Entrepreneurship and Career Development

Entrepreneur of the Month

Kevin Patterson

Entrepreneur of the Month: March

The Future of Opera in America

Opera innovator and Jacobs alumnus Kevin Patterson is Project Jumpstart's March Entrepreneur of the Month. Kevin is an established producer, director, and educator who has worked at some of the largest companies in the United States, including the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Santa Fe Opera, and Opera Pittsburgh. Kevin also brings a wealth of experience from working with several regional companies. He was appointed General Director of Indianapolis Opera in 2015.

Project Jumpstart: There's a consensus amongst industry professionals that we are in the midst of a very challenging time for opera. Despite this idea, you seem to have a more positive outlook on the current opera scene. What has led you in this direction?

Kevin Patterson: We like to look at our art form as static and I think it’s a complete fallacy to run down that path. If we think about the way opera is taught at schools and all the history classes we take at IU, they all say that opera evolved. It went from Monteverdi and has made its way through Verdi and Puccini and now to contemporary opera.

I think that we are living through a sort of Renaissance of opera, as there is more new opera being created than in any other time in America since the 1950’s. We have companies who are now innovating in ways that they would have never considered before.

Here at Indianapolis opera just in the last year, we have moved from Clowes Hall at 2200 seats to the Schrott Center for the Arts at 415 seats. We have moved away from the standard repertory that would have been our bread and butter a decade ago in the Bohème’s and Butterfly’s. We just produced an American premiere of Mansfield Park, and next fall, we will be performing a world premiere. A decade ago, that would have been unheard of for Indianapolis Opera.

I believe this is a great time to be in the opera business. It’s always challenging. If art were easy, everyone would do it; however, I don’t believe for a moment that opera is in its swan-song in America.

Mansfield Park

Indianapolis Opera's recent production, and American premiere,
of Mansfield Park by Jonathan Dove. Photo by Dennis Ryan Kelly Jr.

PJ: What do you think the purpose of opera is in today's society?

KP: Companies need to stay relevant in order to engage their community. For example, last August when we produced The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, we partnered with eight organizations in medical fields, such as pharmaceutical companies, psychologists, and neurologists to use the opera to start a dialogue about mental health, Alzheimer's, and caregiving in the community. By creating outside partnerships, we were able to help and bring awareness to important organizations and causes, and by extension, strengthen the community. That is the true key to keeping these art forms alive and relevant.

PJ: What do you think current opera companies need to be doing in order to facilitate all of these changes in their audiences and in the industry overall?

KP: It's about being engaged in the community. It's about saying important things. It's about driving dialogue and conversations and not letting ourselves fall into the trap of saying, "Oh, it's just good enough to be a presenatational art form. It's good enough for the audience to come and buy a ticket, sit down, and consume what we do." I would agree that arts audiences are changing just like the rest of our industry is changing. That said, I think that more companies, hopefully like ourselves, will begin to see a resurgence. I do think we have to work harder to engage our audiences and certainly here at Indianapolis Opera, one of the challenges we face is getting the audience back into the theater. We are constantly striving for audience growth and retainment.

PJ: You're relatively new in your position as General Director of Indianpapolis Opera. What are some of your ideas for the future of the company?

KP: We made the decision to relaunch Indianapolis Opera in January of 2015 based on three core areas: the voice, the stage, and the storytelling. The voice is greatest form of human expression and we are going to concentrate on the voice. Second, the stages on which we perform should not be presentational; we are not a cinema where you to sit down and consume the work and walk out with no real impact. The opera stage is a forum for engagement and dialogue. We want people to think and we want audiences to come and experience our story. We want them to walk away thinking differently about the world. The final area that we look at is about storytelling. It is our stories that define our humanity as a civilization. With the stories that we tell at Indianapolis Opera, whether they are a classic work or a world premiere, we work to advance our community and culture.

If we are able to achieve each of these goals, then we have reached the highest purpose for art. Art serves to drive society; it's not a commodity. It's time to drive opinion and dialogue and be a transformation change in a community, and I think we have the ability to do that.

PJ: How has your perception of the necessary skills needed to succeed in this industry changed based on the work you're now doing at Indianapolis Opera?

KP: When people ask me what I do for a living, I say, “I produce opera,” and they say, “What does that mean?” and I always come back to them and I say, “I manage expectations.” It’s a skill that you’re not taught. You’re not taught how to bring a group of people together who don’t know each other, in a location in which they’ve never been, where they’re all supposed to act as professionals. Most of the time they’re working with a director and a production team that they’ve never worked with before, and out of that, in a two or three week rehearsal period, you are to put a work of significance on stage. So, a lot of what I do on a daily basis is managing expectations and managing an environment for my singers, production team, staff, and board members, which will enable people to do the best work that they can possibly do. Learn to manage the environment, not the people. Learn to manage the expectations of the people and not the people themselves.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

Indianapolis Opera's production of The Man Who Mistook His Wife
for a Hat by Michael Nyman. Photo by Dennis Ryan Kelly Jr.

PJ: What tools do you think young, recently graduated artists need to have in their arsenal in order to excel in this changing world?

KP: Artists coming out of universities need to realize that you create your own opportunites. No one creates opportunities for you. Leave yourself open to explore possibilities. Let the world artistically feed you. Always look for ways to learn. Students also need to realize that your network is your future. The really important connections are the ones you make every day. Also, you have to understand that your brand is based on a mission and vision. As an artist, don’t be aimless. I know from the career that I have been blessed to be a part of that there were as many things that I chose to do and not do. And I knew the difference because I had a plan. I knew there were places that I wouldn’t go as an artist. The money might have been good or the opportunity might have looked interesting on the surface, and maybe I should have taken that, but I didn’t because I knew what I wanted and I knew where I was going.

PJ: How do you think entrepreneurship relates to the life of a musician?

KP: Entrepreneurs are people who have something to say and they’re willing to take risks to say it. I think that ties in really nicely with artists and their expressive ability. Artists have a need and a desire to express something. That’s what makes it exciting. If you don’t have anything to say as an artist and all you have is technique, then you don’t have anything. You’ve learned a set of skills but you’ve not yet learned how to apply those skills. An entrepreneur, and especially an entrepreneur in our business, really knows how and seeks to apply those skills in situations where it can make a difference in an audience and in a community.

Project Jumpstart partners with the Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the IU Kelley School of Business.