Aria man has advice for entrepreneurs

February 1, 2010

Everett McCorvey performs at "A Prelude to A Grand Night for Singing" in May 2008. The "Prelude" and "Grand Night" events have become big fundraisers for UK Opera Theatre and popular community events. Photo by Tom Eblen

Everett McCorvey isn’t a businessman; he’s a musician and a teacher. He has started a lot of companies, but not the kind you usually associate with entrepreneurs.

McCorvey is a skilled entrepreneur nonetheless, having accomplished the unlikely feat of turning Lexington — a city best known for developing racehorses and basketball players — into a center for developing opera singers, too.

Since McCorvey came to Lexington in 1991, he has transformed the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre program by attracting public support and private donations. He said the program he began building with a $20,000 loan now has an annual budget of more than $1 million and an endowment approaching $5 million.

In his spare time, McCorvey started the American Spiritual Ensemble, which has toured the world and recorded several albums in an effort to preserve music inspired by slave melodies. The group began another tour last week with a sold-out performance at Frankfort’s Grand Theatre.

McCorvey recently formed Global Creative Connections to produce opening and closing ceremonies for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. He said he wants those productions to include as many Kentuckians as possible.

Last week, McCorvey, with backup from the American Spiritual Ensemble, gave a lecture at UK about entrepreneurship. He offered many insights into the attitudes, behaviors and strategies that have helped him succeed.

Some of them might work for you, too, even if you have little interest in business — or opera. That is because entrepreneurship isn’t necessarily about making money; it’s about figuring out ways to achieve your dreams.

McCorvey, 52, was born into segregated Montgomery, Ala., and lived around the corner from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. His mother was a librarian. His father worked overnight for the post office, ran a grocery, dabbled in real estate and sprayed homes for bugs. Plus, he was active in church and the local civil rights movement.

“My father was a tremendous role model for me,” McCorvey said. “My only problem was that I didn’t have the energy to keep up with him.”

McCorvey’s interest in music was sparked by a student trumpeter at Alabama State University who rented a room in their home. McCorvey persuaded his father to rent him a trumpet so he could learn to play. Performing in school bands, he later switched to baritone horn.

When McCorvey auditioned for the University of Alabama, he mentioned, as an afterthought, “Oh, by the way, I also sing.” Professors soon convinced him that his primary talent was singing, so that’s where he focused. “I had to work very hard to develop that talent,” he said.

McCorvey earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Alabama, then spent years in New York and abroad, performing in a wide variety of genres and venues — opera houses, Broadway theaters, TV commericals. That’s when he met his wife, singer Alicia Helm McCorvey.

He learned a lot about the business of show business before returning to Alabama to earn a doctorate. “And because Alabama was not like New York, I learned that if I wanted to do something in music, I had to create the opportunities,” he said.

McCorvey joined the UK faculty after teaching at a small college in Knoxville, Tenn., but a mentor warned him that opera would never be appreciated in Kentucky.

“I don’t know if I took that as a challenge, or what,” McCorvey said. He knew that creating an outstanding program would require recruiting the best singers available and producing professional-quality operas to train them.

While serving on the UK Athletics Association’s board, McCorvey studied the basketball program’s strategies and applied them to his goals.

“I thought that I needed my own athletics association,” he said. “Babies here leave the hospitals in UK sweatshirts. I thought that what I need to figure out is how to make Kentucky babies grow up loving the arts.”

He noticed that Lexington was filled with amateur singers and others who appreciate music. So he convinced some of them to create the Lexington Opera Society, which raises money and rallies support for UK Opera Theatre.

Entrepreneurship, like an opera production, is all about collaboration, he said. It requires engaging people who have skills you don’t have and creating a vision others want to share.

McCorvey said his job was best described by the late comic actor Charles Nelson Reilly, an opera lover he met while spending time with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

“He said, ‘If it’s important to you, your job is to make it important to them,’ ” McCorvey said. “That’s basically what I do.”

  • McCorvey’s advice for entrepreneurs:

    • Enjoy what you do. If you don’t enjoy what you do, do something else because life is too short.
    • Surround yourself with positive spirits.
    • Celebrate the amazing talents of others.
    • Be patient, be persistent and pray constantly.
    • Don’t try to do things that aren’t in your skill set.
    • Work harder than anyone else at the things you do well.
    • Engage people who have skills you don’t have and collaborate with them.
    • The more collaborative you are, the more you can achieve.
    • Engage your community in every way possible.
    • Find the good and praise it. (A tip from his friend Alex Haley, the late author of Roots.)
    • Stay away from ‘energy vampires.’
    • Embrace your fears and go with them.
    • Stay focused on your dreams and goals. Stop doing things that don’t support them.
    • Be good and kind to everyone; you never know when it might come back to you.
    • When a door closes, a window opens. Some doors should close; celebrate that.
    • Expect good things, and look forward to the next opportunity for something special to happen.