Redefining Opera in a Global Economy, Bradley Vernatter EMBA ’18

What do Omaha Nebraska and Cape Town South Africa have in common? Opera houses that are tapping into local culture, pushing creative boundaries, igniting new audiences, and turning heads in an increasingly globalized arts world.

In the following story, Bradley Vernatter EMBA ’18 shares how learning to analyze industry in its historical and cultural context emboldens innovation. Read on to find out how the IE Brown South Africa experience drove home this lesson and how it’s helping him lead in the global arts and entertainment business.


Rave Review from WSJ: Opera Omaha Puts Nebraska on the Opera Map

While pursuing his IE Brown degree, Vernatter was hard at work as the Director of Operations for the Opera Omaha designing and producing its flagship festival, the ONE Festival. The festival’s offsite venues and unconventional operatic stories captured the attention of leading national and global critics far beyond the Midwest.

  • The Wall Street Journal hailed Opera Omaha for “pushing limits,” and “expanding the art form.”
  • According to Musical America, “This inaugural edition of ONE lived up to all the talk of innovation and risk-taking,” accolades rarely bestowed on 60-year-old opera houses.

The Advantages of Launching a New Product While Enrolled in IE Brown

The festival launched in April 2018 – one month before Vernatter’s graduation. It was a crushingly hectic year and a half but, as he explains, the timing worked to his advantage.

I was able to immediately and successfully apply many of the principals and theories I learned at IE Brown from the courses in finance, marketing, corporate strategy, and entrepreneurial management.

But it was from the liberal arts that he found a new foundation for strategy building in a global context.

On stage, we help audiences see the world from new perspectives by examining the ways in which we live our cultures and societies. IE Brown weaves this strong thread of understanding into a practical context to impact industry.

Applying Strategies from the Global South to Standout on a Global Stage

While in South Africa, Vernatter was introduced to Cape Town Opera (CTO) by an IE Brown faculty member. Using different disciplinary frameworks from IE Brown coursework, he gained a deep understanding of how CTO created a successful art export by embedding opera into South Africa’s rich musical culture and the country’s complex clash of political values, artistic aspirations, and social justice.

From Apartheid to Globalization: Cape Town Opera’s Transformation

According to Vernatter, CTO was once closed to both black performers and black audiences. But post-Apartheid, CTO created a South African voice for opera with performers that are overwhelmingly African.

It infused new life into a dying art form, innovated processes, and made it relevant for a new generation of opera-goers around the globe. In addition to cutting time to market from 5-7 years to two years, CTO takes its globally generated proceeds and invests it locally to train new talent and grow a local customer base.

The latest edition to CTO’s impressive and successful portfolio of original operas is Tsotsi, which Vernatter describes as, a distinctly South African story of redemption and reconciliation, centered on a gang of young men that turn to crime in an attempt to survive on the streets in 1956 South Africa.

What Radical Innovation Looks Like in Opera

CTO invited Vernatter to join the rehearsals for Tsotsi – three weeks from opening day. In the excerpts below from Vernatter’s Globalization and the Arts final paper, Vernatter describes how surprised he was by CTO’s non-traditional commissioning and producing processes.

When I entered the rehearsal room, I was greeted by the composer, cast, and company. It was a very casual environment, with much laughter and chatter. I didn’t even notice when the rehearsal began.

Similar to the physical and musical experience I witnessed at St. Cyprian’s Anglican Church in the Langa township earlier that same week, the room was pulled together by a low hum, that swelled into a musical wave washing over the space and drawing everyone into the activity.

The composer spun the hummed melodies into sung words as each artist layered in musical, harmonic lines. No one in the room was working from a musical score. I assumed the cast memorized the piece but then realized that the cast was creating the music together.

He concludes,

CTO did not impose the Euro-centric classical commissioning and preparation process on these artists. CTO adapted its way of working to meet the musical and creative needs of the artists to allow the artists to define what opera is.

It shifted the way in which the production and technical teams prepare the physical elements of the scenery and props, altered the timeline of the orchestral parts preparation and rehearsal, and relinquished the administration’s right to artistic and content control of the score

CTO’s commissioning process and export of their work have successfully revealed to the world the artistic identity of South African opera.

How Contextualizing Businesses Emboldens us to Innovate and Succeed

Stepping outside his socio-economic perspective made Vernatter realize how the opera companies that he works with are products of the art and business cultures in which they’re embedded. His story helps us see the world as endlessly moldable, and as such, subject to change that well-oiled teams can effect.

Vernatter recently accepted an exciting new position that represents a significant career advancement as the general manager with the Miller Theatre at Columbia University in New York. He plans to stay connected with Opera Omaha and work behind the scenes with the artistic director to help the festival flourish and continue to grow.

We wish him the best of luck as he takes this spirit of innovation on his next career adventure. 

Bradley Vernatter, EMBA ’18

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