Q & A: Austin Opera’s Timothy Myers on What the Opera World Can Learn from Business in a COVID-19 Reality

By Francisco Salazar

As the Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the Austin Opera, Timothy Myers has had one of the most difficult years of his life.

Last year, 2020, left a mark on the operatic industry that forced many leaders to make difficult decisions and rethink the way the entire business of opera worked. As a result, Myers is taking the time COVID-19 has given him to cushion his international resume with a post-graduate Harvard Business School education. Myers hopes to explore the industry that “serves his soul” and find new ways to showcase the operatic world.

OperaWire had a chance to speak with Myers about his post-graduate and the challenges of being both a principal conductor and an artistic advisor.

OperaWire: How are you doing? How have you been affected in this difficult and challenging year?

Timothy Myers: Like all of my colleagues, I’m frustrated and even scared by the vanishing of work and income, the instability of our industry, and just 2020 in general. However, I’ve been working to focus on the opportunities presented by these immense challenges, which has been very empowering in a situation where it’s easy to feel helpless.

OW: As the Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of Austin Opera, what are the biggest challenges? How do you manage both positions at the same time? What do you think are the biggest challenges in coordinating so much in a year like this?

TM: The two roles, while interdependent, function very differently. In the artistic advisor role I work closely with Annie Burridge (General Director and CEO), Nathan DePoint (Director of Artistic Operations), and other team members on repertoire and programming, selection of creative teams, casting, and physical productions, and both short and long term artistic and creative strategies.

As the principal conductor, my primary responsibility is the artistic leadership of the orchestra and chorus, making sure that we are growing and maintaining the highest performance level possible.

The biggest challenge of 2020, which will surprise no one, is that we went from an approximately three-year planning cycle to three months, sometimes even three weeks. This has required us to be very nimble and, though it might be counterintuitive, often slow down a bit to make sure that we’re asking the right question.

While the challenges have been immense, they have also created new opportunities. For example, our “All Star Concert” that we are taping for PBS at the end of January features artists like Isabel Leonard and Ryan Speedo Green, who would not otherwise have been available to us.

OW: You are studying at Harvard right now. What inspired you to do this? What did you realize in COVID that you needed that you didn’t have?

TM: Yes, I’m currently enrolled in the Program for Leadership Development (PLD) at Harvard Business School, and doing additional courses in Disruptive Innovation, Design Thinking, and the Business of Entertainment, Media and Sports.

PLD is a program that had been of interest to me prior to the pandemic, after observing the tremendous growth as a person and a leader that my colleague and friend, Tomer Zvulun, experienced in the program.

When the core product of our industry evaporated in March, I knew two things for sure: 1) It was going to be a long recovery, so I was going to have some time I hadn’t anticipated having, and, 2) that I needed to expand my skill set to be sure I was contributing at the highest level to the artists and institutions with whom I work.

As an artist, it’s important to use our craft to serve our community and our art form by giving performances at the highest level. Beyond that, it’s also important to me that I can work with my colleagues in the industry to be sure that we’re not just maintaining, but truly innovating and securing our future.

In my mind, the biggest mistake of this time would be if once things begin to return to “normal,” we all revert back to “business as usual.”

OW: How do you think Harvard Business School will help you better work with Austin Opera? What are some of the things that you have already learned from the program?

TM: There are many brilliant people working in our industry, but we’re also at a time when we need all hands on deck. The challenges we face are not going to abate, or even get easier over time. While my primary contribution may be on the artistic side, I want to be broad in my knowledge and understanding of what my colleagues are up against, and be able to contribute in that way as well.

My first course, Disruptive Innovation, was a game-changer in helping me understand more precisely how and why disruptions happen, and, most importantly, how to be successful at both warding off disruptions and creating them.

OW: In general, what do you think opera companies can learn from the business world?

TM: Opera has been around longer than any company in existence, but the financial model of how it functions in the US has been under continuous disruption for decades. Clearly, we have to do better balancing the timeless beauty and humanity available to us in the repertoire with aggressive innovation and strategies to ensure future success for both the creators and consumers.

We know that opera companies’ biggest competitors aren’t symphony orchestras or Broadway musicals or art museums. Our biggest competitors are Netflix, HBO Max, and the biggest one of all, non-consumption, people choosing to do entirely different things with their time.

My heartfelt belief is that live performance is a miracle. We create moments that never existed before and will never exist again. However, it’s astonishing to think of how many people might never experience it. If we want to compete for people’s time and resources we have to ask ourselves “What job are people hiring the arts to do?”

OW: Music Directors are seen as the leaders of the orchestra and the ones who are on top of musical choices. Tell me a little bit about what people don’t know about the job?

TM: In any kind of leadership position, it’s essential to advocate for the people whom you lead. Of course, demanding a high level of artistic integrity is of utmost importance, and should be a given. However, just as important is to remember that the miracle of what we do only comes to life through the talent and tireless hard work of countless people. As a leader, my job is to support those people however I can.


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