Monday, August 26, 2013

What can Mozart teach us about leadership?

 by James W. Wright, General Director of Vancouver Opera
5148.mozart What can Mozart teach us about leadership?
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (centre) with
his sister Nannerl and father Leopold.
There are many reasons why I am passionate about opera: beautiful, emotional and inspiring music; literate, poetic language; grand and glorious productions on stages filled with singers, choristers and dancers; and very often, a link with important people and events in the past. But another reason I am passionate about opera is the relevance it has for our lives today. Opera is certainly not alone among the arts in this ability to speak to us about our own times, but it is the art form I know best and about which I can speak with certainty. At Vancouver Opera we often speak of opera’s relevancy to 21st Century British Columbians, and work hard to help long-time audiences as well as opera “newbies” understand and appreciate this fact; I know our colleagues at the symphony, in the theatre and dance companies and in the galleries work to do the same thing. Opera sometimes has a bigger challenge in this, I think, because of the music coming to us from an earlier century, the dress and manners of an earlier time, the “powdered wigs” and foreign languages. But here I believe is the wonderful secret of my art form: opera is about the big things, the important emotions of all of us humans….and these “big things” and large emotions don’t change from year to year, decade to decade, or even century to century.
Sometimes these sweeping themes are rather personal: love and betrayal; estrangement; the distances created between families and friends and the bridges to span those distances. Sometimes the big ideas are societal: when we last produced Aida, we investigated the plight of “Women in War” with Lloyd Axworthy, Ruth Segal and others; when we staged Macbeth our panelists examined “Power and its Abuse;” in 2002, during the opera Of Mice and Men important BC artists discussed the “Role of the Arts in Effecting Social Change.”
Our current offering, Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, is about one important thing: what qualities do we want in those who lead us?  Mozart’s gorgeous and spirited music, the intriguing scenery and stellar singing are all in the service of this big idea. Is ruling with compassion a better idea than ruling with vengeance? Is the good of the people more important than the reputation of the leader? Does forgiveness in a leader show strength or betray weakness? Mozart’s opera inspired us to bring together a first-class panel last week at the Vancouver Public Library to discuss this notion of effective and compassionate leadership. Columnist Gary Mason, UBC professor Michael Byers, Tsawwassen First Nations Chief Kim Baird, Superintendent of West Vancouver schools Chris Kennedy, and Brenda Eaton, Chair of BC Housing Management Commission, discussed with one another and the audience their beliefs concerning leadership.
Mason spoke of VANOC CEO John Furlong’s exercise in nation building which was built in part on the biggest Olympics torch relay in history, involving Canadians across this land, as well as convincing the powers-that-be to invest in the performance of our athletes, which paid off handsomely and helped unite the country in its pride and patriotism. Michael Byers noted that after his long prison sentence and eventual rise to the South African presidency, Nelson Mandela rejected revenge as a tool of governance and instead focused on “truth and reconciliation” and sought to heal his country by his ferocious support of the Springbok Rugby team as it grew to be the World Cup winner, as portrayed in the film Invictus.
Qualities of leadership: what the past can tell us about, warn us about, prod us to think about.  What great art – whether opera, symphonic music, great theatre or inspired painting – can help us to understand about our own lives and our own times: isn’t that a timely and relevant conversation for 21st Century British Columbians?