The good people at Divine Art Recordings ( just sent in a musical care package eminently suited to calm our troubled minds, so overloaded with the noise emanating these days from our TV sets.

I turned off CNN and put on my CD player Sonnets, Airs and Dances (dda 25131), a collection of instrumental and vocal music by a most gifted composer heretofore unknown to me: Philip Wood.

The neatly-packaged CD has 24 tracks, and a running time of 71 minutes of sheer delight. It was recorded at different times, though it credits one sound engineer, Richard Scott, to whom I tip my hat for utterly clear, undistorted, intimately comforting sound.

Sonnets, Airs and Dances is a short cycle of four songs for soprano, harpsichord and recorder, set to poetry by Donne, Keats and some of their contemporaries, and interspersed by two instrumental pieces: a Furlana and a Sarabande. Of the six pieces, the unaccompanied O my Blacke Soule is a stunner.

Five Spring Songs adds cello to the recorder, harpsichord, soprano ensemble and salutes in a pantheistic way Spring and Youth in a short set of settings by English poets. Two Motets for solo soprano are lovely renditions of Latin texts from the Common Book of Prayer: Ave Maria and Ave verum corpus. The Partita for Recorder and Cello explores that unlikely instrumental pairing with felicitous results.

Countertenor James Bowman commands our attention with the multi-lingual Aria, Recitative and Rondo, accompanied by cellist, Jonathan Price. This is a most theatrical piece that riffs on love spiritual and carnal providing a perfect vehicle for Bowman’s velvety countertenor.

After the instrumental for solo recorder, A Lonesdale Dance, the CD ends with a two-movement Concertino for Recorder and String Quartet. Both are light-hearted pieces d’occasion rife with inventiveness.

Composer Wood and his eclectic instrumental and vocal forces – soprano Lesley-Jane Rogers, John Turner, recorder, Harvey Davies, harpsichord, Heather Bills and Jonathan Price, cellists, and countertenor James Bowman who make up the Manchester Camerata Ensemble provide a most pleasurable listening experience.

The six musicians serve this beautiful music with a neat mix of flair and accuracy coupled to an elusive style so difficult to imitate, so impossible to pin down, so quintessentially English.

Rafael de Acha


th CARMINE MIRANDA, cello. MORAVIAN PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA, PETR VRONSKY, conductor: Schumann, Dvorak concerti for cello and orchestra. Navona Records (

Carmine Miranda’s new CD, Carmine Miranda Schumann Dvorak concerti for cello and orchestra is neatly packaged and accompanied by extensive musical commentary * by the cellist himself. The recording is clean and clear, produced by a takes-a-village team led by Navona Records’ Bob Lord, with Jeff Le Roy as its chief sound engineer.

Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor, opus 129 is a short (under 22 minutes) three-movement composition closer in spirit and form to a continuous-movement Konzertstück than to the traditional allegro/andante/allegro tri-partite compositions with a concerto structure.

This is a mid-career work, grave with import, impassioned, modestly melodic and imbued with the coded symbols of which its composer was so fond, in this case a repetitive statement of the composer’s wife’s initials: C-S-W (Clara Schumann Wieck.)

Cellist Carmine Miranda takes the work head-on, allowing his playing to serve the composer with no added grandstanding or self-serving pyrotechnics. Miranda brings rigorous musicianship and patrician musicality to the service of the composer, along with formidable technique.

Rather than merely accompanying, the Moravian orchestra engages in a musical face-to-face dialogue with the cellist, assuredly led by Petr Vronský. The results are impressive.

Antonín Dvořák’s Concerto for cello and orchestra in B minor, opus 104, gives us the Czech composer at his most inspired, most nationalistic. A contrast to Schumann’s A minor, this is a late Romantic, full-length work: a salute to the Moravian roots of its composer written in a nostalgic mood by Dvořák during the last year of his tenure as head of the National Conservatory in New York in 1895.

It is a technically-daunting work that’s taken in stride by cellist Carmine Miranda, making the merely technical fade into the background and the purely musical come to the fore, with felicitous results. The Moravians play this music as their very own: elegantly, passionately, precisely, and Miranda converses with them comfortably when ease is called for, intensely when fierceness is in order.

In his liner notes, Miranda speaks of Dvořák as “a citizen of the world.” The same can be said for this chronologically young, musically mature artist who embraces the works of Middle-Europeans with the Latin passion of his Italian-Venezuelan heritage along with the assurance of someone on the brink of an international career.

* First published as “Decoding The Schumann Cello Concerto” by Carmine Miranda in The Musical Times.



thi94skfht When I was seven and able to ride a public bus to school on my own, I was given an allowance of 25 cents every day. That quarter allowed me to either choose to walk approximately a mile each way or ride a public bus for 8 cents each way, so that, if I chose to walk, I had a whole 25 cents, if I took the bus both ways I still had 9 cents left for a mid-afternoon snack to be enjoyed after school. Bear in mind this was the 1950’s Cuba.

On weekends my allowance would go up to one peso that my father gave me on Saturday mornings. I could go to the movies for 50 cents and have plenty left over for one large pop corn, a milky way, two cokes and the round trip bus fare, and many years later, when I developed a taste for the off-beat, take in a play in one of Havana’s several pocket-theatres or a concert in the Auditorium’s second balcony with only one peso. I then opened a savings account but I couldn’t bring more than $5 with me when I left Cuba. Once settled in my new homeland, I got my first job as a janitor on a night-shift, and continued to hone my cash management skills on a $20-a-week salary.

May years later, in the late 1980’s, when my wife and I co-founded a theater, I once more had to refine my budgeting skills, doing the perilous balancing act familiar to so many colleagues in arts management, so as to survive one more year, one more NEA budget cut, one more play tanking after another selling out. All of which brings me round to the subject of The Metropolitan Opera’s Finances and Artistic Planning, and the pressing question of who has been minding the store at the Met?

The annual costs of mounting and running an opera season are staggering and those costs are never off-set by ticket sales. They have never been, since the San Cassiano Opera House opened in Venice in 1637, nor will they ever be. Contributed income has to make up the difference, and donations are subject to the vagaries of the economy: up one year, down the next.

The Met management is now under scrutiny and will hopefully learn to watch its dollars and cents. No more Ring disasters, please! Hold on to the Otto Schenck production a little longer or come up with a new production concept that does not call for a cumbersome, noisy, twenty-million-dollar “machine” that frequently and noisefully ends up malfunctioning and up-staging the hapless singers.

Has anybody thought of asking Peter Gelb to voluntarily or with a little nudge cut back his salary? Is anybody in the department that oversees the costs of physical production authoritative enough to either green-light or nix the mindless spending that goes on with some of the productions the Met has been trotting out? Will there be yet another Prince Igor field of satin poppies costing thousands of dollars?

Memory can be faulty, but whatever of it I have left has a special place for the glory days of the Met during my years in New York, where the late John Dexter was one sharp prong of the Bliss-Levine-Dexter triumvirate that brought to the company’s Lincoln Center stage some of the most memorable productions of my fifty-plus years of opera going.

There was the Dexter/Svoboda Les vêpres siciliennes…the Marilyn Horne/James McCracken Le prophète…Britten’s Billy Budd with Peter Pears… And there was, week after week James Levine at the podium, great art on stage and common sense and solid management behind the scenes.

The Met has gone placid and flaccid with an artistic planning department that often causes one to say out loud: “What were they thinking?” Production values have plummeted, often ranging from questionable to wrong-headed to just plain tacky. There’s the recent Eugene Onegin with its plethora of columns in the middle of a ballroom. There’s the capriciously updated Don Pasquale set in Naples. There’s the downright-weird Traviata, with the gigantic clock and the all-male chorus. There’s the tasteless Tosca, chock-full of sexually-explicit scenes that sent patrons fuming up the aisles and out the lobby doors of the Met. All of these wrong-headed exercises in futility have replaced older but better and beloved productions.

The setting of a Rigoletto in the Vegas of the rat-pack 1960’s or Falstaff set in 1950’s England or Manon Lescaut plopped down in Nazi-occupied France brings these classics no closer to the sensibilities of a contemporary and younger audience than productions done in the period and place meant by the librettist and the composer. The Met continues to disappoint its aging audience with its concept productions while it fails to capture any of the potential new audience that opera needs in order to survive in the 21st century.

When Stanislavsky and Gordon Craig and Meyerhold and Vahtangov and Jacques Copeau and all the other great pioneers of 20th century theatre did their revolutionary work, they came at it equipped with formidable knowledge of dramatic literature and the visual arts. They were, each and every one of them, great artists and insightful intellectuals, both director-designers and dramaturges, whether working side by side with living playwrights or on their own, with the spirits of Shakespeare and Lope and Sophocles and Moliere hovering about.

Those modern theatre pioneers directed theatre, opera and operetta with the same curatorial fastidiousness that is sorely lacking in the work of many if not most of today’s directors, whose productions more often than not suffer from directorial laziness and dramaturgical cluelessness.

Many of the productions the Metropolitan Opera has been trotting out in recent years fail to tap into textual clues provided by the libretto and dramatic clues provided by the composer. I have yet to see a new production at the Peter Gelb Met that can remotely compare to the finest work of Patrice Chéreau, Franco Zeffirelli, Giorgio Strehler, Ingmar Bergman or Lucchino Visconti. Where are all the world class regisseurs today?

An injection of fresh creativity informed by solid taste and sound management skills is desperately needed for the Met to survive and thrive. Nobody wants to confront the doomsday possibility of the Metropolitan Opera imploding artistically and financially and ceasing operations.




With the opening up of diplomatic relations and the ensuing easing up on travel restrictions, more and more of my friends have been asking about what to read about Cuba.

I have accumulated quite a few books on the subject, so here you have a quick review of several that I have read and enjoyed, all of them pictorial and most of them about the architecture and interior design of my native country

CUBA THIS MOMENT EXACTLY SO – Lorne Resnick – Insight Editions (San Rafael, CA, 2015)

250 full-color plates evidence the author’s love affair with the island Columbus called “the most beautiful land that human eyes ever beheld.”

But make no mistake, the author does not make any concessions to tourist sensibilities, showing instead the natural beauty of the land side by side with the raw reality of urban decay in a five-centuries old city – the second oldest in the hemisphere – that has not seen much TLC in the past fifty years.

Resnick’s eye manages to extract beauty with his camera lens from the most unlikely places: a young gymnast working out in a derelict patio seems to levitate right out of the print. An old lady reaches out from her balcony to loan an egg to a neighbor, so vivid is the image that one has to keep from reaching out to help her accomplish her goal. Ballerinas and boxers, bikers and cabaret dancers keep company with kids learning to box and old faces of every possible race.

This is a visual feast of a book that now sits prominently near my desk.

GREAT HOUSES OF HAVANA – Hermes Mallea – Moncelli Press (Random House), 2011

Subtitled, A Century of Cuban Style this book more than vindicates the wrong impression that many visitors to the Cuban capital often receive, when given only a partial view of the city once called, The Paris of the Caribbean.

Mallea’s 25-chapter, 272 page book is a visual repository of the finest examples of Cuban architecture, accompanied by a detailed, exhaustively-researched narrative.

The overall impression the book makes is not one of nostalgic recollection of times gone by, but rather a record of the earnest effort on the part of the historic preservation community in Cuba to preserve these homes as part of the national patrimony.

Some of the homes have been repurposed as embassies and consulates, some are now museums, and others are still occupied as residences by the same families who lived in them before 1959.

The architectural styles range from the 18th century Episcopal Palace, now the residence and offices of the Archbishop of Havana to the stunning art deco mansions in the El Vedado neighborhood.

HAVANA – Michael Eastman – Prestel Publishing (NYC), 2011

In contrast with other books about Havana’s architecture, Eastman’s concentrates on the faded glory of the city’s streetscape and interiors.

With an incisive eye, the author focuses on the beauty still to be seen in rapidly crumbling homes and buildings.

This is a sad and yet beautiful book to ponder one photograph at a time.

CUBA: 400 YEARS OF ARCHITECTURAL HERITAGE – Rachel Carley (text) and Andrea Brizzi (photography) – Cartago Publishing (London), 1997

Carley and Brizzi take the reader on a journey through the island, traveling back in time to the remaining buildings from the 17th century still standing in Havana and in the interior of Cuba.

Written and published in the mid-1990’s, the book devotes its final chapter to Cuban post 1959 architecture, in an attempt to validate the efforts of Cuban architects at work during the difficult “Special Period” of Cuba’s recent history.

Overall, this is a beautifully illustrated book accompanied by a well-informed text.

HAVANA FOREVER: A Pictorial and Cultural History of an Unforgettable City – Kenneth Treister, Felipe J. Prestramo and Raul B. Garcia – University Press of Florida, 2009

Giving equal importance to text and illustrations, this is a part-scholarly, part-impassioned valentine to the city that stole the hearts of the three authors of this book, along with those of so many of us.

Not only public buildings and private residences but parks, cinemas, boulevards and monuments are visually documented and discussed in depth, with the accompaniment of memorabilia, magazine illustrations, modern and vintage photographs, in fourteen chapters that provide fascinating insights into the history of the city of Havana.

CUBAN ELEGANCE – Michael Connors – Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 2004

In 185 full-color illustrations accompanied by a scholarly but eminently entertaining narrative, the author provides an exhaustive history of Cuban interior design from its Colonial beginnings to the eye-popping mid-century design successes and excesses of the Havana nouveau riche mansions.

LIVING IN CUBA – Simon McBride and Alexandra Black – St. Martin’s Press, NYC. 1998.

This pictorial book is both a visual and textual salute to the resourcefulness of people who manage to refurbish their living environments and make do with the minimum of available materials and a surplus of imagination.

Mc Bride’s and Black’s work provides a fascinating tour through the dwellings of a people with an eye for color and a love of life, even when living in the poorest of circumstances.




thhrscwsrsIn A HISTORY OF WESTERN MUSIC, Donald Jay Grout described the music we have grown used to as “Classical Music,” writing “….its language should be universal, not limited by national boundaries…” Prophetic words.

Grout’s book, first published in 1960, became The Bible of Music History for us young people in Music Conservatories in the 1960s. In the intervening fifty-four years musicians schooled in the European tradition of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms have caused the walls of the concert hall to explode outwardly as they have brought into it the “classical” music of far-away places in Asia and Africa, each with its own tradition and its own sonic language.

In our teens and twenties we first heard the music of India’s Ravi Shankar and we began, if not to understand it, to at least recognize that it was there, along with other musical traditions that go much farther back than ours…back hundreds and even thousands of years, long before Johann Sebastian Bach and Monteverdi and Gesualdo and Josquin ever penned one note of music.

The explorations of cellist Yo-Yo-Ma, Lang Lang, Osvaldo Golijov, Tan Dun, the Kronos Quartet and eighth blackbird have allowed us a taste of music from North Africa to Patagonia. Composers trained in both western and eastern music have written compositions for the opera stage and the symphony orchestra that are now widely sung and played.

Richard Brookens ( a free-lance multi-instrumentalist, producer of his own label, Yellow Bell Music, has embraced a universal language of music making, playing in many of his CD’s Egyptian flute, Bansuri flute, Dizi, Udu, Tablas, Water Drum, Mbira, Brass Bells, Rain Stick, Chimes, even using water as a source of music to accompany sitar, ocarina, bata drums, wah wah bells, berimbau and didgeridoo. We owe him a debt of gratitude for opening up our ears to new sounds.

In any History of Opera class we begin with an introduction to the work of the composers of the Florentine Camerata, especially Giulio Caccini. From there, we move to Monteverdi, author of the first operatic masterpieces, and from there to the masters of Baroque Opera: Lully, Rameau, Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Handel…

But Mozart is the first composer whose operas now form part of the standard repertory of Opera companies worldwide.  The adjective “Classical” is applied to Mozart to indicate that he is a composer of concert and operatic music meant for the listening pleasure of those able to understand it.

But, there we find ourselves on shaky ground. Mozart wrote for the Archbishop of Salzburg and his coterie of friends, music to be enjoyed in the high court of his native town. He also wrote The Magic Flute for the theatre of his friend, producer and comedian Emmanuel Schikaneder, whose audience were the working-class 18th century Viennese. Mozart, in short, was writing popular music that today we inaccurately label “classical.”

For whom was Mozart writing?

To complicate matters further, Mr. Grout defines Classical music as that written between the years 1770 and 1800 by many composers whose names today are mere footnotes in Music History books, and by four masters: Haydn, Gluck, Beethoven (the young Beethoven before 1800) and Mozart.

Again, definitions cause us to walk dangerous. Mozart was born in 1756 and he died in 1791, writing between the ages of 4 and 35. In his works, from the get go, Mozart breaks the rules, breaks the mold, breaks away from the tradition in which he had been schooled, and, although Opera was not broken so why try to fix it, fix it he does by taking it kicking and singing  away from the places of the nobility down to the people.

Music is as popular as it is classical. Let’s not hang labels on it.





                                 Image result for peter gelb


 This article first appeared on Seen and Heard-International   (

Philip Kennicott is the art and architecture critic of The Washington Post, but his global vision encompasses all of the performing arts as well, with a special interest, it seems, in opera, the subject of most of his recent and frequent postings on his website. He can be controversial and extremely opinionated—as well a good critic should be— and often raises hackles. Most recently Kennicott published a piece in The New Republic that circulated widely. I remember some of my colleagues balking at it and vowing to give Kennicott a piece of their minds.

Then, more recently still, Kennicott posted “Life After the Assembly Line” in Opera News (August 2013). In the article he speaks of the dubious fate of the average conservatory graduate with a degree in voice performance. He also pulls no punches as he takes apart the flawed supply-and-demand system of music schools in our country—one in which admissions quotas must be met at any cost, so that the school can maintain its certification and its reputation.

The piece is not a litany of bad news but a blunt reality check, as was his other article in The New Republic. Fortunately, the author ends on an upbeat note when he closes by saying: “The hard path that all young singers face leads to failure only in the minds of people who define success in a very limited way.”

Earlier in the piece he reminds us that many conservatory-trained singers end up teaching or holding jobs in arts administration or in careers other than music. Just this morning I happened to catch a little-known fact about Alan Greenspan, the former head of the Federal Reserve, who attended classes at Juilliard as a clarinet major and played jazz side by side with Stan Getz.

Writer Greg Sandow recently commented on the changing tide of classical music. A pessimistic optimist, Sandow looks reality squarely in the eye and speaks the undiluted truth about the greying down of the classical music audience and the alarming indifference to the music from some younger listeners. Not long ago, another friend from a different but related field posted on her Facebook page thoughts on the tough road that lies ahead for her, as a free-lance actress in a part of the country where five important mid-sized theatres have closed their doors over the past five years.

Like Dr. Pangloss in Candide, I still believe in this being the best of all possible worlds, and in the need for us all to make our garden grow. Even though I chant that mantra again and again it often rings false and hollow in my own ears, because I talk all the time with actors and playwrights, directors, conductors, instrumentalists, and singers. Quite often they tell me how they feel one-to-one, or make a candid Facebook post, shared with all of their friends. Many of the tales are inspiring. Some are troubling. All help form an impression that not all is well here at home. But the good news is that artists are taking matters in their own hands and turning into grassroots entrepreneurs.

What I write here lacks the statistical information; I do not have attendance figures, statistics and percentages. Those are readily available from Americans for the Arts and from the National Endowment for the Arts.

In their place I offer stories from the trenches, subjective and colored by memory. If you make it through this read, you will surely conclude that I offer no silver bullets. I will readily agree with that, because there’s no magic cure for the malady that affects the arts in our country and the malaise that plagues its participants—those who make the art and those who consume it. Artists are engaged in making changes happen and that is good news.

In the summer of 2013 I traveled in Germany and Central Europe, visiting several smaller cities. At any opportunity I would ask the locals where their theater was, and inevitably the answer would come quickly and with detailed directions in flawless English. I would then walk the few blocks to the municipal theater. It was summer and off-season, but even then I could look at the large posters announcing upcoming theater, ballet, opera and concert performances.

In one small town I spied the announcement of a mini-festival that featured plays by Spanish and Latin American authors (in German, of course) on the stage of the municipal theatre. And there would always be in every town a theater for children staffed by professional adult actors.

Germany has over 80 opera theaters with full, year-round seasons. The large cities—Berlin, Hamburg, Munich—each have two, three or even four opera theaters, several drama theatres, concert halls and alternative performance venues..

Each theatre in Germany, Austria and Switzerland is home to a permanent company of performers, a technical and design staff, and an administrative staff. Dozens of jobs are held by performing artists, musicians and craftsmen in each of these workplaces, offering financial security, social services, health care, pensions, even child care. I remember how a colleague that sang opera professionally in Austria and Germany for over twenty-five years, described her life at that time, as a first-class Kunstler (artist) singing Verdi, Mozart and Strauss for a living, while residing in a town that she could call home.

In the United States, when an aspiring actor, musical theatre “triple-threat” or opera singer graduates from college, after rigorous training, the options are often few.  The young soprano who just sang the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute may now have to travel, at her own cost, to another city to audition for a Young Artists Program at another opera company. At the audition she will be up against a large number of equally-qualified sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, tenors, baritones and basses, all of them vying for the same few spots in the upcoming season.

I almost forgot to mention that those who audition have to pay a fee to the opera company for which they are trying out. If they come from out of town, they have to pay for their travel, lodging and meals while in the city in which the audition takes place. Other expenses incurred prior to the audition could include the voice lessons and coaching sessions that it takes to prepare a young singer for the three-to-five arias most auditions and voice competitions require. And if you are a rare voice—a countertenor, true bass, real contralto or big-voiced tenor—you have a slightly better chance than the light soprano or lyric baritone who sang just before you.

The gifted dancing-singing-acting kid who just sang the lead in Oklahoma and stole the show now waits tables in a New York restaurant while he waits for the next audition, perhaps for a replacement in the chorus of a current Broadway musical. That is the lay of the land for most musical theatre performers, whether good, bad or indifferent.

Instrumentalists don’t have it any easier. I remember the story about a young bassist who, after the usual two-to-three year stint with the New World Symphony Orchestra in Miami Beach, went off on an audition tour around the country. One spot opened up in the string section in the symphony orchestra in Buffalo or Rochester (I forget which) and over a hundred aspirants showed up. It is a good thing that the League of American Orchestras and the musicians union reached an accord some years ago, which requires that auditioning instrumentalists play behind a screen that keeps their identity, gender, age and race anonymous. Auditions should be about playing well, not about physical appearance. By the way, when I checked in again, the young bassist did get the job; the other ninety-nine were still looking.

A colleague of mine is a superbly talented African American actress—I have seen her work and produced a play in which she had an important role—yet she does not have as much work as she should have. I have no idea how she makes a living, but can hazard a guess that she pieces together a modest income from doing much more off-stage than she does at the few remaining theatres in South Florida that employ members of Actors’ Equity Association. She probably does voice-overs in the few TV commercials that employ union actors, and perhaps teaches acting in some private school. I suspect race is occasionally a factor, since it seems that affirmative action has yet to reach the casting policies of theatres nationwide.

Another good friend of mine is a noted South Florida stage actor who also does commercials, voice overs and teaches. His training is superb, and I am proud to have directed him as Iago in Otello and Edgar in King Lear. He did roles that defy the prejudices against “ethnic” actors doing roles outside of their range, notably Tom in The Glass Menagerie and the male lead in Donald Margulies’ Sight Unseen. Three other actors raised eyebrows by consistently being cast against type in my productions. One of the three was superb as King Lear, who was father to a Jewish-Cuban-Venezuelan Cordelia, a Finnish Goneril, and a Jamaican-Irish Regan. And a reminder: Joseph Papp had been doing this for years at the New York Public Theatre.

Marian Anderson broke the color barrier in January of 1955 and, in so doing, threw open the doors to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera for Grace Bumbry, Shirley Verrett, Reri Grist, George Shirley, Martina Arroyo, Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle and countless other African Americans. In musical theatre there’s been some steps taken in the right direction, but there’s still much more to be done. Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell have been instrumental in getting the Broadway community to accept non-traditional casting as a fact of life.

Opportunities for performers are fewer and fewer and they do not come on a silver platter. When they seem to be scarce and one starts agonizing and wondering why in the world one got into music or theatre to begin with, the time is ripe to think as an entrepreneur. For each behemoth arts organization that goes belly-up in these hard times, a lean and mean and smaller one springs to life.

These grassroots enterprises are born in the oddest of places. Where I live there are three small opera groups that have come into being in the last year or two. Their survival is not guaranteed, but their function is beyond question: they supply more opportunities for singers and instrumentalists to make the transition from conservatory graduates to early-career professionals.

Far from being a trend, it is the future of performing arts in our country, one in which large institutions with their traditional structure and top-heavy administrations and recalcitrant boards are fast becoming a thing of the past.

With no invitations forthcoming to sit and dine at the big table, these start-ups are simply going ahead and cooking their own dinners. And we are all invited.

Rafael de Acha




Getting the word out and the patrons in: a large concert hallhalf-empty is a dispiriting experience. A 100-seat space half-empty is a tragedy.


From 1986 to 2006 I helmed a mid-size arts organization in Coral Gables, FL. At the time of its birth in December 1986, our budget for our new theatre – which we named just that: New Theatre — was little over $3,000. By June of 2006, when I passed the crown and the headaches that it covers to my successor, our annual budget hovered around $600,000 in cash and $400,000 in kind (free marketing, free legal advice, free graphic design, heavily discounted printing, etc.)

From being a one-man show at the onset we grew to a three-person full-time staff plus a handful of independent contractors and part-timers. The pay was abysmally-low, but the working conditions were decent and the intangible spiritual and artistic rewards incalculable.

At New Theatre we developed some relatively new concepts (this was the 1980s) among them a flexible season pass. We called it a flexi-ticket and it proved to be an effective tool for audience building. During my tenure, the organization grew to be 60% subscribed. In simple terms that meant that out of the 2600 seats we had to sell during a twenty-three performance/five week run of a play, 78 were assured of having bottoms on them, performance after performance.

New Theatre quickly became a professional, year-round company, affiliated with Actors Equity Association and working on a SPT tier 4 Contract. We produced over 120 plays during my 20 years at the helm, averaging six per year. Roughly two-thirds of our plays received their world premieres under our banner. In 2002 we brought home the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for the play Ana in the Tropics by the Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz.

The play then won the coveted Best New American Play award from the American Association of Theatre Critics and a Tony nomination for Best New Play after its Broadway run. Ana in the Tropics became the most-performed American play in America during 2003.

These modest accomplishments took time to build – time and effort and elbow grease.  They took building a following. They took many grants from the City of Coral Gables, the Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Theatre Communications Group, The New York Drama League, American Express, The Knight Foundation and many, many $25 contributions from individuals on a fixed income.

After moving to Cincinnati at the end of 2009, I took a good look around the Queen City and went to many concerts, plays, operas and ballet performances.  I found an astonishing level of quality all around. Not only were the large “usual suspects” – the CSO, the Cincinnati Opera, the May Festival and the Playhouse in the Park — living up to their national and even international reputations, but the small and mid-sized organizations were turning out impressive locally-produced work, and presenting some world-class artists. But I was disturbed to see distressingly small audiences wherever I went. Music Hall half-empty is a dispiriting experience. A 100-seat space half-empty is a tragedy.

At a wonderful concert of an Early Music group that my wife and I attended in a little church in Clifton on a Saturday night in November there were perhaps thirty people in the audience, if that. Elsewhere, at a performance of Shakespeare’s Othello on a Sunday afternoon there was a listless audience of less than forty people in attendance.

When I asked my students in an Opera History class if they had ever heard of this or that small arts organization, not one hand went up. These were not twenty-something’s but senior citizens with plenty of disposable income and time in their hands. They were attendees at CCM, at the Ensemble Theatre. Some even drove south to Kentucky for performances at NKU and north to Dayton for concerts and operas. But they were, sad to say, unaware of the existence of a dozen or so worthwhile small arts organizations that lack the marketing dollars that make our largest arts organizations household words.

Protest as I did, nobody could explain why they had not – to a person – ever heard of some or most of the small and mid-sized artistic treasures that this city has to offer. Why?

The lay of the land

How do we do it? Dwindling down audiences…funding drying up…the economy in the dumps…general apathy and not much awareness of who and what and why and where we are. Is there anything we can do to insure our survival?

Large arts organizations all over the country are trying to re-invent the wheel while their deficits accumulate and their audiences continue to age and cease to attend. We are not yet sinking and ready to join our voices in a chorus of Nearer, my God, to Thee. Not yet, but there’s a great big iceberg heading our way and if we don’t do something fast, it’s going to hit us.

At a crossroads

Preaching to the baby-boomer choir and to the ones of the generation before it is OK, but that choir is not going to sing forever. And then…what? Where is our future audience?

The seniors…the over-fifty…sixty…seventy crowd…They’re our bread-and-butter audience. But they are maxed out. How many times have we heard “That day I can’t…I’m going to the Symphony…” ”I’m sorry but I have season tickets to the Playhouse, the Symphony, the Opera and the May Festival…I just can’t do any more!”

So, what do we do? We redouble our efforts. That does not mean by the way, increase our spending. I’m talking about doing it on a shoestring with freebies and favors, with the internet, with email and with a good dose of passion. Our immediate and most urgent initiative must be to make a noise. “Hey, we’re here! How come you’ve never heard of us? Are you new in Cincinnati?” That must include politicians, grant-makers, friends, neighbors, your kids and their kids.

Visitors – the untapped audience

Cincinnati is becoming more and more of a business and tourist destination. Conventions are held in downtown Cincinnati every year. You may not need to bother with the Plumbing Suppliers of America convention. But you could score with College Teachers of Romance Languages or a P&G reunion.

One evening my wife and I were going to a special occasion dinner at Orchids and there had been a fire at the Brazilian restaurant located elsewhere in the building. While we stood waiting for the all-clear and thirty minutes late for our reservation we struck up a conversation with two Spanish language teachers – Latin Americans both of them – who asked me if there was anything cultural going on that evening that I would care to recommend. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­I cared to but couldn’t. No word was out on anything that June weekend.

Stacking printed card-size mailers in the lobby racks in hotels…Hand-delivering press packets to convention managers and giving them a face-to-face overview of what’s available that season, then giving them several tickets to one of your events… Combining your brochures with those of other groups for more volume and greater impact… And all for the cost of the printing!

Talk to hotel concierges. They can be your best friends. Talk to the folks at the Chamber of Commerce. They may not be all that excited about an all-Stockhausen concert, but a mixed sampler of lighter fare may just hook them. And if they don’t use the tickets and instead give them to their secretaries you’ve still scored.

Your board of directors

Don’t stop talking. Get one board member with the gift of gab to address the luncheon at xyz.

Get everybody’s attention. Get your board members to get their associates’ and friends’ business cards. Get those email addresses. Build awareness. Get cards printed with your season’s titles in back and your board member’s name and email on the front. Spread the word!

Enlist, draft, coerce and kidnap if need be but build your army of helpers. Avoid being a control freak! You can’t do it all. Get your board in gear and get those board members to get the word out. They will probably do a much better job than you can. You are the artist. Stick to what you do best.

Have a board member coordinate a visit by a group from a local high school – the School for the Performing Arts would be a good place to start. Invite them to come to an event or to a rehearsal. Get photographs or a video of the event.

Get your board individually involved. Motivate them by entrusting them with significant tasks that they might perform much better than you, the artist. Empower them! Do not generalize. Make specific assignments for each board member. Get the lawyer in your board to target the Bar. Get your socialite board member to host a tea or cocktail party or soiree at her place. Have an actor or musician or two attend and give a 15 to 30 minute performance and stay on for a q and a.

Oh and don’t bother with committees. Most committees end up being one person working and two watching. It does not take three people to screw on a light bulb.

Digital marketing

Beef up your website. Post videos of events. Get a media student from CCM to make you his or her project. Emails, Facebook and Twitter are good but one needs to go beyond them.

Jazz up your website. Add sound! Get those images moving! Once set up there is no extra cost for a better website, and the returns are terrific.

Fill your website with back-stories on whoever your composer or playwright du jour is. Be classy but edgy. Rossini’s Sins of my Old Age is full of scatological humor. Go for it! Shostakovich? That’s heavy! So play up the heavy! Post all kinds of stuff about him…his troubles with Stalin… Are you producing a play by a gay playwright? You’d be insane not to hook up with your local LGBT group.

Go behind the scenes… Do quick interviews with audience members as they exit. Post them.

Hook up with an internet analytic that can give you vital information about who is visiting your website and what their preferences are. Seniors, believe it or not, are heavy users of the internet.

Don’t kill trees. Paper marketing has gone out of fashion. So has newspaper advertising. Word of mouth is free. Word that so and so is the featured soloist is enough to bring his or her followers. But you have to let people know. Your musicians, your actors, your dancers are your brand. The internet is your friend.

Anything else?

Make one-to-one contact with the media people. So the network affiliates won’t give you the time of day? Maybe the cable folks will. Your local PBS will. Radio will. One good radio talk show spot is worth ten of those quickies TV stations throw at arts organizations at the end of sports and the weather.

Your local music or theatre critic can’t do all your marketing for you and reviews are useless since they come after the event. Pitch a preview. If there is in it anything remotely connected with another area – anything from lifestyles or food or health or whatever – find the connection and use it. If your playwright or composer or soloist is a hometown girl or boy, you’ve got a natural connection waiting to work for you.

Use niche advertising. In my own theatre we kicked off the 2001 season in June – months before 9-11 – with the South Florida premiere of Margaret Edson’s Wit, a powerful play about a college professor who specializes in the poetry of John Donne who’s fighting and finally succumbs to terminal cancer. Not exactly your Broadway fluffy matinee stuff.

Our actress shaved her head to play the role and we created all our marketing – posters, program cover, flyers – around her image. We then tied-in with the League Against Cancer and its Hispanic counterpart, La Liga Contra el Cancer and gave them two free performances. We then got a full page on the Arts and Leisure section of the Miami Herald. We sold out the entire run of 30 performances and had to extend it.

After or before an event, is there a place to get a bite to eat? Do you have a tie-in with an eatery? Explore that.

Create a CIRCLE OF FRIENDS. Be humorous. Take the starch out of your ART. Call your choir The Usual Suspects or The Culture Vultures or the Bar Rocks or the Light Motifs…Come up with something better than those if you find these corny.

Reward your groupies with invitations to special parties where you can play to them and court them for a donation or a subscription renewal. Have a musician or an actor in hand to explain the process of rehearsing a piece.

Do NOT even remotely consider spending a penny on this. Get each of your board members to commit to an annual contribution of $$$$. Four figures is the standard, three a fallback, two better than none. If they want to do instead a party at their place, that can function in lieu of their cash donation.

Chill! Lay back! Cool it! Relax! It’s a concert, not a funeral! It’s a play…you know, as in the verb to play. Break the ice! Talk to the audience in laymen terms…Speaking about the Adagio in the second movement as having an elegiac quality might be good for the Oxford Dictionary of Music but it will fly over the heads of your mostly non-pro audience.

Instead be factual and interesting. Explain that Adagio means slow and dig deeper and tell them why Puccini wrote his Chrysanthemums for the funeral of the Duke of Savoy. Doing Shakespeare or David Mamet? Dig out the skeletons in their closets and use them to illustrate the humanity of these great writers.

Let some quirks enter your hallowed halls and see how many barriers crumble. If you’re doing Kurt Weill clad your orchestral ensemble in vintage clothing and turn your performance space into a Kabaret in Berlin, around 1920.

Why must all classical music concerts follow the same practices that were in vogue 200 years ago?  Liszt turned the piano to its side so that his audience could marvel at his great profile. Why not set the audience around the musicians? The Greeks did that some 2,500 years ago. Shakespeare did it 500 years ago. Invite your audience into the 21st century. It’s a nice place to visit. Maybe they’ll stay.

Coordinate, communicate and cooperate

The three Cs of a successful arts organization are your keys to survival.

If you’re planning a fund-raiser why not make a phone call to the marketing person at the CSO, the Opera, and…whoever and double-check that they are not doing one on the same evening. They’ll appreciate it and you’ll get a larger crowd at your event.

Communicate with your colleagues big and small. They’re neither the enemy nor the competition. They are fellow passengers on a boat that’s starting to take water. Together you can plug-up the


Has anybody thought of doing an arts sampler involving all the little guys? What if you offered a sampler pass with an admission to each of four or more “undiscovered” arts organizations. Cross-overs from and to music and theater and dance are a good thing.

Be generous. Donating a pair of tickets to another arts organization is a good deed and good marketing.

None of us have the magic silver bullet. We don’t have many answers but mostly some ideas that hopefully will crack open some new windows and open up unexpected vistas.

Rafael de Acha © 2016