This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.
“In a way, [the arts field] is the social consciousness of our communities… With opera, particularly, and theater, we can be advocates for community unity. If we can draw people to what we do, so that they can share that experience, then we will have played out part in building a wonderful, embracing community. This is part of our mission.” – Artistic Director Maestro James Meena
We hear the word “diversity” invoked frequently in the media, and most institutions count increasing internal diversity among their organizational goals. At Opera Grand Rapids, diversity means much more to us than simply checking a series of boxes. As an arts organization, we are part of a grand cultural conversation, and we want to include everyone in that dialogue. We think that performances by and for people of all cultural backgrounds, ages, incomes, and perspectives make us a strong, vibrant community. But having those values is one thing; putting them into practice is another.
“Opera companies across the country have been working for more than a decade on building diverse audiences,” says Opera Grand Rapids Artistic Director James Meena. He says this initiative issues from arts organizations’ responsibility to their communities. “In a way, [the arts field] is the social consciousness of our communities. We also have assets we can leverage to bring people together for a shared experience not unlike what happens in sporting events. With opera, particularly, and theater, we can be advocates for community unity.” In that sense, Meena sees a performance of Rigoletto and a football game in much the same way: powerful live experiences that draw people of diverse backgrounds together to celebrate their shared passions. He sees opera as a form of positive social engineering. “If we can draw people to what we do, so that they can share that experience, then we will have played out part in building a wonderful, embracing community. This is part of our mission.”
To be an uplifting, unifying cultural force in the average community, opera has a lot of hurdles to overcome. The traditionally European artform must dislodge a mountain of stereotypes and a reputation for exclusivity if it is to appeal to people of all backgrounds and means. Says Meena, “The majority of the public does not view opera as being something that’s for them. They view it as something for the wealthy, who go to the opera in their furs and their diamonds, who want to be seen. That’s a stereotype. It’s not true, but it’s still what the majority of the public thinks.” (If you’re reading this, it is likely you have already found the opera to be more hospitable and less elitist than most.)
In order for OGR to have the diverse audience that opera deserves, we must employ diverse tactics in reaching new people. “In order for us to build audiences, and diverse audiences in particular, we have to extend ourselves to them,” Meena says. Opera Grand Rapids is not a traveling roadshow—it exists to serve Grand Rapids. It is imperative that we do so in a way that is as inclusive as possible. Sometimes that requires taking the opera to people where they live, work, and play. “We have to take our artists into the community,” says Meena. “That’s a way of expressing the welcoming nature of Opera Grand Rapids.” The maestro is confident that there are performances and stories for everyone, if opera can cross the chasm of people’s preconceptions. “We have to go meet with people, leaders, and organizations, and let them know the opera is a cultural institution belongs to them,” says Meena. “As members of the community, this is their opera company.”
For many people, the word “opera” may evoke an Italian period piece—a story concerned with courtly machinations and melodrama. While the pantheon of opera is populated with such stories, a creative explosion in recent years is producing operas that explore modern themes and employ innovative musical fusions, like OGR’s forthcoming performance of I Dream.
According to Meena, most operas began as topical, even contentious takes on issues of the day. “Opera stories, universally, have been very relevant. When Rigoletto was premiered, it was contemporary subject matter. It was about the nobility’s abuse of the middle class and the lower class, leading to social upheaval.”
Framed this way, I Dream, an opera about Martin Luther King, Jr., is firmly entrenched in the operatic tradition. It is also a great opportunity for us to take our artform outside the opera house and into the community; Opera Grand Rapids’ production of I Dream is part of the 32nd Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event at Fountain Street Church, and open to the public. “[This opera] is taking a subject which resonates with contemporary audiences and presenting it in a safe venue, through the operatic medium—a venue where people can reflect on a big idea,” says Meena.
The Artistic Director is eager to continue bringing opera to people in other parts of the city, with the hope they will eventually join us for a performance in DeVos Hall. Small stages, public parks, and breweries have all been popular choices for those opera companies willing to court younger audiences. The venue may be casual and familiar, but the experience is still extraordinary. “It’s still the same experience,” Meena says. “They’re hearing great music, and seeing great theater and drama. This is going to be a growing part of opera’s business model across this country.”
Most people simply aren’t familiar with the wonders of opera. Living up to our charge as a cultural institution means meeting people where they live—sometimes aesthetically, sometimes literally. It means creating a welcoming space for people of all cultures and backgrounds. It also means allowing people of all income ranges to feel comfortable spending an evening with us. And it means telling stories both classical and fresh. For us, diversity isn’t just a buzzword. It’s a common thread uniting timeless art and strong communities, and we are proud to make it a top priority.
OUR FOUNDERS HAD A BOLD PROPOSITION: to build a professional opera company that would put Grand Rapids on the map for a very discerning audience. 50 years later, we are humbled to be the modern bearers of classical standards and modern ingenuity. Learn more.
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