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.
Opera Grand Rapids Board of Trustees President Bob Evett on the balancing act between art and business, past and future, and tradition and innovation.
Bob Evett spends his time looking in two directions at once. As the President of the Board of Opera Grand Rapids for the past year, Bob shares the helm of the company with a handful of others. That job involves a series of delicate balancing acts: art and business, past and future, tradition and innovation.
He’s candid about his experience of navigating these dichotomies. Finding a balance is a challenging and fluid process, always in motion. But for Bob, the stakes were crystallized in the memory of a visit to the opera with his daughter, years ago. “Many years ago, we came to see The Magic Flute. The music was beautiful, and the story was interesting and appealing. But the nice thing about it was that I brought my daughter, who was in fourth grade at the time, and to see her face was almost magical. She was engulfed and engaged. She brought a friend, and they were just mesmerized.”
As someone who must manage aspects of budget, development, and planning, it’s crucial for people in Bob’s role to keep the emotional core of the opera experience close at hand. This means trying to step inside the perspective of our patrons.
“I think we have to maintain a balance,” says Bob. “We have to guard, protect, and celebrate traditional opera. It is the wonder and the beauty that has gotten us where we are.” There is a core audience who has grown up with a love of the classic grand opera tradition, and Opera Grand Rapids wouldn’t be relevant to those folks if we were reinventing the wheel with every performance. Performing the classic gamut of operas in a traditional way is also a service to the next generation of potential opera fans; just as in the world of theater, a radical, contemporary version of Hamlet can be wonderful, but burgeoning theater fans deserve the opportunity to see the play as Shakespeare intended, too. Both approaches can, and do, happily coexist under a single roof all over the country. That’s where the fine art of balance comes in.
Reflecting on this, Bob says, “We have to try new things. We also have to go to other venues. The outreach is important. Society is much different today than it was ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. We have to be accessible. We have to go where they are, and then we’ll get them excited about coming to where we are when we have those beautiful grand operas.”
To that end, OGR is shaking up the way people think about opera and getting outside of our building whenever we can. When a local opera fan recently turned 104, we took one of our singers to her retirement home to sing her happy birthday. We also like to give people a taste of opera in unexpected places: since 2014, we’ve been doing “flash mob” performances, where a group of performers coalesces in a public place and performs a scene from an opera like Carmen.
Singers love sharing their art with the community, whether it’s in DeVos Hall, at a local Rotary gathering, or in the public square. They also especially enjoy empowering others to participate in the art form, whether through a lifelong learning course at the local university or our Emerging Artists program.
“What’s probably most important is building relationships. Passion for the art is great; relationships really make it happen.” Bob is adamant about trying to build those relationships with a wider range of people in the community. Traditional opera is very much a product of its place and time. But the art form is often just as elegant when it’s telling stories about communities historically overlooked in the opera house, and Bob says patrons are responding to that. “We’re really starting to see more diversity in our audience,” he says. It’s important to opera as a whole and to us that people of all backgrounds and demographics feel welcome and engaged. From a business standpoint, it’s important for our growth to offer something for a wide variety of people. As artists and human beings, we’re delighted to be able to offer important stories that transcend time and place, like Maria de Buenos Aires, or the upcoming I Dream.
The innovation necessary to run a successful opera company isn’t limited to artistic concerns. Innovation on the business side is often necessary as well. During Bob’s tenure, Opera Grand Rapids has managed to perform within budget, and progressively announce its season earlier in the year, which aids the rest of the staff in its marketing endeavors.
A new partnership with Toledo Opera and Opera Carolina lets our companies share resources to recruit top talent. This means that all three companies can offer a tier of production value usually reserved for larger cities, while still maintaining artistic autonomy. “We can be extremely local, but collaborate on programming. For instance, you’re able to establish longer term contracts with the principles, you can share set design and costumes. So, we’re executing as a local opera, but with the resources of three organizations, rather than one. We have the innovation to leverage quality on one hand and efficiency on the other.”
We’re very fortunate to have a committed Board populated by people like Bob, who can use his experience with decision making at the corporate level to lead Opera Grand Rapids into the future. As we take the opera to new places (sometimes literally), Bob will be behind the scenes and in the audience, weighing decisions about the shape of opera to come.
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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As an integral part of our city’s artistic fabric, it’s our responsibility to see to its continual flourishing. Please consider donating to Opera Grand Rapids to ensure our artistic excellence for the next 50 years and beyond. You’ve already made us great. With your support, there’s no limits to the height our voices can reach together. Give today.