Podcast 74: Opera Memphis, Ned Canty and Michael Sakir

The podcast regulars welcome Ned Canty, General Director, and Michael Sakir, Music Director of Opera Memphis for an illuminating discussion about how they have transformed what opera means to the Memphis community. What is an opera company’s civic responsibility especially in this period of pandemic shutdown? What skill sets should they have been cultivating to be an engaged and engaging 21st Century arts organization?

We learn about the programming that led them to a unique and moving collaboration with the U.S. Army Field Band & Chorus on the opera The Falling and The Rising. Opera is alive and kicking up a storm in Memphis, grab your earphones, plug in and hear all about it on your favorite app, or watch on Youtube.

An Audio Only version will available here

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This episode was recorded on Zoom and is available on YouTube.



How does an opera company survive and possibly thrive during this Covid-19 pandemic shutdown?

  • The smaller opera companies and others that have recognized the necessity of building upon a more flexible business and production model are the ones that will be more able to adapt during this period and what follows it. Those who regularly produce chamber works, site-specific works, multi-media works and who also have become accustomed to engaging with their audience and community digitally.


Opera Memphis was founded in 1956 when the Metropolitan Opera still used to tour the USA and Internationally. The company grew to provide opera for the city for the rest of the year when the Met wasn’t visiting.

  • 1986 brought an end to the Met Opera national tours created a big burst of growth for Opera Memphis. There were issues and disagreements about how to use the funds that normally supported the touring productions, eventually that was sorted out and the funds were split three different ways to support opera in the area, some to the Met Opera Regional Auditions, some towards funding Opera Memphis and the rest to another group.


Opera Memphis’s season now normally includes:

  • Two full productions
  • 30 Days of Opera
  • Chamber Opera Festival
    • The festival has hosted the premieres of at the most up to 3 new American one-act operas each year.
      • Both 30 Days and the Festival were launched in 2012.


30 Days of Opera has become a tradition.

  • The monthlong multi-event held by Opera Memphis was created by the organization’s general director Ned Canty.
  • The idea is to bring opera to the people with a series of appearances around the area, from concerts at the Levitt Shell to random pop-up performances at busy intersections, farmers markets, dog parks, or anywhere that people may gather.
    • This program allows the company to try a variety of presentations. You keep what works and never talk about what didn’t and then try other things out.


This Season, 2019-20 was supposed to include:

  • Cosi fan Tutte by Mozart
  • Bastien und Bastienne by Mozart in a stripped down piano version
  • Mozart Lost & Found
    • A program devised by Michael Sakir that included alternate versions of arias
  • Mozart After Dark
    • A program presenting some Mozart’s more sexually explicit works.


2 weeks into rehearsals for Cosi, the city shut down due to Covid-19 and the turnaround from full production to Virtual programming was effected in less than 24 hours!

  • They rehired the Cosi cast to help create content for this April version of 30 Days of Opera.
    • Some of the cast remained in Memphis, some went home, all are participating remotely.
      • They created a 15 minute version of Cosi presented virtually.
    • Sing To Me Campaign also engaged the repurposed cast members.
      • These were performances by request before Memphis truly shut down. Those performances took place on balconies, in front of apartment buildings and homes.
  • Live streaming events:
    • Aria Jukebox
      • The audience votes digitally for what arias they want to hear and barely minutes later, the singers are performing those arias.
    • Opera Bingo utilizing Name That Opera
      • Audience members playing remotely check their boxes and complete rows based on their opera knowledge.
      • In upcoming editions they will utilize Musical Theater, Baroque Opera, Mozart Opera, etc.

On Opera Memphis’ Facebook page you can currently find

  • O Mio Babbino Caro (social distance version) created by
    • Philip Himebook, an Opera Memphis Handorf Company Artist alumni as an a cappella version for soprano soloist with an all Mr. Himebook barbershop quartet.

The definition of what we mean by live audience is going to change once we get past the current shutdown. The live streamed events are the closest thing we have that feels as special as an in theater performance. It is feasible that Opera Memphis could put a cast on a stage mobile in a parking lot and have the audience present in their cars to keep within social distancing guidelines.

  • They could do shorter works with small casts and a piano, drive a truck to an apartment building’s block the audience watching from their balconies. Chamber operas could be presented in Botanical gardens, zoos, public city squares.
  • Jake Heggie & Terrence McNally’s At the Statue of Venus for soprano and piano would work in this format.

Kamala Sankaram has already created a ZOOM Opera that premiered this April 2020.

Opera Memphis management has made a point of engaging with every member of their staff, who all have some creative activity as part of their life in the new virtual programming giving it a truly authentic Memphis vibe.

  • Shirley Hill who runs their box office and community engagement and sings in the opera chorus created a playlist for Easter because she also does church music.
  • Terry Sakir, Michael’s wife has been involved in programming the new live streamed events such as:
    • Opera Bingo and Aria Jukebox (which they lifted from Kim Whitman/Wolf Trap Opera).


  • Social Justice and how an opera company can engage with the existing and future issues. Opera should not be didactic, it needs to be engaging and issues should arise from character interaction, emotion and story.

Opera Memphis has had experience producing recent examples of contemporary operas that successfully manage relevant social issues.

  • In August 2019 Crosstown Arts & Opera Memphis co-presented a production of As One by Laura Kaminsky, Mark Campbell & Kimberly Reed as part of the Continuum Music Festival.
    • It was co-directed by Ned Canty and Joy Brooke Fairfield.
    • This opera’s story focusses on the transition of the sole character from male (Hannah Before) to female (Hannah After).
  • Three Decembers by Jake Heggie & Gene Scheer was presented by Opera Memphis in April 2017.
    • This opera is based on an un-produced play by Terrence McNally
      • Terrence McNally recently passed due to Covid-19 and not one of the obituaries mentioned his superb work as an opera librettist!
    • The opera tells the story of a famous stage actress – Madeline Mitchell and her two adult children: Beatrice and Charlie. The drama takes place over three decades of the AIDS crisis (1986, 1996 and 2006), each section recalling the events of a December as the characters struggle to connect when family secrets are revealed.

Artistic Organizations are choosing very individual paths towards how they are treating their performing artists, creative and business staff due to the pandemic shut down of live performances.

  • The Opera Memphis board of directors when approached by Ned, stating his intent to pay every artist their full salary and he would figure out how to make value out of it later, unanimously voted yes, because it was important to make sure that the artists were supported.
  • Regarding the issue of more balanced artist compensation, next year visiting artist compensation is going to be tagged to Ned’s salary on a daily basis.
    • E. an artist coming in to sing a role would receive the same daily salary that he gets.
    • The goal is that everyone gets paid the same, no artist will be expected to work for free.

For the 2020-21 season to commemorate the opera company’s return to their downtown theater, the Orpheum they intend to present:

  • Puccini’s La Boheme and set it in the early 20th Century on Beale Street with an entirely African-American cast.
  • A revival of The Falling and the Rising, one of their co-commissioned works is also in consideration for production.
    • This work addresses the issues that service members experience while in active duty and after.

Sears Crosstown Operas

  • In 2014, Opera Memphis presented 4 short operas that were all based on oral histories about the Sears Crosstown Building, a long shuttered huge complex that was a Sears Roebuck Catalogue hub.
    • Zachary Redler & Jerre Dye wrote one of these operas.

At the 2015 OPERA America Conference in Washington, DC they presented a selection from one of these operas.

  • Staff Sgt. Ben Hilgert happened to be in the audience.
    • This was a style of story-telling that he felt he could relate to.
    • A way that he could tell the stories of real soldiers.
      • He intended it to be sung by active members with operatic training and use instrumental accompaniment other than a piano.
      • To create a piece that could be performed in whole or in sections depending on the time available and space.
      • Laura Lee Everett, OPERA America’s Chief Programs Officer got involved and helped get grant funding for it.

The Falling and The Rising”  is a new opera based on collective interviews with dozens of U.S. Army veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, and Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. The opera chronicles the imagined journey of a Soldier suspended inside a coma following a roadside attack. Throughout the story, she makes her way through a coma-induced dreamscape punctuated by powerful encounters with other fellow service members, each on the brink of individual discovery. It presents an immensely powerful story, not only for those who are serving or have served in the military, but also for those who have never had the opportunity.

  • On April 6 2018, members of the Soldiers’ Chorus and Texas Christian University presented the world debut of the new American opera about U.S. Army veterans. “The Falling and The Rising,” by composer Zach Redler and librettist Jerre Dye took more than three years to come together since its conception in the mind of Staff Sgt. Ben Hilgert:
    • “We wanted to work with opera companies that had a history of military connections but we wanted to have veterans and active duty Soldiers be the ones to tell their story and then bring it to the opera stage.”
  • He found co-commissioners in TCU, Seattle Opera, San Diego Opera, Arizona Opera, and Opera Memphis.
    • In August 2017 the piece was workshopped at Seagle Music Colony, thanks to collaboration with producer Darren Woods.
  • Singing the featured roles in the World Premiere of “The Falling and The Rising” were Soldiers’ Chorus members Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Erbe, Sgt. 1st Class Betsy Garcia, Staff Sgt. Ian Bowling, Staff Sgt. Rachel Farber and Staff Sgt. Keenan McCarter.
    • The music director and conductor for the world premier was Tyson Deaton with stage direction by David Gately.

The United States Army Field Band & Chorus – promo video


The United States Army Field Band & Chorus – full performance

Today on We Stand Ready, see The Falling and The Rising: a musical drama telling the real stories of Soldiers.  This work was based on the experiences of recovering warriors at @Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and it has promoted growth and healing for wounded warriors, Veterans’ choruses, and communities all over America.

Join Sgts. 1st Class Teresa Alzadon and Ben Hilgert along with composer Zach Redler and librettist Jerry Dye as they share inspiring musical moments from The Falling and The Rising.

Credits for music selection from Opera Memphis production

THE FALLING AND THE RISING – (Excerpt: Military Chorus #2)

  • Zachary Redler, composer
  • Jerre Dye, librettist
    • Soldier: Chelsea Miller
    • Toledo: Stephanie Doche
    • Jumper: Philip Himebook
    • Homecoming Soldier: Marcus King
    • Colonel: Darren Stokes
    • Conductor: Michael Sakir
    • Opera Memphis Military Chorus
    • Memphis Symphony Orchestra

Two other recent New York based opera productions that engaged with unique communities.

  • On Site Opera production of Amahl and the Night Visitors set in a Soup Kitchen using a chorus made up of former clients
  • Heartbeat Opera production of Fidelio where they used a virtual chorus created from 6 different prison choirs from across the USA who learned the music.
    • They recorded each choir separately on both audio and video then merged the performances into an amazing coup de theatre.

The Opera industry as a whole is addressing what Civic Practice means to them. How does an opera company become considered as essential to a community. One step is to tell local stories written by those communities.

The future of opera is local, is flexible, is civic minded and has a new financial business model.

Opera 901 Project

  • 901 is the Memphis area code.
  • Five operas about Memphis written by Memphians including:
    • A hip-hop opera about police brutality
    • A rock opera about Memphis wrasslin’ from the 19080’s.

Opera companies need to look at the culture of their corporate donors and

how they can engage with them. What programming can serve both of their goals? How can they help each other to  make their surrounding communities better? Artistic organizations must not approach those donors from a stance of entitlement, yes, it is important to fund the arts, but they must figure out why it would be important to this corporation to do so. If you don’t see value in what we do, what would you value?

AutoZone: The Opera


  • Maria Lindsay – 1st Woman
  • Caitlin McKechney – 2nd Woman
  • Joel Herold  – Mr. WITTGTJDR
  • Logan Rucker  – Young Man
  • Ned Canty – director and librettist
  • Ben Makino – accompanist

How does Opera Memphis measure their success?

  • Timothy O’Leary quote:
    • “No numbers without stories, no stories without numbers.”

30 Days of Opera Events can have high clicker counts because some are huge events and thousands of people have potentially heard them sing.

  • Street Fairs & Festivals
  • Trolley Night Downtown
  • Coupons for 50% off your first opera
    • It can be any opera in the season.
      • They still hand these out, but it is no longer a major metric they worry about.
  • In the first three years of 30 Days, for every tweet, every FaceBook post, every social media interaction Ned took a screen shot.
    • After 3 years he had a group of interns print out every one of them and tape them together into an extremely long paper roll.
    • When Ned went to the Getty Foundation and he also gave a report at the OPERA America Conference about what was the impact of the 30 Days program.
    • He took out this paper roll, stood on the podium and with the assistance of Michael Mori of Tapestry Opera they pulled the roll until it reached to the end of the conference room and out into the hallway.
    • That theatrical visual got people to advertise/support 30 Days and believe in it’s value.

Ned Canty openly thanks David Devan of Opera Philadelphia and Darren Woods formerly of Fort Worth Opera for their advice and visionary work building supportable institutional and community engagement models that he could learn and steal from.

Two of Opera Memphis’ newest programs, The McCleave Project begun in 2017 and The McCleave Fellowship begun in 2018 are focussed on addressing the social and racial inequities in both audience/community engagement and professional development opportunities.

The McCleave Project

(Made possible by the Opera America Innovation Grant (funded by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.)


Begun in fall 2017, The McCleave Project (named for and in celebration of Florence Cole Talbert-McCleave) seeks to deepen Opera Memphis’ engagement with issues of equity and diversity in opera, both on stage and in the audience. In the first year of the Project, we featured a city-wide tour of Menotti’s The Telephone, updated for the age of smartphones and featuring a fully African American cast. Each free performance of the 20-minute opera took place in a primarily African American area of the city and was followed by a moderated community conversation about race in opera. In 2018-19, we will continue to engage with our year one partners while adding a component of outreach to the Latino community. Working with Latino Memphis, we will present Spanish language programming and facilitated community conversations aimed at engaging with this growing population. Through these efforts, Opera Memphis seeks to move beyond inherited opera traditions in meaningful partnership with the community

The McCleave Fellowships

Launched in 2018, The McCleave Fellowships are the first of their kind, designed specifically to create early career opportunities for directors and conductors of color. Our goal is to address pipeline issues in the field by advancing talented individuals who can have an impact beyond Opera Memphis. In keeping with the legacy of Madame McCleave, this fellowship is dedicated to providing professionals of color with the tools they will need to become successful, impactful artists.

Florence Cole Talbert-McCleave was a Detroit-native whose voice and passion took her all over the world. From the beginning, she was destined to be a singer; her mother Sadie Chanler Cole was a member of the famed Fisk University Jubilee Singers. Her early life foreshadowed her trailblazing career.

She was the first African American student to attend Los Angeles High School, and after attending University of Southern California, she was the first woman of color to be involved in the commencement exercises of the vocal department of Chicago Musical College.

After graduating with honors, McCleave toured the US solo and with Hann’s Jubilee Singers and recorded with record companies including Paramount.

In the interest of pursuing operatic training, McCleave moved to Europe to study under Delia Valeri. In 1927 Florence McCleave sang Aida at the Teatro Comunale in Cosenza, Italy. While her trip included critically acclaimed appearances in Paris, London and Rome, this performance of Aida was significant because she was the first African American singer to perform the role in Europe. In the US, however, she had few options in opera, though she gave recitals and recorded.

In 1930, she moved to Memphis, where she not only taught voice, but brought artists like Leontyne Price and George Shirley to sing at LeMoyne College (now LeMoyne Owen), a historically black Memphis university. While The Met was touring to Memphis in a white-only venue, McCleave was spreading a love of opera to generations of young black Memphians, and ensuring her community heard some of the best singers in the world.




Opera Memphis Facebook Page

BIO: Ned Canty

Before joining Opera Memphis in 2011, Ned Canty directed productions at dozens of companies, including Glimmerglass, Wolf Trap, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Santa Fe, 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.”

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.

In 2005, he 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.

He is currently serving his second term as a board member of Opera America.

Michael Sakir

Praised for his “artistic authority,” “fluidity of expression,” and “great delicacy of feeling,” Michael Sakir has served as Music Director of Opera Memphis since August 2017. In addition to conducting nearly a dozen operas in Memphis, he has been deeply involved in the company’s groundbreaking civic engagement programs, community partnerships, and commissioning projects. Sakir also serves as Principal Guest Conductor of the Opera Company of Middlebury in Vermont.

In the 2019-2020 season, Sakir made his Seattle Opera debut conducting Jerre Dye and Zachary Redler’s The Falling and the Rising – a new opera co-commissioned with the United States Department of Defense and based on interviews with wounded American veterans.

Other recent guest conducting engagements include the Brevard Music Center, Des Moines Metro Opera, Opera Orlando, Intermountain Opera Bozeman, Shreveport Opera, Eugene Opera, and American Opera Projects.

He holds degrees from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and The Boston Conservatory. He was a participant in the 2017 OPERA America Leadership Intensive.


Ned Canty photo by Elizabeth Berglund and Michael Sakir photo by Joey Miller.

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