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May 18, 2022
Singing + Acting + Fundraising + PR + Marketing = Nonprofit Leader
Carole Charnow
Carole Charnow: A lot of my skills came together.
I never could have dreamt that I’d become general director of an opera company. My original goal was to be an actress with a backup career as a drama therapist.

After graduating from Emerson College in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree that I created, a combination of theatre, education, and psychology, I worked two years in Boston and Newton. I then went to London where I studied acting.

I started getting professional work in theater and film, as there was a lot of work in the early '80s for what they called genuine Americans. I got my equity card and then got an agent. While working at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre I met my future husband.

For several years, I acted and supplemented that work with teaching, grant writing, PR, even some accounting, working as a production accountant on films. In 1986, I started my own company with a girlfriend, the Moving Target Theatre Company in London. Our first production was Howard Zinn’s Emma, a musical about Emma Goldman, which we renamed to Rebel in Paradise. We staged it at the Young Vic and it sold out. We then took it to the Edinburgh Festival where it also sold out and got great reviews. As time went on, I did less acting and got more interested in producing.

After auditioning for the understudy of Cosette in Les Misables and not getting the role, I decided I was done with acting. Being an actress means being out most nights and being on call, which is hard to do with mothering. I went for a master’s degree in stage directing at the University of London.

We moved back to Boston in 1990. After five directing jobs and earning a total of $2,000 in a year, I decided to look for a real job. A friend said the Boston Academy of Music, now Opera Boston, was looking for an executive director. They were producing concert opera and wanted to move to staged opera. I didn’t have a lot of experience in opera, but had singing training and had performed in operettas and musicals. I knew how to raise money and also knew about bookkeeping, accounting, PR, and marketing. A lot of my skills came together. I got hired in 1996 and have been here ever since.

Our budget the first year was $100,000 and I was the only salaried employee. We staged one opera and two concert operas. This year we’re doing three staged operas plus two touring shows for our education program. We’re also staging the world premier of Madame White Snake, which we’re taking to the Beijing Music Festival in October.

Randolph Fuller, our former president, and Winnie Gray, our board chairman, are the visionaries behind the company, and I have expanded on the vision. They are strongly committed to bringing something unique and energizing to the city. They love to give input, but let me run the company—as long as I manage the budget and get good reviews. The three of us are very much hands in gloves; we’ve never had a fight.

Our two staff directors, Gil Rose and William Chapman, provide perspective that helps push the company forward. They’re phenomenal at having their ears to the ground, noticing trends, making changes, presenting challenges to the board. We struggle with things, but we resolve them together.

The challenge today is not producing, but how to propel and guide growth since the company is now extremely complex and growing fast. We want to diversify our staff and audience. We’re getting a lot of interest in touring and co-productions with major opera companies. We’re dealing with bigger stars, which presents a challenge since stars are more ambitious and have more requirements. Audiences also have higher expectations of us.

Three years ago we got a grant that let me participate in a leadership development program at the Kennedy School of Government. It was phenomenal. I started reading and thinking more about the practice of leadership. It made me much more aware of my future role as a leader, as opposed to just going along from day to day, solving crises.

We’re in our sixth season now as Opera Boston. The jury was out during the first couple of years, but we’re building a constituency of support and we’re here to stay.

As told to Peter Lowy, January 2010.
Learn more about Opera Boston by clicking here.
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