactly what you want it to do—and those are things that you learn on your feet. Grit and perseverance are such an important part of being a singing actor, and this is a great way to practice that.



KO: I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s about developing your technique in those performance situations that are not ideal. Learning your limitations, growing beyond your expectations of yourself.

CF: Kerriann, you have an interesting perspective on engagement activities since you were once a singer who did an awful lot of them and you’re now an administrator who plans them. What do you think makes a good community engagement activity? 

KO: I spend a lot of time thinking about this because it’s the focus of my position at Opera Delaware. Where we’ve found the most success is by combining opera with things that audiences are already comfortable with—such as a wine tasting or art show—and then letting the artists curate the performance, so you’re really getting the personal perspective of the artist. 

I want artists singing what they love and what they sing best. I want them singing the things that made them fall in love with opera. That might be musical theater. It might be singing in a choir. I want to hear what made you fall in love with opera and why. That’s a gateway to let other people fall in love with it. When we do community engagement, we have a brief opportunity to give audiences all the gateways that we ourselves had to fall in love with this art form.  

CF: I do think we are all, regardless of our role in the industry—as performers, creatives, administrators, etc.—ambassadors for the art form. In every way. A big part of our job is sharing what we think is so great about this art form. And whether that’s actualized by giving the performance or creating engagement opportunities, we all have a responsibility to do that ambassadorship. I don’t think this is a thing young singers think about enough. Engaging with the audience and cultivating those relationships is a really important part of being a professional singer. Every conversation you have with a patron or a donor is an opportunity to help someone get excited about and fall in love with the art form.

KO: I think that it has to start with artists who are aware and can communicate why it is that they love opera and why they want to share it. I think it’s our responsibility as arts administrators to curate an experience—not just to show up, but to really show up because we have something to say. Artists have to have something to say. If we’re trying to convince people that this is special, we have to make it special at every level, not just on the mainstage. So how do we do that, Cris? How do we make it special? 

CF: I agree that it needs to be an artist collaborative, because it does have to matter to the performer. It can’t just be something that they were assigned to show up and do. I think we need to make sure events are prepared and thoughtfully curated. I also think artists need to be prepared. I think this is an area where we can improve as administrators. We don’t always adequately prepare artists to engage with the community, how to talk to people, what they should say to people.  


KO: What a fantastic point, because most artists who are performing and representing an opera company are likely to be in town to do a show only for a few weeks or months. They don’t know the culture the company has created, so the company has the responsibility to clearly communicate expectations and engagement protocols. And with the massive financial and artistic responsibilities of a company, community engagement can easily sit on the back burner. But the truth is, this is how we’re cultivating that 97% of people who don’t regularly attend the opera. This is someone’s first and maybe only experience with opera. So make it a good one. Make it accessible and exceptional. 

CF: I have a friend who’s a wonderful theater director who once said to me that anything you produce represents your theater’s values, whether you intend it to or not. I think it’s so important to remember with opera—which is already so beyond most people’s everyday experience—that anyone’s introduction to it will be perceived as representative of the whole art form. 

KO: Yes, and that’s the importance of intentionality and thoughtfulness in programming, from where we perform and what we program to how we market those performances. It’s so important that we be really intentional about it, because we have a very small window of time in which to show people what opera is. It’s very important that we curate these experiences and that we allow artists to play an active role in telling the stories that are going to make audiences fall in love with opera in the same way the artist themselves did. 

CF: Any final thoughts, Kerriann? 

KO: I really want to encourage people when they have that kind of gateway conversation, that for some people the reason they fell in love with opera might be something opera-adjacent. You might hear that someone fell in love with opera because they saw The Phantom of the Opera. I know that there are some industry insiders who may read this and scoff, but that’s an access point for people that allows them to see themselves as opera attendees.

CF: It is totally The Phantom of the Opera effect. 

KO: Right? Engagement is about making connections. So, if someone says to you, “I’ve never seen an opera, but I love Hamilton,” your response can be, “Amazing! It’s sung all the way through like opera. It deals with historic events, like opera.” You find those connection points. And that’s how we build new audiences and engage with our communities.

Kerriann Otano and Cris Frisco

Kerriann Otaño is the vice president of engagement at Opera Delaware. A former singer, she performed with the Metropolitan Opera, Washington National Opera, and the Wolf Trap and Glimmerglass Festivals. Cris Frisco is the music coordinator and principal coach for Mannes Opera at Mannes School for Music and is a NYC-based coach and pianist.