Report by Lila Palmer, 10 June 2015

Part I Talent in the closet: how do we use the gifts of every person involved in Opera fully, and why we should Opera houses are struggling for audiences, and yet they are failing to tap the most obvious source of non-traditional audiences available to them, the non-culture consuming employees of the company (like cleaning staff). Why do so many employees of big opera companies never attend the shows? Even if it’s not ‘their thing,’ invested employees usually make a point of consuming some element of the product produced by their employer. Anecdotal polling of ENO, Chicago Lyric and ROH catering, technical and support staff suggests staggeringly low knowledge and uptake of performances. At Chicago Lyric catering staff receive no employee discount and no friends and family perks. From a self-interested, audience-building perspective then, the Opera world needs to reassess its attitude to all its personnel.

Why else should it adjust its attitude (social justice concerns aside)? Because employees are the company. All employees contribute to the culture and ethos of a company, even hierarchical ones, and a happy, motivated work culture is a productive work culture. An employee who ‘gets’ what the company is about and what they’re working for has pride in their work no matter what that work is. Loyal employees who feel invested in and valued will go above and beyond the bare minimum of effort.

Without a sense of mission there is no motivation and job satisfaction, productivity and quality of work suffers. We need to respect and value the work of every employee.

Why is this happening?

Class, time-poverty and ‘role blindness’. ‘Blue collar’ workers in opera houses will not transgress social and class boundaries unless invited to do so. ‘White collar’, educated and service oriented workers are aware of social codes inherent in the jobs they do (e.g. invisibility as a prized hallmark of elite waiting staff) and therefore wont ‘impose’ themselves or be seen to step out of line in order to contribute to their place of work.

On the part of employers pressures of time and budget make investing in and knowing all employees a lower priority. This problem is compounded when specific areas of work such as cleaning and catering are outsourced. There is a mutual resistance to seeing the potential of personnel of varying pay-grades and functions.

Why does it need to change?

Because a shift in attitude and behaviour can grow audiences practically, and can tap employees more effectively to fully utilise their skills. We have to know our employees better to use them well. For example: Ushers at ROH are young creatives, performers of London, the next guard, who aren’t being involved in the discussion even today. They for example, are exactly the audience and market opera wants to appeal to, we have free access to them for two days, and we’re not utilising them, because we’re unable to view them as multi-skilled personnel with other gifts because of the function they are performing for us today.

Business has proved that companies benefit hugely from listening to their employees. Administrations would benefit hugely from deploying these practices. On an artistic level, could this model be useful? Opera is traditionally a top-down structure. An ensemble method of working is difficult with large forces to manage, but the reality is that if people feel their creative sensibilities are being respected and heard, even if the ultimate choice that is made doesn’t align with their preference, they will commit wit passion to what is being asked because they’ve been respected as artists. Artists just like all employees in lots of ways!

Press departments are under utilising their artists and staff because they want to maintain message control, but they are missing out on the opportunity to control the messages about their organisation. Because artists and staff are discouraged from using social media in case they’re ‘off-message’ the conversation about opera is dictated by external critics (and fans!). Organisations need to get better at resourcing their staff to be part of a positive discussion. This means trusting their staff to use their best judgement as representatives of the company when using social media, but still encouraging them to engage in public dialogue, which can provide a valuable window into how and why things are happening. Fear creates a lock-down culture, but considered communication largely engenders empathy.

Suggestion: if a company wants to control the message, can it look to identify particular members of staff (not just those who work in social media or PR) who they consider to be responsible, socially adept and have a grasp of the industry and the issues and encourage them to be a voice contributing to the conversation, essentially an ambassadorial role?

Part II Feeding the eco-system: ensemble development and working practice

In Europe and US roles within a company highly confined due to heavy unionisation, especially on the performing side. Working practices for opera choruses don’t lend themselves to collaborative/role-fluid work. E.g. 11 sessions, are we going to give up a session with the chorus to non music-specific work in order to generate ideas?

Working practices create a built-in resistance to collaborative working. Group identified a clear gap between passionate professionals working for below minimum wage in London in opera, in contrast to the chorus of the big houses being unwilling to work anything more than their session and unions up in arms if they’re asked to do so. What process occurs between those two perspectives? Are these the same people at different stages? How do we maintain the creative energy and dynamism of the people working hard for very little when they are working in larger contexts? There is also a difficulty in that we’re not supporting the people who are past being able to earn very little but haven’t cracked it yet. There is no funding available to them and no training or CPD (continuing professional development) and their talents and experiences are also not being used. How do we keep developing people?

It is possible to make changes using the existing structure by creating a different attitude at the top of large organisations that will filter down to staff? ROH and ENO choruses still preserve at best a reserve of ensemble behaviour and a career structure for singers as part of a company. The question is why, when the houses preserve the ensemble choruses with all their flaws as well as their strengths, do they not utilise them more fully? How do we use the steady employees of an opera house, which includes the performing ensemble, to run the business better? The star system sells tickets but starves the company of individuals who feed the ecosystem of the company. Employees who are loyal to a company and care about its future are demonstrably more invested and the company does better (the co-operative model).

The ensemble model of a chorus means a company really knowing the gifts and abilities of those it employs. Staff then feed everything, criticism and affirmation up through the company structure to the benefit of the company, which is continually being reinforced by its own talent. Deeper HR knowledge means greater ability to tap the skills of employees to the benefit of the company. This is a reason to maintain staff and healthy HR practices (despite everyone being busy and pressured) because it makes the company run more efficiently. The front to the back of the house opera companies need to take the approach of an HR department and think, who is this person, how can I develop this person, is this person ready to go to the next stage of their career? Is this person excelling, if not, why not, how do we support them? Do they need to reorient into another role in order to flourish. What can they offer? This attitude will mean that instead of disgruntled and rejected employees we have empowered people who are happy because their skills are being used effectively across the field.

There is so much value in this practice, even at the PR level. Audiences who have watched artists from chorus to principle, from young artist to mature performer have a deep love and support for those artists. Donors and Audiences want to know performers as individuals not as products, but houses currently only treat stars as individuals, not all their Talent. There is room and indeed a hunger from audiences for a more intimate connection with the industry and a wider variety of artist. We could also do much to spread awareness of how many levels there are to artists’ careers, which might engender further support and understanding from the general public.

Those artists who have been nurtured by a company are more likely, once stars, to come back to trial and give important premiers to their ‘home house’, as Stuart Skelton recently did at ENO. What has driven the move away from developing soloists from the ensemble? Is there no point in auditioning chorus members for principal roles?

Certainly young choruses (as at Garsington, Glyndebourne) benefit enormously from the opportunity to be auditioned for principal roles, even if they don’t get cast. Again there is the importance of the sense of being heard and developed. Everyone accepts it’s a competitive industry, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be a caring industry, or a fair one. Those that climb up through a company on steady work and notice do have the sense of graduation and trust in the company’s interest in them, which makes them perform better. Refocusing on professional choruses would solve a major problem for talent in getting heard, and plug the huge gap for professionals between the ages of 28-35 when they’re out of conservatory and ‘too old’ for most schemes but haven’t been signed by an agent and haven’t broken through. The opera chorus is a training ground.

III Career Trajectory: redirecting within the field

At the same time, many members of Young Artist ensembles end up not having a career as performers. Can houses develop alumni programs, so that they can tap the individuals with a sense of passion and connection to the company and redevelop their talent in another area? Can a company take an aspirant young singer struggling to make ends meet and working a terrible day job and fling them into the press department running social media (since young singers are now digital natives) and keep them in the house whilst they mature? There are individual examples of this, but again we can change the culture so that this is considered a standard practice? Ask young artists, ask all performers and creatives to submit a performance CV and a professional/additional skills CV.

IV The Art of the Possible

A small but important percentage of limitation language was heard in this and other discussions, indicating a self-limiting perspective on ‘what is possible in Opera’. No one appeared at the ‘taking action’ discussion. But this Group concluded Opera has the potential to be incredibly innovative. London in particular has new start-up opera companies opening every month that can serve as labs for new practices and ways of working. Within larger organisations every time a production changes and a new creative team comes in there is an opportunity to create on a small scale a different way of working and implement best practices. What we need to do is adjust our attitude about what is possible and recognise the amazing frequency of opportunities to do it differently, which is one of the strengths of our industry.

V Models & Inspiration

- The Citizen’s Theatre: (Glasgow) at which everyone who worked in the organisation had their names in the program, down to the people cleaning the toilets and the cobblers resoling the shoes.

- Silicon Roundabout: personal experience from an attendee within the tech industry who pointed out that he looks to the younger members of personnel he manages within the sector to keep him on the pulse of what issues are bubbling up and experiences and issues people are having. An anecdotal example of ‘bubbling up’ practice, much easier in start-ups and tech companies and an accepted and necessary part of being market-responsive. In a start-up you knock on the boss’s door and tell him your thoughts. What are the sources of resistance to such practice in the UK? Possibly strong social hierarchy versus more equality based countries like Denmark. Positive example of Kaspar Holten’s open door policy at ROH. In conclusion: we need to work to create a culture where constructive feedback is always welcome, and a structure in which feedback is easily offered, no matter the status of the person offering it.

- Retail: In a larger corporate company (such as a retail organisation with front and back of house staff), you might have a fifteen minute meeting before the day starts with all operational staff, both ‘performers’ and back of house (in retail for example this would be sales, stock room, and management staff) in order to raise the issues of the day, communicate the company plan for the day, the week and the month, and offer an opportunity for staff to communicate their needs in order to do their job better (e.g. X display is obstructing foot traffic). In an arts organisation context this might be ‘We’re getting a lot of phone calls/tweets about X production, but the booking click through is broken and we’re losing valuable publicity and sales by the second). Immediate communication every day about real time problems creates a responsive organisation that handles problems in real time. Clearly there has to be a boss to call the shots and take the rap, but we can create a more effective listening and feedback culture within organisations by building in feedback structure as a daily reality. Good managers and leaders do this, but it’s not part of the ethos of opera as a whole in running companies.

VI By the by: why are Administrators afraid of Artists?

Administrators can be broadly divided into former performers and creatives (PTA’s) and pro or professionally career driven administrators (PCA’s) from outside the industry, though there is some overlap between the two (making ideal administrators, yay!).

Performance Track Admins are sometimes frustrated performers (blocked creatives). This type of administrator therefore often harbours some resentment against people who are practicing in the arts and succeeding. They can be resistant to working closely with creatives and performers because they feel ‘they have all the fun’ anyway.

That said, ‘healthy’ former and retired performers who’ve ‘moved across’ for the right reasons can be and are an extremely vibrant source of ideas, experience from the performance end, educational resource and brilliant interdepartmental collaborators.

Professional Career Administrators are growing as a group in the industry, but role separation comes with it’s own set of issues, such as a lack of awareness of creative realities and building frameworks that support the creative process and enhance it.

Other issues of the professionalisation of opera administration as a career path are that administrators can be defensive of their lack of practical knowledge in the field, and are unwilling to accept input from current or former practitioners. PCAs are also progressing very quickly up the professional administration ladder for which there is a clear framework, which may lead to a lack ‘ground up’ knowledge of the industry. It may also create a lack of empathy or an impoverishment of opportunities for artists no longer performing to move sideways, a traditional path out of performance, which has formerly provided jobs for those leaving the profession as performers.

Performers are also outside the clear professional trajectory and people therefore don’t consider doing CPD with them, and those who are part of the professionalised track may not welcome artists working in a non-performance capacity.



Press Departments, young audiences, empowerment, talent development, roles, Staff, CPD, partnership, Role Blindness, Training, priorities, Roles, social media, ethos, Social Media, Business Models, training, talent, donors, Retail Models, PR, ENO, Garsington, star system, listening, staff, business models, Internal Communication, ensemble, Start-Ups, Leadership, Silicone Roundabout, Young Audiences, Motivation, Talent Development, Opera Chorus, Chicago Lyric, Priorities, Art of the Possible, Employees, leadership, HR, Empowerment, Star System, Best Practices, Opera House as Eco-System, Listening, Donors, motivation, Partnership, ROH, Ensemble, Arts Administrators, Ethos, pr, Redirection, Glyndebourne, Career Trajectory, Talent, Bubble Up

Comments: 1

Lila Palmer, 10 June 2015

Jenny Rivera just made the case very helpfully here in the Huffington Post about how she felt her role needed to change and what she had to bring: