I t was almost as if the Kenmore Square restaurant Eastern Standard had been crammed into a time machine and shipped back to 1928. Inside, women in flapper dresses, Art Deco-inspired beaded gowns, and Louise Brooks bobs rubbed bare shoulders with bow-tie-wearing gentlemen in newsboy caps and straw hats.
The gregarious and loquacious man responsible for this time travel, Graham Wright, made the rounds in a summery seersucker blazer while nearly everyone in the crowd stopped to congratulate him on the soiree.
Wright’s Gatsby-era “Big Party” was a fund-raiser for the Opus Affair, an organization he founded four years ago as a networking group for young professionals involved in the arts. Since that time, it has quickly evolved into a 3,000-member social behemoth of 20- and 30-somethings who work in the arts, who are interested in arts, or who simply like a good cocktail party.
Opus seems like a natural fit for Wright. A former MIT PhD candidate in chemistry who dropped out and went on to become a professional opera singer, Wright is a social animal who says he embraces the challenge of bringing such a large and disparate group together. He started Opus with about 30 members and a desire to start connecting Boston’s artistic dots.
‘It drives me crazy when people say there’s nothing going on in Boston. I recognize that Boston is a city for insiders, and I’m hoping that I can help more people become insiders.’
“It was born out of my own personal experience as someone working in the arts and being a concert-goer myself,” the 33-year-old says. “Whenever I would go anywhere — the symphony, the ballet, or the opera — I would sit in the audience and think, ‘Wow, I don’t see a lot of faces of people in their 20s and 30s in here.’ But because I work in the industry, I know most of the staff and performers of these organizations are younger than the audience.”
Many arts organizations in Boston have created groups to boost participation of young professionals, but Graham noticed that there was limited interaction among the groups. Opus Affair’s mission was to get young supporters from the different arts organizations mingling, and also to get them interacting with the dancers, musicians, and artists they regularly see.
“Even within individual organizations, singers don’t mingle with the orchestra, who don’t really mingle with the staff,” he says sipping ginger beer to soothe a sore throat. “I wanted to see them all mingle and watch what happened.”
For the first few months, the group numbered in the dozens, but word spread to those looking for involvement in Boston’s arts scene.
“I think it provides a perfect platform for people to come together with a common interest,” says psychologist Jason Shestok at the Gatsby party. “There’s no big movement to change anything. It’s just about meeting people.”
Most of the group’s parties are social outings (without a theme) that take place around Boston. The Gatsby party drew more than 300 stylish Bostonians with a desire to play dress-up. According to party attendees such as Kayla Ferguson the costumes resulted in impromptu conversations about head pieces and fringed dresses.
“If there was something like this every month I would come,” said singer Shari Wilson. “There really isn’t anything else like this. I think Graham knows exactly what creative people want.”
The monthly parties also feature a Punch Bowl Fund, where Opus members nominate an arts organization on the group’s website to receive funding. They buy a glass of punch for $5, and get a vote for one of the three finalists with each glass of punch. The kitty at the end of the night (generally $500) goes to the nominated nonprofit with the most votes. Beneficiaries of the punch bowl fund include the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, Opera on Tap, and Free-For-All Concert Funds.
The Gatsby party ended up raising $12,000. Half of the funds were divvied up among the Young Partners of the Boston Ballet, the Museum Council at the Museum of Fine Arts, H2 from the Handel and Haydn Society, 35 Below at the Huntington Theatre Company, and Young Patrons from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The rest went to the Opus Affair to help with expenses and future events. Wright does not draw a salary from the organization.
The group’s next event is Aug. 14 at Noir in Cambridge (information at opusaffair
.org). In addition to, and perhaps just as important as the fund-raising, is that Wright is getting people to concerts, says Boston Philharmonic Orchestra executive director Mark Cantrell.
“He’s so warm and inviting that you don’t get the feeling that classical arts are some stuffy thing that you have to be super educated about, or be super snobby to enjoy,” Cantrell says. “He’s telling people that this is fun stuff, and he’s been very successful with that.”
For Wright, the high point of the Big Party was the connections made. Not only have countless friendships come from the group over the years, but there was even a marriage between two members. Appropriately, Wright sang at the couple’s wedding.
“On the surface, it’s quite simple,” Wright says. “We bring together all these groups and have a party every month. There’s a funny barrier that exists around all these groups. The Huntington Theatre’s young professionals group doesn’t overlap with the MFA’s group, or the ICA.”
By mixing these 20- and 30-somethings alongside professional musicians and artists, Wright says he hopes that Opus participants also become more aware of the breadth of what’s happening in the city.
“It drives me crazy when people say there’s nothing going on in Boston. I recognize that Boston is a city for insiders, and I’m hoping that I can help more people become insiders,” he says. “You may end up talking to a professional cellist who can tell you what concerts she’s excited about.”
Wright, who grew up in South Carolina, started getting involved in event planning after leaving MIT. He took his interest in science, combined with his social skills, and started organizing scientific research conferences and trade shows. As his involvement shifted toward the arts, so did the events that he planned.
An off-shoot of the group has sparked a bit of a salon culture revival in the city. Groups of 50 or so have been coming together for chamber music concerts in homes across the area. Meanwhile, Wright is in talks with the American Repertory Theater to stage shows and events at Oberon. What he is not trying to do is force his group to stage events that are hip.
“Some of the outreach that these arts groups do is to create events that are sexy or cool,” he says. “They usually end up with something that’s kind of lame. You should be wary of doing something that compromises your artistic values. If you try to change what you’re doing you’ll wind up alienating the traditional audience and not attracting a new one.”
Wright is able to bring all of this to life through a very easy-going nature and hearty, Burl Ives-like laugh.
“I think a lot of this is driven by Graham’s personality,” says Diana Hunt, a research scientist who volunteers with the group and takes pictures at most Opus parties. “He’s someone who’s naturally social, easy-going, and I think people have a hard time saying no to him.”
Wright has also managed to put together Opus Affair without stepping on the toes of other young professional groups in Boston. Jenn DePrizio, director of visitor learning at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, says healthy competition between such groups helps to drive attendance.
“It gives [arts organizations] a chance to come together and ask ‘What are you doing that works?’ or ‘What are you doing that isn’t working?’ That way we can compare notes and none of us are trying to reinvent the wheel.”
Wright, who is a freelance singer with several local companies and works as a freelance event producer, says Opus will remain focused on the fine arts, but in his kitchen sink approach to growing the group, he said he’s open to other forms of artistic expression.
“I haven’t set any parameters,” he says. “I just had someone e-mail to ask me if circus acts were a part of this. I said not yet, but I’m certainly intrigued.”