Flying High

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ALO’s Board of Trustees President is hitting all the right notes as he works to grow this acclaimed opera company.

How did Stephen Skaggs from Adrian, Texas (pop. 200), end up becoming president of Austin Lyric Opera’s board of trustees?

Maybe it was that first job he had driving a tractor on one of his dad’s 640-acre sections of Texas Panhandle earth that taught him the value of keeping focused and steady. Or perhaps it was one of those four trips to the state tournament in debate where he got a taste of Austin and honed his ability to think on his feet.

Skaggs was off to a strong start in the business world after earning a degree in finance from Texas A&M. Some early professional successes led to starting The Bank Advisory Group, which consults community banks across the country. (By the way, Skaggs and his debate partner won the University interscholastic League State tournament for Class B schools in the spring of 1976, his junior year.)

But as far as opera goes, it was a trip to Berlin in 1988 that paved the way.

“My friend who was on the trip with me wanted to go clubbing, but I didn’t want to do that.” so his companion suggested that he go to the Deutsche Opera and see what they were presenting. That sounded like a good idea, so Skaggs went by himself and saw Mozart’s Don Giovanni. “The subtitles were in German and they were singing in Italian–so I didn’t have a clue about what was going on. But I loved it and I was enchanted. That is what hooked me.” Skaggs added that prior to that experience, he knew nothing about opera and that his musical background, growing up in Adrian, was “zilch” outside some piano lessons.

When he got back to Austin, he sought out the local opera company and subscribed to ALO’s second season. Soon, opera management realized that they had a leader in their midst. With his experience in the business world to draw from and his drive to make positive things happen, Skaggs has played a significant role with ALO.

Early on, he was one of the first leaders of Triangle on Stage, the opera’s gay and lesbian outreach group. The ALO leadership chose Charles Santos to be the chair and Skaggs was asked to be on the committee. “It was just a handful of us who organized it in 1993,” he said.

The initial event was at Tana and Joe Christie’s home and attracted about 30 to 40 people. Joe McClain, who was the opera’s executive director at the time, lent an operatic and educational tone to the events. “He always made it more than just a party,” Skaggs said.

The ALO is probably one of the first arts organizations nationwide to start a gay outreach group, according to Skaggs. “That’s surprising, really, when you think about it. But it’s reflective of niche marketing, which was coming into its own at that time.” He added that the board of trustees was enthusiastic about and supportive of the effort.

Skaggs said the atmosphere now is different than it was in the early nineties. “Gay people today, especially those in their twenties and thirties, seem to be more integrated into the mainstream community.”

He said that they may continue with Triangle on stage–he still thinks there is a need for a community group centered around opera, but not necessarily an affinity group that is defined by sexuality.

Skaggs ’ first leadership roles with ALO led to more. In the spring of 1999, he joined ALO board of trustees and in May 2008, he became president. “You quickly learn that board leadership is a lot of hard work and if you’re in it primarily for prestige, you’re doing it for the wrong reason,” Skaggs said.

He noted that love of the art form has to be the overriding thought in all the initiatives of the board. As for what it takes to succeed: “a thick skin, lots of patience and a collaborative spirit with fellow trustees are needed.”

ALO is taking initiatives to reach out to everyone. The website is more interactive now and the organization is attempting to attract audiences through avenues like Facebook and Twitter that appeal to the younger generation.

But the main thing is to engage people. This season offers more cultivation events. Prior to the opening curtain in the Kodosky Donor lounge, two events were held that shared enthusiasm about the upcoming show.

Education is also a key part of ALO’s mission. For adults, there are activities such as education Director Margaret Perry’s masterful talks about upcoming productions. But ALO wants children to learn about opera too. “For Hansel and Gretel this spring, we had one of our largest dress rehearsal nights ever, with kids filling Dell Hall at the Long Center.”

Skaggs is also very proud of the Armstrong Music School, which provides private instruction and group education for people of all ages. According to him, it’s a unique thing–no other opera company in the world has a community music school. “It’s been a beautiful present to the city of Austin.”

As for what opera offers to the listener, he said it explores human emotions and allows a space for personal growth and self-reflection. “I just wish that everyone would at least make an attempt to experience opera and see if it touches them in some way.”

When he wants to get away, opera is a big part of Skaggs ’ plans. “For us, nine out of ten vacations center around opera.”

Skaggs and his partner Jay go to Santa Fe every summer for a week to hear the acclaimed opera company in its gorgeous outdoor setting. They also go to New York, San Francisco and Chicago for performances because they love hearing their renowned opera companies.

“Opera has enriched my life immensely. Most people are captivated if I take them to the right performance.” he noted that it combines orchestration with singing, acting and visual arts onstage. “When all those elements work together, it’s transcendental. I love those moments.”

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