Rising from intern to CEO is the stuff the American dream is made of, but it’s now a reality at Cincinnati Opera. Managing director since 2010, Christopher Milligan will succeed longtime CEO Patty Beggs this month. A 1989 summer internship is where Milligan says he “totally fell in love with opera”; he returned full-time in a marketing position in 1997 and never looked back.
Cincinnati Opera celebrates its 100th anniversary this summer, and has steadily built its audience diversity, engagement, and awareness over that time. When Beggs announced her retirement in 2019, Milligan knew he couldn’t risk losing that progress. “What we have created is so extraordinary, and I didn’t take any of it as a given,” he says. “I want to make sure that continues.”
Following a national search, Milligan was announced as the next general director and CEO in December. Evans Mirageas, the Harry T. Wilks Artistic Director, who collaborates closely with Milligan’s, is thrilled with the outcome. “I needed someone who knew exactly how opera runs and how complicated it is,” he says. “Chris fits every bill and ticks every box.”
Milligan himself gives three essential reasons why he thinks he was selected for the top leadership role: culture, community, and passion. He’s a self-described advocate for the increasingly inclusive culture of Cincinnati Opera, and a strong proponent of the company’s ever-expanding community engagement efforts. Opera Goes to Church and Opera Express were both founded under his marketing leadership, in fact, bringing opera to new audiences across the region.
“My passion is ultimately to make opera more popular in the sense that more people have access to it, more people are able to enjoy it,” he says. “One of the statements I wrote in the vision plan gives a sense of this: ‘Who can love opera? Anyone. Who should get the chance? Everyone.’ ”
The last five years have seen an explosion of diversity in Cincinnati Opera programming. From Fellow Travelers, a contemporary opera about communism and a secret gay affair that the company debuted in 2016, to As One, a 2018 production about a transgender woman, the organization is increasingly pushing traditional operatic boundaries. For its 100th anniversary season, Cincinnati Opera commissioned Castor and Patience, a world premiere about African-American families, with a libretto by U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith and composition by Gregory Spears (also of Fellow Travelers.) Also premiering this summer is Fierce, about four teenage girls, created with local collaborators.
Ultimately, Milligan heads into 2020 and the next century of Cincinnati Opera with a focus on artistic excellence, which he says will “always be a number one priority,” and developing innovative ways for people to connect with the arts.
“[We will] continue to do that and innovate and imagine how we can capture people’s imaginations with a taste of opera,” he says. “We want to expand people’s perspectives on what it is to go to the opera.”