Recently, a colleague of mine experienced a difficulty working with others at a non-profit arts organization. Basically some miscommunication followed by a surprisingly sharp over-reaction by various people -- people both involved and peripheral to the issue. There was a breach of confidence in a private email and many anxious moments from the top level on down. After a day, things returned to normal but the angst involved was more than exhausting for all involved. My colleague called me to ask for advice and I tried my best, but basically all I wanted to say was "welcome to non-profit opera!"
So I thought I might write about what I think might be behind some of the communication problems that can happen at non-profit arts companies (and certainly I've seen and experienced my fair share.)
Communication happens between people and I'd like to put forth that the people who work in opera are rather a special lot. This involves trying to understand over-reactive, often dramatically so, people. (By "people", I'm referring to artists both on and off the stage and those working behind the scenes.)
Let's not forget that, aside from the bigwigs at the big companies, almost everyone working in non-profit organizations are underpaid and overworked. Most are highly educated and quite skilled at multi-tasking, as well as often being multi-talented: the horn player who's also the orchestra manager or librarian, the rehearsal pianist who's also the company manager, the receptionist who also sings in the chorus, etc. They are the backbone of our world and no company could really exist without them, so please do not get me wrong -- I'm not attacking the people who work at opera companies.
I actually want to talk about why so many of us who work in opera seem to be over-reactive to stimuli. We hear a great singer, or a great idea, we see a fantastic show, or find out that said show is sold-out, we experience performing at the top of our game, and we REACT; really react sometimes: we let out whoops, feel fabulous, walk around with huge smiles, feel as if we've conquered a mountain. We are decidedly manic when opera goes well, whether that means casting decisions, social media notices, patron donations, a good audition, or reviews hitting the day after in time to sell tickets.
And obviously, the reverse is true. When things go wrong, it can be as if the sky is falling. Low sales, will the company fold? Bad review, does that mean the artistic team sucks? A singer gets a bit moody in rehearsal, will their diva attitude rub off on everyone and ruin the process? The pianist can't play Albert's drunk scena, does that mean the training at their program has utterly failed them? Patrons upset with the color of tablecloths at the reception, OMFG -- panic ensues!
I see panic more and more nowadays. Real panic. It manifests itself in snap decisions to fix a problem before anyone finds out it exists (rather than sitting down to fix the problem long-term). It causes hurt feelings all the time because everyone involved in every aspect of a production now gets cc'd on every email. For example, some singer doesn't like her costume and the next thing you know, a wardrobe coordinator is all discombobulated and sends off an email (cc'd to the world) to the GD to complain. Or a young conductor might not know how to deal with time in rehearsals and starts to run over their allotment, instead of sitting down and talking to them, secret meetings get held behind their back via email (which is never, ever secret) wondering how to fix the problem. People aren't communicating, they are emailing and texting things. In this day of instant knowledge, people want instant solutions to complex problems. Last time I checked, opera was complicated.
As well, everything seems to be an "issue", or is a "major headache", and many personal confrontations get blown out of proportion because people see things now as US against THEM, and often seem to take everything - and I do mean everything - so personally. I see this as a growing problem, and wonder if it is because things are getting worse for these companies, and therefore for the people working for them, or it's just a sign o' the times.
Since starting to work in the opera business back in 1984, I can attest that the number of times I was yelled at - in front of many people, thank you - by conductors, directors, bosses, patrons, and divas (strangely, never been yelled at by a tenor, baritone, or bass...) was a lot. QUITE A LOT. Recently I've noticed that no one yells anymore, they just write pointed emails, or make phone calls, or head to the nearest ear in order to bend it their way.
Of course this type of stuff happens throughout all business. But I do believe operatic non-profits draw the dramatically over-reactive types to their doors. Certainly being passionate draws us to opera, makes us strive to be great artists, literally helping to make the art passionately exciting. But as one whose mantra is "In my operas, we don't panic; everything will be okay and we have a plan", I see all too often the opposite: no plan in place, no way to make new plans to solve problems, and way too much panic followed by hurt feelings.
Why? Because over-reactive people react to their circumstances. Reacting is the essence of acting onstage. However, constantly reacting to issues is simply exhausting in an arts organization. To always be on the defence, to not see problems in advance, to not know how to solve problems creatively, or to be overly subjective in responding to issues, creates an environment that is not conducive to creating opera, performing it, or selling it to anyone.
So what's the solution then? The experts have a few ideas. They are:
5) Be succinct
6) Be unifying
1) Prepare as much as possible. Think through as many different "what could go wrong" scenarios as possible. Hoping for the best - at an opera company - is probably the worst thing one could ever do. Something always goes wrong. Preparation is key to try to anticipate problems. When laziness takes over and prevents preparation from happening, people get angry. I always think pessimistically when preparing, imaging the worst case scenarios; basically I set the bar really low. Trust me, it helps to not think that some magical opera creature will show up to solve your (or their) problems.
2) Smiling during a confrontation, or reading a problematic email, is extremely helpful. It reduces the reaction. Try it and see how powerful this can be. Smile right now. Feel better?
3) Listen more than Talk. That way you can try to better define the problem and what the underlying other issues might be that have caused the problem. In meetings, be the last - the very last - person to talk.
4) Validate regardless if the outcome is going to be something that will make others happy or upset. Try to make them see that their viewpoint has been taken into consideration. Thank them for their input and their concerns. Validation is a huge secret key to unlocking the Door of Frustration that many walk through during problems that can arise in opera.
5) Be Succinct. Don't mince words or try to write the perfect email that will wrap everything up in a nice neat package. When the time comes, just be direct and clear. This will help those who feel the need to respond with an "but you said this, so now I retort with another new thought or issue" email sure to make things more difficult and perhaps even worse.
6) Be Unifying. Leaders - whether they be administrators, executive directors, chorus masters, rehearsal pianists, maestros, or lead singers - must unify the forces. Discussions and emails can go on and on and on, and move towards circular logic if you're not careful. Unifying others by calming them down through smiling, listening and validating, will allow the solution to better present itself to all involved.
There are a lot of overdramatic people who work in opera, absolutely. But we can also be very empathic, introverted, and judgemental; not the best combination of traits. But when our reactions are tempered, clearer thoughts present themselves and our creative juices actually can be used to create creative solutions. Empathy is a super power, lest we forget.
The last needed bit is something that Captain America talks about at the end (the very, very end) of the most recent Marvel Universe movie "Spiderman: Homecoming". I won't give it a way, but it is rather funny, (something else that is needed in solving problems creatively: a sense of humour.)
Okay, I'll give it away: PATIENCE.
We all need to exercise a wee bit more patience with others. There's a lot of miscommunication that happens when people become impatient and want answers right away, or want solutions in place too early. Take a step back and view things from a place of perspective. See if that helps. And smile.