Name: Jocelyn Bates O’Brien
Organization: Portland Summerfest Presents OPERA IN THE PARK
Annual Operating Budget: $76,000
Learn more at portlandsummerfest.org
Interview originally published on August 14, 2020.
How are the arts playing a role during this critical time?
Going forward in these uncertain times, we perceive that the arts will be more important than ever. People need respite, entertainment, education, and inspiration. The missions that arts organizations choose is not for their own need or benefit, it is for the community’s. The point of artistic work has always been to give to, to add to, to be there for the community. True human connections to other people are perhaps more important now than ever.
What has been the most notable / most unpredictable / most challenging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on your organization? Biggest financial challenge? Most challenging impact?
Our goal – to make opera accessible to everyone – is so intrinsically tied to being able to present world-class opera in a large setting – so we might reach the maximum number of people and do so in a family friendly and “approachable” way. In the past this has meant presenting at the amphitheater in Washington Park – to an audience of three to four thousand people. Given the very significant expense of recruiting some of the world’s most amazing singers, traditionally Met Opera stars, backed by a full orchestra and chorus, and offering it free to the public – this has meant that we could fund one concert on one day; hence, the need to invite everyone to one venue. The venue is also important, as referenced, because some families, especially those who have never experienced opera, might not be comfortable attending a concert even free in a concert hall or other unfamiliar or more structured setting. Families and friends picnicking in a beautiful outdoor setting is part of the experience. When we look at the photos of past concerts and see the amazing crowds, it makes our minds and hearts hurt, knowing that this venue, given the realities of COVID-19, is currently not possible. And, certainly hope for next summer, but the reality is that we do not know when it will be possible again.
The biggest financial challenge is that we are unable to ask individual and corporate donors for funding when they have their own financial uncertainties, and many of the foundations who support us are unable to this year (because we offer no concert) and have asked us wait o apply next year.
To date, what steps have you taken to mitigate that impact?
We have applied for and received COVID-19 funding from the OCF Reser Foundation, and we have applied for and received operating support from the Miller Foundation and the Autzen Foundation. The generosity of these foundations enable us to maintain our basic operating expenses through this year, which are minimal but real.
What kind of innovation in management has developed for your organization, and what challenges have you encountered when implementing new innovative ideas?
We have been holding our regular bi-monthly board meetings via zoom. We are fortunate to have an outstanding board that is open to new thinking but fiscally responsible. Our only challenge has been how much money to invest in experimenting with innovative or alternative venues and presentations given the reality that if we are able to present a concert next summer, financially we need to hold tight to our funds. We perceive that next summer will be perhaps our greatest financial challenge to date as an organization – given the impact of the pandemic on the economy in general, individual donations and grants specifically, but also the financial health and ability of Portland Parks & Recreation to host the Washington Park Summer Festival. I think as a board we are just on the cusp of starting to research and reflect on Summer 2021 and how we might optimally deliver on our mission.
What are the short-term and potential long-term effects of this shut down for your organization and the arts in general?
For our organization, the short-term effect is that we have had our 18th year of OPERA IN THE PARK cancelled this summer, August 9, and we have lost this opportunity to make opera accessible to everyone. The Washington Park amphitheater is, and has been for 17 years, the perfect venue to reach thousands of families and individuals with approachable, world-class opera, free to everyone.
For the long-term, the we are concerned about Portland Parks & Recreation as their budgets have been impacted tremendously due to closures and cancellations of their fee generating activities this spring and summer. PP&R is the host presenter of Washington Park Summer Festival, providing some facilities and staff to us and other musical groups. If they are unable to host the festival in coming years, we can rent the amphitheater ourselves, but would incur significant additional costs that we would have to find ways to fundraise for.
Ultimately, if the realities of COVID-19 make large group settings no longer possible then we will be challenged to intelligently and thoughtfully reimagine how to deliver operatic concerts live with world-class singers and orchestra to the greater PDX population. While digital recordings have their place, our mission has always been about creating full sensory experiences for families to enjoy this beautiful art form live in the company of community. And, when you complement the concert with a picnic or the gentle breeze through the trees or the setting sun, the entire experience is heightened. We particularly perceive that this setting, open air in a public park is especially important to introducing children and others to their first-ever opera experience.
The long-term effects for the arts in general will cause immeasurable hardship for all the artists, musical and theatrical organizations, and our entire cultural community will suffer great losses.
What is a positive collaboration or initiative born as a result of this situation within your organization or that you’ve seen from your peers and colleagues in the arts industry?
The PDX arts & cultural community has been astonishingly impressive in experimenting with innovative or alternative venues and presentations. We strive to keep aware of and learn from these efforts. As shared earlier, given our dedicated funding of one free summer operatic concert, OPERA IN THE PARK, we need to be extremely savvy of any other opportunities that incur expenses. Perhaps what we are most looking forward to are future collaborations and initiatives. I perceive that the shutdown and specifically the impact on the arts & cultural community has reinforced that arts is a small world and we are all in this together – our missions are all related and we need one another. We have already started to reflect on how our future might look with the potential for amazing new collaborations with other PDX arts & cultural organizations.
We have had an equity statement for many years, but we have made the commitment to reflect on and create a more robust and authentic Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Statement that dives deep into our structure and practices. We are all about making opera more accessible to more people and have done that for years. Last January, we teamed with Portland Public Schools and sponsored African-American Soprano, Angela Brown, who presented her program “Opera from a Sistah’s Point of View” to nearly 1000 kids in the Franklin and Roosevelt clusters, where 40% of students qualify for free and reduced lunches. She introduced and de-mystified opera to enraptured and appreciative audiences of students and teachers alike. We also teamed with the World Arts Foundation so that Ms. Brown could sing in the Martin Luther King Day Celebration, and afterwards present her program to the public free of charge in North Portland.
What is the biggest lesson learned as a leader during this crisis?
We cannot control everything and we can’t beat ourselves up for it. We have to be flexible, nimble, think outside the box, be transparent and mostly, be understanding and helpful to others, and of course, everyone needs the arts in their lives for balance.
Understanding that the future is hard to predict, how might the lasting impacts of COVID-19 change your upcoming season? Should the tone of pieces or performances change?
Based on the realities of COVID-19, if we are unable to hold OPERA IN THE PARK in August 2021 specifically at the amphitheater in Washington Park, we will need to reimagine what is the most effective or optimal way to reach the maximum number of PDX families and individuals in an approachable and accessible venue; to act on our goal to make opera accessible to everyone.
Opera is a beautiful and powerful art form that without accessibility to everyone might otherwise be lost. It is perhaps intriguing that opera speaks to some of the most complicated plots in life: murder, mayhem, love, lust, blood and betrayal. It also speaks to joy and love.
On the board we have spoken to the desire, to the need to return with our most exciting, our most important art ever – to underscore arts & cultures’ power to unite us again as a community.
Regarding the creative process, what has been a source of inspiration for you/your organization at this time or how has your creative process changed and evolved? What outlets or channels have you sought out to continue to express your creativity, personally and/or professionally?
Source of inspiration? We have been very cognizant of what some of the leading opera companies and festivals around the world have navigated through in these unprecedented times — their decisions to cancel performances and strive to maintain a presence. Like our own arts & cultural community, the world’s arts & cultural community has also been astonishingly impressive in experimenting with innovative or alternative venues and presentations. The leadership of the Metropolitan Opera in opening their archives to the world for free was, and continues to be, an enormous inspiration for opera-lovers everywhere. Many singers have performed in virtual concerts/interviews/panels to keep opera alive for opera fans, the vast majority of which have also been free. We have strived to keep aware of and learn from these efforts and to share them with our followers via social media.
What outlets or channels have we sought out to continue to express our creativity? We strive to be aware of PDX arts & cultural opportunities and stay intellectually involved in the dialogue. Last fall we were invited by the Zidell Family to join their new Arts Community by renting our first office space in Old Moody. This venture out of our home offices into a collaborative community space where the dialogue and supportive atmosphere is constant, has given us the opportunity to create new partnerships and ways of presenting opera. In June we experimented and collaborated with some of the Arts Hub partners to produce a test of the “Old Moody Road Show”, an outdoor arts experience that could be viewed safely by small numbers of patrons at a time, in their cars in a drive-thru set-up. While ultimately the successes were mixed with many technical challenges, it did demonstrate collaboration across at least six arts groups and some thinking outside the box.
We are currently partnering with the award-winning film/video director Takafumi Uehara (Amazing Productions) to produce a series of film shorts pro bono to tell the story of OPERA IN THE PARK. Many in the public do not understand who we are and what we do, and we think these will be helpful tools. The project is giving us a renewed sense of our mission and how it might evolve in the future.
What message do you have for the artists and fellow art leaders in our community today?
We must not give up hope nor give up on what drives us. There will be much good that comes out of this. Artists and art leaders have a real contribution to make to the health of our society, they are missed and it is very possible that they will reemerge making a very noticeable and positive impact in our communities.
What question do you wish someone would ask?
Why isn’t and how can the arts be better supported in our communities and nationally for the great contributions it makes to our health, our education and balance in our lives; AND
The intersection of Covid-19 with the Black Lives Matter movement has raised the visibility of the lack of Blacks not only in the performing end of the opera world, but in the administration and arts management end in particular. How can plans be developed that actually have a viable chance of success to address this situation?
When looking to the future, what brings you hope?
Though these are very difficult times, we are determined to continue to nurture what is at the core of everyone who has devoted their lives to the vocal arts and music — to present live concerts and great works of music and bring joy and inspiration to our wonderful audiences.
We look to a brighter future and returning to our cherished experiences of music’s power to unite us again as a community.
About OPERA IN THE PARK:
Portland SummerFest’s OPERA IN THE PARK presents annual free operatic performances at the beautiful outdoor Washington Park Amphitheater in southwest Portland. The performance at Washington Park has been presented since 2003 as part of Portland Parks and Recreation’s annual Washington Park Summer Festival.
Audiences of all ages and backgrounds come to Washington Park to enjoy this unique contribution to the cultural life of Portland. Presented in concert format with full orchestra and lively narration, these concerts have introduced thousands of Portlanders to the world of opera and been avidly attended by a growing number of loyal fans.