Taking a Closer Look at ‘Vanity Companies’

“Vanity company” is a derogatory term used to identify opera companies, usually relatively small, which are founded and run by a singer who also performs with the company, often in leading roles. The implication is that the singer in question cannot get work anywhere else and, therefore, must create his or her own venue for performance—and that that is to be derided. The further implication is that this singer must not be very good and that the enterprise exists solely (or mainly) to feed the ego of the self-made star.

I asked friends in the business to offer their own definitions of “vanity company.” There were many thoughts on the matter, but the unifying factor seemed to be that the company exists mainly to serve the founders. Bass Milo Morris put it best: “I define it loosely as a company founded to serve the needs of the founders only. Some of the characteristics include casting only board members, letting only board members direct, etc.

“There’s nothing wrong with creating your own venture. And there is certainly nothing wrong with creating your own performing opportunities. But if you are not serving the public and you are not serving the industry, then you probably have a vanity company.”

True vanity companies do exist, and because of the negative connotations of the label, many legitimate singer-producers operate in fear of being unfairly branded. The term itself is overused and sometimes misapplied, and singer-producers should not have to live in its shadow or allow it to curtail their activities. The mere fact that a singer has founded a company, is producing, and also sings with the company does not make that a vanity company. And it doesn’t make that singer Florence Foster Jenkins.

Opera is a difficult business to inhabit, whether as a producer or a performer. There are always many, many more talented and qualified singers than there are jobs. Producing requires an enormous amount of work and resources. Why should someone who goes out and creates her own work—being paid to pursue her passion and also managing to be a job creator for others—be the subject of derision?

Many larger organizations showcase favorite artists season after season and depend heavily on the vision, connections, and personality of their leadership to create and maintain a following. What makes an opera company founded and run by a singer who also performs there any different? Furthermore, it’s patently unfair that a singer who has much to offer onstage should be forced to retire from the limelight simply because he or she also has the talent and drive to produce—a perfectly logical continuance of a performing career.

In a time when the big opera companies are folding right and left, when donations are drying up, and when it’s clear that for this art form to survive we must develop new business models, much of the new and exciting work and attraction of new audiences is being done by small, adventurous companies who are willing to explore nontraditional venues, casting, and repertoire—including some loving tail-tweaking of some of opera’s most sacred cows. They do not exist to replace grand opera. Rather, their very existence supports it by making the art form intimate and accessible to different audiences—by stimulating their interest in experiencing the grander versions, by providing performers who may not otherwise have opportunities to grow as artists and exercise their talent, and by keeping opera alive at a grassroots level in the community.

My hometown of Austin, Texas, bills itself as the Live Music Capital of the world. When most people hear that, they think of 6th Street or South by Southwest or Austin City Limits. But we have countless professional, semiprofessional, and amateur choruses, classical music ensembles, and no fewer than five professional and community opera companies—not counting the Butler Opera Center at the University of Texas–Austin, Austin Opera, Gilbert & Sullivan Austin, Spotlight on Opera, LOLA (Local Opera Local Artists), One Ounce Opera, and the newly formed Texas Concert Opera Collective, which operates in the nearby Texas Hill Country.

Representatives from these organizations, myself included, meet frequently to catch up, share ideas, and offer mutual support. We each have different missions, styles, and aesthetics, but we are united by our love of opera and our passion to see it thrive. And, yes, many of us sing with our own companies, the same companies where we put in untold hours of often uncompensated work and personal funds to keep things running.

We are not alone. There are scores of companies that some might dismiss with the casually assigned and undeserved moniker of “vanity company.” Let’s highlight a few of them and explore why they are, in fact, important contributors to the world of opera and to their own communities, worthy of respect and support.

If the criteria of being branded a vanity company centers on performers creating their own opportunities, Boston Opera Collaborative could in some ways be considered the ultimate such venture. It was founded in 2005 by mezzo-soprano Brooke Larimer, soprano Katie Drexel, and conductor Markus Hauck, who hoped to learn more about the business in a hands-on way and provide performing opportunities for young artists bridging the gap between graduate school and a professional career—including themselves.

Originally, the organization operated like a club or a co-op. Members were obligated to take on some production and administrative duties in exchange for performance opportunities. The company has now evolved to include a board of directors that does not include voting artist members. They hire professional artistic and executive directors and pay artist members a small stipend.

They have produced over 25 full or condensed productions, including Dead Man Walking, La Cenerentola, Rinaldo, a version of Gounod’s Faust called Faust et Marguerite, The Dangerous Liaisons, and a condensed version of La rondine. The 2018 season included “Out of the Mouths of Babes,” a recital of songs with texts by or about children; Laura Kaminsky, Mark Campbell, and Kimberly Reed’s chamber opera about a transitioning trans woman, As One; and a limited-seating, updated production of La bohème, with advertising taken straight from the iconic couch photo from the TV show Friends, produced at a local brewery.

In addition to a wide variety of productions, including song recitals, excerpts programs, concerts, and fully staged productions, BOC hosts events such as preshow chats with composers, film screenings, and short courses associated with themes from their productions.

Sugar Creek Opera—founded in 2002 by soprano Helen Todd in her tiny hometown of Watseka, Illinois—expanded in 2015 to include a sister company in Cleveland. It boasts an apprentice program which mounts its own mainstage show and provides chorus, comprimario, and covers for the guest artist show. Past productions have included I pagliacci, Cold Sassy Tree, The Daughter of the Regiment, Madama Butterfly, and Die Fledermaus.

Todd regularly—but not always—appears in the leading soprano role. Her husband, Daren, photographs the productions and puts together publicity videos, and occasionally her two young daughters also appear. It may be a family affair, but I doubt anyone could accuse Todd (represented by well respected artists’ manager Peter Randsman and known internationally for her interpretations of roles like Turandot, Queen of the Night, and Lucia di Lammermoor) of founding a company and mounting productions merely to assuage her ego. I have sung with her company twice. Todd hires mainstage artists who would be (and are) at home on some of the world’s biggest stages, and the apprentices who sang chorus a few years ago are now showing up as principals in opera houses across the country.

LOLA was formed in 2014 by mezzo-soprano and arts administrator Liz Cass and stage director Rebecca Herman in Austin, Texas. Their mission is to cultivate the future of opera by offering new approaches to the genre. Productions have included La Femme Bohème, an all-female version of the Puccini classic; Cabaret de Carmen, a condensed version of the opera reimagined as Carmen as a singer in Escamillo’s cabaret, with Micaëla as a waitress and Don José as an enamored veteran suffering from PTSD; and most recently, a recitative-less version of La clemenza di Tito with a new character inserted to serve as narrator. LOLA also produces a concert series highlighting local singers and instrumentalists, in partnership with a brewery. Cass usually stars, and the shows are often directed by Herman, but they also provide paid opportunities to other local artists. Productions are funded via crowdsourcing with tickets as the premium, an interesting and thus far highly successful gambit.

Opera MODO was founded in 2011 in Princeton, New Jersey, by Executive Director and mezzo-soprano Danielle Wright; its Development Director is soprano Katrina Van Maanen. Both women pursue outside performing careers. Wright produced seven shows in Princeton, but when she relocated to Detroit, so did the company—which has a mission to provide young, non-managed singers with opportunities, collaborating with local artists and businesses. It specializes in fresh settings and imaginings of traditional works, including a version of Carmen set in a women’s prison, a direct nod to the popular Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. Currently, the company is producing an immersive version of Rossini’s La Cenerentola in a specially commissioned English translation.

In its fourth season, Opera in Concert in Dallas was founded by internationally known bass-baritone Edward J. Crafts (who sometimes takes roles with the company) and his wife, stage director Heather Ross. They provide paid performance opportunities to Dallas area artists and also raise money for scholarships to take students to their summer program in Italy. The company specializes in seldom heard operatic masterpieces, such as Rossini’s La cambiale di matrimonio, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri, Sullivan’s Cox and Box, and Holst’s Savitri. In fall 2018, they will produce Chabrier’s Une éducation manquée and Christoph Fehre’s The Schoolmaster.

Center Stage Opera in the San Fernando Valley was founded by singer couple Dylan F. and Shira Renee Thomas. The company is a true family affair! The Thomases serve as co-artistic directors, and Mr. Thomas is also the principal stage director. Ms. Thomas’ father, Jerry Brown, is the general director, and her stepmother, Gencie Turner, serves as board secretary and does much behind-the-scenes work. The company produces fully staged operas, concerts, and a vocal competition as well as outreach, educational, and senior programs and professional development for singers, instrumentalists, and technicians. And they pay their singers.

While both Thomases sing with the company, they have made it their mission to avoid being branded a vanity company. “We always make a point to double cast any role we sing, so that someone else gets the opportunity as well,” says Ms. Thomas. “It is and has always been incredibly important to us that CSO not be a vanity company and that we [are] providing really valuable opportunities for up-and-coming singers, instrumentalists, techies, and others working in theater (and opera in particular). There have been many, many people who have worked with us and then gone on to bigger companies, and we are super proud of that. We are also very proud of our vocal competition, which has hosted such star judges as Rod Gilfry, Milena Kitic, Joshua Winograde (of LA Opera), and Nicole Cabell.”

The above examples are only a few out of scores of small, singer-founded opera companies throughout North America that are reaching out to new audiences, creating opportunities for local or developing artists, and offering creative solutions to opera on a limited budget. As an added bonus, these companies frequently perform in smaller venues, allowing a more intimate connection with the art and artists than can be gained in a large theater. There is something wonderfully visceral about opera on a small scale, where the energy between stage and audience fairly crackles.

I challenge opera lovers everywhere to look around your own community. There may be a hidden gem, lacking a big advertising budget and production values on a grand scale but harboring the stars of tomorrow and indeed even stars you’re accustomed to hearing on bigger stages—as well as offering up a fresh and exciting perspective on the art form. They’re a vital and legitimate part of the world of opera and they deserve support, encouragement, and respect.

Cindy Sadler

Cindy Sadler is a professional singer, teacher, writer, director, and consultant. She is the founder and director of Spotlight on Opera, a community opera troupe and training program in Austin, Texas. Upcoming engagements include Marcellina in Le nozze di Figaro with the Jacksonville Symphony, alto soloist in Messiah with the Boise Philharmonic, and Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance with Portland Opera. For more information, please visit www.CindySadler.com and www.SpotlightOnOpera.com.