Patty Beggs staged a 35-year revolution behind the scenes of Cincinnati Opera

Cincinnati Opera’s annual gala is always one of the season’s must-attend events. These are folks who stage grand opera, after all. You can count on a spectacle. 

But this year’s gala is likely to be splashier than most – and more emotional, too. It takes place Nov. 23 and is titled “Love Letters to Patty.” 

The Patty in question is Patty Beggs, the opera’s general director and CEO, who has been with the company for a remarkable 35 years. She is retiring in August, following the company’s 100th season. 

Patty Beggs with the promotional artwork for Cincinnati Opera’s 1998 production of ‘Tosca,’ created  by artist Rafal Olbinski
Patty Beggs with the promotional artwork for Cincinnati Opera’s 1998 production of ‘Tosca,’ created by artist Rafal Olbinski

It’s hard to imagine Cincinnati Opera without Patty Beggs. It seems like she has been a central piece of the city’s arts landscape forever. Do the math: She has been with the opera for more than one third of the century it is celebrating. 

She has shepherded the company through an era of momentous change, from a modest if somewhat stuffy summer gathering for diehard opera fans to an energetic year-round institution as comfortable producing world premieres as warhorses. She has reshaped Cincinnati Opera into a company as devoted to opera’s future as to its history. 

So yes, this gala is to honor the longevity of her tenure. But even more, it is to pay tribute to Beggs for altering the tone and tenor of the arts in Greater Cincinnati and beyond.

The manner in which she achieved all of this is as worthy of note as the change itself. She is not the one staging the operas or conceptualizing the productions. She has opinions, but she rarely hurls them about to achieve her predetermined conclusions.

Call it what you want – “collaboration” or “consensus-building” or something more elusive, like “harmony” – Beggs believes in the power of the collective. Or, as she might have put it during her teen years in Kettering, Ohio, the power of the people.

Patty Beggs with former Cincinnati Opera artistic director James de Blasis and legendary bass-baritone James Morris
Patty Beggs with former Cincinnati Opera artistic director James de Blasis and legendary bass-baritone James Morris

The girl in the front row

During her senior year at Fairmont West High School, she was a mainstay of the school’s Inter-Club Council, a group of student leaders who oversaw and planned large events and promoted “better understanding among the various groups,” according to the 1966 edition of The Dragon, the school’s yearbook. 

She was smart and popular – always in the front row of yearbook pictures – and organizationally savvy. She was not, however, the nerdy kid you might peg as a future opera impresario. 

Beggs still remembers the day her parents packed up the family car and headed for Columbia, Missouri, where she was scheduled to study education at Stephens College. 

“I cried all the way, missing my high school boyfriend,” she recalls. Aside from the runny mascara, she was the height of fashion. “I was all Hartmann luggage and miniskirts. I was still in my Villager outfits.” 

But there was still no great passion for opera. It was the late ’60s, after all, a time of social and musical ferment, of shaggy hair and fashionably unkempt clothes. There was lots of music. But not much room for classical or opera. 

Then she moved to Boston to start graduate work at Radcliffe, and everything changed.

All around her, the arts – fine arts – were accessible in a way she had never experienced before. Museums, galleries, bookstores everywhere. And music. Lots and lots of music, everything from free Boston Pops concerts led by Arthur Fiedler to cheap seats at the opera. 

“And there was Sarah Caldwell,” she says, recalling the founder and guiding artistic light of the Opera Company of Boston. “She was such a force.” 

And though Beggs probably didn’t realize it at the time, Caldwell was demonstrating to her just how enterprising opera – and an opera leader – could be. Caldwell’s group was a new sort of opera company, presenting daring seasons filled with unusual productions and teasing American opera to seemingly impossible extremes.

The arts, Beggs discovered, didn’t have to meet our parents’ expectations. Indeed, what she was witnessing in Boston was a push to completely rewrite the rules that had governed the arts for so long. Open the doors wide and invite the people in. You might just be surprised who shows up. 

It was a philosophy that Beggs took to heart. 

“I fell in love with it – all of it,” she says. “I started buying classical albums and going to the library and collecting art. Suddenly, my life changed from football and horses and kilts and knee socks to a much more open approach to life.” 

Patty Beggs with Patricia Corbett
Patty Beggs with Patricia Corbett

From hobby to passion to partnership 

Soon, she left graduate school and returned to Ohio to work in marketing for a pair of regional banking giants: Central Trust Company and Provident Bank. She met with considerable success as she picked up a raft of skills, from media buying and copywriting to engineering publicity campaigns and launching the region’s first ATMs. 

On the side, she began volunteering for Cincinnati Opera. It proved to be a watershed moment in her career, and, eventually, for the company.

In time, that interest in Cincinnati’s homegrown opera company turned into a passion. Thanks to a massive overhaul of Music Hall’s technical facilities, the opera had moved from an open-air arena at the Cincinnati Zoo into a first-rate indoor stage in the early 1970s. 

But the way the opera sold itself to the public lagged far behind. 

Beggs saw it. So did Liz Kathman Grubow, at the time a student in the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Art and Architecture (known as DAAP today). She’d been raised in an opera-rich household in New Jersey, a home where classical singing was everything. 

“My mother’s family lived through the siege of Leningrad,” says Grubow. “It was opera that kept them alive. When everything felt hopeless, when they were starving, it was opera that fed the soul and truly gave them reason to see beauty and hope. Opera was beauty and opera was truth. When you hear these things as a young child, they make an impression.”

As Grubow grew into a more mature and astute designer, she realized that the marketing materials she saw Cincinnati Opera employing reflected almost nothing of the passion that she felt for the art form. 

“They played to so many of the stereotypes of opera – negative stereotypes, in my opinion,” says Grubow. “I felt they needed a refresh, so I volunteered my services.” 

Patty with Jim Tarbell

That was in 1983, a year before a professionally restless Patty Beggs tossed her hat into the running for a job as Cincinnati Opera’s marketing director. 

When the two women crossed paths and started talking opera and how to market it, it was one of those moments that would have been accompanied by shimmering orchestral sounds if it had been in a movie. 

 “We were so much on the same page,” says Grubow. “It was Patty’s brilliance that grasped that opera is human and that the stories are relevant.” 

As Beggs saw it, the whole organization needed to embrace a new mindset. 

“We agreed that if we didn’t talk about opera in a different way, the fate of the company – the entire art form – wasn’t very good,” says Beggs. “Cincinnati Opera was within a couple hundred thousand dollars of folding every year.” 

The company made ends meet by passing the hat, reaching out to board members and faithful supporters. It may have worked for the previous six decades, but it was a model that looked increasingly unsustainable. 

Working with photographer and creative director Alan Brown, founder of Photonics, they created a new brand for Cincinnati Opera. It was a brand that was youthful and fiery and sometimes even sensual. All of a sudden, opera in Cincinnati was being sold as a living thing rather than as a musty museum piece. 

Everything looked new and different. Even the mailing pieces that went into patrons’ mailboxes were brash and colorful. There were billboards, too, and radio advertising and giant cards on the backs of buses. It wasn’t just the locations of the pitches that stood out, though. It was what they had to say about the opera, and how they said it. 

Ads for “Carmen” took on a “Fatal Attraction” appearance. And “Aida” looked curiously like “Jewel of the Nile.” Suddenly, Cincinnati Opera had gone Hollywood, and some patrons were outraged. 

“But having a polarizing response is better than having no response,” says Grubow. “You have to have thick skin and believe in yourself. And we did.”

The once-sagging sales figures jumped by 31 percent that first year. And, for the most part, they have kept climbing ever since. 

Patty Beggs with Jake Heggie, composer of the opera ‘Dead Man Walking’; Sister Helen Prejean, upon whose life the opera was based; Nic Muni, former artistic director of Cincinnati Opera; and Cathy Crain
Patty Beggs with Jake Heggie, composer of the opera ‘Dead Man Walking’; Sister Helen Prejean, upon whose life the opera was based; Nic Muni, former artistic director of Cincinnati Opera; and Cathy Crain

Creating more space for new work, new audiences

What’s changed about Cincinnati Opera? They’re still doing “Aida” and “The Barber of Seville,” both of which will be featured in the 2020 summer festival, as it is called now. But there is also a steady supply of new operas, too, and commissioned works. Remember “Margaret Garner” (2005) and “Dead Man Walking” (2002) and “Frida” (2017)? There was “Another Brick in the Wall” in 2018 and the widely acclaimed “Blind Injustice” earlier this year. 

The 2020 season will feature two world premieres. First is “Castor and Patience,” from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith and composer Gregory Spears, creator of Cincinnati Opera’s world premiere 2016 opera “Fellow Travelers.” The second is “Fierce,” by William Menefield and Sheila Williams, which is a collaboration with three local groups: WordPlay Cincy, The Music Resource Center, and i.imagine. 

Today, the season isn’t limited to a few precious summer weekends. There are recitals by noted singers, and Opera Fusion, a collaborative program with the College-Conservatory of Music that provides a professional-level workshopping environment for operas that are still in development. There are Opera Goes to Church and Opera Goes to Temple, programs that bring live music blending sacred and secular in mixes that include everything from blues and gospel to classical. 

Patty’s long-ago dream of arts for all, it seems, is no longer just a dream. 

“The beauty of a great leader like Patty is that she understands that it takes all kinds of people,” says patron and volunteer Kathryne Gardette.

Long before “outreach” and “diversity” became buzzwords in the world of arts and philanthropy, Beggs pursued them with a vengeance. Working hand-in-hand with the opera’s director of community relations, Tracy L. Wilson, she has accomplished it with an art form that many people felt was the least likely to accommodate “others.” 

Patty Beggs and Evans Mirages at the Cincinnati Zoo
Patty Beggs and Evans Mirages at the Cincinnati Zoo

“One of her greatest lessons to me has been to never get ahead of your board,” says Evans Mirageas, Cincinnati Opera’s artistic director. “The board hires you to make good decisions. The key is to keep them informed and involved. If they’re on the bus with you, there is no destination to which you cannot go.”

In the course of her 35 years, Patty Beggs has taken Cincinnati Opera to places no one ever imagined, probably not even she. And she has accomplished it with a minimum of offstage drama.

Patty Beggs is not one of those hey-look-at-me leaders. She’s a collaborator, a person who stands in the wings and lets the people who work with her receive credit. The ultimate team player, you might say. She is driven less by personal aggrandizement than by collective achievement. 

Perhaps that’s why she’s lasted so long: Big personalities can fall out of favor with audiences. Success never does.

Patty and Jim Beggs

Cincinnati Opera Gala: Love Letters to Patty

Saturday, Nov. 23, 6 p.m.-11:30 p.m.
Hilton Netherland Plaza
Black Tie

Tickets: Madalyn Mills at mmills@cincinnatiopera.org or (513) 768-5524

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