An Opus Affair
Graham Wright was in love. But an exclusive relationship? In his twenties? In Boston? No. Wasn’t going to happen. So Wright did what any red-blooded young man in the prime of his life would have—he let chemistry down easy and started singing around.
“MIT is an intense place, and the people who are happy there are the ones who have that uniquely focused passion. They want to be doing chemistry and nothing else,” Wright, who graduated from Furman in 2000 with a degree in chemistry and went immediately to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the goal of earning a Ph.D. in the subject, said. “Those are the people who really thrive there. I was very interested in it, but when it really came down to it I needed to have time for music and other things.”
Did those other things want him, though? That’s often a rude awakening for the newly single, but it turns out Wright isn’t like most who want to have time for music and other things.
Just as talented in art as he is in science (he studied voice and trombone at Furman), Wright’s move from Florence, South Carolina, to one of the most thriving metropolitan areas in the country would have been a success had he only carved out a singing career for himself—which he did. There was something missing, however.
“After a few years of working I kept hearing people say that there are not enough young professionals supporting the arts.” Wright said. “If you really look at the bigger picture across all these different art forms, though, if you don’t look just at the audience but behind the scenes—the artists themselves . . . there are lots of people in their twenties and thirties supporting the arts. We have the highest percentage of eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-olds of any city in the country. We’ve got the people, we’ve got the interest, but these groups are really isolated.”
Wright couldn’t stop wondering what would happen if he put different art elements in the same room. What compounds would be created? So he built a lab called Opus Affair, and let the experiments begin.
The reactions haven’t stopped since.
Founded in 2008, Opus Affair’s initial goal was simple: Create a monthly social gathering for “music, dance, theatre—anything that might be construed as the fine arts,” and invite anyone regardless of their involvement. The first gathering was held in a bar near Fenway Park because the owner knew it would be empty once the baseball game started, and he welcomed the business.
“It was a gathering for opera and ballet fans a block from a Red Sox game,” Wright remembers. “About fifty people showed up.”
But word spread fast. “The whole reason it started was I was meeting these musicians and I’d hear these concerts and I’d hear fantastic music, but I might see ten people in the audience,” Wright said. “And on the other side people would come up to me and say, ‘I just graduated and was really involved in the music scene or the theatre scene at my school, and now that I’m new to town I don’t know where to start. Can you help me find some interesting performances to see?’ So let’s connect these two people.”
Or, as is now the case, several thousand, which would be the number of members Opus Affair now boasts. Wright estimates that between 150 and 200 people show up at its monthly gatherings, and for the last two years the organization has put on “The Big Party,” which is a perfect description of what is now one of Boston’s most anticipated
The 2013 version was a 1920s theme party at the same bar near Fenway, only this time the place was rented out and packed to fire code limits. “It’s grown into something that has exceeded all of my expectations,” Wright says. “One of the exciting trends in the fine arts world is there have been a lot of organizations which have recognized the need to reach out to these young professionals. They often operated totally independently, so one of my goals was to bring them together, all of these groups at once. Up to nine organizations participate. I can’t claim that we are the cause of that, but it’s nice to see that they’re participating and our event has become kind of an annual count of the groups that are out there.”
Opus Affair does more than throw large soirees, however. At its core it’s still about art, performance, and appreciation—and finding new audiences. “The cocktail culture has become a big part of what we do. Around the time Opus Affair began there was a big resurgence of the classic cocktail movement,” Wright says. “It’s philosophically similar to the approach I have with this operation. They’re creating new things inspired by history, which is what I would say that a classical musician does. It’s good to be able to recreate it, but the best people are the ones who take this historical research and use it to create something that’s new and alive now . . . a lot of our new members are coming from restaurants. People who are big foodies end up coming to our events, and they’re the ones who end up in our audiences.”
Opus Affair and chemistry studies at one of the most prestigious schools in the country can overshadow the fact that, when it comes down to it, Wright’s biggest claim to fame is he’s a tremendously talented artist himself. A bass-baritone, he has found success as a soloist with choral, orchestral, and opera groups that include the Boston Pops, Opera Company of Brooklyn, and the Boston Lyric Opera on top of his regular job at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel as a choral scholar.
“Essentially we’re like section leaders for the choir,” he says. “We’re there to help them learn style and different repertoire and help them train for the life of a professional musician in Boston and the life of a choral musician in general.”
Wright estimates that for about three years he did nothing but sing to make a living, though now he sings “about a third of the time.” One of those gigs included being selected to help the Rolling Stones perform “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” when they came through town earlier in the year.
“That was a heck of a gig,” Wright said, though when asked if he was nervous he had an interesting take. “I’m always much more likely to be nervous at a big rehearsal than at a performance. At the rehearsal, meeting Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and working with their tech crew was far more nerve-racking for me than the performance. They’re all there to have a good time, and they want you to be awesome. They’re not there to be critical or tell you you’re doing something wrong.”
If there’s any advice Wright can give young musicians, that’s it. “There’s an epiphany that all performers need to have at some point, which is that the vast majority of people in the audience are there to have a good time and they want you to be great,” he says. “That’s very empowering as a performer. When I was younger I definitely didn’t appreciate that.”
And speaking of younger, Wright is reminded every day of his days as a Paladin because he represents merely a third of the Furman alums at BU’s Marsh Chapel. Scott Jarrett ’97 is the director, while Justin Blackwell ’05 is the associate director and organist. Though he didn’t major in music, Wright was heavily involved in the department at Furman and credits his time there for helping him believe in his talent.
“My choice of major had very little to do with planning job prospects. I was just going where my passion was,” Wright says. “I never really saw (music) as a career path for me when I was younger. I didn’t think I was necessarily the world’s greatest musician, so there might have been a self-confidence issue there. I also hadn’t seen all of the options out there for how you could make a living in music.”
And there are many, Wright asserts. “We’re in an environment now where there are more and more opportunities for entrepreneurs to find niches where they can work. Your career does not have to be a hundred percent performance or a hundred percent teaching. This whole concept is catching on at universities, recognizing that a freelance musician is a small-business owner, and there are a lot of practical things you need to know to make that career work.”