Ardea Arts (BOUNCE: The Basketball Opera)
Interview with Ardea Arts’ Founding Artistic & Executive Director, Grethe Barrett Holby.
Organization Mission: Ardea Arts creates and produces provocative new works of opera and music-theater to entertain, challenge and inspire today’s diverse global community, uplift the human spirit, and encourage new ways of seeing our world.
Population Served: Veteran art lovers to new audiences of all ages, especially engaging underserved and un-served multi-generational audiences.
Founding Year: 2006
Organization Website: www.ardeaarts.com
Please provide a brief overview of the organization’s work.
Incorporated in 2006, Ardea Arts is an incubator of new American opera and music-theater for new audiences and veteran arts-lovers alike. Ardea commissions, develops, and co-produces, fostering the creative progress and forming partnerships to bring the work to wider audiences, engaging with the community in both the process and performance of the work.
Since 2014, our work has focused on BOUNCE: The Basketball Opera. BOUNCE tackles key social issues by bringing together two presumably separate cultures: High Art and Sports. Music, poetry, and basketball combine to tell a story that we hope will contribute to social awareness, spark cross-cultural action, and become a partner to change. BOUNCE is the latest in a long series of socially responsive interventions by Ardea Arts and its precursor, Family Opera Initiative.
In a few sentences, please describe the problem you are working to solve and your approach to solving this problem.
The Problem: A vast majority of Americans perceive opera as an elite, antiquated, white, non-American art form. The fact is that Opera was first created as a revolutionary theatrical form for social commentary. It had a huge impact on undermining the status quo and precipitating change. Then, by the time of Mozart, opera arias had become the popular music of the time in Europe. But this music is not the music of mainstream America.
Our Approach: American opera should be equally as radical as it once was. It should dive into the issues facing our nation today, with the music and poetry of today. We make opera to explore and tell our stories – all our stories – with the full palette of American music, from Hip Hop to R&B, Gospel, Rap, Jazz, American song, and opera.
BOUNCE brings together two powerful American cultures that rarely “the twain shall meet. But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”
We believe BOUNCE has the power to become an important driver of authentic conversation across cultures about social issues we are all facing as a nation today: gun violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, the inequality of our current social justice, and how one’s decisions impact the course of our lives.
It is my deepest belief that the Arts should be accessible to all people; that there is a power in Art that can break down barriers and bring us authentically together; that Art allows us to express ourselves in ways other than words, engaging our senses at their fullest. In so doing, Art binds us together in a way nothing else can, naturally generating openness and empathy. And without both of these, there is no justice, and there is no progress.
I realize a lot of people today are talking about social justice. It is through BOUNCE that I personally have been changed, as has the entire cast and team of BOUNCE, and many of the people we have interacted and worked closely with through our community engagement programs.
Something I have come to realize over the thirty-five years I have been involved with making and directing new work, is that the joy of this process is that it is ultimately “a mission of exploration. If we see something of interest along the way, we stop and investigate.” This is actually a quote from NASA about the journey of the rover “Curiosity” on the Martian surface. If we stop and investigate, and we’re open to what we see, it is amazing what we will find. We will come face-to-face with the unknown, and it becomes something we know, or will come to know.
How and why did you first start working for this organization?
I am the founder of Ardea Arts and its precursors: Family Opera Initiative (1995), and American Opera Projects/AOP (1988). I did not come from Opera. I came from dance, theater and architecture arriving in New York with degrees from M.I.T. I landed in the 70’s avant-garde, soon an originating cast member of “Einstein on the Beach,” performing in the iconic opera houses of Europe with two performances at the Metropolitan Opera House in NY. Einstein
was a year of my life. I assisted set designers designing for opera; soon assistant designer on the premiere of Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha.” I was the resident choreographer of the Houston Grand Opera/HGO ‘82-‘83, then choreographer for Leonard Bernstein’s “A Quiet Place,” at HGO, LaScala (Milan) and Kennedy Center ’83-84. So, I virtually fell into opera- especially new opera.
While directing Faust, Traviata, Hoffmann, etc., I founded AOP to bring my contemporaries into opera, with the slogan: New Composers/New Audiences/New Opera. Then I started having children and my circle of friends expanded past my artistic circle. I found that most well-heeled, educated people in NYC had no interest in opera. I understood. Neither had I. I was led in through the back door. Where is “The Nutcracker” for opera? – a work that brings in millions of people across America, who then bring their families and friends of all ages, from 3 to 103. The Nutcracker not only entertains multiple generations together in the same audience, but also has tens of thousands of children around the world performing in productions side by side with the best dancers in the world. Those children are touched and changed forever, as are their parents, relatives and friends who attend and assist in the process of getting these children to rehearsals, helping out backstage, etc. So, I set out to make a Nutcracker for Opera, on that model, under a program I started – Family Opera Initiative/FOI. Eventually, I took FOI out of AOP, and in 2006 brought it under a new not-for-profit – Ardea Arts.
BOUNCE is a number of artistic generations down the line. I have learned a lot about incorporating the community into the progress and performance of the work; about working with many different ages and different types of people. I have strived to always bring diversity into my casting and my staff. Perhaps this has just been my inclination, it was never premeditated. As the curator and/or producing director, I was drawn to stories with important issues told from very personal stories. Note – I am not a writer nor composer. I am the creative director and stage director. I collaborate closely with my creative team, am part of the team, but these works are made by the team.
A board member recently wrote that I “have been tackling difficult issues through the arts since 1988” developing and producing music-theater works for youth, family and “un-served” audiences with community involvement in the process and performance of the work. I was only doing what was important to me; sometimes ideas generated by my team mates, but also and perhaps more importantly, ideas spurred by experiences and issues of my three children as they were and are negotiating a very different world than I grew up in.
What current trends are you seeing in your field of work?
Now is an exciting time for Opera. Indie-opera and new opera of all kinds are flourishing across America. It is a hot-bed of experimentation. Another new aspect is that many of these works are receiving multiple performances across America. There is now a new, young and excited audience for opera. You can see them all whenever a new work is being performed. I am proud to have been at the forefront of this movement with the founding of American Opera Projects back in 1988.
However, this new audience is still primarily white, well educated, and presumably steeped in the arts, with the means to pay for the tickets.
Ardea Arts seeks to change the paradigm by bringing our work to where the audience already is, and engaging members of the local community into the process and performance of the work. For example, BOUNCE. Basketball courts have become today’s “Town Square.” The entire community gathers there. BOUNCE is created to be performed on public basketball courts, wherever they may be.
However, we have learned that you don’t take over someone’s basketball court without local buy-in. As often as possible, local basketball players are the basketball players in the show; and community leaders, celebrities and artists can perform in a number of guest roles. Active participation in the arts is key. And telling stories in music that is American – from jazz to hip hop & rap, from R&B to musical theater to gospel, all the way to opera – is key to us.
Larger opera companies like Houston Grand Opera and Chicago Lyric are going out into their diverse communities, assisting in the creation of works that come more fully from their own stories, with their own music. This has been especially successful in recent immigrant communities. And some of these have generated powerful new works now being performed around the country. For example, Jose Pepe Martinez and Leonard Foglia’s Curzar las Cara de la Luna, the world’s first mariachi opera, from HGO.
Another important trend is the conscious inclusion of women composers and librettists who are now receiving the support and opportunities they deserve. This is largely due to the work and financial incentives now in place through Opera America.
Note: Ben Krzywosz founded Nautilus Music-Theatre in 1986. We met later. I suppose we can be called the progenitors of this current movement. AOP began in 1987, receiving its 501c3 in 1988.
What do you think will change most about your work over the next 5 years?
If we can get BOUNCE on courts and in venues around the country, we will be on a journey of discovery past all expectations and predictions. I look forward to that.
And if that happens, I am confident that our next work, The Three Astronauts will also find producers and its audience and we will be thrust into the sciences and space travel. The Three Astronauts is an important new piece bringing the Arts and Science together. Arts + STEM = STEAM. The STEAM initiative has been around since 2011, but I have not seen the Arts truly integrated into the equation except in one place: MIT. As an alum, I can say that MIT is the most creative place I have ever experienced. Known the world over for its Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, creativity is at the core of this vibrant community, and Art a fundamental tenet.
But, The Three Astronauts is more than just science. “3A” is about a journey past boundaries
and the exploration of reaching over our differences to create alliances and friendships with the unknown. Three creative teams, one from China, one from Russia, and one from the United States, have been working together to make this piece. Working across cultures takes on a bigger challenge and hopefully will make our own differences here in the United States feel manageable. (www.thethreeastronauts.com)
I am proud we are described as “busting boundaries” and “a step beyond,” and “a visionary often ahead of her time.” But what I hope will change is that our work will be recognized as of THIS time, now; that our work will be experienced around the country and beyond, initiate meaningful dialogue, make a difference, and help to create real change.
What are the three most important skills you focus on developing in the population you serve? Why?
1) Engagement in the arts, 2) acknowledging and valuing their own potential for creativity and creative thinking, and 3) opening the possibility that they can dream, and should be open to taking an opportunity if and when it is offered to them. Then amazing things can happen. We also focus on fostering pratical skills, including: Musical terminology, singing, rapping, making beats with basketball, working together to create or perform a duet with rap and basketball, supporting their fellow students, getting up in front of their peers to perform.
What are the three most important skills you value in your staff members? Why?
We are quite a small organization, so what we value most is, 1) proactivity, 2) a can-do attitude with a willingness to wear many hats, and 3) passion – for the work and the project at hand. On a more practical level, I seek staff who can write well, have major media skills, and are good collaborators.
How has technology influenced your field and/or the way your organization works?
Technology has made it easier to share the work among our staff, and also with our audience. In performances, we have initiated technological innovations into the performance itself. For instance, in BOUNCE we are experimenting with incorporating media streamed live to audience phones during the show. For “The Three Astronauts,” we worked with high-school students at LaGuardia Arts High School (NYC) who created an app that interfaces with STEM issues in the script through Art. Artists all, their videos are absolutely amazing.
Plans include encouraging the audience to tweet STEM and other questions they have about the journey to Mars and the Martian landing and visit during the performance, to be answered after the show by space scientists and astronauts, or directly answered back on twitter to be shared by anyone following the conversation. Some information will be accessible on interactive screens in the lobby, available before and after the performance, and during intermission. This information will build, as we respond to the questions that are asked by the audience members.
What are some key achievements your organization has accomplished over the last year and how were you able to attain this success?
Over the last year, we completed and co-produced the premiere of BOUNCE The Basketball Opera in Lexington KY in partnership with University of Kentucky Opera Theatre (UKOT). We are very proud of this partnership, how we handled it, and the success both of us achieved by working closely together.
We are particularly proud of our community engagement activities tied to our performances in Lexington KY. Our community ambassadors were our basketball players, who came from the same communities we went back into. Completing the “Bounce Team” were our basketball choreographer – a pro-player originally from Lexington, our rapper/story-teller, and our lead singer/actor – both professional from New York City. The basketball players were paid through a grant from Opera American for building new audiences. We built a team of people who had extraordinary chemistry – who loved BOUNCE, its story, its message, and what it stands for. We went into the schools – lower, middle and high schools – in challenged neighborhoods, and succeeded past all expectations. (see video links).
And somehow, over the past thirteen months, in addition to our work with BOUNCE, we rehearsed and performed the concert orchestra premiere of Animal Tales in partnership with the Garden State Philharmonic; and we licensed Fireworks to Hunter College Opera Theatre (HOT) for three performances. Major accomplishments.
Have there been any recent obstacles? If so, how were you and your staff able to overcome them?
Yes – a constant obstacle is raising funds to support our work. We find it a struggle to maintain donor engagement and excitement over the time it takes to develop a new work. Our staff is not large enough to do both effectively, at the same time.
We have not overcome this obstacle. And with the new tax code, it may only get more difficult. However, we believe that BOUNCE and all of our new works are important ambassadors and tools for change in many different arenas, and we keep forging forward.
What’s next for your organization? What are you looking forward to?
We are working to get BOUNCE on courts across the country, working with community partners including theaters, schools and community groups and organizers in each location.
To set this in motion, our plan is to perform on four of the most iconic courts in the country: Holcombe Rucker Park in Harlem, New York City; King-Drew in Compton, Los Angeles; Jackson Park Cages in Southside, Chicago; and MacGregor Park in Downtown, Houston. We are focusing on these key courts and communities where we feel BOUNCE will have the greatest impact, and greatest exposure in order to spread the word. We are working now to set this tour in motion, fundraising, and reaching out to partner organizations. We hope to include a few sit-down performances in these cities where we can also concentrate on community engagement while recouping our expenses.
What do you wish others knew about the organization or the populations you serve?
Ardea Arts has a library of important and wonderful new works available for performance, works that reach out to multigenerational audiences, works with community impact. Many of these works involve children’s choruses and/or audience or community participation. More importantly, we love to partner, we are good to work with, and we would love to meet you and discuss how we might work together for everyone’s benefit, towards our mutual goals.
- The New York Times: 6 Visionary Artists Reshaping Their Craft (April 2017).
- National Endowmen for the Arts: Spotlight on BOUNCE: The Basketball Opera (June 2016).
- TimeOut New York: Bounce: The Basketball Opera” Feature (May 2016).
- The New Yorker: “Bounce: The Basketball Opera” Explore Feature & Review (May 2016).
- i-D: “‘Bounce’, a basketball opera tackling America’s gun problem” (June 2016).
- KY Forward: “Put some bounce in your opera (or opera in your bounce with ‘Bounce: The Basketball Opera'” (Nov. 2017).
- Lexington Herald-Leader: “Went downton on basketball night and an opera broke out” (Nov. 2017).