Opera & Technology – The Perfect Combination

Before spending last summer with the San Francisco Opera (SFO), I did not imagine that technology could have an impact on the opera. I imagined a genteel and cultured set of people working to put on colorful and overdressed performances – very much as it was in Verdi’s day. Three months with the SFO changed that perception – and opened my eyes to the real implications that the new economy is having, even in such a traditional industry.

The SFO was founded in 1923, is currently the second largest Opera House in the United States, and is among the top 10 in the world. The Opera puts on about 95 performances of 12 different opera productions per year, attracting 300,000 people to its beautiful location.

In order to take advantage of the economic and demographic potential of the Silicon Valley Area, Tom Gulick, Senior Director of Development at the Opera, envisioned the ‘Silicon Valley Initiative’. This plan identifies four broad areas where the Opera can leverage technology to further its mission. These are: promoting and distributing artistic content via the Internet; creating innovative artistic content using technology; redefining the patron relationship through technology; and, furthering the education mission through technology.

My internship at the SFO took place within the Silicon Valley Initiative. I had been asked to create an online course about opera, performing activities that ranged from the concept and content definition to the development of the partnerships that would make implementation of the course possible.

Based on our market research, we decided that the e-learning product should consist of two modules. First, a basic course about opera, targeting opera neophytes; and second, a series of sessions specific to the different operas that will be performed at the SFO in the 2002/3 season, starting with “Saint Fran‡ois d’Assise” (an innovative and less known work by Olivier Messiaen).

The SFO is known for its acute focus on marketing and its innovative use of technology in reaching new audiences. It has an impressive amount of resources, in terms of opera knowledge, production videos and recordings, contacts with critics and vocalists. However, it neither has the expertise to develop an on-line course, nor can the SFO host and maintain it. Thus, it needed to establish partnerships with relevant companies, which was part of my responsibility.

I researched potential partnerships with universities (both off- and on-line), portals, e-courses developers, and solutions developers. The initial contacts with these potential partners were difficult, but the HBS Alumni network proved to be an excellent entry point on many occasions.

Once we decided on a short-list, potential partners prepared proposals with their offering and expected costs – a critical issue for a non-profit organization. After careful analysis, we decided on a service provider and I laid out an implementation plan.

My internship at the SFO was a great experience. It allowed me to strengthen my Project Management skills in a completely new and stimulating environment. The SFO is an example of how a non-profit can be managed in a professional way, and achieve excellent results. While the SFO is leader in performing arts, its example gave me a clear understanding of how much professional skills can do to promote arts. Preserving and fostering arts and our cultural heritage is a challenge that technology is well placed to help us achieve.

Since 1982 the HBS Nonprofit and Public Management Summer Fellowship has provided financial support to current MBA students who choose to work in nonprofit and public sector organizations during the summer. Over the life of the program, over 350 students have participated in the program, with a record 48 students for summer 2001.
Sponsored by the HBS Initiative on Social Enterprise and the Social Enterprise Club, the Fellowship is funded by the School and alumni donors. The program has three principal goals:

 To enable students to take jobs in nonprofit and public enterprises where their HBS training will provide significant benefits to the organization and the community it serves;

 To expose students to the rewards and challenges of public and nonprofit management;

 To enrich the HBS community and the quality of the MBA education by increasing the number of students with experience in the nonprofit and public sectors.

For more information, contact Margot Dushin, HBS Initiative on Social Enterprise,, and see: Social Enterprise

February 4, 2002
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