Ned Canty: “Act as if access to the arts is a basic human right”

Opera Memphis was one of the first opera companies in America to commit to the idea that our mission cannot stop at producing exceptional opera. Every choice we make needs to answer the very basic question of “How does this make our community better?” We believe that opera’s unique combination of words, music and visual […]

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Opera Memphis was one of the first opera companies in America to commit to the idea that our mission cannot stop at producing exceptional opera. Every choice we make needs to answer the very basic question of “How does this make our community better?” We believe that opera’s unique combination of words, music and visual art allows it to be a generator of empathy. It invites the audience to feel what someone else is feeling, rather than just think about it.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ned Canty of Opera Memphis.

Before joining Opera Memphis in 2011, Ned Canty directed productions at dozens of companies, including Glimmerglass Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Santa Fe Opera, Chautauqua Opera and New York City Opera. The New York Times has described his stage direction as having “a startling combination of sensitivity and panache.” Opera News cited his work as evidence that “The future of American opera is in good hands.” Canty’s career reflects a commitment to introducing new audiences to opera, as well as championing new American works. Since joining Opera Memphis as general director in 2011, he has led a restructuring of the 63-year-old company, expanding the season and launching The Midtown Opera Festival, an annual festival of chamber works. The signature program under his leadership is 30 Days of Opera, which has brought free performances to over 400,000 Memphians in more than 200 locations since its inception. For the vast majority of them, it was their introduction to the art form. He has spoken about the model for The National Endowment for the Arts, The World Opera Forum, and dozens of civic groups in the city.

He has a special devotion to new works that began in 2003, when he joined America Opera Projects as their Director of Libretto Development. Since then he has collaborated with a number of composers and librettists on the development of new works, and has directed world premieres in New York, Memphis and Tel Aviv. 
In 2014 he oversaw the commission and production of Ghosts of Crosstown, a series of 4 short operas inspired by the stories of Memphians who lived and worked at the iconic Sears Crosstown Building between 1927 and 1989. The piece premiered within the abandoned building itself in a version lit only with audience-carried flashlights, before moving on to other venues, including the National Civil Rights Museum. Most recently he oversaw the Opera 901 Showcase, another anthology of short operas, each inspired by a different neighborhood in Memphis, and showcasing the musical heritage of the city with a wide variety of genres represented, including blues, hip-hop and rock.
He has a particular passion for working with emerging artists, and has helped shape a new generation of singers through his work with major conservatories such as The Curtis Institute, The Juilliard School, The Israeli Vocal Arts Institute, The Shanghai Conservatory, and The Manhattan School of Music. 
In 2005 Canty helped found The New York Television Festival, and served as its director until 2010. Over the course of those years, he helped grow the Festival into a nationally recognized forum for discovering new television talent and exploring digital and new media storytelling. 
Mr. Canty has also worked as an actor, director, and stuntman at Hartford Stage Company, The McCarter Theatre, Six Flags Great Adventure, and the New York Renaissance Festival, among others. He was a member of the first class of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab, and is a founding member of the International Academy of Web Television. He is currently serving his second term as a board member of Opera America, as well as serving as part of their Civic Action Group, funded by the NEA. In April of 2018 he represented Opera Memphis as a part of the US delegation to the first-ever World Opera Forum in Madrid, one of only five general or artistic directors to receive the honor.
He lives in Memphis with his wife and a quantumly indeterminate number of dogs.

Thank you for joining us Ned. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I grew up in theater, and my dream was to act or direct Shakespeare, like an American Kenneth Branagh (though one who would never do anything to lose Emma Thompson.) In 1996 I was working for Mark Lamos at Hartford Stage Company, serving as his Assistant Director, and understudying all male roles in all the shows they produced. For this, I got 150 dollars/week and housing. Towards the end of that year, he asked me if I wanted to work with him on an opera that summer. I told him I didn’t read music or speak Italian, and had only ever seen one opera, which I did not really enjoy. He was persistent, though, and eventually I gave in, as I needed the paycheck. What I thought was a summer job turned into a lifelong passion. Over the course of the next few years, I did less theater and more opera until eventually I was an opera guy.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Last season, for our production of The Falling and the Rising, we used a chorus of active and retired military, drawn from all over the Mid-South. While each of them was utterly amazing, and a privilege to know, most impressive was a gentleman who had fought at The Battle of the Bulge in WW2. Everyone involved in the show adored him, and the other military folks viewed him with a respect that bordered on awe. (I’m getting choked up as I write this, in fact, remembering the way they looked at him, as if nothing they ever did could honor him enough.) I will never forget standing backstage, watching him as he waited for his entrance. There he stood, a man in his 90s, eyes glued to a 23-year-old assistant stage manager, waiting for his cue to go onstage as if he were storming Omaha Beach.

But that’s not the story. The story happened opening night, after the show. After all of our chamber operas, we go to the other end of the theater building where they have a lounge/bar, and we do a casual performance. It might be an “aria jukebox”, or French torch songs, or dirty madrigals, depending on the year. We decided that year to do a cabaret-style performance, inviting all of the military chorus to do a solo or ensemble. It was amazing and intense and moving, even the pop songs, or the barbershop quartet — somehow the context added something special. Towards the end, one of the choristers came to the piano, a local professor of voice who performed in our normal opera choruses.

I was surprised when I learned she was actually ex-Coast Guard. She was a member of their ensemble that performed at special events, state functions, etc. The song she sang was “The Last Full Measure of Devotion”, an amazing and intense and moving piece, in line with all the rest. She had told us she planned to sing it. What we did not know until she introduced the piece was that she had sung it at the reopening of the Pentagon after 9–11, and she had not sung it since.

It is impossible to describe the feeling in the air when she sang, something that I have never experienced before — a summoning of something that was somehow both elegiac and joyous, in equal measure. Everyone in the room, military or not, was filled with a mix of grief and pride and hope and a thousand other emotions that cut past the logic of the everyday and go straight to the beating heart of who we are as humans. I doubt I will ever feel that way again, and to be honest, I’m not sure I want to. But I do know that that show, and that night in particular, reset every bar or measure I had about what makes a “good” show, or “good” music.

It will never, ever again be enough for me for music to be simply beautiful or virtuosic. It needs to create something far, far beyond. It is a high bar to set, distressingly high, but reaching for it with each show is the least I can do to honor that singer and all the others involved in that show.

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

In my second year, my wife and I decided we needed to get away for a while and relax after the launch of the first #30DaysofOpera. A month with no day off went straight into our first show of the season, which I directed. I was thoroughly drained, so we headed down to Clarksdale, MS for some Blues and relaxation.

On the last night of the trip, we hit a bar. I had not shaved for days and had not showered for a number of days I will never state publicly. I was in a hoodie and baseball hat, very relaxed. From behind me I heard, “You’re the opera guy!” I turned around and a lovely and very excited woman was there, gushing over the last show, how much she loved what we were doing, etc. She wanted to introduce me to a magazine editor she was dining with. I declined because I looked like a stuffed walrus that someone had left out in the rain overnight. The mistake was not what I wore, or where I was, just that I thought I could be in public without also representing the company. People create strong associations, and I did not want that look to be how anyone thought of Opera Memphis. Luckily it did not hurt or hinder anything, it just came as a surprise. Since then I pretty much don’t leave the house without reminding myself that an enthusiastic opera lover could be lurking around any corner or behind any bush.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Opera Memphis was one of the first opera companies in America to commit to the idea that our mission cannot stop at producing exceptional opera. Every choice we make needs to answer the very basic question of “How does this make our community better?” We believe that opera’s unique combination of words, music and visual art allows it to be a generator of empathy. It invites the audience to feel what someone else is feeling, rather than just think about it. We use that generational capacity to address issues like the status of veterans in a piece like The Falling and the Rising, which we co-commissioned. After inviting the audience deep into the lives and emotions of these soldiers, we sent them back into the world feeling an urge to make a difference. To make the most of that, we devoted space throughout the lobby for veteran’s service organizations to share materials, sign up volunteers, etc. That allowed people to act immediately, completing the circuit.

More recently, in the early days of the current pandemic, we needed to cancel our upcoming shows. Social distancing was the rule, but not “safer at home”, as it is now. So, we borrowed a farm trailer, hitched it to our van, and drove it into neighborhoods to sing for people who were quarantined due to illness or infirmity. Now that we are not asking singers to leave their homes, we are calling up medical workers and other essential employees to sing for them on their birthdays. These are small gestures, obviously, but they add up. They inspire. They comfort. They lighten the load. Next we are reaching out to restaurants who are donating food to first responders to see if there are ways, we can help them raise money for those meals. At this point we have no idea when we might be able to perform in a theater again, but until that point we will use all our resources and creativity to connect people and share their stories.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

In 2014, the head of security at The Levitt Shell, an outdoor amphitheater in midtown Memphis, heard we would be giving a concert there. He teased his boss all week that he wouldn’t be able to do his job because he would fall asleep, etc. When his boss went backstage to prepare for her closing remarks, she found him watching from the wings, with tears in his eyes. He told her afterwards that he always thought opera was for rich white people, therefore, not for him. Our concert inspired him to not only attend an opera, but to restart piano lessons, a pursuit he had given up on as a child.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Begin and support honest conversations about race and inequity that are focused on the future, and practical steps.
  2. A legal moratorium on jokes about fat ladies and/or Viking helmets. Doubt it could pass, but man it would be nice! Those jokes are just so lazy, they upset me as a fan of good comedy.)
  3. Act as if access to the arts is a basic human right. Germany is spending billions to support art and artists. In the US, we had a senator try to squelch the relief package to prevent the NEA or NEH from getting any money at all, despite our status as employers.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership means ensuring that my team has the resources it needs to accomplish our goals. It means taking the blame for failure and spreading the praise for success. It means not asking anyone to work harder or longer than you. It means constantly seeking out feedback to improve.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. “The folks who hired you created a job description that focused on everything that they think your predecessor lacked. But they still assume you will have all the knowledge and skill sets of your predecessor, though they did not ask about them.” My predecessor was a gifted musician. I am not. About 2 months into my time at OM, I was asked when I would be putting out the preview CD for the next opera. I had no idea what they were talking about. My predecessor had made very popular CDs that he created using one of the many music programs he had on his personal laptop. I had only a few days to find an appropriate computer and microphone and teach myself how to use sound software. It was rough, but this was a good lesson to learn early.
  2. “You will hear lots of people say, ‘the arts need to be more like a business.’ Take the advice of these people with a three-ton grain of salt.” The truth is most of the folks who say this don’t want it to be true. Often their lives are spreadsheets and office hours. Opera, or any art, represents magic, escape, beauty. They don’t want it to be a commodity, or to listen to lengthy explanations of why you can’t afford to produce a certain opera they love. What they really mean is that they want you to figure out a way that no one has ever figured out for your particular art form to suddenly be profitable, while retaining all of the things they love and value. You need to translate this axiom or others like it in specific ways because there is some truth there, but if we honestly examined any nonprofit art as if it were a business, we would close it immediately because, as the name implies, it does not make a profit.
  3. “When you arrive, you will have some people telling you to swerve left and some right. Listen to them all and try to determine the underlying truths and assumptions of what they are saying. If you can understand why people want you to move in the first place, the choice of direction will be simple(r).” I was amazed when I arrived that there were folks who considered OM hopelessly mired in tradition and those who considered it dangerously avant-garde. In the end, everyone wants more of what they want any institution to be, and you probably can’t provide that. But you can listen, remember, and then whenever you make a choice that reflects a particular person’s feedback, thank them for the advice they gave you early on, even if it was years ago. If you show you were listening, they will open their minds to all sorts of paths.
  4. “Life as an arts leader means a lot of weird hours, starchy lunches, and less-than-healthy meals grabbed on the go. It also may mean a lot more sitting at a desk and a lot less walking around. Unless you want all your clothes to have elastic waistbands, plan accordingly.” In my last job in NYC, I walked almost 2 miles a day just getting from the train station to the office. Lunch and a few meetings might have meant walking 3–4 miles a day without even trying. Not so here. At my heaviest, I was up 70 pounds since the move to Memphis. It is now more like 40, so still a way to go, but I should have been more diligent early on. Apparently, I have no natural immunity to Southern food.
  5. “If you try to give everyone their dream version of your company, you will fail. You need to know your own definition of success on a personal, spiritual level, even if you do not share it with others.” Not sure if everyone is like this, but I expect myself to be able to somehow do impossible things, things I would counsel a friend to forget about. A few years back, we had a season where we produced more shows than ever before and reached more people, of a greater diversity than at any time in our 60-year history. Still, I realized at the end of the year that I felt like a failure. This was because a handful of board members were not getting the type of works or priorities that they wanted. To give them their priorities would have meant going against the priorities of others, so this was literally impossible (and by literally, I do mean literally and not metaphorically.) Even so, in my gut, I held on to the feeling of failure, and let it churn. It almost broke me. It is hard to get over that desire to somehow give everyone their perfect version of things, but I am trying every day. To get over the desire, that is. Not to give everyone what they want. Okay, maybe I still try a little, but I can quit whenever I want.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Universal Health Care — no question. Possibly combined with a UBI. For good or ill, though, that sort of movement is not where my skills lie, so I do what I can using the tools I possess.

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

“The Home-Run Kings were also the Strike-Out Kings.” This is something an acting teacher of mine, Bill Graham, used to say, the idea being that swinging big is inherently risky. I don’t know if what he said is true stat-wise, but I like it as a way to frame the world, especially in times of change. Figure out which pitch you will swing for, then give it your all. Risk whiffing and looking foolish. When we first discussed our 30 Days of Opera program, we were thinking it would be a week of free opera events, rather than a month. We discarded that idea pretty quickly though, as a week was enough work to be draining on the staff, but not enough to actually make an impact. Instead, we swung with all our might and launched 30 Days, which is as responsible as anything for why Opera Memphis was able to recover from the last recession. Moreover, the lessons we’ve learned and skills we’ve honed from doing it for eight years are the foundation of what we are doing to navigate the current crisis.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

John Cleese. He has given me, and many others, more joy and laughter than almost anyone alive today. He has acted, written and directed, and I would love to find out how he balanced that. I also appreciate the way that he has used social media to advocate for causes. But mainly, I’d like to thank him for the fact that Monty Python is a sort of Rosetta Stone for translating between old-school comedy and modern comedy. Understand Python, and you can move freely in either direction, from Buster Keaton to Will Ferrell.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

The OM Instagram is @operamemphis and the OM Twitter account is @OperaMemphis.

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