Taylor Wood

Music, Interview

January 24, 2020

“I'm constantly thinking about how we can reach people with the art form that may not have the opportunity otherwise to see it or hear it because they don't learn about it so much in school anymore. It’s our job to step in and be that catalyst to learning about opera. But, just like the arts in general, [I’m always] looking for new ideas and ways for people to connect with the arts because I feel like the arts can really do a lot. It's a connection thing. I think [art] has the power to really heal people and teach people new things and give people new perspectives.” 

- Brooke Tolley, General Director Opera Roanoke

Brooke Tolley, a native of Roanoke, began her opera career as a singer and vocal teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Vocal Performance from Liberty University and a Master of Arts in Voice from Radford University. Her administrative career began at Opera Roanoke in 2015 as an Artistic Assistant where she discovered she has “some really crazy organizational skills.” She then moved into the position of Director of Operations and finally landed in the role of General Director in January 2019. 

Tolley handles the daily operational tasks of Roanoke Opera as well as development, fundraising, and various marketing tasks. When discussing her position as General Directorwith a staff of only three, Tolley stated, “It’s definitely a job that keeps me on my toes and awake most nights.”

We began by discussing her approach to leadership, the quest for balance, her approach to constant learning, and the various ways her background influences her current work on a daily basis. 

Taylor Wood:    How do you manage all of those roles while also balancing being a leader in thecompany and working with other people within the company and within the community?

Brooke Tolley:  It's something that I'm still working on. I would work 24/7 if I had the opportunity, which I'm realizing is not great for my mental health. It’s really about collaboration. We have a lot of partners in the community with our other arts organizations and with our board leadership and then I have two other staff members. I think it's just about being open and honest with everyone and making sure that they always have the same vision in mind when working on things independently. Which is ultimately what I want, for all of those [partners, board members, and staff] to work independently but with the same goal in mind. 

Taylor Wood:    What's the balance of responsibilities between you and the artistic director?

Brooke Tolley:  We actually work very closely together. Each season we sit down together, and he’ll say, ‘Oh, I'd really like to do this production and this other thing’ and then I have to say, ‘Okay, well, let's think about it from the marketing perspective and from the development perspective. How do we raise money for it?’ My job really is to support his artistic goals as much as possible, but to also keep them within the larger framework of our mission and what we can accomplish with the size and scope of the organization that we are.

Taylor Wood:    I know you're still relatively new to the role, but in the time that you have been working in this position, how have you continually found new inspiration and new ways to advance the mission and vision? I know specifically one of your focuses is connecting audiences of all ages with opera in both traditional and site-specific venues and that you believe opera should be accessible to all people. So, how do you continually incorporate that and think of new ideas?

Brooke Tolley:  I'm a constant learner, so I love to soak-up as much information as I can. I’m sort ofconstantly reading up on trends in opera, trends in thenon-profit worlds, and justfinding inspiration from other companies that are similar to ours that are maybedoing something really cool and unique and just looking for ideas that way. When I'm in touch with what's going on in the larger opera world, it leads me creatively because I'll be looking at one thing and think, ‘How can we make something like that work at Opera Roanoke?’ I'm just energized by learning and that helps me stay creative. Ideas lead to ideas.

Taylor Wood:    Of course. I know you've worked as a vocal teacher as well, so when you’re investing in education for yourself and also in others, do you see a big value of that from a leadership standpoint?

Brooke Tolley:  Yeah. I still teach almost every day. . . . I teach through the late afternoon and into the evening. It's a really important aspect of my job because it connects more students to the opera, of course, but also it helps me learn to work with people of different ages and backgrounds in a one-on-one way. It really helps my communication skills a lot. . . . . You have to hone your own skill too . . .  it's also important for me to maintain my personal learning for vocal production- -  I still really enjoy teaching and find it to be something that actually adds a lot of value to what I do.

Taylor Wood:    How do you see your background as an opera singer benefiting your current role?

Brooke Tolley:  The obvious factor is the fact that I know about opera. I understand what performers go through on a daily basis and what being in a show is like. So, that helps when I'm talking with singers and agents and doing contracts because I can understand [the work] from the singer’s perspective and from a leadership perspective at a company. But I think, too, probably as singers, we're constantly putting ourselves out there for auditions.

There's a fair amount of rejection, so I think you develop a thicker skin as a singer and performer. That is one of the things that is most important for my role as the general director because as a fundraiser, you're mostly getting told “no.” So, you learn to be resilient. I just always have to keep in mind that I'm really passionate about Opera Roanoke and I believe in its mission.

Taylor Wood:    That's interesting. The ability to rebound and move onto the next idea when something doesn't work out has to be important.

Brooke Tolley:  Yes, because the job is very fast paced and so not every idea that I have is going to work out. You just have to, like I said, develop that thick skin and be able to move onto the next thing. But, still be just as hungry about every idea and hopefully a few of them will work out. Just like in singing.

Taylor Wood:    When you're trying to maintain that “hungriness” from project to project, is it really just a focus on mission continually or are there other ways that you're able to maintain that energy?

Brooke Tolley:  I think sometimes when I'm feeling that this job has been overwhelming or I'm just feeling particularly stressed that week or there's too much on my plate, I can actually go back to singing. That’s something that makes me feel happy, and it reminds me of why I believe in Opera Roanoke's mission because the voice is a really special thing.. . . It just helps me remember why I'm so connected to this art form, so that's what I do when I need a little break.

With a great interest in leadership development, Tolley recently participated in Leadership Roanoke Valley’s Class of 2019. She was also chosen as one of three opera administrators across the country to participate in The Hart Institute of Women Opera Conductors and Administratorsat The Dallas Opera in 2018. 

Taylor Wood:    It seems like you place a lot of value on professional development. Why do you think leadership development is important? 

Brooke Tolley:  I think it's really important, actually. It’s important especially in the arts and especially in the world of nonprofits because it can be very challenging. Most nonprofit leaders wear many different hats and are required to do things that aren't always their one, specific skillset. You're constantly communicating with different people, with your staff, with your board, with your donors, with your patrons. Sometimes you need different approaches for each, so I think if you don't participate in leadership development, you get caught in just your little bubble. I just think this job requires that, honestly, because it's fast-moving and you have to communicate in different ways with many people. You have to build relationships because if you don't build the relationships, then people aren't going to be attracted to your organization. That wasn't really something that I did in college, so I have to find ways to do that now. Leadership development is a requirement for me.

Taylor Wood:    How do you approach the challenges of operating an opera company in a smaller community like Roanoke that might not have as high of a concentration of opera go-ers?

Brooke Tolley:  It's incredibly challenging. It's the most challenging thing I've ever done in my life. I try to change the narrative about how people view opera. There are a lot of stigmas that go with this art form . . .  it's expensive to produce, so people think it's for rich people. It's usually in a foreign language. There are just many barriers to opera in general. So, I always just try to make sure that I'm talking about opera in a way that is relatable and not- I want to say “hoity-toity”, but I think the stories are what's really important about opera and people knowing that operas are still being produced every day. There are new operas that have to do with the current issues that we're facing as a community. I try to make sure that I'm talking about opera in the most real way possible and trying to break down some of those preconceived barriers.

Also, I'm from Roanoke, so I don't have the background of living in New York for 10 years or Paris. I actually have the advantage of being born in and growing up right here in Roanoke. It helps in terms of how I relate to other people in our community.

Taylor Wood:    Do you think being an insider in the community helps as well- people knowing that you're from Roanoke?

Brooke Tolley:  Yeah, it does because sometimes I will come across people that I knew from a previous job or through my church or through some other music group that I participate in. I think that's helpful because it brings a little bit more humanity to me and also to the art form. I think it helps because I feel like I know more people that way, and it helps me communicate with them better.

Taylor Wood:    Beyond the challenges of being in a smaller community, do you think Opera Roanoke is currently in a good place moving forward?

Brooke Tolley:  Opera Roanoke is at a turning point. This is our 44th season, so it's been around quite a while. I'm the youngest general director that they've had and I'm also the first female general director that they've had. My views on what we can do and should be doing challenge the norm of what the company's been doing for a really long time. But the whole of opera, the whole genre is [experiencing similar challenges] right now. If you look at a company like OPERA America, which is the national service organization, that's their biggest mission: to make opera more relatable, change the business models, and do [the work] in a new way. I think [we have to adapt] if opera is going to survive and also, more specifically, if it's going to survive in Roanoke. It's not a metropolitan area, so we don't have millions of people who enjoy going to the arts four times a week.

I think we have to do a lot of hard work to make sure that we're getting our name out there. Just building awareness for the company and also turning into a company that is incredibly relatable, that people know and like, even if they're not opera-goers. That’s my vision for the company- within five years, everyone will know who we are whether they go to the opera or not. I think you would say that now about the Roanoke Symphony or about Mill Mountain Theatre, but you might not say that about the smaller, mid-sized companies [like Opera Roanoke]. So, that’s my goal. 

Join Opera Roanoke for their upcoming guest performance of Return to Sugarloaf Mountain- An Appalachian Gathering with Grammy award-winning chamber ensemble, Apollo’s Fire. Chosen as one of the “top 20 concerts in North America,” this Apollo’s Fire concert will take place at the Jefferson Center on January 31 at 7:30pm. 

Opera Roanoke’s next mainstage production, Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, will be performed on May 8 at 7:30pm and May 10 at 2:30pm at the Jefferson Center. Amy Cofield and Patrick Cook sing the title roles of Blanche and Stanley.