“One of the things that I think gets in a lot of people’s way is feeling like you’re not ready or old enough or established enough to do these things. But chances are if you’re really passionate about your idea, and you have the skill set to do them, and you’re qualified to do it, then you can do it.”
We are excited to feature What Is Opera, Anyway? as our October Entrepreneur of the Month! Founded in 2020, this nonprofit organization’s mission “is to develop and execute intergenerational programming” which instills in its participants an understanding and love of opera. What Is Opera, Anyway? presents both in-person and virtual workshops, curriculum, recitals, and interactive lectures for children through adults. Their goal is to help people answer the question, “what is opera, anyway?”. Several of the organization’s members are current students at the Jacobs of School of Music, including the OECD’s very own media specialist, Ella Torres.
Members of the OECD student leadership team met with What Is Opera, Anyway? founder, Francesca Lionetta, and teaching artist Malinda Wagstaff (JSoM graduate student) to learn more about this dynamic and community-focused nonprofit.
How did you come to the idea of starting “What Is Opera, Anyway?”
Francesca Lionetta: That’s a great question. And Malinda is actually a big reason why we started this to be honest. The work we do with “What Is Opera, Anyway?” started as an internship that I did at Eastman through our Institute for Music Leadership. I was in the arts leadership certificate program which Ella and Malinda were both in as well. The course requirement for the certificate, in addition to classes, is two internships, and I knew since starting at Eastman that I wanted to do internships in opera education. So I talked with two people who were head of the internship program who were willing to work with me on designing my own internship, provided that I could get someone to help me do it. I worked with one of the opera directors at Eastman, Steven Carr, and we designed a program together that functioned as my internship through which we would bring on a handful of Eastman singers. We worked with twelve Eastman voice students to visit the Rochester City School District area schools to perform and teach students about opera, because there was nothing like that in the Eastman curriculum for voice majors. So that started in fall 2019 into the spring 2020. And unfortunately, about three weeks before we were scheduled to go into the schools, everything moved remote for Covid. At which point Malinda said, “Do you think you could do this virtually?” And I said, “Absolutely not no way. Not possible, Malinda. We’re just gonna have to say goodbye to this this little passion project.” And then around July 2020, I had decided that I was going to take a gap year before starting grad school, and I thought “you know what, maybe Malinda had a not-so-bad idea, and we could come up with something virtual.” And so that led to “What Is Opera, Anyway?” becoming an organization in July 2020. We ran a program in fall 2020 that effectively was what our original program would have been like, slightly modified, as an after-school program for kids. Since then, it’s grown and changed quite a bit. But yeah, it was really Malinda who encouraged us to do this as its own organization.
It’s pretty remarkable that you started your nonprofit in the midst of the pandemic. Did COVID change your approach to structuring the organization or your program offerings? How did the pandemic shape your perspective of what makes art meaningful for audiences?
Francesca: Yeah, the pandemic did change things. Like I said, in March 2020 I couldn’t really see this as being fathomable as a virtual offering. And now, today the majority of our programming is virtual, and that actually yields a lot of really positive results for our after-school program. The first time we did it, we had students in Texas, in Massachusetts, and in Pennsylvania, and then the second time we also had students from Connecticut in addition to those other states. And so that was just really cool to have kids connected from across the country. Our adult education class, “Unexpected Journeys”, has participants and teachers from all over—California, Massachusetts, Alberta, Canada, Indiana. I’m probably missing some locations, but that’s been a really nice way for people to connect and make a new community sort of beyond their local communities.
Malinda Wagstaff: At the start of the pandemic, we were concerned about the possibility of music making virtually, which was something a lot of organizations struggled to figure out. And for our after-school programs, we just had students make recordings in their own homes and put them together, and otherwise they sang on mute, you know, and that was totally fine for them. Trying to figure out how to do this over Zoom meant that when we broke into small groups, some of the kids got one-on-one time because we’d be like, “Okay, we’ll just work on your piece for ten minutes”, whereas normally in an after-school program, students would not be getting one-on-one instruction.
What does a typical after-school program look like?
Malinda: It differed from the in-person program in that the outreach originally was formed as Eastman voice students singing for kids, and then it transitioned to the kids being the music makers themselves, which I think is really cool, because we talk a lot about innovation here in the office and on campus. And when participants can be co-creators rather than just passive audience members, there’s a lot more active learning that can happen.
Francesca: It was a ninety-minute class, and for the first hour we had two teachers speak on a subject in opera, whether it was baroque opera, Italian opera, Mozart opera, or French opera pants roles. We did classes on different things like that over thirteen weeks, and then the last thirty minutes were devoted to group singing. A lot of the feedback we got from parents was that they expected that their children would be singing more. So, we went to the drawing board and thought about how we can make that possible on Zoom. That’s when we developed “Let’s Write an Opera” which was very successful. All the learning in that program was very hands-on. We talked about things like how to write music to suit certain emotions. Students learned four or five short excerpts of music without text, and then we asked them to think about what stories might be able to fit with the music. In this way they effectively wrote their own operas, and through their creations they learned why opera matters, why it’s important, and how it functions. This was really gratifying for them and for us to see. And that’s the program model we’ve decided to keep for our in-school workshop, which we’ll be bringing to some schools in Rochester, New York.
Do you find that encouraging students to become invested in the creation process results in a higher degree of ownership and general interest in opera?
Francesca: Definitely. And this is something we’ve seen with both our youth program and our adult education program. Once people can understand how opera is made through some of the mechanical elements, I think they appreciate it even more because we are not just presenting them with singing or making them watch an opera. Instead, we are teaching them sort of from the inside.
Thinking back to when you guys first got started, how did you go about getting your name out there and connecting with educators and families?
Francesca: That’s a great question. I think we were fortunate to have a connection with Eastman in the first place, because that’s where we started as an internship, and that’s where pretty much all of our team was at the time. So, we had a network of teachers in the Rochester schools and donors for the Friends of Eastman Opera and things like that. A lot of our teachers have gone on to do other amazing things in other communities, and we’ve been able to expand our network in that way within the communities that we are based in. For example, Malinda and Ella now have an awesome network at Indiana University. We also reached out to our hometown communities. I know Malinda is from Spokane, Washington and has reached out to her community there. Likewise, I’m from Massachusetts and have had some success reaching my community there because of our virtual offerings. We’ve been able to collaborate with groups that are located in different places in the country which has been cool. Our first after school program iteration was in collaboration with a small theatre group. That’s from my hometown, and they were not offering any virtual programming during the pandemic. They thought this was a great opportunity to share with their students. The second time through we collaborated with a group called Neo-Millennial Institute which is a Chinese cultural group in Massachusetts who have an appreciation for opera. It’s an adult group, but lots of their children participated, and now we’re working with Re-Imagining Opera for Kids, based in Bloomington, Indiana, which is thanks to Bea, Kim, Malinda, and their connections at Indiana University. So we’ve been able to just work with and collaborate with people in our communities which has been super helpful. Otherwise, we do the standard social media and email marketing. But I think the main thing has been trying to benefit the communities that are close to our hearts by offering programming that’s pretty unique, I would say, in terms of what opera education offers.
You mention several times on your website that you heavily emphasize intergenerational programming. What are the biggest challenges you face with that?
Malinda: Yeah, I think something that’s difficult with intergenerational programming is the question of how to not dumb things down or of make assumptions about our target demographics. If we’re doing something for elementary middle school and high school age students, we don’t want to just target our education around what we think the elementary students can handle, because then the high school students feel like they’re not getting something that’s matching them. We discuss this constantly and have to continually reflect on our thought processes. For example, are we thinking that ten-year-olds are not as smart as ten-year-olds really are? Maybe we should try to connect with what ten-year-olds are thinking and what they care about, and not just what we think they should like. So that’s something that’s just takes a lot of thought and mindfulness. We try to not pigeon-hole these demographics and to have things that can have multiple layers of meaning and engagement. For example, if you’re in an exercise class, you need modifications for some people, and you need advanced things for others. So we want to make sure, whenever we’re planning our curriculum, that we have things like that. We want it to be very beginner-friendly, but we also would want somebody who’s been to the opera and who maybe has season tickets to be able to get something out of what we’re doing.
Francesca: Another interesting thing that we’ve discovered along the way is that our “Let’s Write an Opera” after school program might be fun and potentially really effective for adults as well. We haven’t run that program as an adult education program yet, but it definitely would be something that would be really enjoyable for non-professional singers who are interested in singing and interested in opera to explore creation from the inside. And the podcast, too. We don’t have just one type of person we’re hoping to reach. We do have a target audience, of course, but anyone could be listening to it. So, we have to make sure that it’s appropriate for all levels of musical experience. We’re also looking to explore some more in-person programming that could cater to families. That’s in the works!
What advice would you offer students who are thinking about starting a nonprofit?
Malinda: Learn to write grants early and figure out where you’re going to get your funding, because if you can do that, it’s so much easier to do everything else. And set up your funding in a way that, from the beginning, mirrors where you want to be, because that’s something that I really admire in what Francesca has done. From the very beginning, Francesca committed to paying the teaching artists. It might not be as much as you would get for an operatic performance, but we’re going to compensate you, and as we get more money, you can be compensated more for your time, and as the organization becomes more established, then we’ll have more funds to reach out even farther. By starting that way, by basically saying, “this is our goal”, we really set a precedent for solid business practice. And since we were and are able to pay the teaching artists, people are more invested in the work they are doing.
Francesca: I would say that one of the main things that I’ve learned to do and am continuing to learn is how to delegate. It can be easy when you have an idea that you’re really passionate about to just keep it to yourself and run it alone because it’s your idea. But especially as a student, it’s impossible to do everything. And so I’ve been very fortunate to have a really great team, of which two amazing members are sitting right in front of me, Ella and Malinda, who are also very passionate about the work that we’re doing. So, I would say that learning to delegate within a community that you really trust and who really has your back is critical.
I would also say, just go for it! One of the things that I think gets in a lot of people’s way is feeling like you’re not ready or old enough or established enough to do these things. But chances are if you’re really passionate about your idea, and you have the skill set to do them, and you’re qualified to do it, then you can do it. You can always find people to help you in the areas in which you are not as strong or skilled. You can always learn from your experiences. I’ve had a lot of people talk to me saying “your team is so young!” and asking “how did you do it?” And I think it was just that we were confident in our plan and in what we have to offer. We’re not trying to totally change the world of music or opera education but are trying to supplement it with the knowledge and skill sets that we have. And I’d say that we are achieving that despite being generally quite young. Don’t wait for permission to do these things. If you really feel passionate about it and have the skills, time, and energy, then do it.
Ella Torres: Based on the little amount of time I’ve been involved with the group so far, my advice would be not underestimating the administrative part of the work. Obviously, we should be program-centric and student-centric and really be there for the communities that we’re serving, but we also need to make sure the things behind the scenes are going well in terms of communication and promotion and fundraising. All that does take time, and it’s maybe not as glamorous or as tangibly fulfilling as the outreach work and the education work is, but it’s necessary in order to keep the group running smoothly and to keep the organization healthy.
Who’s your favorite band, or what do you listen to for fun?
Malinda: REO Speedwagon
Francesca: French pop from the 1960s, especially Françoise Hardy