Caitlin McKechney
"Powerhouse mezzo" (Albert Williams, The Chicago Reader) Caitlin McKechney is quickly making a name for herself as a dynamic singing actress. Caitlin's 2017 season proved ... more
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30 Days of Opera at Opera Memphis

Six years ago, Ned Canty had a vision of bringing the visceral energy of opera to the streets and shops of Memphis, TN. That vision became the wildly popular "30 Days of Opera," which wraps up its sixth season this week. Caitlin McKechney, who took part in that initial season, brings us an inside look at the festival and what it has meant for opera in Memphis.

So… I’m standing on the side of the highway. I’m in a t-shirt and shorts, because it’s about 80 degrees out and sunny — typical September weather in Memphis, TN. It’s about 5pm, so the traffic is a cacophony of beeping horns and revving engines. The T-shaped intersection is bumper-to-bumper and heated with both temperature and commuter impatience. There really is only one thing missing…


Ok, so opera may not be the FIRST thing most people think about when they think of late afternoon traffic, but that’s exactly the point. Wouldn’t you appreciate some form of distraction, some entertainment, SOMETHING to put a smile on your face when you’re stuck in your car… especially something as random and surprising as opera?

This was the vision of Ned Canty, General Director of Opera Memphis, when he started 30 Days of Opera: To permeate all corners of the city of Memphis with this art form that so many people consider “old fashioned” and prove to them that not only is it relevant in today’s world, but it is, frankly, AWESOME. And that isn’t just an opinion. Opera Memphis was one of the first recipients of a grant from The Awesome Foundation which funds projects just for being “awesome.” So, it’s basically official.

"We're turning the opera house inside-out," says Canty, "Our idea was to come up with a way to perform that is as unexpected, delightful, engaging and memorable as opera itself. We're showing the city we love exactly what we love about opera. Don't be surprised if you hear a bit of Carmen some night soon on Beale Street or some Figaro in the parking lot of your grocery store."

Comprising of a group of 4 singers, one of each voice type, and a pianist (Ben Makino utilized a tiny 30-key Casio keyboard, which he held with one hand and played with the other… from memory!), the 30 Days of Opera gang started to plan how to take the city by storm. We rehearsed for a couple of days, creating an arsenal of tunes that ranged from standard opera repertoire (e.g. the Rigoletto Quartet) to interesting crowd pleasers (our favorite ensemble was “Some Other Time” from Bernstein’s On the Town). After a few days of planning, we set off in a large white van, decked out in our matching t-shirts, with enough sound gear that we more closely resembled a band than an opera company. We had spray painted signs that displayed our hashtag #30DaysofOpera, which we would hold up for audiences to see while our colleagues hit high notes, hoping that they would talk about that random time that they went to buy vegetables at the farmer’s market and ended up being serenaded with Verdi.

And they did tweet. A lot.

Ned came to us with an arsenal of fantastic ideas (the Rossini “Cat duet” at the House of Mews is, I am certain, the best video I will EVER be a part of. You’re welcome.), but was also open to our ideas. When one of us suggested “Bohemian Rhapsody,” he not only said “YES!” but also found a full band to back us up.

As our performances increased in frequency, complexity, and hilarity, the “hype” started to build. By following Opera Memphis on Twitter, people could search out events in real time and felt involved by commenting on their thoughts, experience as well as, well, shock. “Guerilla Opera” is a term that many of us in the business have heard nowadays, where you bring opera to an unexpected place and surprise unsuspecting people, converting a grocery shopper into a new opera fan. Opera Memphis may not have been the first to implement this technique, but it has certainly proved to be among the most persistent and systematic.

When I asked Tierney Bamrick, OM’s Marketing Manager, whether or not the company’s social media following increased due to 30 Days, she replied, “DEFINITELY. This is the single largest quantifiable impact of the program. We get on average a 50% increase in followership during the month of September and our reach (via shares, etc) spikes to over 150% of normal!” Pretty exciting statistics!

Additionally, Opera Memphis sees about 100 new faces at the opera as a direct result of the 30 Days of Opera initiative. But Tierney was quick to add that “we (and the rest of the field) have moved beyond thinking of outreach as a one-for-one audience acquisition tool. It is much more about brand awareness and being good citizens of our community.” With a reach of 125,000 Memphians during the 30 days in and around September, the impact is palpable not only with ticket sales, but general enthusiasm for the company as well as for the art form in general.

For instance, my first year, in 2012, we sang an opera composed specifically for the company AutoZone. With lyrics about a dead car battery set to the tune of Bizet’s Habanera, my friends and I received a standing ovation from a crowd nearly as large as that at the Metropolitan Opera (Seriously, AutoZone conventions are no joke!). Will any of those people show up at the opera? Maybe not, but who cares! When they hear Carmen, perhaps their reaction will be an even more positive one.

Needless to say, our experience that first 30 Days was very exciting. Not only for the audiences that we were cultivating, not only for the company that found itself with increased ticket sales and community awareness, but also for us as performers. I come from a background of rock, blues and country music, but opera seduced me (as it has so many others for centuries). Standing on stage at the Levitt Shell Pavillion, head-banging to a guitar solo between wailing my own high notes in an attempt to do justice to the golden chords of Freddie Mercury (not to mention Wayne and Garth), I felt the visceral excitement of my craft, one that was intended to entertain, sometimes irreverently, the hungry masses.

30 Days of Opera is in the midst of its 6th season. I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that there are many, many more to come.

Caitlin McKechney
"Powerhouse mezzo" (Albert Williams, The Chicago Reader) Caitlin McKechney is quickly making a name for herself as a dynamic singing actress. Caitlin's 2017 season proved ... more