We really wanted to do something unique and more in-depth than your typical "top 10 marketing mistakes you are making" types of blog posts. From this desire, we landed on creating a video series that spoke to the challenges and success stories of entrepreneurs and business leaders in our community - straight from their mouths.
Checking in with real people. Real businesses. Real stories.
In our third episode, we continue to explore this concept and bring in Alexandra Babbel with Opera Kelowna.
We hope you enjoy it. If you have any feedback on what you would like to see and hear in these videos, don't hesitate to reach out here, or leave a comment in the youtube comments.
Nikki: In this episode of Cseking In, we sat down with Alexandra Babbel, Founding Artistic Director of Opera Kelowna to take a peek behind the curtain and yes, pun intended, enjoy.
Nikki: We are so thankful to have you!
Alexandra: Delighted to be here!
Nikki: So Alexandra, you have been in the community since? Kelowna’s been home since?
Alexandra: My husband and I moved here in 1991. Yes, with our first child expected. So, it’s been a while.
Nikki: And, were you always in the Arts?
Alexandra: Yes, absolutely. So, I have eight years of tertiary education after High School in music education, Opera performance and Opera [...]. So I've even studied at the doctoral level. It’s the only, one and only thing I know how to do. Now, I cannot find my house keys but I know how to teach voice and I know if you can sing or not.
Nikki: When did you decide or what was the moment that you knew you wanted to have Opera in Kelowna?
Alexandra: Well as a professional Opera singer myself, I travelled as a lyric soprano throughout the world for a number of years and my management is still back in Chicago. I thought, why not bring something so fabulous to this community? But it didn’t start with just me and of course it isn't just about me, It’s about a great number of people who have helped me. Firstly, I had a lovely young male pupil who sang countertenor. He’s a beautiful singer and sings today and he’s based out of the island. It was he that started to get me thinking wouldn’t it be nice if we actually had professional real estate on the stage for Opera singers to have an opportunity to sing here for a very appreciative audience. And it was his mother who I credit for the founding of this company because she was the one who got us charitable status and non-profit, and all of those things, she got all of our ducks in a row and got us going in the original year in 2013. So, that’s how it started and I said “well what a good idea, let’s give it a shot!”
Nikki: Let’s give it a shot.. and look at it today!
Alexandra: Well, yeah! I mean we’re doing professional Opera! It’s exciting, we have a professional status in the Canadian Association of Opera companies, there’s only three in the Province: The Pacfic Opera Victoria and Vancouver Opera… and now us! So that’s very very exciting. The status means that we have met requirements that are quite stringent and we got that status in our third year of operation so it was quite unprecedented.
Nikki: Congratulations, Alexandra. So, my reason for having you in the studio today is I am that person that’s on the plane counting the number of passengers that are on the plane, I’m trying to calculate what the cost of fuel is and the stewardesses that are on the flight, how much my seat was and running the numbers. I’m very curious about how businesses and organizations function. So, Opera Kelowna, it has to be financially feasible to do the things that you want to do. How does it operate? How do you operate? Do you rely on donations? Is it grants? Membership?
Alexandra: I think my answer is going to be a little frustrating for you because like anyone else who has been successful in their field, they are posed that question quite often and they often answer “I don’t know!” I actually don’t know how it has been so successful up to a point. Now usually non-profit organizations that are healthy, have a pie that’s cut in thirds. One third is donors, one third is grants, and one third is earned income which is ticket sales. So, Opera is a very expensive venture so when we sell out, that is only 21% of production costs so the rest we have to rely upon grants and donors, stakeholders. So it’s extremely adventurous, I’m a little bit of a gambler. Yes, between the two of us we make one whole person, you with your sane being counting and me with my ridiculous dreaming!
Nikki: I love it! But you bring unbelievable talent here and I wonder how much of the population of the city understand that, and that story. So, I think that if you look at Kelowna, there’s so much that needs to happen to make a healthy community and absolutely our cultural sector has to be vibrant and giving us the opportunity to take in and experience.
Alexandra: There’s a wonderful quote that says that the health of a community can be measured by the health of the arts. We have a symphony and a ballet and an Opera company in a community of this size. It’s quite unusual and quite remarkable that it can be sustained at this level. I am not pretending that any of those organizations are not struggling, we all are and we must come together and we continue to make efforts to collaborate in order to succeed together we want to make sure that our efforts are cross pollinated and that those who support the arts, whether they support this organization or that organization, gets the kudos and the credit for supporting the arts. If you support the symphony,the ballet, the theatre, you are supporting the arts in general and that’s how I see it. We aren’t little individual groups, we are a group together so it’s very important.
Nikki: There’s a great collaboration.
Alexandra: Yes, exactly! And I think, you know, I’m all in, in this community. I happen to be the one that holds the platform of Opera. But it could be something else, the whole point is that I’m about this community. So, if the platform changes, I’m still all in but it happens to be Opera because that’s the piece I know. And in terms of artists bringing the best, I’m glad that you recognize that, I appreciate you saying that because we do bring in probably some of the best in the industry today. That’s why we do one Opera a year not a whole bunch because the standard is very high, we have to raise funds and then sell one Opera a year, so far.
Nikki: Alexandra, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know it was one a year.
Alexandra: One a year, at the exquisit level. And then maybe two, and then three, we’ll see! I’m not easily daunted, have you noticed?
Nikki: I have! So the Opera Kelowna performs at?
Alexandra: Well, Opera Kelowna usually does one main Opera per season. We’ve done Carmen, and La Boheme and we’ve done Marriage of Figaro, all the big hits because even if you’re not an Opera fan you recognize that name and at least you might give it a shot. So, Opera Kelowna has grown by 33% per season of the first three years, it grew by 100% in the fourth season, and we projected another 100% growth in the fifth season, we didn’t quite make it and now this season, I have something very exciting to tell you, we have a very exciting partnership with Mission Hill and we will be their finale concert.
Alexandra: I know! You can’t breathe either. I know! We just found out this week.
Alexandra: Thank you. We are the first local organization to be able to animate that stage. And, full orchestra, full chorus, soloists, and we’re doing an operatic concert version. So, people will come for the full dinner, the wine, and then sit down in this amphitheatre outdoors, I mean I can’t think of anything better. And have 70 minutes of the most exquisite and rather familiar favorites of the operatic genre.
Nikki: And obviously those tickets will be available to the Mission Hill members?
Alexandra: Both. We’ve made sure of that. We’re actually working on that now so that we don’t really leave anybody out. But, if those ticket prices are too cost prohibitive, individuals might consider coming to the Opera Under the Stars at the University campus. We had 1300 people out last summer for an outdoor Opera experience on campus, and then there’s Opera in the Park in Kelowna and Opera in the Park in Peachland, and Opera in the Park in Vernon. We do a whole series, some for free, some for mediate price point, and some for a very high price point depending on what you’re capable of contributing to the Opera. So, we don’t want to leave anyone out. We just feel like everyone should have an opportunity to see what classical Opera is all about. It’s a rare experience and a very exciting one. Most people, I think for The Magic Flute took 50% of the audience had never been to Opera before and at La boheme 40% of our audience was under the age of 45 and those who’ve come to Opera for the first time say “Oh, I’m coming back, it’s a very extraordinary experience.”
Nikki: That’s interesting. The demographics are interesting.
Alexandra: Quite unusual.
Nikki: And they’re telling.
Alexandra: Yeah, they really are. Look what the young people are doing. They’re going back to the first, most beautiful expressions of art and wanting to learn about them. How many of our millenials are trying to read the classics, and go to the classical theatre and are interested in Shakespeare, philosophy, going back to Opera, they’re at the ballet, I think that’s extraordinary. Our future is bright around here.
Nikki: I love it. So, the performers at the one show a year, they come in. You attract those performers to come here.
Alexandra: The leads are professionals from, we’ve had leads from Italy, from the States, from Canada. We really do want to feature Canadian Opera professionals in the leads. Having said that, we also offer a summer intensive training program school for young Opera singers who are transitioning from their academic to their professional careers. And they will come and take the training and then take the smaller roles and then the community choir. The choir is made up of 40 members who live in Kelowna, and the children’s choir are all made of the community members. So, it is a combination of professionals and community members all under the touodlig of Bernard McDonald who’s a wonderful Maestro who we bring in. Kinza Tyrell, she works for Vancouver Opera, she’s our Répétiteur which is a fancy word for ‘person who makes sure everybody sings the right stuff.’ And then a full orchestra, and many of the orchestra players are from the OSO. And, so we are hoping to continue with this collaborative gesture which includes professionals and community members and everything in between.
Nikki: So the financial future of Opera Kelowna?
Alexandra: Well who’s to say!? (laughter) What is the financial future of Opera Kelowna? I appreciate my board so much because like you, they’re very mindful. And, while I might be the balloon, they might be the string. They have their feet firmly planted on the ground. We are very mindful to produce only what we can project that we can sustain. It’s very difficult, most arts organizations are working in the red, it’s very difficult. But you know, it needs to be said that with a board that’s mindful and an artistic director that’s hopeful, there is a real balance there that I have grown to appreciate.
Nikki: I love that Alexandra, that’s wonderful. Anything else that you’d like to share with us? I mean one of the questions that I’m probably most interested in is during the time that you’ve been with the organization or the head of the organization, has there ever been a time where you had that little sniggle of doubt, or have you always...?
Alexandra: Ohhh, let me tell you that there has never been a timeI don’t have that little sniggle of doubt. Right? There’s always the tentative part of any non-profit organization, and I’m sure that you know the more that we talk to one another in business, philanthropically, non-profits, churches, there’s always that something that is a potential obstacle to go forward. And, I do need you to know that even with all of the education, this is the steepest learning curve of my life and there’s much that I don’t know more than that I do know and so I rely on those around me… I’m sure your going to consult me too, I’m going to ask you to. (laughter) I love the art form but there’s a lot more to it than just standing. Used to be.. “It’s all about my beautiful dress and my high notes. Where do I stand, where is the light?” Right? That’s it. And now it’s like “Ohh, how are we going to pay for this?” One question, actually two: How are we going to pay for it and who’s going to do it?
Alexandra: And that’s the bottom line, so yes, it’s been a great joy, a great challenge, a great growing experience and you know, the day will come that the Founding Director will move this to someone who can build the company yet again to it’s next level, that’s next. So that’s important to know, I don’t have Founding Director syndrome where this is my baby forever. I already have clarity that an exit strategy needs to be in place a good number of years ahead so this moves forward to serve the society.
Nikki: Mentoring a successor.
Alexandra: Yes, and that we do have some of that going on already.
Nikki: And that’s a big part of business is that business succession planning and that’s good that that’s an opportunity so that we can keep…
Alexandra: But I think that you’re like me! Because I think you and I both really find it rewarding to watch the next generation come along.
Nikki: Oh, it’s exciting.
Alexandra: Oh well I watch you walking around here! I can see how proud you are of all your people. It’s amazing! And that you know, what we don’t want to do is leave a wake of destruction in our past here. What we want to do is say that we have left a legacy that goes forward without us. That’s the home run.
Nikki: Absolutely, a legacy of leadership.
Alexandra: I believe that you are one of those people Nikki, you are doing it. And I want to congratulate you for what you are doing because I think, the more secure you are in your craft, the more generous you are with others. And I watch your generosity, so I realize that you are more than capable. I told you this off camera and I’m going to say it now and don’t you dare edit it out! You have changed the trajectory of this community. You and your family, and I want to congratulate you for what you are doing and If I can do anything for you, you let me know!
Nikki: Thank you very much Alexandra. I’ve so enjoyed having you in the studio and I appreciate your kind words and I reciprocate them back to you. We are so thankful and lucky and we have such gratitude for having you in our arts community leading the way.