What Can We Learn From the Whitaker Foundation's Recent Give to Opera Theatre St. Louis?

News out of St. Louis points to an innovative and replicable way forward for opera or classical music organizations looking to modernize their programming and attract foundation dollars.

The case study in question is the Opera Theatre of St. Louis (OTSL), which recently received a $750,000 grant from the Whitaker Foundation, an organization committed to supporting the arts in the area. As the press release notes, this is only the third time that the foundation has made a grant of this size in its 40-year history, so some deeper digging and contextualization is in order.

First, the context. The opera world is faced with a kind of existential crisis. Its "brand" is tarnished. To most of the general public, the form is synonymous with puffy guys in tuxedos and high-pitched singing in ancient languages. There's nothing wrong with that, of course — in fact, some of my best friends are puffy guys — except it's not the best way to extend the brand and reach a younger demographic.

Not surprisingly, this challenge isn't isolated to St. Louis or a single foundation. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, among others, has been instrumental (GET IT?) in supporting companies that are revitalizing the form. They recently awarded a $750,000 grant to the Minnesota Opera's New Works Initiative, which aims for nothing less than "invigorating the operatic art form with an infusion of contemporary works."

And therein lies the key ingredient central to practically every major opera give we've seen recently — a bold commitment to new programming. The Whitaker Foundation didn't give money to the OTSL as much as it did the company's "New Works, Bold Voices" program, which commissions and produces a range of significant new operas for the 21st century. The third production in the "New Works, Bold Voices" program, Shalimar the Clown, will debut in 2016. The opera is based on the acclaimed novel by Salman Rushdie.

But don't let me give you the wrong impression here. OTSL isn't throwing the classics to the curb. It understands that opera will continue to appeal to its "bread and butter" demographic, and so the company's programming model is a hybrid one. Commissioned world premieres and new productions of significant contemporary operas will appear in alternating years, each alongside classic or particularly interesting works, many of which were previously commissioned by other companies.

This approach pulls off the nifty trick of attracting new audiences with new and innovative works while simultaneously keeping their longtime customers engaged. Bravo!