The purpose of this project is to provide a collection of transcriptions from the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. This project seeks to give a platform to all parts of the vocal performing arts to better understand the lived experiences and mentality of those professionals. In collecting stories from the COVID-19 pandemic Steve Aiken, General and Artistic Director of Shreveport Opera, discussed the cancellation of Le Nozze di Figaro and the impact that is having on his community. This has led to a reimagining of the avenues of performance and collaboration with his community.
Steve Aiken, General and Artistic Director of Shreveport Opera
Interviewed March 21, 2020
TB: I know it is a very difficult time, but let's start off with something good. What is the best thing that has happened to you in the last week?
SA: In the last week, for me, it is noticing that on social media the arts have all pulled together and are essentially holding hands and saying, “We’ve got this.” And that when things hurt the most, people turn to the arts. And arts organizations are there for those communities in whatever ways they can be. That is a very promising sign for the future.
TB: So you are the General and Artistic Director of Shreveport Opera. Can you also tell me a bit about your background? You were also a professional singer for a number of years, correct?
SA: Yes, I was a professional singer, a baritone, for about 20 years. I studied in Seattle and lived in New York, but had grown up in Anchorage, Alaska and gone to Anchorage Opera for many years. After leaving singing, I have to credit Michael Ching for calling me up about two weeks after I was married. He said, “Don’t you think it is time to get a real job? Help me run this opera company in Memphis.” That started my administrative career, which was almost 22 years ago. I come at this work with the same passion I did as a singer and it is what drives what I do on a daily basis.
TB: So you have lived on both sides of the table and understand the singer realm and the arts management side.
SA: Right. And both are difficult in different ways. Both are also rewarding but in different ways. I think that that experience helps me to be empathetic towards singers and truly understand the challenges that they face. On the flip side of that, it was a real eye-opener coming into the administration side and realizing that every part of a production feels the same way that the singers do. Whether you’re the orchestra, designer, stage director, or the chorus master, everybody feels equally important to a production.
That took me a little while to figure out. I always assumed that singers were the most important thing to a production. And I was always very close to that and held that point tightly. It is not that they aren’t important, but I believe that what makes opera great is the whole community that makes an opera possible.
TB: Could you describe a little bit about how you first realized that this [pandemic] was going to be an issue and that it would have an impact on you and Shreveport Opera?
SA: When you think about the history of this virus, none of us believed that it was going to be as big of a problem as it has become in the last few weeks. We reacted as swiftly as we could in realizing that this was becoming a bigger and bigger issue. Approximately a week and a half ago, we (our office) believed we were going to have to cancel our mainstage production—Le Nozze di Figaro—which doesn’t go into rehearsal until the end of this month. We did keep that fairly quiet because we needed to see what would happen in the world concerning the pandemic.
We also have a season-long resident artist program and that too was in jeopardy because all of the schools had closed. And we didn’t have a lot of work for them. We did have some private parties and retirement center concerts scheduled. But we realized that those were getting cancelled. I would love to say that the opera was so concerned that we brought our young artists in to talk about this situation. However, it was our young artists who were concerned. They called a meeting this last Monday and said that they were scared and that they wanted to be near family. It was in that meeting that I realized that we needed to let them go and send them home. It was a wise decision and it was the best decision to make for everyone.
TB: Could you explain a bit more about the day-to-day life of your young artists?
SA: Sure, their day-to-day life is getting up at 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning to travel to a school together in a van with four singers and a pianist. They get to the school around 8:00 in the morning and sing a show at 8:30 am. They’ll do maybe two performances. But if not, they have to oftentimes pack up their gear and go to another school. Usually, there are two to three performances a day. After that, they come home to rest and generally have coachings at the house where they live together. So when they’re there, they are all there together.
It became very risky to go into a school or to a retirement center. We had assumed that small groups or private parties would be okay. But the reality is, we don’t know where any of the people in those small groups have been. We don’t want our young artists exposed to anything. Nor do we want them exposing anyone else to this.
So, it was good that they called this meeting. I am in that bracket of older folks that is over 60 and a little higher risk. Sometimes that makes us look at the situation through different eyes. We’re [Mr. Aiken’s age bracket] not as scared. We’re a little calmer about it. I bet if I were between 25-30, I would be much more concerned about this because it is such a complete unknown. We [only] thought about the fact that they were in their house and kept safe from everybody else. But the reality is—if they are concerned and have nothing to do except coach it might be nice—their safety and concern had to be taken seriously. And if they hadn’t brought that to me, they might still be there with me thinking that they are safe and secure just not leaving the house. They prompted an action that was, I think, beneficial to everyone.
TB: And the fact that they felt comfortable bringing this to you is something that you have encouraged artists to do as well, right?
SA: Absolutely. I encourage that even when a pandemic isn’t happening. We’re a very small company. We have two and a half total staff and a part-time bookkeeper that is one hour a week. Our staff is very, very small. That means that we have to have doors that are open—completely open—to constructive criticism. Anyone in any business can’t solve a problem unless they know it exists. So, I am thrilled that they were not afraid and are asking about this. They were trying to figure out what we could do to move forward with the company.
TB: Looking at Le Nozze di Figaro, can you talk a little bit about coming to the conclusion that this production was going to have to be cancelled? And also the way in which you viewed it best to handle this as a company?
SA: Well, it became very obvious about a week ago that we definitely could not do the production. Things across the country were being postponed or cancelled. Our local symphony is actually involved in about five different symphony orchestras in the region. This makes rescheduling much more difficult compared to cancelling. Therefore, it was decided that we would not try to postpone and we would have to cancel.
Whenever possible, I offer large, mainstage roles to our resident artists. So, what I hope to do is schedule it [Le Nozze di Figaro] for next year and bring back our resident artists who were doing mainstage roles. Our Count Almaviva, Susanna, Cherubino, and Basilio/Curzio were all our young artists. It broke my heart to have to cancel because they literally just got off book about three and a half weeks before we were to go to rehearsal. But we had to make this decision for safety.
After the fact, we realized that if we had to give back all of our ticket sales at this point, we would be okay financially. There was never a question of whether we should pay our singers for their work in this production. So we did and we were able to pay their full fee. We paid half the fee for our makeup designer and stage manager. And other folks like our director and conductor actually requested that I don’t pay them, which really helped. They noted that they had regular jobs and were not self-employed the same way that a singer generally is. That was very helpful in moving this plan forward. I will admit that I did forget to call some of the agents that we were dealing with in terms of out-of-town artists. But we all finally touched base. And I was able to contact the artists and say, “This may happen, but don’t be afraid. We’re going to send you your fee.” There’s no obligation on our end and they don’t have to come back next year to do something for free. They had already worked on this production.
TB: One of the first things that you had mentioned was the musical community coming together over this pandemic. So, it seems like you really wanted to engage on that level as well.
SA: Right and we are small. It makes it much more difficult when you are small to put concerts online, though I am sure there is a way. I could have tried to keep my young artists around to do some streaming programs. And in fact, they did create a video, which I am trying to figure out how to get online.
But for me, I think back to World War II, when everything was destroyed in Europe. And then the first things that were being rebuilt were theaters. People needed something to go do. They needed something to feel good about. In general, music—whether it is opera, rock, pop, symphonic, or whatever—can pull a community together in a way that simple, positive talk can’t. So it is important to respect the fact that these performers are going to help us through this. I and many other opera companies and performing arts organizations are doing what we can to pay performers.
We have been very fortunate in recent years to be really financially stable, and are therefore able to do this. I think our community has really come forward to support us in a way that they don’t even know how impactful it has been. When they send us a $25 or a $50 check and we get enough people to support us, then we can do what is right. Not what is simply contractual. Because it is right to pay these people. Maybe I broke the contract by not enforcing force majeure, but force majeure wasn’t the right thing to do. This little bit of money that they will have received may help for a month, maybe two at the most. So, I’m hoping that other organizations are in a position to pay their performers [as well].
Just today coming into the office for this interview, I went and got the mail. A patron had sent us a $500 check and said, “Use this for your greatest need.” That is what all of us need right now. Though this is not me asking for money—because everyone is hurt by this. More so, let’s see how our community reacts and supports the importance of all of the arts. That is important to me. We will all struggle through this together. But if there was ever any doubt about how important we are in communities, it should be obvious now. Look at what is happening in Italy, and all over Europe, with people singing out their windows.
TB: Please correct me if I am wrong here. So, as you looked at this situation you decided that now was the right time to invest in your relationship with artists and with the community that supports you. And so, you’re not as worried about looking towards the future because that goodwill will come back?
SA: Right, the long-term, future plans will come back. Next year, I’ve already set up two or three different contingency plans. I am making the assumption that at the end of August and beginning of September, we will be able to go out in the community and perform. So next year, if everything is normal and all our grants, donations, and other things come in the way they normally would, then we can operate as we always have. But we have contingency plans for the middle of the road and also a worst-case scenario for both grant writing and funding for the season. I think it is important that we don’t worry about Doomsday. If it is truly that, it is going to happen. What we need to do is be as positive as we possibly can be about the future and realize that there are many things that we can do. So instead of focusing on what we can’t do, let’s focus on what we can do.
This very interview is a great thing to do. Because ultimately people are going to be able to read this message. And there is a lot we can all do. One of them is not to panic. Listen to music and hear the voices of the folks that are in your community. Stream some music or something.
When it comes to this company, we are going to get through this. We are going to. I only allow my brain a 1% chance of looking at the worst-case scenario. I am 50% believing that we will get most of our funding next year. But if we don’t, we are going to still have a season. Because we are still going to have our resident artists next year. So we may have to downsize and do some concerts with piano or even the main stage operas to cut our costs. But there are lots of things that we, as a performing arts organization, can do that may not be our norm. It may not be what we want to do. But it is going to be what we can do to still be pertinent to our community. In some cases, it may be a real lifesaver to our communities and their mental health.
TB: Looking back to the beginning of February, how is your life different compared to now?
SA: It’s drastically different. Let’s face it, here in our little office with two and a half people, who are now working from home... I come in here and now I’m usually the only one here. If they are here, luckily our offices are completely separated. We don’t shake hands or touch. But we didn’t have to do any of that at the beginning of February. We didn’t have to socially distance. We were not considering cancelling a production. We weren’t worried about sending our young artists' home. We weren’t worried about the long-term finances of the opera company. These are all things that we wish were the furthest thing from our minds.
I’ve never had to cancel a production in my 21 years of being on the administration side. So, this is a very challenging time. Though I might sound upbeat right now—and I am upbeat about the future—I was really depressed about cancelling. I tried not to be in public. But I would go home and I’d be dreadfully tired. I’d be emotionally spent. I know it was because I had to cancel the show and also send our young artists' home. However, I was not that way in the beginning of February. I will get over it though. Because you realize that although it sounds like you’ve done something bad, the decision you’ve made was a good one. You have to remember what you’ve done is the right thing. It just seems difficult right now.
TB: That is really important to talk about right now.
SA: I see posts or an email from board members or our patrons that say, “Good job, Steve.” That’s great to see. But it really is hard and especially for any of us who cannot engage the company in what the company does. Right now, companies are essentially stagnant. We can write grants and we can continue doing the day-to-day work. But the one thing that drives us is performance. When that performance isn’t happening, it is challenging.
TB: What is one of the things that you’re most grateful for in this experience?
SA: Though the finances are the last thing I want to be grateful for, I will say right now that financially for this company, we’re in good enough shape to get through the end of the season. I don’t have to cut the salaries of the small staff. I know that we have board members that have turned to me and said, “Don’t worry.” So I’m grateful for our board of directors. I know they will stand behind this company. And when push comes to shove, they will truly step up and help us in whatever need we have. I know that other companies are just struggling to stay alive. Right now for us, I know that we are okay. I’m really, really grateful for that.
Also, I never thought I would be so grateful for social media. Because I’ve spent three or four days just posting the goofiest things on Facebook. So, I’m grateful that we can still communicate with each other. If someone is having a problem, they have someone to talk to and they can still interact. And we can stream things and get out there. So it seems funny to say, but I’m really grateful for social media.
TB: Right. And how isolated would we be if we were in the same position without this technology?
SA: Exactly. Janice and I don’t have kids, but we have friends who do. And those families that are away from their children, or over in Europe; the fact is that social media is going to be the lifeblood of the world for the next few months. Who would have ever thought that it would be this necessary?
TB: Because you have such a robust young artist program and you deal with a lot of younger musicians, what advice would you give them as they go through this?
SA: Right now, I can only look at my life. This particular challenge is so different than any challenge [that] I was up against. As a young singer, our life was, ‘Where can I get a job?’ Right now, it’s hard to get a job because so many companies and other things aren’t functioning.
So, I would tell young singers to realize that yes things will be difficult, but you all have friends and family. You all have people that will not allow you to survive in a refrigerator box on the street. There’s always going to be someone in your life that can help you and will help you. For a while, maybe you’re having soup for lunch instead of a sandwich and you’re curbing your expenses the best way you can.
But none of this keeps you from singing. None of this keeps you from doing what you do best. And none of it keeps you from changing the lives of people that you have already changed with that one simple thing that you possess, which is your voice. Your voice has done more for the world in singing a song than so many other people have ever, ever had the capacity to do. So, don’t be shy about doing it. Don’t be shy about streaming yourself singing acapella in your living room. Don’t be shy about raising your voice in the way that you do on the opera stage; to say, “This is what we do.” That will bring comfort to so many other people.
When we have our voice competition here, (in Shreveport) I always try to tell singers—the ones that don’t move on to the second day—that they have already done so much more than 99.9% of the world by standing on a stage and singing. They’ve already brought smiles, laughter, tears, and emotion to people with just their voice. Nothing during this pandemic keeps that from happening. If you are healthy and well, don’t stop doing what you do best. That would be my message to all singers as a matter of fact.
TB: What question did I not ask you that I should have?
SA: That’s a tough one. It is going to be beyond opera. How does this challenging time affect us, and not the company and not the business? I had a post on Facebook last week because I lost my brother unexpectedly. I was not that close to him and there is a bit of guilt in that for me. But I think my post was about family and friends. And to cherish them through this and realize that everybody has some challenging thing in their life that is bigger than this pandemic.
So the question for me is (hopefully), what will this pandemic do? And I think for me it is helping me to understand that I am a much better human being by opening my arms to kindness, instead of ridicule, criticism, or anything else that is happening out there. We did a school show this year called, Don’t Think Twice, Be Nice. It is simply about being nice to each other.
We need to remember that right now. Be nice. Open your arms when you can (though maybe don’t hug right now). But if you have an extra can of soup that you can put on someone’s doorstep—if there’s an elderly person living a couple of blocks away—maybe drop off a bag of food. There are so many things that we can do. And some of us with regular jobs are in so much better shape than those that don’t have ‘normal’ jobs right now. And those in need don’t have to be elderly. They could be 20 years old and just lost their restaurant job. Drop off a meal and it will come back around in your emotional well-being.
TB: In closing up here, is there a video binge that you would recommend?
SA: Currently, we aren’t binge watching anything. I am trying to write a school show for next year about confidence. When I do watch something, I like shows about real crimes and forensics.
TB: Thank you so much for chatting with me today. I have really enjoyed speaking with you and hearing your story.
Addendum: November 4, 2020
When I spoke to Mr. Aiken on November 4, 2020, he updated me on how life for Shreveport Opera is going. Currently, the resident artists are in Shreveport, LA working. However, due to the pandemic, their day-to-day activities have changed drastically. First, Mr. Aiken noted that upon arrival they quarantined in their shared house. In addition, the opera company supplied the artists with PPE to ensure that if they were out at schools—in the community, and so on—that they would be protected. Finally, Mr. Aiken has maintained his ‘open door’ policy with his artists by ensuring that they are comfortable with the work asked of them.
Creatively, the artists are still becoming integral members of the community and sharing opera. This has come in several forms, but school shows are one of the most familiar to young artists. However, due to strict regulations concerning the pandemic, coupled with the company’s desire for their artists to be safe, this too has had to change. Therefore, Mr. Aiken and Shreveport Opera have teamed with a local company to film their outreach shows so that they can be streamed to the schools. Furthermore, because one of the goals of the company is to form deeper attachments with their community, the artists also interact with students via Zoom to answer questions.
In reaching out to their broader community, Shreveport Opera has begun performing outdoor concerts. This effort has been supported, logistically, by their investment in sound equipment. However, Mr. Aiken shared that he has some apprehension as the temperatures have begun to drop. Performing in 50-degree weather is not easy on a voice or a young artist. Yet, due to his ‘open door’ policy, he has been assured that his artists are grateful to have work in this difficult time and are happy to help Mr. Aiken provide this needed artistic outlet to the community.
Finally, Shreveport Opera has begun performing at the RiverView Theatre. There are two performances, November 6, 2020 and November 13, 2020. They are also two different programs. The former is a program of opera and Broadway classics. And the latter is four one-act operas. However, these performances are only the first step on a long road to recovering the artistic world of Shreveport Opera. The RiverView Theatre normally seats 1,737. Shreveport Opera has limited its ticket sales to about ten percent of regular capacity, with 175 seats available. Naturally, this has a financial implication that I spoke to Mr. Aiken about. He noted that ideally they would focus on ticket sales and growing the company. But this is not an ideal time. Shreveport Opera has the resources to recoup the costs involved in the production, while utilizing the young artists who are already on payroll. Therefore, the creative work goes on, and as I was speaking to Mr. Aiken, he was heading to the theater to build scenery and be one of the two stage crew members for the show.
In concluding our chat, Mr. Aiken noted that we have to start looking at how we can engage our communities. He noted, “We have to do something. We can’t just sit by and say that there is nothing we can do. There is plenty we can do, it just may not be what we want to do. Engaging our community to say, ‘We are still here. We are still relevant,’ is what we have to do. We know what we can’t do, that’s easy. So, we all need to start thinking about what we don’t want to do and do it.”
“Flower Duet” from Lakmé by Delibes
In the adaptation, Ralph the Rat with libretto by Steve Aiken
Laura Sanders, soprano
Sarah Saturnino, mezzo-soprano
Ah Young Kim, pianist
“Rigoletto Quartet” from Rigoletto by Verdi
Laura Sanders, soprano
Sarah Saturnino, mezzo-soprano
Dylan Davis, tenor
Zachary Frank, baritone
Ah Young Kim, pianist
About Steve Aiken
Steve Aiken is currently the General & Artistic Director for Shreveport Opera, a position he has held for the last twelve years. He is a visionary leader with a 40-plusyear career as an opera performer and administrator. He was/is charged with moving the company to a new level of excellence –which he has done in his tenure here in Shreveport. Drawing on his artistic and administrative success as General Director of Opera Memphis, Steve worked to moving Shreveport Opera from a near $250,000 deficit in 2008, to an Opera Company with no debt, a credit line that has not been accessed in over four years, and improved both artistic and financial outcomes that are unmatched in the opera world of today. While many opera companies are making drastic cuts, facing enormous financial challenges, or closing their doors completely, Shreveport Opera is going strong, and operating annually without a deficit.
Administrative responsibilities include leadership, creativity and guidance in all departments where increased efficiency, team building and growth can be improved upon. Steve works directly with the Board of Directors offering 24/7 access to finances, operations and artistic endeavors. His artistic responsibilities include casting and auditioning performers on a national and local level, repertoire and production selection, programming, and the expansion of the current education and outreach programs. As an added benefit to Shreveport Opera, having had a career as a successful baritone, he is able to perform when necessary either on the main stage or for special fund raising events.
Prior to Shreveport, he was the General Director for Advancement for Nashville Opera, Steve Aiken was a unique part of the senior management team involved in all aspects of corporate operations. He worked directly with the Executive Director, Artistic Director, Executive Committee, and the full Board of Directors in order to advance the company fiscally and artistically. Having recent hands-on experience in the design, construction, funding and maintenance of a new facility, Steve was sought out to provide insight and solutions to the financial, artistic, and staffing challenges that might arise as Nashville Opera moved into a major growth phase. He provided firsthand knowledge and experience in the capabilities and liabilities of managing a new facility, and how to use the facility to create positive new earned income from increased programming, and outside rentals. He personally secured additional major gifts for the annual fund as well as the capital campaigns ranging from $5000 to $500,000.
Prior to his arrival in Nashville, Steve was the General Director of Opera Memphis. As General Director, Steve’s mission was to produce opera and programs of the highest possible quality, while maintaining fiscal discipline and growing community support. His management of all staff and departments, fundraising and financial and budgetary concerns were driven by these goals. This dedication to superior quality resulted in increased subscriptions and single ticket sales, and a record number of sold out performances. Dedication to fiscal discipline enabled Opera Memphis to end the last ten of eleven seasons with a surplus. In his final season with Opera Memphis, the company realized a $100,000 surplus –the largest in the history of the company. He worked side-by-side with his Artistic Director, Michael Ching in the auditioning and contracting of performers, repertoire selection, and all other artistic responsibilities. Steve’s passion for the arts was observed in his ability to represent Opera Memphis as an arts leader and at-ease public speaker within the community. As chief representative for Opera Memphis, Steve enjoyed his relationships with government officials, corporate leaders, and all friends of the opera.
Steve began his tenure with Opera Memphis in 1998 as Director of Production. As Director of Production, Steve restructured the production team allowing for a seasonal staff of professional costumers, designers, technical directors and makeup personnel. This change created larger and more beautiful productions, which were produced more efficiently and within budget. He also initiated and implemented changes in supertitle projections, which resulted in Opera Memphis’ ability to sell a significant number of prime seats that it had previously been unable to sell. The cost of the additional projectors was $10,000, but the new projection capability has generated nearly $100,000 in additional revenue from additional prime seats.
A swift promotion to Executive Director in 1999 brought new challenges. The commitment from the Opera Memphis Board of Trust to build a new facility from the ground up was a major goal. The campaign estimate grew from $2,000,000 to over $7,300,000. Steve was charged with the task of personally cultivating one major donor, which resulted in a gift of nearly $1 million –over 10% of the entire campaign. The campaign was completed successfully, and the requirements for a $500,000 Kresge challenge grant were fully met. During construction, Steve served as the liaison between the architects and the contractors on behalf of Opera Memphis. He made weekly trips to the job site overseeing progress and quality assurance. The Clark Opera Memphis Center is not only an award winning facility architecturally but was finished on time and on budget.
Other challenges that faced Opera Memphis at this time were the depressed economy, a major downturn in the stock market, and decreased funding from state and local government. Under Steve’s leadership, the company met these challenges with a combination of new fund raising efforts and a strict adherence to budgetary belt-tightening.
As Executive Director Steve was able to secure funding for an entire production of Tales of Hoffmann, a $275,000 gift. This was the first time in the 47-year history of Opera Memphis that an entire opera was fully underwritten by one donor. He created and secured new funding for two summer Opera Camps for teens and children. A program, which is still growing since his departure. This very successful program is now in its thirteenth season.
Steve’s personal outreach project was Grace House and Harbor House –both substance abuse rehab centers in Memphis. In his frequent visits, he introduced opera and enabled residents to create and perform operas onsite. He also created a program for both organizations to attend the final dress rehearsals of all operas presented. Steve arranged for 11 women from Grace House to actually perform in Manon Lescaut starring Kallen Esperian.
Steve began his career in opera as an Opera Singer. He was raised in Anchorage, Alaska, studied at the University of Alaska and Willamette University in Salem Oregon. At the early age of 21, he started his operatic career. Residing in NYC, his performing career took him through the US, Europe and South America. He is married to Janice, his better half since 1998. They have no children, but they do have a great rescue dog –Lulu.