An Interview With Emilie Whelan, West Edge Opera's new Associate Director of Development
Emilie Whelan has arrived at West Edge Opera straight from the bayous of New Orleans where she was a major force in arts and development post-Katrina. There she oversaw the development of NHP Foundation’s arts programming, Cripple Creek Theater Company, The Fringe Theater Festival New Orleans, and The DISTILLERY Artist Residency at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans for mid-career performing artists. We caught up with Emilie to discuss the path that led her to West Edge and how she sees her role in the company developing.
Q: How do we bust loose from opera's reputation as high art for high society?
At its core, opera is the expression of a universal story, and the exquisite power of a human voice to convey it.
I believe that opera is having a (r)evolution moment as an expression for our times. Opera is getting bolder, braver, simpler, and more diverse. We must lean into this to unpack what opera can mean to the 21st century human.
I think many of us feel humanity standing before a crossroad: politically, environmentally, ethically - a reckoning of what divides us and what unites us. I passionately believe that there is more that unites than divides us, and I believe opera is a vibrant expression to reveal unity. Opera inherently possesses a radical poetic spirit. Such conflict! Such passion! Such unbridled human spirit, and the power of a human voice that is nearly superhuman!
For me, development is all about making these wildly ambitious goals possible. It’s about effectively communicating the potential of the art form and getting people as excited about what we want to do as we are. The folks at West Edge eat, sleep, and drink opera and we want to share that enthusiasm with all kinds of people in our community, some of whom may have had no experience with the art form at all!
In my time as an arts advocate I’ve learned that there's nothing more valuable than word-of-mouth about a good time. In order for word-of-mouth to flow freely, the audience must have a positive experience from the first glimpse of the website, to purchasing the ticket, to the the production's final bow, and through to the post-performance receptions and ideally the passionate discussion on the drive home. Development needs to keep its eye on the total experience, and it is my mission to make an already positive experience an extraordinary one.
Q: What about working in Theater in New Orleans will you bring to working with opera in the Bay Area?
More than anything, I will bring a passion for community, visibility, and sustainable strategies. New Orleans celebrates old art and new art in the same arena, while treasuring the most traditional and most untraditional forms of artistic expression. For me, art dies in stagnation. It dies without risk. I fell in love with West Edge Opera because I saw it taking great risk, and I saw a team of people that are equally committed to risk as to celebrating legacy.
Also, I will bring an outstanding habit of eating crawfish and saying 'y'all' all the time.
Q: What are unique challenges and opportunities working with opera as compared with other performing arts?
We must admit that the general public generally believes that opera is long, static, and not telling stories about 'them'. And we must admit that there are barriers to welcoming all audiences into the arena of opera. Those barriers are deep, long-standing, and will require intentional shifts to dismantle the “exclusive” pedigree of opera. This is both a profound challenge and an extraordinary opportunity.
If one trusts that opera can be an honest and meaningful expression of what we share as humans, then this is possible. The West Edge Opera team has been building doors for audiences to open for the past decade, doors that allow them to discover opera anew. I’m thrilled to join this team under the General Direction of Mark Streshinsky and eager to make it easier than ever to engage with this most rewarding of art forms.
Q: What's one of your first objectives as the Associate Director of Development for West Edge Opera?
My first objective is to streamline and codify the many ways people can become more involved with West Edge Opera. A company like ours simply cannot exist without support from the people who love what we do. So we’ve created a web page aimed towards folks looking to get more involved, from spending an afternoon helping people find their seats, all the way to hosting an artist in their homes for the duration of the festival. And for those angels who make it financially possible for us to bring in world class performers, designers, and directors for our productions, there are a number of available perks, from private interactions with artistic staff to the holy grail of all performance experiences, reserved parking(!) Visit our donation page for the details of this program, the first of many initiatives we’ll be taking as West Edge grows and matures as a company. I’m thrilled to be here at this exciting time and looking forward to being part of this expanding and remarkable family.