How Can We Be More for the Communities We Serve?




CC: How many years have you been running the opera?

JS: Four and a half years here. Before that I was running the Austin Opera in Texas for four years. Before that, I was the director of institutional relations at the Metropolitan Opera. I sang opera professionally for 8 years. I worked in finance for five years, so it’s been a wild ride.

CC: Talking about running the company here in town…What’s going on down at the opera since March? How have you adapted and pivoted? 

JS: I think part of this goes to the origin story of my family coming out here to begin with. Our sense of what we thought was possible for Arizona Opera for our impact on the community and compared to where the company was at the time and seeing this potential for more impact was really what drew us out here, and that takes a board and a staff that is willing to be part of meaningful change. Not just to be part of it, but to go on the journey together. I think that that culture that we’ve been able to build over the last 4.5 years together really prepared us in a cultural way as an organization to be able to do this pivot. So, beginning back in March, we came to the conclusion pretty quickly that live in-theater performance didn’t seem to be, from a public health standpoint, something that was likely to be possible within the calendar year.



CC: Let me stop you right there. How did you know that? How did you guys have that foresight to look forward? 

JS: I would say the conversation got going in March and over the next month to two months we gravitated on this idea, but we started engaging with that question really early on. I think part of the culture of a great organization is its ability to embrace the hard truths. Just looking at the best information we could see coming out – just trying to listen to the most credible voices to see where things were going. In that context, if we can’t be in the theater together what can we do that we can still create the impact that we’re committed to as an organization? That’s how we came up with our Reimagined 2021 season which is all live, outdoor, socially distance programing and digital offerings. Everyday it’s a challenge to try and figure out the answers to questions we never had to ask ourselves before, and in an industry where we tend to be glacial in the pace we move.



CC: How important is it to have people surrounding you, the decision maker, to pull that off? How do you put that team together and that mindset together? 

JS: We have gone through serious artistic changes at the outset of when I arrived here. We started with our traditional in-theater programming and totally reinventing that. Two seasons ago, we shifted our artistic model to include new theaters with smaller venues, where we present more forward leaning work. To the extent that major change was already part of our DNA, that’s what helped us. But to be honest, the challenge if it, there’s expertise, knowledge, whether it’s around intellectual property or the expertise needed to deliver this wonderful streaming experience. There’s a lot of information that we didn’t have onboard and being humble enough to say, “Here is something we can’t necessarily do well. We need to bring in help.”



CC: How do you keep morale up? 

JS: That’s still a daily reality. Anyone that tells you otherwise isn’t telling you the truth. I just want to give a shoutout to our team. I have the privilege of working with a great group of people on our staff and on our board. It gets crunchy. When you have a lot of high achievers who on any given day have to tackle questions they don’t necessarily know the answer to or problems we’re trying to solve together as a group that we don’t know how to solve yet. It can be demoralizing. I feel that my obligation as a leader, no matter how hard a day is, I’m going to commit myself to recharging my battery at the end of every night and coming back the next day bringing my best. Trying to create a context where that collaborative decision making can happen and trying to pull down obstacles from the pathway of my teammates.



CC: Can you use the analogy we spoke about before- the northstar analogy? 

JS: Arizona Opera’s long-term vision is to be an industry leader in artistic vitality, delivery of civic value and institutional strength and sustainability. You think about those pieces, what does artistic vitality mean in a normal time? We think about our offerings on stage. Artistic vitality still matters now, but we are thinking how can we reinvent our programming in a way that it still has a lot of richness to it? We have concert series that we are streaming online that we are trying to do in a really credible way from a production standpoint, but we’re also doing pioneering things. We’re doing a film adaption of the world premiere of The Copperqueen, which is a film we commissioned of the famous hotel that is haunted in Bisbee, Arizona. We have this program called Connection Lab, which is an online experience and a film festival that we’re doing at the Herburger theater this year. Creating these totally new digital experiences and public performance experiences which didn’t exist before. There’s your artistic vitality, and that’s paired with civic value. All these programs are designed with, how can we not just serve opera audiences, but how can we also soften that impermeable sphere that surrounds our artform and our community and reach other people and impact them?  Institutional strength and sustainability is an outcome of the first two. If you are really delivering vibrant programming that is adding value to the community, the institutional strength and sustainability is almost an outcome. We can’t take it for granted because that’s about relationships, it’s about fundraising. You need capital, but isn’t the case for earning that capital so much better when you are keenly focused on delivering that community value?



CC: It’s not a straight line to achieve all those goals now. It’s important for people to realize the goal is still out there, but it may be a different journey. 


JS: It’s a different journey. One of the things that’s tricky about this time is the amount of effort you put in to create a certain amount of output. It doesn’t feel proportional to what we’re used to. So now you have to redefine,”Was this day successful?” 

…I’m surrounded with people who are committed to a certain level of excellence. And to have to redefine that and not have a reference point, from an industry standpoint, “what does excellence look like?” “Did I do a great job today?” We all need that feeling at the end of the day. Did I crush it today? And crushing it today, doesn’t feel like crushing it did a year ago. You just have to find some way to get peace with that and to just come back and do it again the next day.



CC: What are the silver linings you will take from this?

JS: I think the biggest mistake that any organization can make out of this period of time is not to find a way to use this moment for learning how we can be more for the communities we serve.Even though we would have never chosen actively the very difficult path that the country and the world is on to get to this…I’d be shocked if we didn’t look back and say, “here are specific programs or elements of specific programs that will absolutely live on, maybe permanently, within the culture of, probably the entire industry, certainly the company as a way that we can reach more people, more profoundly.