Blog: Rebekah Johnson

Rebekah Johnson is the public relations coordinator for the Michigan Opera Theatre and the Detroit Opera House. She conceived and coordinates the ACCESS young professional and student audience development program.  She also oversees media outreach for BravoBravo!, the opera house's annual fundraiser put on by its young professionals group.  These opportunities allow her the chance to help build another generation of opera-goers and arts philanthropists among her peers in Detroit.  In addition, she handles general media relations for the theatre and is the editor of BRAVO, the official magazine of the Detroit Opera House.

A musician for many years, Rebekah fell in love with the Detroit arts community during her time as a music student at Wayne State University and as an intern at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  As luck would have it, she is fortunate enough to be able to continue to work in the arts and actively participate in a cause she is very passionate about.

Rebekah recently received her M.A. in Public Relations from Michigan State University. She received her marketing degree from Wayne State University in 2007.  She was recently named to the 2010 class of Crain's Detroit Business "20 in their 20s" for her work on the ACCESS program.  

Rebekah Johnson - Most Recent Posts:

Post 4 - Detroit, the Opera: Act IV

Speaking up, signing up, standing up

"Art is the signature of civilization." – Beverly Sills

This quote from Beverly Sills, the legendary opera star and impresario, is a moving statement about the impact of arts and culture on a community.  The economy may fluctuate, but arts and culture outlast our generation and leave a mark on civilization.  As a member of the Millennial generation, I know that Michigan's leaders' eyes are on me.  They want to know whether I will stay in the state or contribute to Michigan's "brain drain" and move to another city with a lot more perceived economic potential.  I was born and raised in metro Detroit so most of my family and close friends live here.  But many of my graduating class members went to Chicago, New York, Washington D. C., or California, desperate to go anywhere but Michigan.  Don't get me wrong, I love to visit those places.  But Michigan is the land of opportunity!

Detroit has given me opportunities in the arts and cultural community that I would never have had anywhere else.  Arts and culture in Detroit is a small world.  Most people know each other and they work together, even more so now that resources are so limited.  Arts and culture are an important part of a community – they are the lifeblood, the fibers of connectivity.  And I would go so far as to say that without them, there is little reason for Millennials to stay in Detroit.

Detroit's arts and cultural organizations are some of the best in the country, if not in the world.  However, when we talk about the city, we have trouble saying anything positive about it.  We hang our heads when we talk about our city and change the subject around our friends from Dallas or Denver.  As Detroiters, we have a major inferiority complex about our own city, and we even perpetuate this negativity with outsiders.  But Detroit's arts and culture measures up to those of any other major city and boasts some of the highest-quality performances and works.  It's time we stop trash-talking our own city and start to have some pride in what we have here – and it’s really pretty amazing stuff!

There is no pretense when you talk to Detroiters.  They are passionate people, deeply rooted in what they believe in.  And when young professionals, my peers, decide to transform our city, we can leave our own mark on civilization, as Beverly Sills describes so eloquently.

So, you may be wondering how these last few posts apply to you, and what you can do to make a difference.  Young professionals can make a significant impact in a number of ways.  Here's what we can do to help keep the arts alive in Detroit:

Attend a Performance or visit a Museum.  Then, blog and Twitter about it.  Tell others what you thought about it.  Become a fan of that organization on Facebook.  Let the organization know what you thought.  Many arts organizations offer special rates and opportunities for students and young professionals to attend performances or exhibits, similar to Michigan Opera Theatre's Access program.

Become involved as a volunteer.  Many arts organizations need volunteers now more than ever – everything from mailings and marketing help to fundraisers and simple office work.  The possibilities are just about endless.

Consider becoming a member or giving on a small level.  Sure, you may still have student loans or just bought that new house.  We're all feeling the pinch of the economy right now.  Many organizations offer smaller memberships or a giving level of small amounts that is not only tax deductible, but that can also make a big difference.  

There are many other ways to get involved as well, so don't let this short list hold you back!   Ultimately, how much we get involved in preserving Detroit's arts and cultural community determines our generation's signature on civilization.  Let's make it one that is strong and thriving.

Post 3 - Detroit, the Opera: Act III

Helping young people get past the fat ladies and horns

"I don't know about opera...isn't that for snobby old rich people?" is a comment I often hear when talking to young professionals about the art form.  

There are many misconceptions about opera: that you won't be able to understand it; that only old people go to opera; that opera won't be relevant to you; that it's too expensive.  The truth is that opera is understandable with supertitle translation in English above the stage, just like a foreign film.  Young people go to the opera in Detroit all the time.  Opera plots are just as timeless now as they were two hundred years ago.  And it doesn't have to be expensive.

When I began working at Michigan Opera Theatre three and a half years ago, I knew there was a need to break down these barriers in young people's minds about opera.  We knew our audience was aging but there was no existing strategy to introduce and demystify opera to young adults.  Engaging younger people as new classical music lovers is notoriously difficult to do and there is no proven method to succeed in reaching these new audiences.  But something needed to be done.  So in February 2008 I called a meeting with some of the employees at the opera house who expressed an interest in the project and we brainstormed ideas to get younger people into the opera, especially those who may never have attended before.

Over several months we developed a program called Access, a discounted ticket program for young professionals and students for opera, held on the Wednesday night performance of each production.  Each Access ticket would include a drink ticket and hors d'oeuvres after the performance with the opportunity to mingle with the artists and other young professionals.  

Our first official Access.Opera event took place in October 2008 for Margaret Garner.  While our goal was only to meet and maintain a small group of 30 young professionals and students, over 75 people attended the first performance and over 120 purchased tickets to the second Access.Opera event for Madame Butterfly.  Due to the success of our opera program during that fall, we were soon able to open up our dance season to young professionals and students in the same way.  Our first Access.Dance event for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater sold out completely, selling over 200 tickets (200 is an Access sellout due to space capacity).  Our first year of the program sold over 800 tickets to young professionals and students, most of whom had never been to an opera or ballet before.

Our second season of Access in the fall of 2009 was met with greater anticipation.  News about the success of the program soon reached Jan Stevenson, a good friend of MOT and publisher of Between the Lines.  Shortly after, Between the Lines signed on as a media sponsor and brought along Comerica Bank as a reception sponsor.  In spring 2010, MOT also received a two-year commitment from The Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.  The second season, which just recently completed, met our goals once again, selling over 800 tickets during the 2009-10 season.  

The receptions after Access performances became fun gatherings where our young artists could connect with students from local universities, and where Broadway stars like Leslie Uggams can pull up to the bar for a drink with someone completely new to opera.  Even Russian dancers, although hindered by a language barrier, can communicate with young professionals curious about how exhausting their performance was.

Out of all the people that I've met at the receptions following an Access performance, about 98 percent of them are surprised at how much they enjoyed the opera or ballet.  I often hear "it's not what I thought it would be.  I really enjoyed it."  Access has become a wonderful avenue to change someone's perceptions about what an opera singer looks and sounds like.  First-time opera goers begin to realize, "Maybe I have more in common with an opera singer than I realize.  We're the same age.  And they're fun and interesting people."

The success of the program has been overwhelming at times, but extremely hopeful - that out of Detroit's difficult situation, young professionals and students are rising up to get involved and try something new.  It's a wonderful thing to see!  In truth, we still have lots of work to do to change perceptions about opera among young people in this city.  Access may be a small victory, but I love to see change, even one person at a time.

Post 2 - Detroit, the Opera: Act II

Hope Rising

The economy in Michigan is bleak.  Housing values are tanking.  Young people are leaving our state in droves.  

There are plenty of reasons to feel negatively about Detroit.  After all, our city has plenty of challenges to overcome, and the situation feels more dire than ever.  With all of the media attention that the city is getting right now, few reports have focused on the positive things going on the city and the people that are making it happen.  When I want to feel positively about Detroit, when I want to catch a glimpse of the hope rising from young people in the city, I remember one of my favorite events of the year: BravoBravo!

The event, a fundraiser for Michigan Opera Theatre and the Detroit Opera House, is a diverse group of people who love a great party, but more importantly, they care about preserving one of the city's artistic gems.  I've had the privilege of being involved in the past four BravoBravo! events, coordinating media plans with volunteers, and have caught some of the enthusiasm that Detroit young professionals have for our city.  

The Detroit Opera House is an important part of the city's past - as a historic 1922 movie theater - and its future - as a beautifully restored home of world-class opera on the state's largest stage.  BravoBravo! has increasingly become an important part of the opera house's future, helping generate its future patrons and philanthropists.

This year's theme, chosen by co-chairs Jennifer Knapp, Richard Rice, and Jerrid Mooney, was all about Haute Couture with a Detroit twist.  Each room reflected a different fashion capital with entertainment, food and décor to match.

Sure, it's a great party (with over 40 local bars and restaurants participating) but the event has grown so much each year that it has become one of MOT's largest fundraisers, raising over $1 million in its eleven years.  Sold out for the past three years, the event has exposed thousands of young professionals to the Detroit Opera House.  Although the event itself has little to do with opera, the point is to expose new people to the building in the hopes that when we contact them to come to the opera or ballet, that they'll give us a second thought.  

BravoBravo! is an important part of that first step.  It gives me hope that my generation believes in the arts as a catalyst for revitalization and change in Detroit.  Developing new audiences of opera-goers is a challenging feat.  There is no "magic bullet" to make young people interested in the art form – but we're doing what we can to start that conversation.  In the next blog post I'll explain a bit about the Access program at the Detroit Opera House and how it is working to develop new audiences for the opera and ballet in Detroit.

Post 1 - Detroit, the Opera: Act I

Sustainable Business and Art as vital parts of a living community organism

The curtain went up on the opening opera of the spring season.  The house lights went down, and smoke, red lights, and hundreds of people filled the stage.  The set, a giant dragon, commanded attention. The singers were mesmerizing.  It was my very first opera, Turandot at Michigan Opera Theatre – and I was hooked.  Since then, I have seen every opera presented at the Detroit Opera House and am constantly reminded why I love working there.  

As both a musician and a music fan, my musical experiences taught me that I want to support the talented, creative people who provide cultural life to our region and make it a more enjoyable place to live.  More than performing itself, I love being a part of "the big picture" and recognizing how integral the arts are to Detroit.  Working at Michigan Opera Theatre has taught me a lot about opera, and if you'll indulge me, I'd like to make some comparisons between the city and the art form.

Detroit's story contains many operatic elements, including lots of divas and drama.  Usually operas end tragically, but fortunately, I don't believe Detroit's story will end this way.  In fact, with a creative community and creative class, it can grow, thrive, and flourish in time.  Let me convey, most importantly, that I understand the dire nature of our economic situation in this state.  Those of us with jobs are lucky to have them.  However, the point I want to make is that healthy regions that attract business have arts organizations that give them life and vibrancy.  

Arts institutions have a larger economic impact than most people realize.  They support musicians, stagehands, curators, marketers, advertisers, local newspapers, artists, restaurants, printers – the list is endless.  According to Americans for the Arts, America's  nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $166.2 billion in economic activity every year?$63.1 billion in spending by the organizations alone and an additional $103.1 billion in event-related spending by audiences. The national impact of this activity is significant, supporting 5.7 million jobs and generating $29.6 billion in government revenue. 

Over 15% of the $11 billion spent on leisure travel in Michigan is spent on history, arts, and culture travel.  Even without the economic implications, imagining life in Detroit without its proud arts institutions – well, it paints a pretty bleak picture.  What person would want to start a business or move their business to a city with no cultural life?  

Opera companies, like so many arts institutions, are facing a national crisis.  Detroit is certainly no exception, and the very existence of our arts institutions is a downright miracle when other cities like Baltimore and Orlando have lost large, seemingly solid organizations.  But we need them.  And they need us.  It's a symbiotic relationship that keeps us all alive and gives Detroit an international artistic trademark for world-class art and music.

This isn't to say that these organizations can't learn new ways of cutting costs and adapting to change – this is something we're all working on.  We're all doing more with less – and in some cases, a lot less.  We're all in this together, and Detroit can't afford to lose its artistic identity.

In these next few posts, I will convey the reasons why young people should get involved and get behind these organizations.