When Annie Burridge first assumed the position of General Director and CEO of Austin Opera just a little over a year ago, she says she made a lot of speeches about her views on the power of opera to play an integral role in a community: How could opera serve and inspire an entire city?
“How do we evoke the fantastic energy and brand of Austin in our operations and art making?” Burridge mused in a recent conversation with Sightlines.
At first glance that question and those ideas are exactly the kind of thing that one would hope any new arts leader would embrace, especially the leader of an art form which might not seem like the natural expression of a city more associated with Stevie Ray Vaughan than with Giacomo Puccini.
But Burridge has built a reputation as someone who is both passionate about, and highly adept at, the business of presenting opera.
Now, after a year of little sleep and a lot of work, she’s moving beyond opening statements. And with today’s announcement of the upcoming 2018-2019 season, Burridge lays out a vision for what a 21st-century opera might look like as integral part of the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World.”
In addition to presenting three main-stage operas at the Long Center, the company is also launching a new initiative designed to present opera in new and unusual spaces. Dubbed OperaATX, the program aims to take opera out into the community — a community Burridge describes as “somewhere at the intersection of innovation and barbeque.”
“This city is fascinating and incongruous,” she says. “And we want to create the conditions where the innovation that is inherent in Austin can inform the creation and presentation of opera.”
The first OperaATX offering, planned for April 2019, is American composer David T. Little’s Soldier Songs presented in two shows at Austin’s historic Paramount Theatre.
Described on the not-quite 40-year-old composer’s website as “an evening-length multimedia event,” the piece draws on elements of opera as well as “rock-infused concert music, theatre, and animation.” It’s also an expression of the experience of war through a libretto constructed through first-hand accounts.
But like a lot of music written in the past few decades, Soldier Songs defies clear genre distinction. It’s cited as both opera and oratorio on the composer’s website and is scored for baritone and amplified septet.
In other words, it’s “non-traditional.”
And although Burridge doesn’t know how the new series will ultimately evolve, she says Little’s non-traditional piece is exactly the type that OperaATX is looking to present, produce and ultimately commission.
“(Austin is) somewhere at the intersection of innovation and barbeque,” says Austin Opera general director Annie Burridge. “This city is fascinating and incongruous.”
As for the three main-stage presentations in Long Center’s Dell Hall, the season is bookended by two grand classic productions. It opens in November with Verdi’s Otello and closes in May with Puccini’s La Boheme. In January the company presents the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night. With music by composer Kevin Puts and a libretto by Mark Campbell, this piece is from the same duo responsible for The Manchurian Candidate, a concert performance of which Austin Opera presented to acclaim in 2016.
Winning the Pulitzer doesn’t always guarantee a piece is going to be immediately “accessible” in the traditional sense, but Silent Night is different. It has the distinction of being one of the most performed new American operas in a generation — it also that Puts is a former composition professor at UT’s Butler School of Music. (The composer taught at UT from 1997 to 2005).
So, for Austin Opera’s next season, there’s an operatic “multi-media event” at a venue integral to Austin’s “live music DNA,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning contemporary opera by a composer with strong ties to the city, and two 19th-century Italian masterworks in the Long Center.
For Burridge, this is what it begins to look like when you evoke the “fantastic energy and brand of Austin” into Austin Opera’s operations and art-making.
And regarding the company’s operations, there have been at least two new key administrative positions created recently. Nathan DePoint, now Director of Operations, distinguished himself in his former role at Ft. Worth Opera. As that company’s Director of Artistic Administration, he also worked with David T. Little, shepherding the composer’s critically acclaimed 2016 opera JFK into existence. He’ll be taking the lead on OperaATX and says that “by tapping into our city’s live music DNA, Austin Opera will continue to reflect the spirit of the city and the pioneering image it’s known for.”
Then last fall, Burridge tapped Michael Solomon for a position that is not only new to her company, it’s new to the field. With funding by an innovation grant from OPERA America, Solomon will oversee audience experience.
While “audience experience” might sound like corporate jargon, Solomon’s is a position designed to impact an aspect of vital importance to all arts institutions nowadays, particularly for those who struggle with questions of relevance, as every opera company does.
Burridge says the idea came from her previous experience at Opera Philadelphia where for three years she led the most extensive audience segmentation study in the field of opera. Among the many things that she discovered in her thorough, well-funded, data-driven work was that key to cultivating and retaining audiences was not just quality of the art happening on stage, but the overall experience of attending an opera.
She adds that typically the function of looking after audience experience is nestled with someone who reports to the marketing or development departments, or both. Solomon’s position, on the other hand, is designed to be an advocate for the audience within the senior hierarchy of the Austin Opera, interfacing with all departments including the facilities at Long Center and new venues, like The Paramount.
Key to advocating for an audience, is recognizing that there are multiple constituencies in that audience. Burridge has the data from her previous job to back that assertion up. And she’s tasking Solomon with embarking on some similarly-aimed research in Austin.
Meanwhile, it doesn’t take more than five minutes in line at the Long Center’s will call window to realize that opera audiences in Austin come for a variety of different experiences. Patrons clad in black-tie mingle freely with hipsters, one on their way to a donor reception upstairs, the other on their way to pick up beers in sippy cups for consumption during the performance.
At Austin Opera’s November production of Carmen the Long Center’s terrace was packed with people. A local television station had a crew present filming live throughout the night. Their microwave truck was parked amidst a display of new luxury cars from a local dealer, and in full view of what was an oddly heart-warming sight to behold: an altogether different kind of truck. A taco truck.
Yes. They had a taco truck at the opera.
Burridge admits that that shouldn’t necessarily be an example of innovation, especially in a town like Austin. “But tacos at the opera?” she asks.
The vendor was skeptical when first approached and required a retainer. And then sold out.
Clearly there is more to great opera experiences for all than tuxedos and tacos, but few Texans will ever object too strongly to anything wrapped in a tortilla.
Solomon says, “It was such a perfect symbol of what Austin Opera stands for – showing with fearlessness (and with chiles) that opera is truly for everyone.”
For Burridge, part of the appeal of her new job was the opportunity to take some excellent art making and to make it an integral part of Austin. “To focus on the Austin part of the Austin Opera,” she says.
It’s hard not to think of Austin when you think of eating tacos on a patio, even at the opera.