Q & A : Justin Werner on Creating Stratagem Artists & Navigating a Post-COVID Opera World

By David Salazar

Justin Werner thought his path in the opera world would be focused on performing.

But early on in his training, he came to terms with the fact that it might not be the right path for him.

He moved into production with the independent opera company New York Opera Exchange (he also founded the  Independent Student Opera Initiative at Boston University), while simultaneously delving into the world of management when he landed an internship at IMG Artists.

But several different circumstances eventually shifted Werner’s attention to the world of management. While New York Opera Exchange was making its way in the indie opera scene, his management venture was progressing further. Throw in the fact that the NYOE’s music director landed a job in Leipzig and the Executive Director got a promotion at another job and it was clear that Werner would be moving into management fulltime.

In 2014, he was one of two partners to create Couret & Werner (C&W) Artists Management. The company would develop over four years, but when Werner’s partner pivoted in a different direction, Werner took that company and rebuilt it as Stratagem Artists.

“My goal was to put the focus on the artists and less on us, the managers,” Werner, a frequent panelist for Opera America’s Career Blueprints and Feedback Audition programs, told OperaWire of the new vision for the company.

Werner has since built a solid roster of artists that have since fulfilled engagements with such companies as The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Dallas Opera, The Philadelphia Orchestra, LA Philharmonic, National Symphony Orchestra, Omaha Symphony, NY Philharmonic, San Diego Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Arizona Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Houston Grand Opera, and Santa Fe Opera, among many others.

OperaWire spoke to Werner about how he built Stratagem and how he views the opera world evolving in a post-COVID-19 world.

OperaWire: Prior to creating Stratagem, you worked under a number of major managers in other companies. What were the key lessons from those experiences and how did you apply them in starting Stratagem?

Justin Werner: My experience at IMG Artists was incredibly educational as it was my first experience in observing the client/manager relationship in action. During my internship, I was the artistic director of an opera company (NY Opera Exchange) and was in grad school as a singer.  Observing the industry from a wide variety of posts on “both sides of the table” during the same period was integral to developing my artistic identity in terms of knowledge of repertoire, dealing with a wide variety of colleagues, and identifying and assessing.

Several colleagues I met during my time at IMG, (Bill Palant and Charlotte Lee in particular) have remained trusted mentors and colleagues. Their generosity in sharing knowledge, experiences, and skills was invaluable to my transition into artist management and continue to inform Stratagem’s trajectory, long term goals, and our “moral compass” as an agency. 

OW: What were some of the greatest challenges in creating your own management company? Do those challenges continue today? 

JW: The creation of trust between artistic directors / administrators with Stratagem’s roster and staff has been incredibly important to our success. There is a certain amount of trust that one needs to get started in order to be competitive for prospective clients, to be on producer’s minds for casting and to execute projects for the betterment of the roster and industry at large. Luckily, we have had high leverage clients believe in our mission and method from day one and our reputation has multiplied exponentially.

It is incredibly exciting that boutique agencies are now seen as viable alternatives to our corporate colleagues: both approaches have their strengths and benefits. In this unique time of fragility and change in our industry, the importance of trust and transparency between our roster and our staff has been amplified even further. In addition to staying afloat, the agility of our more intimate size has made it possible for Stratagem to take proactive and exciting steps forward during this crisis.

OW: What makes Stratagem Artists unique from other management companies?

JW: Our team’s willingness to communicate with each other and with our artists on a regular basis is an essential and invaluable contributor to the high level of collaboration I believe we have been able to achieve. The infrastructure we have created to answer questions quickly, deal with problems immediately, and reinforce the essential sense of collaboration and partnership has proven incredibly valuable in setting Stratagem apart.

With my previous experience as not only a singer, but an artistic director, stage director, and artistic administrator, I feel Stratagem is uniquely and incredibly well equipped to provide the operatic literacy needed for bespoke and curated artist development. Additionally, Stratagem participates in several ways through a wider lens to protect and promote the health of our entire industry through both our committee work with our North American Managerial Colleagues, as well as my work as the chair of On Site Opera’s Artistic Advisory Council.

Through the unprecedented changes and struggles over the last few months, we have maintained and improved on our standard of service and communication with our artists. As one of our singers mentioned to me during an individual check-in “Crisis doesn’t change who you are, it just amplifies it.” We are so proud of how our message has been “amplified” and how we are continuing to develop our roster during these unprecedented times.

OW: How do you personally help your artists develop? How do you build career strategies with them individually?

JW: The most important aspect of artist development for us is a deep and detailed knowledge of our artists’ abilities and what they’re capable of regularly creating both on stage and in the audition room. Since I founded Stratagem two seasons ago, our staff has attended every one of our singers’ mainstage auditions in NYC, as well as attending our artists’ performances in a wide variety of venues, from mainstage opera, to recital, and even in multiple off-Broadway productions.

There is no better way to assess an artist by seeing what they do in their “natural habitat and knowing their capabilities and habits when they’re confident, when they’re nervous, when they’re ill, and when they’re exhausted. From these shared experiences, we are better equipped to both advocate for each artist with producers, as well as assessing each artist’s strengths and weaknesses through both individual check-ins and sing-throughs of new repertoire.

Creating a bespoke plan from day one of working with a client is of utmost importance for a successful managerial relationship. This includes all of the nuts and bolts of artist management, including repertoire discussions, setting goals for engagements for both the short and long term, and working with a client’s teacher/coach / mentors in building that plan.

That being said, creating personal relationships with each artist and their “team” on a personal level is just as important to fully understand the motivations for each person we are working with.

OW: How do you define a Stratagem Artist?

JW: A Stratagem artist is a supportive and communicative colleague who is always prepared and as collaborative on stage as off stage. One of the proudest moments I have had as a manager was when I called each of our clients at the onset of COViD, and each individual asked about their colleagues and the roster as a whole before they said a word about their own lost work and fees. This type of innate support and concern for their colleagues is rare in an industry as competitive as ours, and I think it speaks volumes about the generosity and humanity that each artist brings to our roster.

On an artistic level, all of our artists are passionate storytellers who are consistently looking to innovate both on and off the stage. They also have a variety of outside interests that enrich their performance careers in many different ways and I believe wholeheartedly in promoting their individuality in all capacities of their lives — it leads to a more complete interpreter and performer! 

A meeting with the Stratagem Artists during the COVID-19 lockdown. (Image Provided by Justin Werner)

OW: During this time, what are the greatest challenges for a manager? What is still in your control and what can you do to build for the future?

JW: I think staying positive as we navigate these unprecedented times and the cavalcade of cancelations is the greatest challenge that we have faced at Stratagem to date. We have never faced such uncertainty in terms of the future health of our industry and therefore, to think about future performances with force majeure and COViD lurking is unprecedented. That being said, we are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to continue to innovate and for the artists who have put their trust in us!

As we continue through the challenging weeks ahead, keeping a pragmatic and proactive approach with each artist and continuing communication with weekly full roster meetings, smaller group conversations, and individual check-ins has been incredibly valuable to remember why we are still involved in this industry at its core. In addition, we are planning to expand our roster in an incredibly exciting way — more to come in September!

 OW: How will this lockdown change the industry in your view and how do you and your artists prepare for those changes?

JW: I’m thrilled that within this crisis, various parts of the industry have come together as they never have before. The artist manager community, especially in North America, has been working together since the first week of this crisis on reviewing and updating industry practices to better equalize risks between the parties to our agreements, promoting diversity and equity in all levels of the industry, and addressing some of the vulnerabilities in our employment practices which were made apparent by the current COVID-19 crisis.

It has been incredibly inspiring to be part of a more united collective and I think the community will be much better equipped to handle another event of this magnitude, as well as the day to day of normal operations. 


Behind the ScenesInterviews