Inside Opera Philadelphia: Q&A with David Devan, General Director & President

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The Magic Flute, LA Opera. Photo by Robert Millard.

How are cultural leaders and practitioners addressing artistic and organizational challenges today? And how do they make room for creative and institutional growth, while facing shifting audience expectations and consumer behaviors? In this series of interviews with Center grantees, we offer a look inside the practices of many of Philadelphia’s leading cultural institutions and artists, their distinct characters, aspirations, and more.

Here, we speak to David Devan, general director and president of Opera Philadelphia whose first-ever opera festival, O17, takes place September 14–25. Supported by a Center Advancement grant, the festival features seven operatic happenings over the course of 12 days in six venues across Philadelphia. Performances include the world premiere of We Shall Not Be Moved, a chamber opera by composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and director Bill T. Jones, and the East Coast premiere of Komische Oper Berlin’s innovative production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Devan talks with us about the market research that informed the organization’s decision to present a city-wide festival, and the struggles and opportunities opera companies face within an ever-changing world of digital entertainment. Learn more about O17 here.>>

 

Opera Philadelphia Q&A: Content Block 1

Opera Philadelphia conducted extensive market research with the support of a Center Advancement grant in 2014. What was the impetus for this research, and why did you decide that this was an important endeavor for the organization at that moment?

When we set out to conduct this research, we knew that after raising the artistic quality of our work and rebranding Opera Philadelphia to underscore our industry leadership, we needed to reacquaint ourselves with our audience. Across the opera world and the performing arts, subscriptions were falling, and it became crystal clear this was no longer the audience’s preferred way to engage with us. If we were to continue our track record of innovation and expand our civic impact, we needed to redefine how we relate to the public by understanding their wants and needs, and we needed to do it in a big way.

What we found was a hungry audience who wants artistically exciting material that is culturally relevant, but wants to experience it in a way that feels personal to them. This research was and is essential to our mission, and it became a turning point for us as we pivoted our programming and marketing strategies toward more sustainable and audience-satisfying models.

What inspired you to take the risk to present a city-wide opera festival in 2017? Why now?

We know that in order to fulfill all of our goals as an institution we need to be fearless. If we wait to take a risk, we’re going to die. But we also learned from both our market research and other industry models that our audiences would embrace this type of programming. Modern audiences, regardless of demographic, want things smartened up, they want to see challenging work. With so many entertainment options out there—not only on the stage or screen, but on phones and tablets—it’s not just a night out to them, and it can’t be. This hyper-urban festival model, the “Netflix-ing” of opera, presents it in a way that’s consistent with a lot of audience consumption elsewhere: as a binge-watching event. But it also allows those who prefer to subscribe to continue engaging with us throughout the season, and it lets those who want to try something new just dip their toe in. You get the best of all worlds.

Opera Philadelphia presents Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford as Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter and tenor Lawrence Brownlee. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier.

Opera Philadelphia Q&A: Content Block 2

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