Project management, Nevill Holt Opera, event planning, finance

Management / Opera operations: managing the chaos behind the curtain

Opera operations: managing the chaos behind the curtain

Joanne Frearson talks to the Nevill Holt Opera’s Rosenna East to find out exactly what it takes for the curtains to go up smoothly at opening night…

With 400 people attending each performance, a lot goes on behind the scenes to make sure opening night – not to mention the subsequent ones – run smoothly at the Nevill Holt Opera. Planning starts a year in advance and there are a lot of moving parts that need to fit together accurately to make the event work.

Founded by Carphone Warehouse entrepreneur David Ross in 2013, the event – which takes place between June and July each year at Nevill Holt hall in Leicestershire – was developed in part to enrich the lives of young people through music and arts.

“There is a challenge in putting on an opera,” Rosenna East, general manager of the Nevill Holt Opera, tells Business Reporter in her office in St James Place in London. “You have the orchestra in the pit. You have the singers on stage. You have the creative team that has designed and made the set, the costumes… the lighting, the choreographers and the technicians.

“It is 10 times more complicated than other art forms. There are a lot of human beings, a lot of artistic temperaments and everybody has got skin in the game. Everyone is hugely invested in it being a success.”

It is a big balancing act

Stakeholders play as much of a part in making the festival a success as tenors and violinists. A long list of sponsors includes Citi Private Bank, Credit Suisse and Aberdeen Standard Investments, all heavily invested in the project’s outcome, as East points out.

The opera does not receive any government money, she explains, and the festival operates on a mixed business model. Around 55 per cent of the cash raised is through commercial income, with the other 45 per cent from fundraising through charitable trusts and individual donors.

“We have a wonderful network of very engaged members who support our work financially,” East says. “They feel a huge sense of ownership. It is so easy when you are in a [management position] to think this is your project. It’s not, it belongs to everyone else. You are sort of a custodian.

“Balancing all those things is an ongoing challenge. You are spinning a lot of plates all the time. A big part of managing it is juggling all of those different needs.”

It is about nurturing others

The best way to do this, East points out, is to develop good relationships with stakeholders and hire a great team.

“You have got to have great people you can rely on,” she says. “It takes great casting – I’m not talking about on stage, you have to cast people into the right roles behind the scenes.

“You must be able to give them freedom to do what they do best and how do you make sure it is all going to happen. I mean work hard, work early and start before anyone else thinks you can possibly be worrying about the summer.”

East does a lot of planning with her site manager during the winter, handing the process over when spring approaches. A similar process takes place with the production manager. It is important to start planning early, East explains. The opera is already talking about what it will be performing in 2020/21.

East sees her job as a hub that connects the different parts connect together, as her position commands a 360-degree view of the entire festival. “Someone who is running a particular department isn’t going to be worrying so much about what is happening in finance, or what the corporate sponsors are doing,” she says. “They might, at times, have completely opposing priorities.”

The ability to keep in touch with life on the ground and read between the lines to find out what’s really happening is a crucial part of the job. “It is not just about talking to each other, it is also about listening. Certainly, in my position it is important to listen underneath what people are saying,” East says. “What do they really care about? What are they really worrying about? What is really driving these particular concerns?”

East ascribes her street-smart skills to her previous stint working at the sharp end of the trade as a violinist. “It means I understand [the] business from the inside-out, really,” she says. “That makes a difference to the artists I work with, and I think it means that I can speak to the non-artistic stakeholders with passion from the heart.”

Prepare for the unexpected

Measures also need to be put in place for when things don’t go to plan. “You have to plan on things going wrong, otherwise you are in for a horrible shock,” says East.

She learned the hard way – on her first night of her first festival, the Toreador in Carmen swept in for a big moment, only for him to have to leave the stage after his foot went through the chair he was standing on. East calmed the anxious audience by taking to the stage to announce that the performer had torn his trousers, which brought the house down.

The accident still caused a delay to the show, however, and a knock-on effect when catering and the people were late for the trains home. “It is a real ecosystem, everything is connected,” she says, quoting an old British Rail tenet of putting in contingencies even if people can’t see them. “You need to get yourself a few escape routes, so if one thing goes wrong there is a bit of slack that can take it up somewhere else.

“Be brave, find your courage and find your calm. It is really not the faint hearted, but it is glorious,” is her advice for anyone wanting to embark on a career in the precarious world of opera management. “There is so much going on you are going to be pulled in a lot of different directions, and you really need to want to do it. It is not for the fainthearted. Opera is wild. It is courage, grit and serious determination, a big smile and believing in the product. You have got to have total integrity.”

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