As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Einhorn.
Eric Einhorn is the co-founding General & Artistic Director of On Site Opera, the country’s only opera company dedicated to site-specific productions. His immersive, site-specific productions have performed to sold-out houses and critical acclaim since the company’s founding. Mr. Einhorn has created partnerships with venues and institutions throughout New York City that range from community gardens, historic homes, restaurants, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has also forged partnerships with social service and educational organizations to further involve the community in the creation and impact of On Site’s productions. Mr. Einhorn has become an industry-recognized leader in site-specific opera, often speaking at conferences and teaching masterclasses. He has also spearheaded a technology initiative with the company that has led to the world’s first use of Google Glass for supertitles, as well as the implementation of a mobile app for supertitles and digital programs.
As a stage director, Mr. Einhorn has directed at many of the country’s leading opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Ft. Worth Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, Florentine Opera, Austin Opera, Utah Opera, and Michigan Opera Theater.
Thank you so much for joining us, Eric! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a musical theater performer — a path I discovered thanks to limited athletic prowess as a 6’3” teenager. Years of community theater lead me to a voice teacher who opened eyes to opera. From there, I attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music with the goal of becoming an opera singer. While at Oberlin, I discovered directing, and by extension, producing. Upon graduation, I was unsure about which path to pursue: singing or directing. Not long after graduation, several opportunities opened up to me that pointed me towards directing, the area which ultimately was more fulfilling for me. My freelance stage directing career took me to some fantastic companies all around the country as well as the Metropolitan Opera, where I served on the stage directing staff for fifteen years.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I had been working throughout the country as a stage director for several years. The longer I worked in the field, the more I had been struggling artistically with the common opera practice of performing with rented scenery and costumes. Companies often rent these items from one another as a cost-saving device. What that meant was that I, as the director, was given a visual world created for someone else’s vision of an opera. Trying to create my own storytelling within someone else’s prescribed world felt more and more restricting the longer I did it. I also had two young children at home, which made being on the road in these less than ideal creative situations more difficult.
Longing to figure out a way to be both artistically fulfilled and closer to home, I began to consider the crazy notion of starting my own opera company in New York City. I call this a crazy idea because New York already seemed saturated with opera: the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, and dozens of smaller indie opera companies. In attempting to figure out my place in this landscape, I asked the same types of questions I would ask if I were creating a new production of an opera: What is my point of view? Why should audiences attend performances at my company? What would make this experience unique?
Having done some self-producing in NYC earlier in my career, I was keenly aware of the potential expenses involved and considered ways to keep costs down but artistic quality up. After continued reflection and rummaging through notes from my theater history classes, I hit on a producing model that seemed to offer me the artistic challenge I was searching for as well as being more financially sustainable: site-specific opera. Site-specific productions can be defined as those that are created for a specific venue, typically outside of a traditional theater. Artistically, the idea of bringing opera to nontraditional spaces that augmented the storytelling was incredibly exciting, and the potential for cost-savings was present in that the venue served as both theater and scenery. At the time, there was no other opera company dedicating itself solely to site-specific productions. While this might scare some people off, it only stoked the flames of excitement for me.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Site-specific opera always presents unique, and often funny, challenges since we are bringing an art form to places never intended to house it. Our very first production was a twelve-minute opera for children at the Bronx Zoo. We commissioned a new version of the orchestration for louder instruments that could be easily heard in our outdoor amphitheater setting. Our first rehearsal with the orchestra at the zoo was going smoothly until a zoo employee approached me inquiring about the volume level of the music. She asked if the orchestra had been playing at the volume it would be in performance because the sound of the piccolo was agitating a newborn camel calf in a nearby enclosure. While I certainly didn’t expect our first critic to be a camel, we happily made some adjustments a continued on to a successful performance run.
There is often a story like this (although not necessarily involving animals) with each of our productions. Every successive experience allows us to add to our list of questions and logistics to consider with each new venue. Eight years of producing have helped us develop quite an extensive list of questions and requirements for our performance spaces. It is, of course, impossible to think of everything when creating opera in nontraditional spaces, but our hope is that we don’t get stymied by the same issue twice and that every experience sharpens our ability to predict future challenges.
The camel story illustrates another important lesson that we continue to carry with us: we are guests in someone else’s house. Unlike renting a theater where the expectations of space use and performance are understood by all parties, site-specific productions tend to use spaces in ways for which they weren’t originally intended. We have been fortunate enough to perform in some of the most, beautiful (and priceless) venues in New York: at the feet of dinosaur fossils in the Museum of Natural History, in an antique Chinese scholar garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a delicate tulip garden, an 18th-century library, a wax museum, an historic synagogue. We must always tread lightly with the utmost respect and work within the comfort level of our host venue. Thorough and transparent conversations are key to making sure the venue feels confident in the work we are doing, enabling us to create our dynamic productions in their venue.
What is the mission of On Site Opera? Is it to create new fans of opera?
Technically speaking, On Site Opera’s mission is to produce site-specific operas in non-traditional venues throughout New York City (and beyond!). By staging each opera in an environment specific to the piece, OSO surrounds the audience and artists in the music and drama of the story, amplifying the connection between the world of the opera and the reality of the audience.
By producing in this way, by hiring exciting and immensely talented artists, by integrating technology in an organic way to our productions, one of our main goals is to engage with new and seasoned opera fans. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a General Director of an opera company who didn’t want to create new opera fans, but this is no simple task. Each potential fan is looking for something slightly different from opera and their entertainment in general. Our mission is to create engaging and dynamic productions that draw audiences into the music and drama of these great operas. The hope from there is that audiences would want to come back for more…and maybe even try seeing productions at other opera companies as well.
Let’s be frank. As you know, Opera isn’t for everyone. How do you tailor On Site Operas to be appreciated by audiences in everyday venues. Most likely many in the audience have not ever listened to opera in any format. How does On Site Opera keep them in their seats for as long as 90 minutes?
We realize that audiences today have an abundance of entertainment options, most of which can be appreciated from the comfort of their own homes. To ask audiences to attend a production is, in and of itself, a significant ask. That is why our process of matching opera to space is so exhaustive. Site-specific opera, if not done well, can feel very gimmicky. The novelty of an interesting venue wears off quickly if there are no other elements keeping the audience comfortable and engaged. We work tirelessly to find the perfect venues to support the stories we tell so that the operas truly come alive for our audiences. Like our mission says: “By staging each opera in an environment specific to the piece, OSO surrounds the audience and artists in the music and drama of the story, amplifying the connection between the world of the opera and the reality of the audience.” Our process doesn’t stop there, though. As a company, we are committed to curating a patron experience that aims to achieve the highest level of customer service. Patrons are given detailed information about the venue and production even before they purchase tickets, so they can know what to expect and determine if a specific experience is right for them. Once at the venue, audiences can still expect the creature comforts of the theater, despite being in a unique space: a comfortable seat; a program; adequate restrooms; polite, well-informed staff. It is this holistic approach that, I believe, keeps audiences engaged in our productions and coming back again and again.
How does On Site Opera measure the lasting benefit to the community or venue of its performance? Is it simply short-term good will, or is there long-term connectivity?
Short-term goodwill is certainly a by-product of our productions — or at least a goal. We would like our audiences to have a positive experience at our shows, and leave feeling moved and entertained. It can be a bit more difficult to measure the lasting benefit of our productions given the ephemeral nature of live performance. That said, we have been able to see a significant community benefit from our 2018 production of Menotti’s holiday opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. The opera tells the story of a poor boy and his mother who give shelter to the Three Magi on the first Christmas Eve. It is a story of generosity and hopes that we set in a modern-day NYC soup kitchen. The opera features a chorus of shepherds that welcome the Magi and bring them gifts. In our production, the Magi were recast as homeless men living on the street, with the other characters being recast as soup kitchen patrons who welcomed them into space. Having been inspired by community choral groups such as the Dallas Street Choir, we set out to create a chorus from the homeless and housing vulnerable community in order to further magnify the message and realism of the opera. We partnered with Breaking Ground, New York City’s largest provider of permanent supportive housing, to build a chorus from the resident population of one of their buildings.
The impact of the chorus was significant on the participants, the other artists in the production, and the audience. This impact, as well as the greater community’s overwhelmingly positive response to the production, lead us to revive it in 2019. That revival was received similarly to the original production. New and returning audience members were deeply affected by the performances. Community chorus members who returned in 2019 spoke of the positive impact of the production over that previous year. Plans are currently in place to produce the show for the third time in December 2020.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
My vision was to create a company that focused solely on immersive, site-specific opera productions. By presenting opera in this way, my purpose was to bring music and drama closer to audiences than could be experienced in a larger theater. My vision also included creating a company that was nimble, strove for artistic excellence, and was run as a fiscally-responsible business.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
Positive company culture and transparency are among On Site Opera’s core values. Our entire staff works very hard to create an environment where everyone — singers, instrumentalists, designers, and administrators — feels like they can do their best work and are heard, valued, and respected. These values extend to our customer model when interacting with our donors and patrons. Company values must be demonstrated and executed from the top down in an organization. My Executive Director (Piper Gunnarson) and I are ardent believers in On Site’s core values and their importance in creating a company that people want to work with and support. We believe in transparent, frank discussions with staff and visiting artists about the kind of environment we strive to create. Part of that discussion revolves around individual safety and comfort in the workplace and, as such, we talk openly with everyone who comes to work with us about On Site’s workplace safety policies and avenues of reporting any concerns.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
It might be a little cliché to say, but I ascribe to the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid). Running a company that is constantly innovating and evolving to different spaces and pieces can create an environment where anything is possible. This can be both inspiring and overwhelming. As a leader in the field of site-specific opera, we are often blazing our own trail and working out the “rules” as we go. That can lead to countless possibilities and strategies. The larger we get as an organization, the more options we have both in terms of personnel and budgetary resources. By constantly revisiting the KISS principle, I am able to keep myself (and by extension the company) focused and mission-driven.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Creating and maintaining a non-profit organization can be exhausting, especially when it is not your full-time job. For the first several years after the company’s creation, my co-founder and I were both working other jobs and building On Site Opera on a volunteer basis. After a few seasons of producing one show a year, the company started to gain prominence and we began to feel pressure to produce more shows. While we were excited to see what we could achieve, we were still in a place where all of the resources needed to be focused on the productions rather than administrative infrastructure. Feeling caught between the excitement of a growing company and my time/financial limitations created an environment where I was unsure about my ability to continue with the company. Ultimately, I made a decision to dedicate a year to the company on a more full-time (albeit still unpaid) basis. Some strategic financial decisions allowed me to make this move, after which I would reassess my ability to continue building the company. It was a hard year with plenty of growing pains but, in the end, the experience of creating our productions kept me going. The overwhelmingly positive responses from our artists and audiences were the fuel that kept the On Site Opera fire burning. Today I am a full-time salaried employee of my own company, and that fire is still stoked by the same things: the artists, audiences, and staff that make every product unique and powerful.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
Things today are fantastic! We are producing full seasons of opera in New York City’s most incredible spaces, commissioning world premiere operas, and reaching more audiences than ever before. We have a full-time staff of four employees, a Manhattan office, and a dedicated rehearsal studio. Our responsibly-growing budget is being supported by our incredible patrons, as well as several private foundations and government organizations. In the last few years, we have also started partnering with organizations outside of New York City to bring our productions to new audiences around the country. I believe that our commitment to our core values of agility, transparency, professionalism, and positive company culture enabled us to be successful and continue to guide us on our path.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
Four of the following guiding principles also happen to be the core values of On Site Opera:
Agility: stay nimble and flexible. Each venue in which we perform requires a completely new approach to production and audience experience. If we were too rigid to adjust in the wake of the distressing camel calf (see above), On Site would have been dead in year one.
Transparency: you don’t get any extra points for not including people fully in your process. Opera, and I believe all business, is collaborative. It is crucial that every member of your team be empowered with as much information as possible so that the collective goal (whether it is an opera production or commercial product) can be achieved as successfully as possible with everyone’s full commitment. If I don’t give singers all of the information (the good and the challenging) about a venue, then when we finally arrive at the space they would be facing an uphill battle to make the show work. Honesty and openness (warts and all) give everyone the right context in which to succeed.
Professionalism: this seems like a no-brainer, but it is incredibly important. Lead by example and treat every member of your team, no matter where they fall on the organizational chart with the utmost respect professionalism. In the often-transient business of opera, you never know where you will see your colleagues again. A young conductor you work with could become the next Music Director of a major company.
Positive Company Culture: If I do nothing else, I want to create a place where people are excited to come to work. Opera companies, like so many non-profit arts organizations, can be very stressful places. There’s never enough time or money, and everyone is driven by such passion that emotions can sometimes run high. Working in the arts is hard enough, and if my company can create an environment that supports the artistic, professional, and personal well-being of its employees, then I’ll be very happy. Time and again, the opera singers we engage comment on the positivity of On Site Opera company culture. They remark on the refreshing lack of tension, in-fighting, and general negativity they have experienced elsewhere.
This one isn’t a company value, but is still extremely important:
Sense of humor: No matter what business you’re in, never take yourself too seriously. Whatever your style of humor is (mine hovers around the self-deprecating), bringing laughter to work is so incredibly valuable. Humor plays a significant role in my management style, whether I am leading a meeting or directing one of On Site’s productions. Opera plots and arts administration can be filled with such exhausting intensity that humor becomes all the more necessary to balance everything out. Some of the best rehearsals or staff meetings are those that get derailed by excessive laughter.
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?
I would be remiss if I didn’t immediately thank my parents. They have been an incredible source of support and encouragement my entire life. They supported me in a way that allowed me to feel confident enough to embark on creating my own opera company. I’d say that’s pretty amazing parenting!
I also want to express gratitude to Jessica Kiger, the other co-founder of On Site Opera. The first time the idea of On Site Opera was discussed, it was in a group of five people who I had gathered in the hopes of developing a company. The meeting didn’t go as well as I wanted it to, and I left feeling defeated and stepped away from the idea for a few months. When I returned to the idea, I started up conversations with Jessica, and together we crafted a plan that would lead to our inaugural production in 2012. I am grateful for her dedication to the early stages of the company, her collaboration in developing a company aesthetic, and her tireless resourcefulness in those early years.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I think I would start of movement of conversation. Nowadays, there are so many people who are very set in their ways and unwilling to open their minds to new/different things. This can be political or religious views, but more locally, it can be people who refuse to believe that opera is something they could enjoy. Experience has shown us, in the microcosm of opera, that once you get a “non-believer” in the room to show them or talk with them, then opinions can start to shift. I think the most good can come to the most amount of people if we all just start having open, honest conversations. You never know what you might discover.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
On Site Opera is on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter: @onsiteopera