Forging An Alliance – How the New York Opera Fest Was Created

By David Salazar

People don’t often think about opera in New York as extending into the summer. With the major companies ending their respective season in May, the summer is generally the time most New Yorkers associate with other activities.

But that won’t be the case for the second straight year with the New York Opera Fest set to take over the city. The event, which kicks off on April 27 and runs all the way throughout June, will feature a collaboration between 20 companies and over 30 performances. Among the companies involved in the festival are Opera on Tap, Bronx Opera, On Site Opera, Sign & Sing and Opera Rox, just to name a few.

The festival, despite only being in its second year, was an ideation for years and was the main inspiration for the New York Opera Alliance (NYOA), an organization established to bring companies from around the city together.

Establishing an Alliance

Back in 2011, Peter Szep, a conductor who is the festival chair, had been working on his Indie Opera Podcast and interviewed Gina Crusco for another opera production she had been working on. Eventually, she questioned his ultimate goal with the podcast, wondering about the possibility of putting together a festival.

“I had been thinking about it for a while but there wasn’t an opportunity to do it,” Szep told OperaWire in an exclusive interview. “Gina said, ‘Hey, why don’t we do it?’ And off we went.”

The trio set out to put together a few opera companies and see what they could come up with. The expectations were modest at best.

“I thought it would be like pulling teeth. Maybe four or five people interested,” he noted. But it turned out far larger than he could have anticipated, the operation kicking off with a dozen groups.

Working at Opera America, the newly formed NYOA put together a list of 60 companies it could invite and reach out to. The organization slowly but surely grew, but the festival did not come right away. Szep simply didn’t feel ready to put it all together.

Communication was often challenging and some organizations soon turned on their initial decision to join.

“A lot of opera companies feel like they have their little domain and want to protect it,” he noted. “Some dropped out, but by and large the energy has been positive and everyone has been very collaborative.”

In 2016, the organization finally launched its first festival.

Opera Fest 1.0 – Get the Word Out

The first iteration of the opera celebration was really all about getting the word out. So the organization started its own tradition of picking an honoree to celebrate at the launch event. The person in question? Writer Fred Plotkin.

“Since it was about getting the word out, we wanted someone who wrote about the productions and brought attention to the community,” Szep revealed. “Fred has always been supportive in that way.”

But Szep admits it was a bit haphazard in execution.

“Since the aim was just to get the word out, we made it so anyone could join at any point to see how much energy we could build and so people could see that there is a huge community and huge variety of people.”

It was a hit and the NYOA got working on putting together another festival for 2017.

Opera Fest 2.0 – Community-Building

This year’s festival revolves around the theme of “Community,” Szep noting that given the times we live in, it was key to bring the alliance closer together.

“How good are we being as a community and reaching out to each other to be a better community?” Szep noted as the question driving the Opera Fest. “This year we are looking to see how we can support each other in a way we hadn’t before.”

The organization brainstormed and put together a number of unique initiatives to ensure unity. Among them is having administrators trade tickets for one another’s events. They initially thought that only a few people would be interested in that proposal, but everyone jumped on the opportunity to see each other’s shows.

The companies are also allowing advertising spots for other partner companies. And despite the sheer volume of performances and companies involved, the schedule runs rather smoothly without many companies overlapping and sharing the same performance nights.

“We share singers. We share spaces and conductors. We share a lot of resources. So that obviously helps with the scheduling,” Szep inferred.

In addition to the 18 fully-staged operas and nine concerts, the festival promises other events, including the opening celebration on the 27th where legendary artist Lauren Flanagan will be honored for her dedication to the community and, especially, her work with the Music and Mentoring House program.

Szep noted that this program had inspired him and many others due to the soprano’s ability to help young singers develop in safe and affordable circumstances.

“She’s making breakfast for them and really welcoming them into her home and cleaning and supporting in every way possible,” he explained. “This year that we are focusing on community, we felt she was so ideal. She has been so inspiring to supporting the development of opera companies. If you go to any performance, she will be there.”

Opera Fest 3.0 And Beyond

In the long term, Szep dreams of having a large public event in a park, citing Wigstock as an inspiration.

“I just love the idea of being in the city and suddenly finding yourself in the middle of something massive and exciting,” he revealed. “The more art you create, the more need you create. It doesn’t go away. This isn’t a limited resource. The more you work together, the more engaged people get. It isn’t a tiny pool. The pool gets a lot bigger.”

Time to dive into the New York Opera Fest pool.





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