It was an unusual sound as my heel-clad feet walked down Callas Boulevard- not the typical, hollowed click and clack I am used to. The street was not comprised of asphalt, brick, or the quaint cobblestone of a small village. Instead, it was entirely encrusted with various sizes and hues of crystals. Yes…crystals. I felt like a sophisticated version of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz as I proceeded down this magical, sparkling road. What was this perfect place? Who were all these elegant women passing by me with such an air of confidence and je ne sais quois? Perhaps the most peculiar thing was that there was not a man in sight…it was all women. Women as distinctive as the fingerprints in the world, but who all radiated an essence of confidence, joy, and success. As it sometimes does, my intuition started percolating. It made me feel in the pit of my stomach, “This place is special. This is a place where dreams are made manifest.” And as the town bells started playing Puccini’s “Un bel di vedremo” from Madama Butterfly, my gaze was drawn upward. As my eyes adjusted to the brightness of the crystal street’s reflection, I saw the sign that arched over the street just ahead. It read… “Welcome to Divatopia.”
If Divatopia truly existed, I may be so bold to say that Suzanne Vinnik-Richards and Sara Duchovnay would, no doubt, be in its cabinet of leaders. These women are true entrepreneurs in the current operatic and fashion industries. After spending time with them and thinking on this current movement of female empowerment through entrepreneurship, I can’t help but reference a most inspiring pioneer of this movement, and one of my favorite women of history. That woman is Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, otherwise known as “Coco” Chanel. She is quoted as saying, “Look for the woman in the dress. If there is no woman, there is no dress.” Well, as we sat down over a nice bottle of rosé, I can say, without reservation, that there were two spectacular women (and therefore two spectacular dresses) sitting across the table. Suzanne and Sara are true inspirations- women of wisdom, experience, humor, business savvy, and, of course, timeless style. On the precipice of launching their ground-breaking website, Shoperatic.com, Kathleen and I talked with these incredible divas about their personal journeys, Shoperatic.com, and the current surge in female entrepreneurship within the operatic community.
The Opera Diva Dress Collection: Where It All Began
In 2013, the Opera Diva Dress Collection (ODDC) was born out of necessity as Suzanne was contacted by another singer who shared a mutual problem of an overcrowded closet. From a small, private Facebook group for buying and selling dresses, the ODDC has grown to a virtual hub of 9,000+ members within the female operatic community. It has become much more than a place to buy and sell gowns. It is a discussion forum and an empowering feminine community. It is a place that celebrates the individuality of its members through the practice of personal adornment- a place that builds confidence on the inside by means of the outside. Eventually, the wild success of the ODDC caused need for a more complex platform than Facebook could offer. Thus Shoperatic.com was born. Shoperatic.com is a tour de force website with a massive bandwidth that will be able to accommodate the buying, selling, and renting of everything from audition wear to Shoperatic’s crown jewel, Oscar de la Renta gown, (which will be available for rental upon the website’s launch) along with other luxury brands such as: Escada, Theia, J.Mendel, and Roberto Cavalli.
The Women Behind the Dresses
As for the women behind the dresses, Suzanne is one of those women you see and just know success billows in her stylish wake. She is a true shark in the best sense of the word: intelligent, passionate, self-assured, and knowing of what she wants. A woman who truly recognizes her worth. According to the success of the Opera Diva Dress Collection and inevitably of Shoperatic.com– it is apparent she knows how to make things happen. Her business partner, Sara, is just as inspiring. She is an incredibly warm person and overflowing with wisdom beyond her years- the type of woman that emanates a quiet, yet powerful strength.
Both business partners and friends, they could not possibly come from more opposite backgrounds. Sara has a story many of us can relate to: the oldest of three daughters, brought up in a suburb of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Contrastingly, Suzanne is an only child and was raised, quite literally, in the spotlight of the Las Vegas Strip. As a child, she was the headliner of a show at the Westward Ho Hotel. Realizing the fabulously absurd nature of her upbringing, she exclaimed with laughter, “My Christmas show was my specialty for the high rollers…you can’t make this stuff up!” Their dynamic is equally unique. They tout communication as the success of their business partnership- talking and texting at all hours of the day and night with countless ideas and plans. No sleep for the successful! But according to them, sleep is a lesser priority when competing with their true passions of style and singing.
The Fall Before the Rise
When asked what was the catalytic moment for their personal journeys into entrepreneurship, both divas had unique stories to share. Sara was very truthful and straightforward about the fact that she went through a divorce that ended up serving as a strong catalyst for becoming an independent entrepreneur and thought it an important part of her journey to share with readers who may be going through similar experiences. She stated that her divorce allowed her to see that she had the power to make a life according to her own design. So, she went for it- and it is evident that she has truly succeeded. The entrepreneurial lifestyle allows her to live in a way the doesn’t force her to put down roots, ergo leaving the future open to any opportunities that come her way- whatever and wherever they may be. Her outlook and newfound success are quite an inspiring combination. Suzanne’s catalytic moment occurred after she had suffered an injury during a live performance. The recovery period of this injury led to a dark time in her career when she strongly considered quitting. During this time, she was working with a temp agency and had an assignment at a major publishing company where a disrespectful boss led her to realize she was so much better than her current circumstances…capable of so much more. In a field where singers are constantly attaching their self-worth to their current circumstances, this story truly resonated with me. Just like Chanel implied that the woman has the power to “make” the dress. So, does personal enrichment have the power to “make” a singer…regardless of one’s future engagements. Finding or creating an endeavor that awards independence and stability will only give the artist greater freedom. It is wonderful to be a singer, but it is important to realize that it is not the be all and end all. I think that hearing Sara and Suzanne’s stories will help singers remember that difficult times can, indeed, yield great rewards. In the words of Suzanne, “You can be more…more than just a singer. You can be whoever you want to be.” She then thought back on her moment of entrepreneurial realization, “I think when I decided Opera Diva Dress Collection was something (I could make something of it.) I, in turn, made something of myself.” And it is precisely this message of empowerment that is the very essence of Shoperatic.
Let’s Give’em Something to Sing About
Shoperatic.com, (in addition to its primary purpose of buying, selling, and renting dresses) will also serve as a platform of exposure for diva-owned side-hustles. The women of Shoperatic are fostering a mindset that encourages the celebration of other women’s successes instead of promoting the existing sense of competition that is so prevalent in other communities within the industry. They see other female singer’s unique talents and recognize them, not as separate entities, but as integral aspects to the operatic community. Before speaking with these women, I had taken notice of the current surge in female entrepreneurship within the operatic community, but I wasn’t quite sure what to attribute it to. Sara had the perfect answer. She said, “First of all, the opera industry is harder for women simply because there are more of us. Also, women are natural multi-taskers. I don’t think the creative women I know are happy doing just one creative thing. Every time I talk to a female singer, they tell me something cool that they do…so, I think we find more fulfillment in pursuing multiple endeavors.” She went on to explain that she believes that being a singer shouldn’t be the only aspect of your identity. She also is a true proponent for female financial independence, explaining that it can only bolster your career and your art. “What else do you do that sets you apart…what do you have to sing about? If you can turn your other passions into a second stream of income, you’ll always be able to pay your bills while remaining creatively fulfilled.” The next point Sara brought to the table is one I know every singer will agree and identify with, “As singers, we have a leg up on regular entrepreneurs. They’ll cry, ‘My business failed!’ I’ll say, ‘I was rejected ten times in the past year.’ What do you have now, world? Come at me!” Nothing could be more honest or true. Suzanne then made a wonderful point by expressing “In an operatic industry where everyone is so talented. It is your personal story that is going to shine through and set you apart from the rest. “[Through ODDC and Shoperatic] we’re all sharing in something that’s really special and creating real connections. So, you know what? Start a business! I’ll promote the crap out of it. I want you to make money.”
Shoperatic…The Gift that Keeps on Giving
The conversation continued to flow effortlessly and we talked for quite a while about the concept that attributes the success of one’s talent to the level of one’s confidence. This brings me to the more straightforward goals of Shoperatic. By giving women options to dress beautifully and supporting their talents and endeavors, Suzanne and Sara are building the confidence of their members and ultimately giving back to the operatic community in a very direct way. Sara said so eloquently, “I view fashion as art. It is an extension of my creative expression. I think empowering women to take control of their entire artistic persona is incredibly important.”
However, Shoperatic isn’t just giving back to opera conceptually, but monetarily too. Sara stated, “If we’re talking about feminism and supporting our operatic community, when you buy or rent a dress from another singer, you are actively putting money back into the opera industry. It is really important. When you buy from diva-owned and operated businesses- you are supporting opera.”
Our time spent with these women left me with a confirmed realization that the future of opera is in good hands. Female entrepreneurship and side-hustles today…running the industry tomorrow. One of my favorite moments of the interview was when Suzanne told us of her icon in life and business, Beverly Sills. “Beverly Sills is my icon. When I was in college, I read her really shady autobiography…so shady…so shady….and I said, ‘This woman!’…I want to be like that.” She laughed as she called Sills “shady,” clarifying that it was because rather than writing fluff, she called people out on their nonsense- she was fully aware when her ideas in the business were better alternatives to things that just did not work. I have no doubt Ms. Sills would be very proud of Suzanne, Sara, Shoperatic.com, and all the female opera singers today who are making something remarkable out of their talents.
The Diva Era
The Opera world is about to get a makeover from a slew of its rising female stars- talented, not only in singing, but in business acumen. “We are helping to change the industry. We are the next leaders. We’re not like some old fuddy-dud with an exotic accent who can talk to rich people and make them feel like he’s one of them (even if he’s not.) We are singers, we are women, we are smart, we are glamorous, and we can talk with, and appeal to anybody.” This statement from Suzanne sums it up for me. This surge of female entrepreneurship is a bit of an operatic revolution. It is a true feminist movement. Women are realizing their power, putting it out into the world, and making a big difference.
So, while you may not be able to walk down an actual crystal-encrusted street, or hear Puccini’s greatest hits ring from a bell tower every day at noon, Divatopia is still very much a reality. If goals, ideas, drive, and passion were brick and mortar, then Divatopia would truly need its own island. But, despite its intangible nature, Divatopia exists in the hearts and minds of all the female entrepreneurs in the opera business today. Three things rule in this magical land: opera, divas, and passion- passion for knowledge, creativity, and manifestation. These extraordinary women are conquering the world and inspiring other women to do so along with them- looking and feeling amazing while they do it. Welcome to Divatopia.