Marsha Drummond of the Metropolitan Opera on why her goal is to bring opera to all

“Come to the edge,” He said. “We can’t. We’re afraid!” They responded. “Come to the edge.” He said. “We can’t, we will fall!” They responded. “Come to the edge.” He said and so they came. And he pushed them.And they flew. – Guillaume Apollinaire This quote sums up how I try to live my life. […]

“Come to the edge,” He said. “We can’t. We’re afraid!” They responded. “Come to the edge.” He said. “We can’t, we will fall!” They responded. “Come to the edge.” He said and so they came. And he pushed them.And they flew. – Guillaume Apollinaire

This quote sums up how I try to live my life. If I’m nervous or scared to try something, I know I need to do it.

I had the pleasure to interview Marsha Drummond, Director of Education at The Metropolitan Opera. Drummond oversees all educational initiatives for children and adults at The Met Opera and the Metropolitan Opera Guild. Drummond joined The Met in 2007, the inaugural year of their flagship educational program The Met: HD Live in Schools. The program transmits live operas from The Met stage to schools around the United States and is paired with a comprehensive educational curriculum — now in 48 sites nationwide. Drummond also directs educational and audience development programs such as Met Students — a program for college students ages 18–29 — the Fridays Under 40 series, aimed at building younger audiences for opera, and produces new operas for babies.

Hi Marsha, thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I come from a family of educators, so it this apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. After I left teaching, I worked for many years at New York City’s public television station, PBS (WNET) Thirteen. I led a group called the L.A.B. (Life After Broadcast), and was charged with reframing primetime television for educators for use in classrooms.

When I heard about the opportunity to build a new education program at the Metropolitan Opera, I was absolutely enthralled with the idea. I’ve always loved music of all genres, as well as theater, costumes, and visual arts. Opera encompasses them all. Now, I’m charged with finding ways to make opera accessible to all — by integrating the themes and history of the art into curriculum that teachers are already teaching.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you joined The Metropolitan Opera?

Every day, I’m inspired by something new at The Met Opera, whether it be seeing puppeteers rehearsing a scene from Magic Butterfly, hearing our world class orchestra rehearsing for an upcoming performance, or watching the costume shop put the finishing touches on a stunning, intricate gown. One of my favorite moments has been witnessing a house full of 1,500 students experience the opera for the first time, in rapt attention — and they weren’t constantly looking on their phones! Now that’s phenomenal.

Can you share a story about a funny mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

An early misconception I had when I first joined The Met’s educational department was that students wouldn’t connect with opera. I found it to be just the opposite. Young people are unbelievably open and eager to participate in artistic endeavors. In fact, the earlier that people experience this extraordinary art form in their lives, the more quickly they find an affinity for it.

What do you think makes The Met Opera stand out from other institutions?

What makes The Met Opera stand out is that we hire the best in the business across the board, from directors to lighting designers to costumers… the list goes on and on. Everyone is dedicated to opera and The Met’s highest artistic integrity. Each and every one of us are proud of the work we do — and together, we’re one big family.

Beyond the walls of opera house, we’re also leaders in opera distribution around the globe. We created the Live in HD series, which transmits live opera to 71 countries. Over eight million listeners tune into our performances on the radio, and we created Met Opera on Demand, which offers 1.5 million performances anytime, anywhere. This is in addition to the 700,000+ audience members who join us at Lincoln Center each year. The Met really is one-of-a-kind — no other opera house is doing it at this level.

Can you share more about the projects you’re working on?

Our education initiatives at The Met are a high priority — our goal is to bring opera to all. Most recently, we’ve been working on a mariachi opera with our partner school district in Dallas, TX. The Met commissioned an arrangement of the famous “Brindisi” from Verdi’s opera La Travata for a middle school mariachi band.

The teacher spearheading the program, Beth Poquette Drews, worked with her students to explore themes of love, merriment, jealousy, and loss evoked in Verdi’s opera. Together with her students, 93% of which are of Latin descent, Beth identified mariachi songs that also spoke to these themes. The group wove them together to create a unique performance that marries their Mexican-American traditions with the traditions of opera. They just performed for over 450 guests the last week of November — and I was thrilled to see these young musicians bring to life a La Traviata their own.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Regardless of gender, I think communication is key. I try to be clear to my staff about where we’re going and what’s expected of each of them. I’m also a proponent of regular check-ins. I try and give everyone a chance to be heard — whether it’s in-person, email, or via phone. I also am a big proponent of customer service, and think of our patrons as anyone internal or external to the organization. We get it done, and we do it with a smile.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

For me, gender doesn’t play a role. I have a small and specialized team, so we’re able to nimbly interface with other departments in the organization to get a job completed that we hope everyone appreciates.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are countless people who have helped me along the way. My mom has been my greatest fan and gave me a solid foundation from the start.

As far as career breaks, my first school principal hired me after five days of substitute teaching in a Brooklyn public school in East Flatbush. She mentored me, invited me to observe master teachers during my free periods, and shared constructive feedback when I got it wrong.

Certainly, Peter Gelb — the General Manager of The Met Opera — gave me a wonderful opportunity when he hired me to create The Met’s education department. He hired me when our Live in HD series was only a year old. He warned me that it would be risky — my team would be smaller than the staff I had at PBS and there were a lot of unknowns. To me, that made it all the more challenging and rewarding; I couldn’t wait to jump in.

Twelve years later, I still love my job.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

We try to bring the transformational experience of art and art making to everyone regardless of their station in life. Opera is for everyone and we endeavor to make it so.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Come to the edge,” He said. “We can’t. We’re afraid!” They responded. “Come to the edge.” He said. “We can’t, we will fall!” They responded. “Come to the edge.” He said and so they came. And he pushed them. And they flew.

– Guillaume Apollinaire

This quote sums up how I try to live my life. If I’m nervous or scared to try something, I know I need to do it.

Some of the biggest names in Business, Sports, and Entertainment, and more read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

There are so many: Gloria Steinem, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Billie Jean King, Maxine Waters and Kamala Harris to name a few. If they’re reading this, we’d love to have them for a night of opera at The Met. And if they were still living, I’d love to dine with Eleanor Roosevelt and Katharine Graham. These are all strong women that put their personal interests aside for the betterment of women, girls, men, boys, and the world.

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