Ever since NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) were first introduced to the world in 2014—thanks to artist Kevin McCoy employing a digitized, hard-to-trace, and decentralized form of financial transactions known as the blockchain—what it means to fundraise has never been the same. While some see NFTs as a waste of time, others have capitalized on its ostensible uses. Many artists argue NFTs are a ‘rip off,’ but others see it as the start of a more just marketplace; one that prioritizes direct communication between the artist and the consumer.
Questions such as “How is money being used?” and “Who actually benefits?” have long been asked in the opera industry. Today, grant programs and philanthropic projects seem to think of the artist last, and donors are often clueless as to how their money is actually being utilized. But one woman and her team are on a mission to change operatic culture and the industry from the very inside, one NFT at a time.
Dramatic soprano Soula Parassidis, a spunky, hard-working, and tenacious operatic leader, created her company Living Opera to revitalize the operatic field and update its funding methods for up-and-coming singers. Parassidis had been dissatisfied with the offerings and lack of support most young singers faced, and sought to change things.
Championing more transparency and community, I sat down with Parassidis to talk NFTs, funding, and Mozart.
OperaWire: You’ve had quite a life so far. Your cancer diagnosis at 23 seemed to change your life overnight. Can you talk about how this impacted your vision for your career?
Soula Parassidis: You don’t have time to think. We don’t expect the drama of life. I wasn’t prepared for the psychological ramifications of having my body fail me. I recovered physically rather quickly, but I felt broken. I didn’t feel confident anymore. Afterwards, I felt the fragility of life. I also felt this drive to not let that beat me. From my cancer diagnosis, through finishing school, to now: it all made for quite the journey. I didn’t realize at the time that all my experiences would form the content of Living Opera, where we help other people with their story of opera. My story is just one of many: I get stories everyday from students and emerging singers talking about their challenges and battles.
OW: What was your journey towards philanthropy?
SP: A local philanthropist in Vancouver, where I grew up, approached me and offered me funding if I could come up with a new business plan. I came up with it and received the funding. This was the seed that allowed me to go to Europe and build up some of the skills that I needed. I realized as I built this project that I was pretty much replicating the same act of kindness that had launched my career. One of the strengths of Living Opera in general is that Norman and I are still active in the business, so our information is real time information: little tips that can help the artists have success, and it’s immensely satisfying. What if we created a culture of that?
From the look of our online content, it seems like everything is quite planned and measured. It’s actually rather different. We knew we wanted to do something with blockchain and NFTs. I realize so much of my work to help others has an origin in my past and my experiences. The philanthropy side has many arms. On one side we help artists. But we also give donors a snapshot into what they are actually funding. Everybody is working together. It’s a way to bring a beautiful new layer to philanthropy.
OW: Where did the idea for Living Opera come from?
SP: It wasn’t my idea. This came from Norman, and the fact that I was answering direct messages everyday. He suggested capitalizing on it, and created a curriculum based on the questions I’d been receiving. Somehow it was perfect timing, as we had this conversation at the end of 2019. We got a proper web developer and launched it as a proper business in 2020. I want artists to have a leg to stand on. If I can help them by example, then I’m doing my job. Most artists don’t sing full time, they need to supplement their income. Even with a full calendar, you have time to do other things. That’s part of the negative messaging, “You’re not a serious artists if you’re doing something else.” Instrumentalists have legs to stand on but singers have to twiddle our thumbs in between auditions? No way!
OW: How do NFTs factor into Living Opera’s relationship with donors?
SP: Since Magic Mozart, most of the people who stand to gain from our community are the artists themselves. Our current model is to donate the tokens to artists who are willing to be a part of our active community, and to attract high level donors to sponsor those tokens. It reduces the pressure of finding the perfect donor and opens the floor to those who just want to give a charitable donation. When you’re dealing with somebody and selling an idea, what are their priorities? What do legacy donors hope to achieve? Generally, when you hit on the thing that has potential, switch gears! Whether it’s an aria or a crazy token structure, find the thing that works. You’ll save more time by being flexible. You can feel it gel, too. On our previous website, we had something called the ‘Featured Community’ page. I felt that our community members needed to be featured. We needed a better strategy, however, as I was receiving photos from singers from around the world who were meeting because of Living Opera. My hope is that when this project is realized, we’ll have much more global connectivity.
OW: Living Opera works with universities and schools. Where did this decision come from?
SP: I love children! More seriously, speaking at universities is a normal part of the professional singing career. Sometimes universities will have you come and do a Q&A with their students. It tends to be the same all the time, however. I love the creativity of younger children, and that they cover their ears when they sing. But I love another element. The reason I got into opera was because I listened to a free concert at my school when I was seven. I knew I wanted Living Opera to be that kind of influence. You can see them being captivated by something that will do good things for them in their lives. They are like sponges, and you’re giving them edifying information. If you get the chance, you should do it. It is a wonderful way to bring hope to the life of a child, and direction as well.
OW: Living Opera is blazing a new path for grant programs. Why is that?
SP: During the pandemic, I was looking for a solution to the challenging state of grant culture. There wasn’t a whole lot of options. There was a need for a program to fund individual artists. I understand why grants program are so complex and long-winded. Donors feel more trust in a large institution, but this is something we are trying to change. I want to change the level of trust between philanthropists and individual artists. Our approach is through the usage of digital credentials. This only works if the philanthropists think Living Opera is worth something. There is a need for artists to show that we are serious; how the business world works; that we are committed to playing the game. $5,000 in the hands of an emerging singer is going to go so much farther than if it’s given to an opera house which then distributes funds to singers. We are trying to attract donors by showing them how far their money can go.
OW: What is next for Living Opera?
SP: An app is in development as we speak! The idea with it is to focus on opera singers and help them with knowing their fach. You sing into the phone and get a prediction of your sub-voice type. It can point you in the right direction and give you repertoire recommendations. The other function, which I’m most excited about, allows a user to convert their sound into sellable digital art in a global marketplace which can be used to fund individual artists. We are super excited to see where this goes!