Q & A: Brian Festa on the First-Ever Wellness Program at San Diego Opera

By David Salazar

An emphasis on mental and physical wellness has become increasingly prevalent in modern day society. And yet in the arts, one might argue that there is still plenty to go before it becomes the norm in the day to day workings of its employment structures.

Brian Festa is aiming to change all that. With his program at San Diego Opera, he has created the first-ever wellness program at a U.S. Opera company.

After a life-changing car accident that put him in chronic pain for years, his life changed when he walked into Milagro Massage. Working with a massage therapist allowed him to improve in months more than he had in years and slowly but surely he learned what it was to “live without pain.”

From there, he dropped out of Jazz school and went to massage school in Maui. After years of study and working at spas and resorts as well as other practices, he founded Catalyst Music and Healing Arts, which aims to integrate holistic wellness programs into project-focused musician’s retreats.

OperaWire talked to Festa about his approach and his goals in the opera world.

OperaWire: Can you elaborate a bit on what your role with San Diego Opera is? How did that initiative come about? 

Brian Festa: I run the first ever wellness program in a US opera company. I provide hypnotherapy and massage for the staff and chorus. I had been coaching individual musicians for a while and wanted to make a bigger impact, so I began focusing on organizations. I emailed the board about my idea of a Wellness Program and one of them reached out to hear my story. I met with her and began cultivating that relationship. After meeting with the general director, David Bennett, he said that he was interested, but it wasn’t in the budget. I asked him if I found the funding, would he do it? He said yes. So, I called the board member to ask her advice on finding funding. She took me out to lunch, and before I knew it I was looking at a $25,000 check to pilot the program.

OW: Can you walk me through what the program will look like?

BF: I have been there from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm every Wednesday for the past five months. We transformed a costume fitting room into a wellness office. A massage table was donated, and with two cozy chairs, that’s all we need for the transformation to take place. Staff and chorus members sign up with an online booking link each week for half hour sessions, conducted in-person or over Zoom. Easy!

OW: What are your philosophies on wellness and how do they pertain to the world of music and opera?

BF: Our mental and physical well-being is an inextricable metric for our individual, musical, and organizational success. The performing arts often wear their burnout badge on their sleeve. We must realize this is not sustainable. We need to shift its culture of toxic productivity and stress, to more sustainable habits and mindsets. The data is there, and it’s not good. Studies have proven the efficacy and ROI of organizational Wellbeing Programs. Performing Arts nonprofits, in particular, find ways to ignore these facts, and the scarcity mindset is real. Compared to most for-profit organizations that are seeing the benefits, and invest in their people, Opera and Orchestral organizations culturally have a steeper climb to “see the light” because it’s just not how they were taught. I see a need that has been longing to be filled for decades. Both administrators and Performing artists deserve this work, it deserves to be prioritized, and it deserves to be funded.

OW: What are the results you’ve produced and how do you think this kind of initiative will change opera over the long-term?

BF: This program has changed the personal and professional lives of the San Diego Opera staff and chorus. I am preventing surgeries, healing chronic pain, alleviating anxiety, increased morale over 30%, increased productivity over 25%, increased quality of life over 50%, increased stress management, and saved them an estimated $30,000. Macrocosmically, these initiatives, and the testimonials and data coming out of them prove that wellness programs are vital for organizations to truly thrive, not just survive. Here is a list of benefits:

Benefits of wellbeing offerings in Arts organizations:

  • Decreased employee burn-out (most org’s largest expense)
  • Decreased sick days
  • Decreased costs in hiring and auditioning
  • Decreased costs in training new employees
  • Increased employee retention
  • Increased social connection and company culture
  • Increased body awareness and acceptance
  • Increased mental clarity and productivity
  • The organization is seen as a place where wellbeing is supported
  • Internationally recognized leader in performing arts Duty of Care
  • A network of practitioners ready to help when issues arise
  • Relieved physical and emotional stress (personal and work-related)
  • Increased strength, balance, range of motion, and flexibility
  • Improved quality of sound 
  • Improved quality of life
  • Overcoming GAD and performance anxiety
  • Optimized time-management skills
  • Techniques to significantly decrease stress
  • Techniques to eliminate distractions in the office and practice room
  • Healthier sleep hygiene and lifestyle choices
  • Increased clarity to executive decision-making, leading to strategic and innovative productions and revenue streams. 

A partnership with Opera America could provide long-awaited support to all those who lack resources, education, and access, catalyzing systemic change within our industry. This topic has been met with resistance from every national performing arts organization I have attempted to dialogue with, including Opera America. This response is all too common in my work and reflective of our performing arts administrative culture. Administrators are fearful of “new” initiatives. Rather than taking a bold stance on an issue, they will wait until it becomes more “relevant” and mainstream, just how DEI has come to be. And then suddenly, the money is there to support it. Brave, and actionable steps, even small at first, could be taken to literally transform this industry from the inside out. But so far, only SDO has done it.

The following is my vision for our opera companies and the Performing Arts industry at large, and I hope it may spark interest in our fellow readers to adopt in their own organizations. If so, I’d love to hear from them and see how I can help and give guidance. Perhaps the younger generation will see the light and OA will realize that Wellbeing will soon have its day, giving it the national attention it deserves, just as DEI did.

National Wellness Initiative: Positioning Opera America as a pioneer in performing arts wellbeing, compiling research, and promoting actionable steps for all of its companies.

1) National Research Project: I’d work with a given amount of opera companies over the course of one year, impacting the lives of hundreds of individuals to radically strengthen their organization from the inside out, giving the rest of our national org’s a framework to launch their own programs. 

2) OA Wellness Department: I’d build a network of experts and specialists, galvanize the younger generation, provide support, and conduct informational interviews with our colleagues to create the most competent wellness department of any national performing arts organization. I would produce informative webinars, resources, Professional development for our young leaders, and action plans for integrating wellness practices into our opera community’s daily life. 

3) OA Conference Wellbeing Coordinator: Teaching morning yoga classes, arranging for chair massage stations, a booth in the exhibitor hall providing wellness consultations and OA Wellness guides.

4) OA Wellness Specialist: In the same way I serve the SDO, reducing stress, increasing revenue, and enhancing morale and productivity within the organization.

5) OA Conference Wellness Keynote Panel: Where hundreds can learn what the SDO, Opera America, and others in the performing arts field have done to transform their individual, organizational, and social impact through wellbeing initiatives. Where the audience can learn actionable and replicable steps to radically strengthen the sustainability of their organizations from the inside out.

OW: As pertains to your personal journey through wellness and growth, what are some of the most valuable lessons you learned from your mentors along the way? 

BF: To always trust the qualitative and quantitative value that inevitably comes out of prioritizing mental and physical health.

We all have our histories, traumas, habits, and unique physical forms. Taking steps today that we will be proud of tomorrow is a discipline always worth cultivating.


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