Sunday, April 28, 2019

Interview with the Minnesota Opera on its Vitality Arts Program

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on.............."

This is the first of seven interviews with Aroha Philanthropies Vitality Arts grantee organizations on their creative aging programming.  The hope is organizations that might be considering launching their own senior creative aging program might benefit from some insider insights by organizations that have taken that step, by highlighting their experience.  Included at the end of each interview  are the observations / comments of one or more of the participants in the program, which, it is hoped, might be beneficial in telling the story of this kind of programing, and helping in leveraging the participation of funders, public agencies, potential collaborators and partners in joining a new effort.

First Up:  MINNESOTA  OPERA - In 1963, the commission of Minnesota composer Dominick Argento’s The Masque of Angels sparked the creation of a small Twin Cities opera company spotlighting the rare and avant-garde. Over fifty-five years later, Minnesota Opera is a leading American company, admired as an innovative creator of compelling opera productions, programs, and new works.

They describe their Vitality Arts program - VOICES OF OPERA - as Making a joyful noise with people 55+

Minnesota Opera is proud to announce its newest education initiative, Voices of Opera, an opera chorus for adults 55+. Whether you have sung in the church choir for years or last sang in your high school choir, Voices of Opera encourages you to join with fellow musicians to perform famous operatic excerpts and other choral favorites.

Here are the questions asked of the Organization::

Barry:  What made you want to pursue a vitality arts program for seniors?  Had you had previous experience with crafting programs specifically designed to appeal to seniors?

MN  OPERA:  MN Opera saw the growing need in our community to engage this population with high-quality art-making experiences. Beyond presenting a series of fully-staged opera, we are committed in serving our community by using the knowledge and resources we have as a company, in new, and non-traditional ways. Prior to Voices of Opera we had only just dabbled into the vitality arts area. We provide plenty of opportunities for older adults to enjoy opera as spectators. It was the creation of the art form that was a new angle to learn.

Barry:  Your project focused on an opera choir. Why did you choose that specific discipline?

MN  OPERA:  We have tried some other programs for older adults that were not performance-based, but saw this opportunity to try something different. MN is called the “land of 10,000 choirs” so we knew there was a large community of people who like to sing. Building from that base, we thought there would be a group of people who’d like the chance to sing something that they are not going to sing with their church choir.

Barry:  When you conceived the project, what obstacles and barriers did you identify, and was the reality of designing, then implementing, the project pretty much as expected, or were there elements that surprised you?

MN  OPERA:  The biggest obstacle we faced was the unknown. We have a long history of providing K-12 programs, presenting performances for people of all ages, etc., but we just didn’t know how many folks there were that would want to sing operatic choral music. Was that the way they would want to engage with the art form? Beyond that, we were not going to audition participants, so we didn’t know what the music reading ability of the participants might be, or if they could read music at all. And that’s not even considering we were going to stage some of the music!

Barry:  In creating a budget for the project, what line items were included?  Were there expenses that were unanticipated?  Did you leverage additional funding from other sources?  What sources and how difficult was raising the additional funding?

MN  OPERA:  The budget for the program was fairly consistent to many of our other education programs – Teaching Artists, accompanists, space rental, supplies, promotion, etc. We did not run into many unanticipated expenses, as we had a pretty good idea of the scope and scale of what we were going to offer.

We were able to leverage additional funding by identifying others who are interested in the work. VOO created buzz throughout the Twin Cities, which we were able to connect with others who are excited about this type of work.

Barry:  Did you accurately identify the workload and time involved that management of the project ended up taking, and can you describe that workload and the time involved?  How did you develop your team to oversee the project?  What elements did you include?

MN  OPERA:  The big areas of workload included: identifying the locations (which included a partner who was new to MN Opera), creating a participant recruitment plan, organizing the culminating event, planning the lessons, and evaluating the program. Since the program manager is the lead Teaching Artist, much of the administrative work was streamlined. There were frequent check-ins throughout the entire process as to discuss our progress.

Barry:  The Aroha projects mandated inclusion of teaching artists to conduct the training for the senior participants.  How did you go about recruiting those teaching artists or were they members of your company?  What was involved in their training and involvement that you didn’t anticipate at the outset?  Were there benefits to the teaching artists involvement that came as a bonus?

MN  OPERA:  All the TA we used had a long history with us, some in creating aging work but mostly K-12 programs. All were very interested and motived by the idea of VOO, and so were very willing to dig in and craft an appropriate program. Since this was such a new area for us, we did not anticipate the exact role of our stage director. We did not know how mobile the participants might be, if they had any experience taking direction, and how it would impact their ability to sing some fairly complex music (what an opera chorus is all about!). As the program progressed, we did get a better sense of what we could ask of the participants but it required adept TAs who could make adjustments on the fly in regards to moving people around the stage.

Barry:  Did the project involve any collaborative efforts and / or partnerships with other organizations within the community, such as with universities, senior centers, care facilities or otherwise?  How did those come about and how did they work?  How critical were those to the success of the project?

MN  OPERA:  We partnered with one location and org that was new to us, a theater that we have had a decades long relationship with, and our own building. The location that was new was chosen because of their extensive programming for older adults, rehearsal and theater space, ample free parking, and daytime availability. All of these issues were satisfied with the our other off-site location and in our building. However we had over 150 people register for the program in our building which was more than we could handle. We found another near-by site which worked fine but we did lose some of the cache of holding the program at the Mn Opera Center. Ultimately a good partner and location are critical to the success of a program like this. Everyone needs to be on the same page in terms of goals and objectives to make it a success.

Barry:  Who did you target as participants in the project?  Was recruiting senior participants easy or difficult?  How did you deal with issues such as non-native speaker participants, diversity recruitment, dealing with transportation issues of the senior participants etc.

MN  OPERA:  We targeted the MN Opera “family” (ticket buyers, past participants in various other MN Opera programs), and the contacts of the two off-site locations. Our recruiting efforts were built on our typical audience member who is middle class, white, and speaks English. However we were surprised to learn that the majority of our participants are still working and which lessened any transportation issues, and really appreciated our evening rehearsals.

Barry:  What kinds of marketing did you employ in recruiting senior participants?

MN  OPERA:  Through social media, a print post card, and a few in-program ads, were our primary means of promotion.

Barry:  What criteria did you use to determine if the project succeeded from the organization’s point of view?  How did you evaluate the project during its course and post completion?

MN  OPERA:  Criteria we used to measure our programmatic efforts was through – # of participants, # of participants who continued throughout the entire course, and the quality of experience the participant experienced, such as how they described “what VOO meant to them.”  Institutionally, we measured the program by ability to ID potential future funders, and the board and senior leadership ability to articulate the program’s outputs and outcomes.

Barry:  What lessons did you learn from your experience with the project in the provision of services to seniors in the creative aging arena?  How will you apply what you’ve learned to the sustainability of offering new and additional projects to the senior community in the future?

MN  OPERA:  A big lesson we learned was that you just have to start somewhere. We were not sure who would sign up, what their abilities might be, or if performing this type of repertoire was valuable to people. But we jumped in with both feet with a clear sense of asking questions of the participants and allowing time for reflection with the staff. We also are using this knowledge to consider what future version of VOO might look like, in particular a residential, sleep-away camp.

Barry:  What were the overall pros and cons, logistically and otherwise, in designing, creating, and implementing the project?  What benefits were there to the organization - e.g., new volunteers, new support, new audience members, greater community involvement, media coverage, expanded organization image within the community etc.?

MN  OPERA:  The overall pros of this program was that it provided a needed way for our patrons to engage with opera and MN Opera in a deeper, more meaningful way. We were surprised as to the intensity of response by many of the participants. We assumed people would enjoy making music together, but to hear and read the incredible value the participants found in VOO was remarkable. We are just at the beginning stages in understanding the benefits VOO has on the Mn Opera.

Barry:  Would you recommend that other arts organizations consider creating and launching their own creative aging vitality arts programs?  What are the major considerations arts organizations ought to consider before embarking on the launch of their own programs?  What are the specific considerations in your experience that operas ought to consider in planning a creative aging vitality program?

MN  OPERA:  I would highly recommend other arts org’s consider creative aging programs. As I mentioned above, come up with an idea and do as much pre-planning as possible but understand that your leaning is just beginning. Be open to the idea that, if you are new to this type of work, that there is a lot you don’t know. But draw upon your participants to share their experiences and insight to help guide you efforts. Not only are older adults able to make art, they can be very articulate in terms of assessing the delivery of your program.

Barry:  What advice would you give those organizations gleaned from your experience?

MN  OPERA:  Talk to others who have developed creative aging programs, and try to find some training/PD for your TAs. This type of work is close to K-12 teaching but it is different, and different in some meaningful ways.

Barry:  Do you intend to continue to offer these kinds of program to the senior community?  Why or why not?

MN  OPERA:  Yes we intend continue and expand our programming. The sky’s the limit at this point in terms of what we can do. Hopefully before too long we will be mounting a fully staged opera performed and created entirely by older adults!

Program Participant Thoughts:

Susan Schoenecker is a seventy-three year old retired Geriatric Nurse Practitioner.  She has a BA in Music - piano performance - and taught both privately and at a local Community College.  She had some past choral singing experience.  Her oldest daughter is a local singer / teacher, with opera chorus experience.  She volunteers as an usher at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts, takes a weekly Ballet Barre class and the occasional painting class too.  She likes to read and have lunch with her friends.

Asked why she signed up for the Voices of Opera program, she said:
“I really liked the idea of doing something new musically, which was challenging and exciting.  The very thought of singing opera made me tingle.  Singing in languages other than English was definitely a brain-bender. I am always looking for experiences that will keep my brain functional and also expand my horizons as I age. This was a unique opportunity.”

When asked to rate the program, she offered:
I would rate this experience a 10 out of 10.  I had some initial reservations about the vocal experts of this project, but my overall experience exceeded my expectations for personal accomplishment.  The social benefits were great!  I now have three new close friends [not easy to do with aging] and many new acquaintances.”

She says she plans
to continue to participate in the program, and perhaps seek out other vocal or music activities as well.  The experience did get me back to playing the piano more by re-stimulating my musical gene.”

When asked how the program might be improved, she noted that:
“I would like to see a more culturally diverse group if possible.  Maybe do some outreach to our rich, culturally diverse communities.”  She added that as the next iteration of the program was to include an expanded rehearsal time, that she thought that would make them even better prepared.

Her advice to anyone interested in the program:
“There are NO Auditions.  We are a friendly group and I encourage anyone interested to try.  Come join the fun!  Music is like life, always something new to learn and experience”

Thank you to Jamie Andrews | Chief Learning Officer, Minnesota Opera 
and to Susan Schoenecker for their participation in this interview.

More interviews in this series coming next month.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.