Opera Birmingham this weekend presents “The Billy Goats Gruff,” a family-friendly piece featuring music from Mozart, Donizetti and Rossini. In advance of the show, Opera Birmingham General Director Keith A. Wolfe-Hughes talked about making opera more accessible and what patrons can expect this season, including an opera about Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan commissioned by Opera Birmingham.
First, can you tell me a bit about you? What’s your background? How did you end up at Opera Birmingham?
I started my career as a singer and choral teacher in Virginia, where I grew up. I went to graduate school in the Opera Studio at the University of Maryland, College Park, thinking I wanted to pursue a career as a solo artist. But about halfway through my degree, I realized that a solo career wasn’t really the best fit for me, for many reasons. I decided I wanted to finish my master’s degree and was planning to move back home to Virginia and be a chorus teacher. But my mentor, who was a singer himself making the transition to arts administration, offered me a position to work for him at Shreveport Opera. I hadn’t really thought of arts administration as a career, so I decided to try it out, and I really enjoyed still being able to be involved with creating opera (just not the pressure of being a performer). A year later, I moved to Fort Worth Opera with my mentor to be the managing director and worked there for 14 seasons, helping start a young artist studio and working on a number of world premiere operas. After a while, I decided I wanted to move up to running a company as the general director, and I did a number of interviews before applying to Opera Birmingham. After interviewing with the board, I was offered the position and moved to Birmingham in January 2015 to join the company as its next leader.
You have been here eight years. How much did the pandemic affect Opera Birmingham, and are y’all back fully?
The pandemic was a challenge, but it was also an opportunity for us to step back and really evaluate how we bring performances to our community, and think about what we want to be as an arts organization in Birmingham. We moved our performances outdoors to take advantage of the great weather we have almost year-round, and we adapted our pop-up “Opera Shots” concerts to perform them in parks and parking lots around Birmingham. So many people came out to those performances as first-time Opera Birmingham patrons and supported us with lots of new donations. That was very important because we were able to hire artists in Birmingham during a time when they weren’t able to perform anywhere else.
We also produced a couple of digital programs, including a video performance of our “Sounds of the Season” concert. That provided us with some new opportunities, including working with Alabama Public Television to broadcast the holiday concert around the state, which we wouldn’t have been able to do in a normal season. Those digital programs were great, but at that point in the pandemic (with so many other streaming options available), our patrons really weren’t engaging with video programs with the same enthusiasm as they did with our outdoor “Opera Shots” concerts. So, in the spring of 2021, we pivoted again and created a production of “The Pirates of Penzance” at the Avondale Park Amphitheatre, which sold out all three performances.
We returned to “normal” performances in fall of 2021, but I didn’t want to just go back to doing exactly what we had been doing before the pandemic shut down. We’ve continued doing our “Opera Shots” programs, working with a broad range of community partners to host those events. And the audiences continue to grow – my favorite is our season finale street party in downtown Birmingham at the Collins Bar, which draws 250 to 300 patrons each May. And the Avondale Park Amphitheatre is such a great space that we launched an annual family opera performance there each October, featuring a fun and family-friendly children’s opera. These fun, new programs combine with our more traditional theatrical productions to create a full season with something for everyone.
Tell me about the new season.
Our new season is really ambitious and groundbreaking for our company. I’m really excited about the world premiere of the opera we commissioned called “Touch,” about the lives of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, which will premiere in January 2024. We have been working on this project since 2019, so to see the final product coming together is really thrilling. We’re featuring two amazing Birmingham artists in the production – Alie B. Gorrie will be performing the role of Helen Keller, and Caleb Clark will sing John Macy (Anne Sullivan’s husband). I think audiences will be blown away by seeing this opera and learning about a part of Helen’s and Anne’s lives that most people don’t know about. And I’m proud of the work we have been doing to engage the deaf and blind community to create the opera and the new accessible opportunities we have implemented for all of our productions.
In October, we’ll be at Avondale Park for our family opera, “Billy Goats Gruff,” featuring a special guest appearance by Billy the Kidd (who became a local celebrity this summer when he explored Birmingham after escaping from his handler). After our public performance, we’ll take the show on the road for some school performances, and we’ve even been invited to tour the show to Meridian, Mississippi, for a performance. That will be followed in December with our annual holiday concert, “Sounds of the Season,” at Brock Recital Hall at Samford University. Our audiences have always enjoyed this concert of holiday carols and seasonal classics, and it’s a great way to get in a festive mood.
The tragic classic “Pagliacci” returns in April 2024 with a new production at the Dorothy Jemison Day Theater, featuring a few returning favorite artists and some new faces, joined by the Opera Birmingham Chorus and the Alabama Symphony. We’ve already launched our “Opera Shots” pop-up concert series, which will run throughout the year. And, our annual vocal competition is scheduled for March 2024, featuring some of the top emerging talent from across the country who come to Birmingham to compete for cash prizes and featured solo opportunities in future productions.
You can find out more details about all of these shows on our website, www.operabirmingham.org. There really is something for everyone this year.
What are the strengths of Opera Birmingham right now?
One of our strengths is the broad range of performances we offer to our community – Opera Birmingham is certainly not your grandparents’ opera company (to borrow a line from an old Oldsmobile commercial). Of course, we still do traditional opera performances, but we’ve expanded that to include contemporary works that help us connect with community partners and tell stories that are relevant to Birmingham and our history. We’ve also moved out of the theater and into the community with programs like “Opera Shots,” which give new audiences an easy way to give opera a try with a fun social event. And we’ve added family performances and school shows to help introduce kids to opera and the performing arts.
Another strength we have really built upon since I joined Opera Birmingham is tapping into the wonderful community of artists who live right here in Birmingham. We have worked with amazing designers who have created the sets and costumes for most of our productions over the last eight years. And we have featured the talented performers in Birmingham at so many of our events. I’m proud that we can help cultivate these performance opportunities and provide paying performance opportunities so these artists can continue to thrive in Birmingham.
And what challenges remain?
Competition for entertainment dollars is challenging – one of the things I liked about Birmingham when researching the city prior to moving here is that there is a vibrant arts community here. That’s certainly a blessing for patrons, since there is almost always at least one show or concert going on every weekend. But that does make it tough to compete for patrons’ time when they have to choose from so many different events. It is a challenge to make sure our message is being heard among all the other arts opportunities that are being advertised as well.
Another challenge isn’t unique to us – ticket sales only cover a small portion of the cost to put on a show. Ticket sales are definitely important, but nonprofit arts organizations rely on the support of donors to give us the full financial resources to put on an opera. There are so many moving parts – sets, costumes, solos and chorus, the orchestra – and that all adds up, especially with inflation making everything more expensive. That is why we encourage our ticket buyers to include a donation when they purchase tickets or consider making a gift when we reach out in our fundraising campaigns. All gifts, from the $25 and $100 donations our patrons make to the larger foundation gifts we receive, come together to make our shows possible.
My intuition is that opera is a “hard sell.” Why is that, and what can be done about it?
It’s true, so many people have a preconceived idea that they won’t like opera, that it won’t be for them – as an example, most operas are in a foreign language and people don’t think they will understand it. But what they don’t realize is that we have projected translations above the stage for all of our shows, so it’s easy to be engaged with the story (and the singers are also great actors who will draw you into their characters). Also, people know more opera tunes than they realize, since they show up in movies and commercials all the time.
One way we are working to change that idea is by taking opera out into the community. Concerts like “Opera Shots,” which have both opera and musical theater songs on the program, are a great way to try out an Opera Birmingham event – these concerts are free, usually no more than an hour and are always at a fun venue where you can hang out and enjoy a concert with friends.
We’re also programming works that connect more with our community – I love operas like “La Boheme” and will cry at the end every time Mimi dies. But people also want to see their own stories on the stage, and programming works like “Glory Denied”(connecting to the veteran community) and “dwb (driving while black)” gives people a powerful theatrical experience that reflects their life experience. Once they have tried some of these programs, we hope that makes them more comfortable coming to a more traditional opera performance.
For someone not familiar with opera, what would you tell them, and what are one or two operas you’d suggest they listen to?
Wow, that’s a tough question, because my list would probably change based on the person I’m talking to and what kind of stories or theater they are drawn to.
From the traditional operas, I would certainly have “Carmen” on the list – so many hit tunes that people would recognize, and the story is full of passion and drama. Opera is definitely great at amplifying and being very dramatic. I would also probably say Puccini’s “La Boheme,” both for the beautiful music and the classic boy-meets-girl love story.
But I think I would also recommend some modern works that have more depth than the traditional opera comedies and tragic stories – opera is very much alive, and new works are still being written that reflect our world today. From that group, I would recommend Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah,” set in a small Appalachian community and telling the Biblical story of Susannah and the elders as a modern allegory of classicism and religious bigotry. And Tom Cipullo’s “Glory Denied” tells the very emotional and touching true story of Col. Jim Thompson, who was held as a prisoner of war for nine years during the Vietnam War. The music is very intense and shows not just the effect of the imprisonment on Col. Thompson, but also the impact on his family, who had no idea if he was still alive or not.
Opera Birmingham presents “The Billy Goats Gruff,” featuring music from Mozart, Donizetti and Rossini, Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. at Avondale Amphitheater in Avondale Park. Stay after the performance to meet and greet Billy the Kidd, the Birmingham goat who escaped its owner earlier this year and became an internet sensation.