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Hillhouse Opera Company: an opera for the community, by the community
by Victoria Gardner for Vocal Area Network
Posted February 28, 2010

Hillhouse Opera CompanyWhether or not an opera singer can successfully be part of a stable community and raise a family is a question that artists on all levels ask themselves. Singers often have to give up family, friends and other luxuries that are possible in community living in order to perform. Whether or not the singer is looking for a career or just feels the desire to sing opera, the opera singer is usually afforded very little opportunity that is close at hand. Artists looking for such a community usually pick up everything and move to New York, a city that is overflowing with opportunities but overflowing even more with artists. Yet this drain of singers to major cities leaves local communities dry of culture and of the inhabitants that make and appreciate art.

Hillhouse Opera Company (HHOC) of New Haven, CT strives to cultivate the artists within its own community so that they may be able to flourish even more because they are able to lay down some roots and grow instead of uprooting themselves often. In fact, HHOC has a two-part mission: to produce and promote opera in the wider community and to promote community through opera.

Founded in 2008 by soprano Victoria Leigh Gardner with the much-needed help and support of James Coatsworth and Nicole Rodriguez, all of New Haven, HHOC has succeeded in its mission to provide opera for the community in its two short years of existence. HHOC has performed two mainstage operas fully staged with orchestra, an extensive scenes program and several concerts and festivals in the greater New Haven area. In addition, HHOC offers master classes to its singers and to the community-at-large. HHOC's next production will be Gounod's Faust in April 2010. Most of the artists and supporting personnel are from the greater New Haven area, though a few have travelled from New York to be a part of the productions.

HHOC has very little outside income at this point but has been able to put on high-quality productions on a shoestring budget. HHOC tries to eliminate the cost barrier to opera so its ticket prices are free, with a suggested donation of $10 per person or $5 per student or senior. The success of the Company is completely due to the dedication and generosity of the community. The artists and management are all volunteer; the few people who are paid take stipends that are very much less than they are worth; and props, costumes, lighting and rehearsal and performance spaces have either been donated or have been given to us at extremely low prices. Thus, HHOC's performances have built relationships with the community that otherwise would not have existed.

There is a fine line, however, between accepting the generosity of the community and using the community for its resources. HHOC would very much like to be able to fund its current programs and create new ones, such as an educational program for local schools. HHOC would like to be able to give its artists and associated personnel the stability it strives to give them by being able to pay them what they are worth. Like other local businesses, HHOC could become a kernel of the community, driving a portion of the local economy while also feeding the hearts and souls of the people.

One challenge that HHOC has to achieving its goal in New Haven in particular is that New Haven is not one community, but several. HHOC strives to bring together the various "neighborhoods" that exist, but it is not an easy task. A performance that HHOC gave of scenes in the Fair Haven neighborhood had people downtown asserting that they would never go there for the performance because they were too afraid. The few people that did brave the ten-minute journey from downtown and the people from Fair Haven that came very much enjoyed themselves, so those who feared really missed out. However, the attendance was much sparser than it would have been if the performance had been downtown. HHOC would like to find ways to remove the fear of getting to Fair Haven or similar neighborhoods from those who live downtown or out of town and would also like to educate the people in all of the neighborhoods who don't know a lot about opera because they haven't been exposed to it.

Another challenge is finding personnel to help coordinate the productions. There are a few people doing a lot of multitasking and running the Company day-to-day, leaving little time for finding more people to help. Yet more people are desperately needed in order to coordinate administrative, development and production tasks. The Company is currently trying to find a General Manager and a fundraiser, preferably ones who would start as either a volunteer or with a small stipend with the hope that they would do their job so well that in the near future enough funding would be available to pay them a full salary. Until that day comes, Gardner fulfills all these duties, along with a host of other duties, with a great love for carrying out the mission of the Company. But one person can only do so much and, in order for the Company to survive, grow and thrive, it must become self-sufficient and not dependent on the activity of only a couple of people.

HHOC is fighting to overcome these and other challenges with the strength and energy of its small team of leaders devoted to bringing opera to the community. New Haven is a great place for this experiment and HHOC hopes that if it is successful other communities will follow suit and develop their own opera companies using their own local talent.

HHOC was founded in August 2008 as a community-based opera company in the greater New Haven, CT area. The Mission of the Hillhouse Opera Company is two-fold: to produce and promote opera in the wider community and to promote community through opera. More information about HHOC can be found on our website, www.hillhouseoperacompany.org.

Victoria Gardner is founder and general manager of the Hillhouse Opera Company. This article was adpated from a Hillhouse Opera Company press release.

Content Contact: Victoria Gardner.
Revision Date: February 28, 2010.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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