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Organization considers innovative means of outreach and support

For 60th season, ‘Mississippi Opera Means Business’

Jackson — Alan Mann recently attended a church service where he noticed worshippers carrying “church fans” advertising WOAD, an AM gospel station in the metro area.

The executive director of the Mississippi Opera had been planning to approach the station for aid in getting the word out about the organization’s upcoming performance of “The Gospel of Colonus,” a gospel opera set in a Southern house of worship, but had been stymied as to how to approach them for support.

“I knew I wanted to approach them, but they needed to get some more added value for what they do,” said Mann.

He contacted the station and offered a deal — in exchange for the station’s airing public service announcements and otherwise helping to publicize the event, WOAD “church fans” would be distributed to all who attended the performance.

“Everyone will have one handed to them along with a program,” said Mann, clearly pleased at being able to add an extra touch of realism to the performance while enlisting the station’s promotional aid for publicity.

That’s just one example of how the Mississippi Opera is looking for innovative ways to enlist support, raise money and reach out to new audiences for its 60th season. The attitude is summed up in this year’s slogan: “Mississippi Opera Means Business.”

“The Gospel at Colonus,” a retelling of the Greek myth of Oedipus, premiered on Broadway in the 1980s, featuring Mississippi native Morgan Freeman in the narrator’s role.
Technically, the production is a dramatic oratorio, along the lines of Handel’s “Messiah,” according to Mann.

“What makes it exciting is that all the music is gospel music,” he said.

Mann hopes to field the production with a multi-racial cast as part of the Opera’s outreach to a larger audience — a must for an arts organization located in a state as diverse as Mississippi is.

To that end, the Mississippi Opera has drawn down two large grant awards to stage the production — a $30,000 “Take Part” grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission and a $10,000 “Challenge America Initiative” grant from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA).

The NEA grant is particularly gratifying. According to Judy Ferguson, Mississippi Opera board member and director of promotions, “(It’s) the first one we’ve ever done.”

Mann said the goals of the NEA grant program he applied to lined up perfectly with his goals in putting the production together — and the NEA agreed.

“Typically, we don’t qualify to apply to the NEA,” he said, citing various eligibility restrictions. “They thought the project we were applying for was important.”

The grants make a huge difference in the Mississippi Opera budget.

Mann said that the organization typically spends $400,000 a year in bringing its productions on stage. In his view, the more success the organization has at attracting sponsors for expenses pertaining to a particular production, the more money the opera can make through ticket sales to apply to the general fund and various debt accounts.

Therefore, corporate sponsors are being asked to direct their donations to particular aspects of staging a production. Sponsors will be credited in the printed program for underwriting the expenses of the costumes, the orchestra or the guest artist appearing during the production.

“Rather than just asking for $5,000 in a blind general fund, on the title page where we discuss the costumes we can give them credit for sponsoring the costumes,” said Mann.
The thrust of the idea is to spread the goodwill generated by such donations to a wider variety of corporate sponsors in a more visible fashion than just “600 names on the back of a program,” he noted.

A longtime board member, Ferguson said that these tactics represented a change in how the Mississippi Opera had been raising funds.

Another approach to increasing ticket sales being considered is to allow churches or other organizations to sponsor exclusive Sunday matinees of performances for their own members — an approach they are particularly hoping works for “The Gospel of Colonus” with its roots in gospel music and its church setting. Such innovations seem to be having an effect.

“We’re having much better success in finding sponsorships,” Ferguson said, referring questions about specific dollar amounts to Phil Lang, corporate contributions chair, who was unavailable for comment.

Such specifics also help the company have a concrete way to quantify the utility of the donation to stockholders in an era of increased corporate scrutiny.

“They like to give money and be philanthropic, but they need to account for the money in much more detail than they did a few years ago,” Mann said.

And that accountability extends to arts organizations, whether they choose to recognize it or not. “Part of the problem with arts organizations is that the arts organizations need to account for their money as well,” said Mann. “The corporations in this community are very supportive, and arts organizations that haven’t grasped that are the ones who are losing money along the way.”

Even an organization as small as the Mississippi Opera can have a profound effect on the Mississippi economy.
Mann said that figures from the Jackson Convention and Visitor’s Bureau show the group’s $400,000 budget adds money to the metro area.

“They tell us, you are actually folding back into the Mississippi economy about $750,000,” he said. “The arts in Mississippi is a huge economic structure in the state, and (corporations) recognize it.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer at Julie Whitehead at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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