"Vanity company" is a derogatory term used to identify opera companies, usually relatively small, which are founded and run by a singer who also performs with the company, often in leading roles. The implication is that the singer in question cannot get work anywhere else, and therefore must create his or her own venue for performance, and that that is to be derided. The further implication is that this singer must not be very good, and that the enterprise exists solely (or mainly) to feed the ego of the self-made star.
I asked friends in the business to offer their own definitions of "vanity company". There were many thoughts on the matter, but the unifying factor seemed to be that the company exists mainly to serve the founders. Bass Milo Morris put it best. "I define it loosely as a company founded to serve the needs of the founders ONLY. Some of the characteristics include casting only board members, letting only board members direct, etc.
There's nothing wrong with creating your own venture. And there is certainly nothing wrong with creating your own performing opportunities. But if you are not serving the public, and you are not serving the industry, then you probably have a vanity company."
True vanity companies do exist, and because of the negative connotations of the label, many legitimate singer-producers operate in fear of being unfairly branded. The term itself is overused and sometimes misapplied, and singer-producers should not have to live in its shadow or allow it to curtail their activities. The mere fact that a singer has founded a company, is producing, and also sings with the company does not make that a vanity company. And it doesn't make that singer Florence Foster Jenkins.
Opera is a difficult business to inhabit, whether as a producer or a performer. There are always many, many more talented and qualified singers than there are jobs. Producing requires an enormous amount of work and resources. Why should someone who goes out and creates her own work --- being paid to pursue her passion and also managing to be a job creator for others --- be the subject of derision? Many larger organizations showcase favorite artists season after season and depend heavily on the vision, connections, and personality of their leadership to create and maintain a following. What makes an opera company founded and run by a singer who also performs there any different? Furthermore, it's patently unfair that a singer who has much to offer on stage should be forced to retire from the limelight simply because he or she also has the talent and drive to produce --- a perfectly logical continuance of a performing career.
In a time when the big opera companies are folding right and left, when donations are drying up, and it's clear that for this art form to survive we must develop new business models, much of the new and exciting work and attraction of new audiences is being done by small, adventurous companies who are willing to explore non-traditional venues, casting, and repertoire --- including some loving tail-tweaking of some of opera's most sacred cows. They do not exist to replace grand opera; rather, their very existence supports it by making the art form intimate and accessible to different audiences; by stimulating their interest in experiencing the grander versions; by providing performers who may not otherwise have opportunities to grow as artists and exercise their talent; and by keeping opera alive at a grassroots level in the community.
My hometown of Austin, TX bills itself as the Live Music Capital of the world. When most people hear that, they think of 6th Street or South by Southwest or Austin City Limits; but we have countless professional, semi-professional, and amateur choruses, classical music ensembles, and no fewer than 5 professional and community opera companies, not counting the Butler Opera Center at the University of Texas: Austin Opera, the Austin Gilbert & Sullivan Society, Spotlight on Opera, LOLA (Local Opera Local Artists ---more on them later), and One Ounce Opera. Representatives from these organizations meet monthly to catch up, share ideas, and offer mutual support. We each have different missions, styles, and aesthetics --- but we are united by our love of opera and our passion to see it thrive. And yes, many of us sing with our own companies, the same companies where we put in untold hours of often uncompensated work and personal funds to keep running.
We are not alone. There are scores of companies that some might dismiss with the casually assigned and undeserved moniker of "vanity company". Let's highlight a few of them, and explore why they are, in fact, important contributors to the world of opera and to their own communities, worthy of respect and support.
If the criteria of being branded a vanity company centers on performers creating their own opportunities, Boston Opera Collaborative could in some ways be considered the ultimate such venture. It was founded in 2005 by mezzo-soprano Brooke Larimer, soprano Katie Drexel, and conductor Markus Hauck, who hoped to learn more about the business in a hands-on way and provide performing opportunities for young artists bridging the gap between graduate school and a professional career -- including themselves. Originally, the organization operated like a club or a co-op. Members were obligated to take on some production and administrative duties in exchange for performance opportunities. The organization has now evolved to include a board of directors which does not include voting artist members; they hire professional artistic and executive directors, and pay artist members a small stipend. They have produced seventeen full or condensed productions and a variety of concerts, scene programs, and recitals, including productions of Dead Man Walking, La cenerentola, Rinaldo, and most recently, a version of Gounod's Faust called Faust et Marguerite.
Sugar Creek Opera, formerly known as Sugar Creek Symphony and Song, was founded in 2003 by soprano Helen Todd, in her tiny hometown of Watseka, IL. Now in its 13th season, Sugar Creek boasts an apprentice program (the apprentices get their own mainstage show, in addition to singing chorus, comprimario, and covers for the guest artist show), a sister company in Cleveland, and a recent $10,000 NEA grant for their 2016 season. Past productions have included I pagliacci, Cold Sassy Tree, The Daughter of the Regiment, Madama Butterfly, and Die Fledermaus. Todd regularly --- but not always --- appears in the leading soprano role; her husband Daren photographs the productions and puts together publicity videos, and occasionally her two young daughters also appear. It may be a family affair, but I doubt anyone could accuse Todd, represented by well-respected artists' manager Peter Randsman and known internationally for her interpretations of roles like Turandot, The Queen of the Night, and Lucia di Lammermoor, of founding a company and mounting productions merely to assuage her ego. I have sung with her company twice. Todd hires mainstage artists who would (and are) at home on some of the world's biggest stages, and the apprentices who sang chorus a few years ago are now showing up as principals in opera houses across the country.
Opera MODO was founded in 2011 in Princeton, NJ by Executive Director and mezzo-soprano Danielle Wright; its Development Director is soprano Katrina Van Maanen. Both women pursue performing careers away from Opera MODO. Wright produced seven shows in Princeton, but when she relocated to Detroit, MI, so did the company (although it maintains ties to Princeton). Its mission is to provide young, non-managed singers with opportunities, collaborating with local artists and businesses, and it specializes in fresh settings and imaginings of traditional works. The company is currently producing a version of Carmen set in a women's prison, a direct nod to the popular Netflix series Orange is the New Black, and starring countertenor Bryan de Silva as the transgender title character. It has recently received a great deal of local press and a $20,000 matching grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in support of the current production. The grant allows Wright to pay her singers a stipend for Carmen, and she hopes this production will be the game-changer that allows her to continue to pay. Previously, singers were not compensated; nor did they pay to sing.
LOLA (Local Opera Local Artists) is a relatively young company, formed in 2014 by mezzo-soprano and arts administrator Liz Cass and stage director Rebecca Herman in Austin, TX. Their mission is to cultivate the future of opera by offering new approaches to the genre. LOLA has produced three shows, all starring Cass and directed by Herman, but also providing paid performance opportunities to other local artists. Performing at The North Door, a nightclub near Austin's fashionable 6th Street bar district, LOLA recently concluded a successful and critically acclaimed revival of their first production, La femme boheme, an all-female version of the Puccini classic. They have also produced La cabaret de Carmen, a condensed version of the opera reimagined as Carmen as a singer in Escamillo's cabaret, with Micaela as a waitress and Don Jose as an enamoured veteran suffering from PTSD. Cass and Herman fund each production via crowdsourcing with tickets as the premium, an interesting and thus far highly successful gambit.
The Oshawa Opera Company in Oshawa, Ontario is the brainchild of mezzo-soprano Kristine Dandavino, a resident of the small city about 40 miles east of Toronto. She wanted to bring opera to her area and provide opportunities for local performers. Now in their third season, they produce condensed operas and concerts, including Carmen, La traviata, and Fidelio, to great critical acclaim. In addition to producing, Ms. Dandavino frequently sings roles, stage directs, music directs, and sometimes even accompanies productions on piano. She has amassed an impressive list of corporate and private sponsors and pays her singers. "We pay, sometimes its profit sharing, sometimes it is a small fee, "" says Dandavino."It's very small but, you know, I am proud to say that it's something. All the performers are made aware. So, they know going in. Nobody has to 'pay' to sing."
Is this a vanity company? The press doesn't think so. "Dandavino deserves kudos for daring to include such challenging repertoire in a community that might not be perceived to be a receptive environment for it. She rose to the challenge and left her audience with a very memorable first season," wrote John Arkelian for Arts Forum Canada.
Center Stage Opera in the San Fernando Valley was founded by singer couple Dylan F. and Shira Renee Thomas. The company is a true family affair! The Thomases serve as co-Artistic Directors, and Mr. Thomas is also the principal stage director. Ms. Thomas' father, Jerry Brown, is the General Director and her stepmother, Gencie Turner, serves as board secretary and does much behind-the-scenes work. The company produces fully staged operas, concerts, and a vocal competition, as well as outreach, educational, and senior programs, and professional development for singers, instrumentalists, and technicians; and they pay their singers.
While both Thomases sing with the company, they have made it their mission to avoid being branded a vanity company. "We always make a point to double cast any role we sing, so that someone else gets the opportunity as well. It is and has always been incredibly important to us that CSO not be a vanity company, and that we be providing really valuable opportunities for up-and-coming singers, instrumentalists, techies, and others working in theater (and opera in particular)," says Ms. Thomas. "There have been many, many people who have worked with us and then gone on to bigger companies, and we are super proud of that. We are also very proud of our vocal competition, which has hosted such star judges as Rod Gilfry, Milena Kitic, Joshua Winograde (of LA Opera), and Nicole Cabell."
Spotlight on Opera, my own small company, has undergone many changes since its founding 10 years ago as a one-week summer training program at a local university. Since then, it has become first a sole proprietorship and just this year, a 501(c) 3; and its offerings over the years have included an intensive four-week summer training program producing concerts, scenes, and fullscale operas; a community opera troupe offering concerts, scenes, and one-acts; and most recently, incorporating opera in concert designed to provide opportunities for singers at all stages of development, from emerging artist to professional. Our ultimate goal is to provide a tuition-free, merit-based summer program to deserving singers and to operate a professional, paying concert opera with a training component for company members in the development stages of their careers. I occasionally sing with the summer program (mainly for fundraisers or publicity outings) and frequently with Spotlight's concert opera; and once I jumped into a scenes program when our Third Lady turned up sick! However, only once in our 10 years of operation has a faculty member sung a role in the summer program; we prefer to cast students as much as possible.
The above examples are only a few out of scores of small, singer-founded opera companies throughout North America that are reaching out to new audiences, creating opportunities for local or developing artists, and offering creative solutions to opera on a limited budget. As an added bonus, these companies frequently perform in smaller venues, allowing a more intimate connection with the art and artists than can be gained in a large theater. There is something wonderfully visceral about opera on a small scale, where the energy between stage and audience fairly crackles.
I challenge opera lovers everywhere to look around your own community: there may be a hidden gem, lacking a big advertising budget and production values on a grand scale; but harboring the stars of tomorrow and indeed stars you're accustomed to hearing on bigger stages, as well as offering up a fresh and exciting perspective on the art form. They're a vital and legitimate part of the world of opera, and they deserve support, encouragement, and respect.