Women of Undaunted Courage : The Female Impresarios

When it comes to music, it’s still mostly a man’s world. For the past 30 years, women have made considerable gains in general business, education, and politics. But in the realm of classical music, men still dominate many levels of the business including composing, conducting, and running opera companies.

Of the member companies listed on the OPERA America website, only 14 percent have a female general director at the helm. About half of the female general directors come from a marketing, business, or administrative background, while the remaining half have had previous careers as singers, stage directors, or pianists. Many are founders of companies both large and small. These are women who had a vision and the strength of mind to see it through.

In the 2007 book The World of Women in Classical Music, Anne K. Gray tackles the myth that only men make and manage music. Her well researched book covers female composers throughout history as well as impresarios, conductors, musicologists, and even philanthropists. She explains that success for women in the music business is often due to women’s natural ability to nurture others. And, true to form, many of the opera companies developed by women include programs designed to help young singers gain important opportunities.

Nurturing Young Singers

Judith H. Walker, founder and general director of Ash Lawn Opera Festival, recently retired after 23 years of service. During her tenure and nurturing guidance, Ash Lawn grew into a major summer festival that has encouraged the careers of many talented young singers over the years, including CS’s own founder and former editor-in-chief Carla Wood/CJ Williamson.

Providing opportunities for singers has always been at the forefront of Walker’s vision. With a reputation for finding exceptional talent, Ash Lawn Opera Festival has always traveled to New York City to audition in order to bring singers to Charlottesville, Virginia. The company provides a training ground for young professional singers to perfect their craft on their way to bigger houses like the Met, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and other major opera companies.

Besides hiring principle artists, Ash Lawn Opera Festival also sponsors a concurrent Young Artist Program where younger singers work and train alongside the principle artists and also perform outreach concerts in the community. What began as an idea in 1971 has now grown into a regional opera company with tremendous influence on both the national and local level. And, best of all, generations of singers have benefited from the training and experience offered at Ash Lawn.

San José, California, is home to another pioneering opera company founded by former Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis. After retiring from the operatic stage, Dalis became a professor of music at San José State College, teaching voice and coaching the opera program. Her college program was so successful that she created a professional opera company, Opera San José, in 1984.

Nurturing young singers is also an important aspect of Opera San José. Talented young singers in the early stages of their careers are invited to live and work in San José as members of the unique Resident Artist Company. While living in free housing provided by Opera San José, the resident artists perform four operas a year and also offer outreach concerts, masterclasses, and other educational events for the greater community.

Although common in Europe, such resident companies are practically unheard of in the United States. Such an intensive experience gives emerging professional singers a valuable gift by helping them learn several major roles in a supportive musical and financial environment. And the proof is in the pudding: many resident company members have gone on to major international careers.

Tremendous Courage

Building an opera company from scratch can take tremendous courage and tenacity. In many communities, opera is still seen as an elitist art form. Especially in isolated, rural areas, running an opera company can be a constant uphill battle.

Leone Cottrell-Adkins is a sprightly, energetic woman with sparkling, intense blue eyes that give testament to her fiery nature. Cottrell-Adkins is the founder and general director of Kitsap Peninsula Opera, one of the longest running opera companies in Washington State. Located in picturesque Kitsap County, an hour’s ferry ride from Seattle, it is one of the most unlikely locations to find an opera company. Home to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and the Bangor Submarine Base, opera has been a bit of a hard sell for this Navy town. That hasn’t stopped Cottrell-Adkins from producing fully staged operas since 1992. It has taken, however, a huge amount of determination, struggle, and compromise along the way.

Kitsap Opera first began with five friends discussing opera around the kitchen table. Money for the first production, I pagliacci, was borrowed from Cottrell-Adkins’ husband. “We sang in English because I wasn’t sure how the chorus would handle singing in Italian,” she recalls. The Magic Flute in English was next—and then, finally, they attempted La bohème in Italian, complete with supertitles. The fledgling company was up and running. Since then, Kitsap Opera has performed full productions every year with principle singers from Seattle, who are more than willing to commute to Kitsap for the opportunity to perform.

When asked why she started an opera company in Kitsap County, Cottrell-Adkins reiterates a theme shared with her fellow female impresarios. “I wanted to create opportunities for young singers in the Puget Sound area, contribute to the cultural enrichment of the community—and I hoped to make a little income, too,” she adds with a laugh. When the local high school’s remodeled auditorium included an orchestra pit, she knew she had a shot at her dream.

Selling opera has been difficult in this isolated suburban community. The majority of the singers commute from Seattle, and with the cost of gas and ferries (to transport them and their cars across Puget Sound), the singers’ costs continue to rise. Hall rentals are another huge expense, which adds to the mounting costs of putting on a full production. Additionally, it has been hard to find a dedicated board to share in the workload, including someone with the talent for grant writing and other fundraising and marketing efforts.

Yet, despite the challenges and set backs, Cottrell-Adkins keeps going when others give up. Faced with debts and a budget shortfall, she creates special fundraising events around an operatic theme or a particular singer. Held in a restaurant or banquet room, these events feature an elegant meal and an evening of operatic entertainment. These have proven to be a popular way of raising money between fully staged productions.

Success is measured for Cottrell-Adkins by “the joy of exposing new people to opera for the first time.” She is also very proud of giving singers opportunities to perform, especially when some are able to go on to larger companies after singing roles with Kitsap. “That is the point,” she clarifies, “to give them a step up in this business because, as we know, it’s very hard.”

Creative Concepts

Starting an opera company in a populated urban area brings a whole other set of challenges. Laura Sage, general director and founder of Lyric Opera of Los Angeles (LOLA), has found a niche in the crowded L.A. scene by presenting operas that “don’t deserve to be obscure.”

When asked what inspired her to create an opera company, Sage mentions several things. “No one wanted to do the operas I was interested in,” she explains. “I found myself getting annoyed and frustrated at the lack of organization in some of the community opera companies and I thought, I can do this better!”

Founded in 2002, LOLA’s first production was Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. But soon after, LOLA took a chance on the relatively unknown Der Vampyr by Heinrich Marschner. Its success ushered in a series of premieres of “under-performed works deserving of a larger audience.” Most recently, LOLA presented the U.S. staged premiere of Die Feen (The Fairies), an early Wagner opera, written when he was just 20 years old.

And how does one find such obscure operatic gems? Believe it or not, Sage has found many on the Internet, even while surfing on Amazon. She has stumbled across several operas accidentally. They looked intriguing, so she and her father, music professor and LOLA Music Director Robert Sage, went through them exhaustively, searching for and finding the lost treasures. “I couldn’t make LOLA happen without my dad’s input,” Sage admits, “but LOLA wouldn’t be here without my efforts, either. We really are a team.”

As for challenges, once again money comes to the forefront. Most of LOLA’s funding comes from ticket sales, so productions are produced on the proverbial shoestring. One area Sage will not scrimp on is paying for a good orchestra. Although it pains her to pay the orchestra before the singers (a current situation she hopes to change in the future), she knows that a good orchestra can make or break the show, especially when performing romantic works such as Wagner. The company has also had to resort to “guerrilla marketing tactics” which includes flyers and good old-fashioned networking with influential people and other groups.

For Sage and LOLA, success is measured by creating opportunities for singers to create new characters that haven’t been performed before. She is also particularly pleased when some of the operas she has unearthed have generated interest by other performance organizations. The chamber opera Cendrillon, by female composer Pauline Viardot, is now being considered for production by several college programs after LOLA brought it out from obscurity. And that is probably the most exiting thing of all, to see interest in these operas grow.

Common Ground

When it comes to creating a new opera company, only the bravest, most fearless, and dedicated need apply. Sage laughs when she recounts the advice she gives people asking how to start an opera company. “Take your head and go over to that brick wall and bang it repeatedly for an hour,” she says. “If you still want to start an opera company, bang it some more.” But all joking aside, there are some common traits to these impresarios.

Musical confidence and a high level of skill are absolutely required when creating an opera company. Both Cottrell-Adkins and Sage have professional experience as orchestral players in addition to being singers themselves. Dalis double-majored in both voice and piano and has worked extensively as a vocal coach, as has Cottrell-Adkins. “I could not have done this without my ability to coach and accompany singers,” Cottrell-Adkins explains. “The financial strain would have been too high if I had to hire extra coaches.” Knowledge of orchestration is also important, especially when adapting a lush, romantic score for the reduced orchestra often used in smaller houses.

Besides music, all of these opera founders also have other important skills they bring to the table. Sage designs logos and does Web design professionally, so she has been able to use her skills to create top-quality promotional materials for LOLA. “We wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for my design skills,” Sage says. “For a new company, we needed to present ourselves as a professional organization. If we had to pay a designer, we wouldn’t have been able to survive financially.” Cottrell-Adkins also designs her posters and promotions. She confirms, “I am grateful that much of my life experience can come together in opera.”

But musicianship and marketing can go only so far if you aren’t organized or if you can’t bring other people on board to help you—a skill these successful impresarios all have. When working with singers, instrumentalists, directors, venues, and financiers, it’s often a tough balancing act of being flexible while maintaining a strong vision which keeps everyone on track. Persuasive skills help welcome those who are willing to work together for the common goal. Volunteers assist at every level of the business, and these people often are the backbone of many start-up companies. Cottrell-Adkins expresses gratitude for a devoted member of the chorus who has spent countless hours transcribing translations for the supertitles used in each production. Sage has found collegiate costume designers who have taken on her productions for college credit. Finding, including, and appreciating volunteers and other helpful individuals makes a difficult job much easier.
For those who are interested in starting up their own companies, these women offer wisdom gained from experience. “Check your ego at the door. It’s not about you; it’s about the music and the performers,” Sage advises. “Find some money!” Cottrell-Adkins adds emphatically. “Develop a financial plan that will support you. Even on a shoestring budget, opera is still very expensive to produce.”

Not everyone is called to start an opera company. The road is steep and filled with challenges every step of the way. But the rewards are sweet for those who have persevered in actualizing their dreams. “This is the best art of all,” confirms Walker. “We are lucky to be part of an opera company.” Thankfully, these brave pioneers have paved the way for more women to take on the momentous task of running an opera company.

Valerie White Williams

Valerie White Williams is a Seattle-based singer, voice teacher, lecturer, and writer. A featured presenter at the 2005 Classical Singer Convention in New York City, Williams taught classes on “Promoting Your Teaching Studio” and has since then lectured on vocal health and internet marketing for musicians. Visit Williams online at www.valeriewilliams.net to learn more about her singing career and www.vocalsplendor.com for information about her voice studio.