“Impact: the force of impression of one thing on another, a significant or major effect.”
The dictionary definition is as good a place as any to start in describing the job Lee Bynum has just begun at Minnesota Opera.
“Vice President of Impact” is Bynum’s official title, one that skirts the boundaries of corporate management self-parody.
Behind the jargon, though, is a serious issue — 2020 is a year that has deeply affected opera, calling into question its continuing relevance in an era riven by racial division, political upheaval and the merciless impact of the coronavirus.
Bynum pulls no punches in considering the gravity of the situation.
“In the moment we’re in now, if we don’t master a new set of demographic realities, we are not necessarily going to have classical music and opera in the way we’ve had it in the past.”
The past Bynum is talking about has been overwhelmingly white in color.
White singers and audiences. White male composers. Opera has mainly looked that way for centuries now, despite sporadic efforts to make it more representative of broader society.
The difficulties of addressing that situation have been highlighted by the recent controversy surrounding the firing of the Black Classical MPR host Garrett McQueen and renewed debate over the role of “blind auditions” — in which musicians play anonymously behind a screen — in the hiring of players for orchestras.
For Bynum, the time for change is now, because the tragedy and trauma of 2020 has, paradoxically, created a major opportunity for change to happen.
“After the unfortunate murder of George Floyd a few months ago, classical music is paying attention to broader social issues right now in a way that it hasn’t always been,” he said.
“And because Minnesota Opera has always had a reputation for being an innovator and very forward-thinking in terms of what it presents and for whom, it was a natural fit for me.”
Bynum has spent a considerable chunk of his career so far in educational settings, including spells at Columbia University and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where he administered diversity, equity and inclusion grants to colleges and universities.
So why the switch to opera? And why now, when the COVID-19 crisis hangs like a threatening sword of Damocles over arts organizations across America?
For Bynum, 40, flipping to opera does not feel like a major change of direction. Born in Richmond, Va., he was raised in surrounding Henrico County before moving to Manhattan in his late teens. Classical music is in his blood, Bynum says.
“I grew up in classical music from age 8, with instrumental music and singing, and for a while I also worked as a composer,” he said. “Minnesota Opera seems more of a homecoming than a hard pivot.”
So what exactly will Bynum do as the company’s vice president of impact, a newly created position? What does he feel most urgently needs to happen?
Impact, Bynum says, is first and foremost about “making opera more accessible for a much wider range of individuals” — people with disabilities, non-baby boomers, LGBTQ people, female composers and people of color, for example.
But how to reach them? How do you bring the marginalized into the operatic fold?
Outreach programs to schools and local community organizations will continue to be part of the answer. “New and deeper connections with the community” is how Bynum puts it.
But changes in the way that younger generations approach music also pose a major challenge.
“Generation Xers, millennials, and Generation Z, they haven’t been conditioned to appreciate classical music in quite the same way as in the past,” Bynum said. “They are hungry to have the relevance of music explained to them, what impact it is making on our society. We need to have some answers.”
“Opera in the Outfield,” Minnesota Opera’s recent baseball-themed event at CHS Field in St. Paul, and the online stream of Bernard Herrmann’s opera “Wuthering Heights” (available Oct. 10-24 at mnopera.org), are steps in the right direction.
But making sure the music created and performed at Minnesota Opera “matches the demographics” of the Twin Cities area will be crucial to keeping the company viable in the longer term, Bynum argues.
“Unless the industry models shift, the traditional audience for classical music will continue to shrink,” he says. “And by the time we get to 2042, when we live in a society that will be predominantly people of color, we have to make sure that opera is still speaking to them.”
Bynum has no doubt that Minnesota Opera can keep its relevance in an era when the pace of change is dizzying, and upheaval is a way of life for many people.
“If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be moving my husband and my cat across the country from Manhattan in the middle of the worst public health crisis we’ve had in a century,” he said, smiling.
But Bynum’s move to Minneapolis is intentional and timely, not rawly career-driven. The George Floyd killing has, he thinks, created a moment of moral reckoning for the city, and he is confident that Minnesota Opera can play its part in a solution.
“So many people think opera stopped speaking about what we are as a society about a hundred years ago. But I think opera has an incredible capacity to examine larger-than-life ideas at an incredibly human level.
“And if we want to help address current issues like food insecurity and affordable housing, that has to come through the music. We need to use it to get people thinking how we can be better to each other.”
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.