The new executive director for the Grand Rapids Opera has always been a lover of music, philanthropy and business and it shows in every aspect of her life.
Before the opera, Emilee Syrewicze studied law with a focus on nonprofit organizations. She went on to work with the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and the Northwest Michigan Supportive Housing, and now she is here as an executive director for one of the few opera companies in Michigan.
Even as a child, she remembers being an avid fan of music, thanks in large part to her family.
“My parents are both vocal artists,” Syrewicze said. “I came from a family where my parents, my aunts and uncles, my grandparents, they were all active in choral music. It’s just that classical music has always been a big deal in my family.”
Syrewicze may not perform with the opera, but she’s making sure everything goes as planned so the performers can go above and beyond.
Her path to executive director, meanwhile, can be traced back to an early love for philanthropy. In high school alone, Syrewicze helped host and run four Red Cross blood drives and was a part of bake sales to earn money to donate for big causes like St. Jude’s. She said as she got into the real world, she realized successful nonprofits are all thanks to the people behind the scenes.
“I realized early on watching how a nonprofit organization works, you could have the best mission in the world, but if you don’t have someone safeguarding your organization and its finances and your board, that mission is never going to be realized,” Syrewicze said.
That’s exactly what she’s doing for Opera Grand Rapids. She oversees everything behind the scenes: the board, funding, what the artists need to succeed and how the community plays into it all.
“That’s one of my primary goals here, to make sure that the West Michigan communities not only has opera available to them, but good opera available to them,” Syrewicze said. “For a city the size of Grand Rapids to have a professional opera company with one of the best maestros, James Meena, is a very big deal.”
She also believes in opera as an art form, and that it stands out more than other types of performances.
“It’s not like the symphony where you go and hear the music, or you go to a play and see the actors. Opera is symphony, acting, singing, a full chorus and a ballet at the same time, all in one production,” Syrewicze said. “It's incredibly complicated to do, because not only do you have one professional art form you’re overseeing, you have five happening simultaneously. It’s very hard to do, which is why there aren’t many opera companies out there.”
To put on a grand opera costs roughly a quarter of a million dollars. Even if money is lost on these productions, it’s slowly being earned back thanks to help from the community. Syrewicze said a revival is underway, thanks to the generation typically known for killing industries.
“We’re seeing a resurgence in the opera,” she said. “Believe it or not, one of the fastest growing demographics of opera ticket holders and supporters is millennials. Which I think shocks a lot of people, but millennials have this great habits of what was old is made new again, and that’s what we’re seeing now. They’re bringing back mason jars and libraries, but they’re also bringing back opera.”
Thanks to all the recent business the opera is able to put on more productions than ever before. At the moment, the coming season has 13 performances lined up. Aside from the two grand operas, the organization also hosts special events and performances. One big party Syrewicze is excited for is the opera ringing in the new year with a roaring ’20s theme, costumes and great food.
Even with such a busy schedule, the goal remains the same. Syrewicze puts it simply: “People, programs and purpose.”
That means bringing in more cultural events, putting more performances out into the community, staging programs that are for people of all ages, and consistently bringing in world-class operas. Syrewicze personally just wants people to be captivated by the shows and genuinely enjoy the experience itself.
“I want people in our audience — whether it’s the 20th opera they’ve seen or it’s their very first — I want them to have fun,” Syrewicze said. “I want them to sit there and feel the energy coming from the stage and in the audience.
“I want their whole opera experience to be fun. I think when people have fun, they open themselves up to learning, and that makes opera lovers of everyone.”
2019 Grand Operas
November 1-2, 2019
May 1-2, 2020