Kevin Patterson, who was named general director of Indianapolis Opera on Monday, is putting a positive spin on the company's recent troubles. "We're starting with a blank slate," he says, and with that comes the flexibility to try out new approaches.
And the slate is indeed blank: Indianapolis Opera last presented a show in March 2014 — press releases teased productions in the interim without delivering — and key figures have abruptly resigned over the past two years without being replaced: executive director John Pickett in 2013 and artistic director Jim Caraher in 2014.
But even Patterson, an Indianapolis native who has managed opera companies in Austin and Anchorage, is aware that optimism can only go so far. "You're never going to be able to say, 'Forget everything that happened in the past! We're a new company; we've got this new bald guy running it; pay attention to him,'" he says from his not-yet-furnished office at the Basile Opera Center.
To regain trust, he plans to "rebuild the case statement" for the opera — figuring out why it exists and for whom — and listen to community members. "I'll put on my asbestos underwear and go out there and say, 'I'm sorry,' even if I wasn't here when it happened," he says.
Patterson has been in this kind of situation before. When he started as executive director of the Anchorage Opera, the organization was loaded with debt and bereft of vision. "I've worked for a number of opera companies all around the States. I've consulted with others," he says. "Money is never the problem. It is mission; it is vision; it is brand."
He tells of a board retreat in Anchorage when he avoided discussing money until someone finally broke and asked about debt. Patterson revealed a number, had everyone say it together — "we are umpteen dollars in debt" — and then asked them to put that fact aside and focus on coming up with reasons why the opera should continue to exist.
When Patterson left — he moved back home with his family last summer — Anchorage Opera was nearly out of debt and there was enthusiasm in the community for a new slate of shows, he says.
Can he reach a similarly successful result in Indianapolis? There's one key difference here: Indianapolis Opera has been out of debt since December 2014.
And Patterson says the board and management have learned quite a bit from a recent study intended to gauge support for opera in the community, as well as market research conducted by the Carmel firm SMARI. The lessons learned:
1) "Quality is the key. The core supporters in the community for the opera were saying, 'You know, the quality is starting to flag a little bit."
2) "A huge portion of this community has no idea who the Indianapolis Opera is."
3) In response to feedback concerning governance and board issues, "over the past seven months, the board of the opera has essentially remade itself, reworked its bylaws and now has what I consider 'best practice' bylaws."
4) "People liked Clowes Hall, but they wanted to explore other venues. And people didn't know how the Basile Opera Center fit into the mix."
But how did Indianapolis Opera get to this point? Patterson demurs that he wasn't around to know for sure, but he hazards educated guesses. "I don't think you can point to any one issue and say that's the cause," he says. "Maybe the board got a little too distant and too lackadaisical in oversight. I think the leadership got a little tired."
And in the end, no one was having much fun, Patterson says. "Our charge is to do something that excites audiences again, keeping things relevant. I said to the board, 'At the end of the day, we'd better be having fun. This isn't mergers and acquisitions; if we're taking it that seriously, we need to step back.'"
What can we expect to see on stage once Patterson, now the company's de facto artistic director, can start doing shows in earnest? Personally, he's a fan of "theatrically-driven" work like Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking and Three Decembers, and Britten's Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. But he's not in this to put on his favorite shows; he hopes to put on what will challenge and inspire the community, hoping that audience members will "be fundamentally changed in some way when they leave the performance."
For now, Patterson has plenty of ideas, but there'll be more soul-searching and advance planning before the opera announces any performances, though he hopes to produce a show of some kind by mid-2015. He hopes to abandon the notion of doing a three-show season in favor of a year-round schedule — though subscriptions will remain available for the big-ticket operas. He doesn't plan to do actual operas at the Basile Opera Center — that'll become a venue for community programming — and is interested instead the Schrott Center as a possible venue. And he wants to get out in the community and do "low-risk, high-profile" programming.
"There's a point at which we all walk through the valley of the shadow of death — and some of us don't make it to the other side," he says. "With funding from Lilly, the board took a hard look at itself and asked, 'Should we keep doing this?' And our audiences said, 'Yes, you should keep doing it, but don't do it the same way; do something new.'"