With Carmen, Opera Grand Rapids aims to make opera magical, accessible and collaborative

Nearly a year into her tenure as Opera Grand Rapids executive director, Anne Berquist is taking the opera in new directions. In advance of next week's performance of Carmen, Stephanie Doublestein talks with the dynamic leader about her childhood in France, the state of the arts in Grand Rapids, and how to create a fun experience for a new generation of opera attendees.
Anne Berquist, the new-ish executive director of Opera Grand Rapids, is a French-born cellist with an MBA from the Sorbonne and experience in arts administration. But perhaps more importantly, as she begins the work of convincing West Michigan that opera is for everyone, she was raised going to the opera since she was a child. And it's that sort of cultural shift that Berquist is attempting to create as the opera looks for new ways to be relevant and accessible going forward.
Opera Grand Rapids is one of only about 30 professional opera companies in the country. Since coming aboard as executive director in December 2013, Berquist has tasked the opera with better understanding what the community needs, educating a new generation of audience members about the value of opera, and creating programming that's compelling. To that end, the opera's fall event, Carmen & the Catwalk, is the opera's attempt to do just that. A unique collaboration between Opera GR, upscale clothing store A.K. Rikk's, the Douglas J. Aveda Institute, and Pamella DeVos of Pamella Roland designs, Carmen & the Catwalk is meant, first and foremost, to be "a fun experience."
"People think opera is long, boring," says Berquist, "so it was more of: How can we find a way to relate what was created 400 years ago to the actual life we're living?"
Berquist characterizes opera as the most abstract art form – as well as the most magical. "Opera starts with music – it's written by a composer, of course there is a story," she says. "But opera is also about costumes, fashion, passion, love, relationships, the living experience, and all the drama that you can see on the runway."
The November 1st event will immerse attendees in all these elements and more, with an evening that begins with cocktails, food, music, and a runway fashion show at the Amway Grand Plaza, continues with the Opera Grand Rapids performance of Carmen at DeVos Performance Hall, and concludes with an afterglow party back at the hotel, complete with dessert, Champagne, and the Carmen cast.
It's an event that Berquist believes will draw a new audience to the opera, and a collaboration that she feels fortunate to participate in.
From left, John Bellemer, Ginger Costa-Jackson and Ryan Kuster."The way we need to move forward as a community is collaboration," says Berquist. "Grand Rapids is always looking for high quality and has a humongous philanthropic tradition . . . from foundations to corporations to individuals, the community wants good, they want us to be great, to be outstanding. They are not OK with average. That's why I feel so fortunate to be here. It's good to see that we can sustain the support we need to support an opera company, but we have to show that it's adaptable, engaging."
That's a challenge, and Berquist knows it. "We need to make sure that people understand [opera] doesn't address only a certain kind of person; opera can be for everyone."
The way to do that, she believes, is with education – and not just the kind that happens in school. "We would not replace what the schools do, but we can go above and beyond that . . . it's what they do outside of those activities – that's who they become. I visit people who tell me they've never been to an arts event, they only go to sports events. They are missing something. How can we fill the need? What do they miss not having been exposed to the arts?"
When Berquist says education, she actually means a wide variety of ways of reaching out to the community, from holding an opera flashmob downtown to pre-opera lectures and seminars, to camps and collaborations with the ballet, symphony, and museums. She mentions breaking down barriers to make opera feel more accessible to those who haven't grown up going, as she did, and says the opera is working toward reminding audiences about subtitles and including information on the website about opera attire and length of the program – cultural traditions that can either serve as a barrier or allow an audience to engage.
"I saw my first opera when I was five and I grew up with the concept," Berquist says. "I don't expect the same of someone who is 25 or 65 to 'know' those things."
She feels it's her job to make the experience more comfortable. "If I had to go to Nashville to a country music event, would I be intimidated? What are the things I need to know? How should I dress? Do I wear jeans? Do I really need cowboy boots?" Berquist knows these are the kinds of things Opera GR needs to think about if it wants to attract the next generation of opera-goers.
Above all, Berquist is deeply passionate about reminding people of all ages and backgrounds about the magic inherent in live arts performance. "It never duplicates twice the same. When I'm looking at a movie, we feel we are part of the movie, one of the characters, and that's a miracle," she says. "If a producer or director can do that through a screen, how can we not do that when it's live? Our role as an arts organization is to create that magic, and my role is to open people's imaginations."
On November 1st, Carmen & the Catwalk will bring a whole evening of that opera magic, complete with music, fashion, drama, and unexpected surprises, to Grand Rapids. It's just one of the many ways that Berquist is using her charm, contagious enthusiasm, and commitment to accessibility and education to draw in a whole new generation of opera aficionados.

Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media.
 Photography by Adam Bird
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