The Wolfe of Birmingham Seeks to Cause a Stir

There’s a new wolf in town and he’s seeking to stir up an unsuspecting Birmingham community. This January, after 14 seasons with Fort Worth Opera, Keith A. Wolfe was appointed new General Director of Opera Birmingham. Just four months into his new position, Keith takes a moment to discuss the challenges and rewards of being top dog of an opera company in 2015, his dogmatic plans for Opera Birmingham and shares his views on the importance of loyal community engagement.

General Director Keith Wolfe - photo credit: Ellen Appel
General Director Keith Wolfe – photo credit: Ellen Appel

What were your first weeks like as the new General and Artistic Director?

I started in the middle of the season, right when rehearsals for Thomas’ Hamlet were beginning. There wasn’t that much time to learn the ins and outs of the company, beyond what I knew from the interview process. It was a trial by fire! The company usually announces the next season in January, but my predecessor, John D. Jones, had purposefully left things undecided. It was great, but that meant having to postpone a season announcement until we could decide what we could feasibly accomplish within our revenue stream.

What are some of the first issues that needed to be addressed?

As a company, we needed to come up with a strategic planning process to set short term and long term goals and then move forward with them. We started with small group sessions with staff and board members to start some brainstorming. As a new General Director, it’s a great opportunity to see what the company does, what to change, what the position of the board is and how we can move forward and prioritize.

What has been the greatest challenge since becoming General Director?

One of the biggest challenges any General Director faces is identifying funding. Where do the expenses go? What is required to run this company? Who are the major donors and funders? Like most companies, Opera Birmingham is heavily reliant on the generosity of a small core of people to make things happen, so we have to continue to cultivate our relationship with them while researching other major funders and organizations to cultivate.

How will Opera Birmingham’s 2015-2016 season differ from its previous seasons?

Typically, Opera Birmingham programmed two main stage productions, a vocal competition, and two concerts. But, as we were putting together the budget for next season, it was clear that we were not yet at the point where we could sustain that type of season and still address long term debt. It became clear that we would need to restructure the season. I had discussed exploring chamber opera with the selection committee and thought it was be part of a long-term plan, but we decided to begin a chamber opera series next season. We didn’t want to completely cut a main stage production, because that would be a negative way to approach solving that problem. Chamber operas are relatively inexpensive to produce compared to grand opera, but pack the same emotional and artistic punch. It allows us to address the issue of funding in a very positive way. So for next season, we’re launching a chamber opera series to pair with a traditional production. Instead of saying, ‘we can’t afford to do opera,’ we are saying ‘we can still do work that has meaning,” and our core audience is accepting the change in a positive light.

What is the average Opera Birmingham audience member like?

Like most opera companies, our audience tends to skew older. But I was surprised at the number of younger people that we have, which I attribute to the strong music scene in Birmingham and the local universities. I was pleasantly surprised to see how many students from local universities were taking advantage of the student rush tickets.

Opera Birmingham's La Boheme - 2015 Credit:  Eleanor Walter
Opera Birmingham’s La Boheme – 2015 Credit: Eleanor Walter

What are some of your plans for engaging the larger Birmingham community?

I was really impressed with the city’s commitment to the arts. There are a lot of opportunities for us to be more engaged with the community. At Fort Worth Opera, we had a program called Opera Shots, where we took the opera to local bars. That’s one way to increase the company’s visibility in Birmingham and to engage new audiences. Next year, we are renting one of the local theater spaces for one of our chamber operas, but I’d like to start collaborating with theater companies beyond just space rental. And then there’s our core audience, who I’d like to engage with throughout the year through events, talks and concerts. For me, it’s important for the people of Birmingham to see us as an active cultural institution throughout the year.

What do today’s opera companies lack most?

The funding to do what they want to do to make them more successful. One way to do this is through these Opera Shots, pop-up concert events, where they can use the resources they have in the community. By thinking out of the box, you can realize these ideas in ways that don’t require the resources more readily available to bigger companies.

If you had to leave Opera Birmingham in 5 years, what impact would you like to have had?

I’d like Opera Birmingham to be known as an active partner in its community, that the community has had an opportunity to experience us at a bar, at an arts festival, that people are interested in seeing what we’re doing and they’ve had some opportunity to see what we do in a different light, not just in a theater, but throughout Birmingham.

Now that’s something we can really sink our teeth into. We’ll be watching intently.