Soula Parassidis is an operatic soprano and the CEO and co-founder of Living Opera. She has appeared in opera and as a soloist in leading cultural institutions in Europe and Asia. In addition to her artistic and entrepreneurial work, Soula has also worked as a television moderator, content creator, and educator, and serves on the board of The Exodus Road, an anti human trafficking organization.
Founded by two opera singers and an economist, Living Opera is a multimedia art-technology company that unites the classical music and blockchain communities to produce transformative content. Living Opera takes a holistic approach to life, work, and education: “living” means “full of life and vigor,” and “opera” means (in Latin) “labor, effort, attention, or work.” Living Opera NFT collections, such as Magic Mozart, are designed to bring the art and tech worlds together by expanding the audience of people who traditionally engage with classical music and fine art.
We asked Soula about how Living Opera is using web3 to bring opera and classical music to a much wider audience.
Grit Daily: What is Living Opera from 30,000 feet up? Give us the elevator pitch?
Soula Parassidis: The performing arts are a way of expressing creativity and inspiring people. We believe that classical music has a lot of potential to transform lives – even today! Living Opera was born out of our lives as opera singers traveling across the world. And while it seems glamorous and many opera singers make it sound like you’re always dressed in a gown, there is actually substantial hardship, ranging from the declining real wages to the itinerant lifestyle when you are going from one job to another without ever establishing roots anywhere.
We believe that the performing artists don’t need to stay that way, particularly with the advent of technology. Living Opera is a web3 multimedia startup. We draw on the capabilities of web3 technologies to change the incentive structure in the sector. A good example is our Living Arts Foundation – a nonprofit DAO that decentralizes grantmaking in the performing arts. We will get more into it over the course of the interview, but at a high level we’re using the NFTs as a way of conferring governance rights to holders so that they have more skin-in-the-game and see the fruits of their donations to artists – and likewise artists get to have direct contact with the people who are helping them achieve their dreams. Theoretically, non-web3 technologies could do something similar, but decentralization and security are important features here and NFTs are simply the best tools that we can use to achieve this vision.
Grit Daily: Let’s go deeper into it: What are the problems you and the team are looking at, and uniquely qualified to solve?
Soula Parassidis: For starters, performing artists are facing declining real wages and escalating mental health challenges. Living Opera was born out of our experiences traveling the world singing, realizing that what we were going through was not “unique” in the broad sense – anyone who is trying to perform professionally goes through the same hurdles. So, we started speaking about it openly, but not in an aggressive and adversarial way – we came with solutions.
Our eureka moment was when we discovered that Mozart was the catalyst behind generative art – or at least was one of the first. When I realized that the genealogy of these exciting social and technological fads is actually rooted in classical music and the lives of extremely serious classical artists, that provided a through line for us to get deeply involved in web3.
So, that’s what we did! We launched the Magic Mozart NFT collection to pioneer a better way for artists to gain access to financing and training. Sadly, there are not comparable grant opportunities for individual artists – funding, even with the Paycheck Protection Program in the COVID-19 era, goes to institutions. And, they still canceled artists’ contracts. Our microgrants community exists to help fund artists and provide them with arts entrepreneurship training so that they go out with not only additional financial resources, but also human capital.
But our aims are much broader. We are working on other NFT collections that showcase the beauty and experiential nature of classical music. We also see NFTs as an effective ticketing mechanism and way of increasing engagement among the audience. Imagine if everyone who came to the opera had a way to get POAP and then they were airdropped a gift – even just an iconic shot from the opera that evening – and those who had a ticket, but did not end up coming, might even end up regretting it and making a harder attempt next time around!
Ultimately, tokens are effective at providing a way of describing value associated with ideas and activities that have traditionally gone unmeasured – and if you cannot measure it, you cannot reward it, for better or worse!
We are also working on a decentralized app to help gamify the practice experience for artists by providing a way of transforming sound into abstract art.
Grit Daily: How are you using web3 technology in your work?
Soula Parassidis: I am a performer and storyteller, plain and simple, so the bulk of my work is still performing opera and serving the community. But the way web3 comes in is by amplifying our efficacy and scale. For example, with our Magic Mozart collection, we can help many more artists than we ever could by trying to teach people 1-1 through voice lessons and career coaching (which we’ve done). We can even do more good than holding weekly Zooms with groups of students (which we’ve also done). The introduction of tokens allows us to do something that was never possible before – to create a sort of marketplace and community of practice fueled by micro philanthropists who want to see the artists they’re funding thrive.
Our other NFT collections are more concentrated on multimedia and piloting the many use cases of NFTs, not only as tickets, but also as mechanisms for engaging with and learning about the community. For instance, our Dream Girl NFT collection is a 20 minute composition of music from Richard Wagner’s famous Wesendonck Lieder. Christos and Norman tell me that it’s beautiful to listen to, but you know what it’s like hearing your own voice sometimes! But even beyond the musical component, we are exploring ways of embedding our music NFTs into games. Imagine the most dramatic operatic sound coming on in a crucial scene.
One of the upsides of pioneering this work with classical music is that the music is in the public domain, meaning that we don’t need to worry about licensing rights. Especially in the early days of web3, identifying and executing value-added use cases is important and classical music provides an opportunity to not only hear beautiful and powerful music, but also avoid the hassle that comes with negotiating and reaching agreements over licensing. Music is one of the most underappreciated areas of gaming, and we think that bringing the two communities together will unlock great opportunities and innovations for both sides.
Grit Daily: Tell us understand your backstory as both an artist and entrepreneur.
Soula Parassidis: I grew up only knowing entrepreneurship. My father ran a successful contracting business for over forty years and my mom had her own medical practice until my sisters were born. I didn’t know another way of life. I started performing when I was still a child, first as a flutist, then as an actor, and at age fourteen I made my professional debut in theater.
My operatic career had a rocky start. After graduating University of British Columbia, I got diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Now, I was in a hospital facing a life-changing diagnosis. I remember giant, hot tears falling from my eyes. I was so shocked, I couldn’t even blink. My doctor reassured me that I had the “best kind” of cancer and that it was highly treatable, but not without risk. As he outlined the dangers of the surgery, he went on to explain that if things went really bad, the procedure could leave me mute. Not being able to speak was one thing, but not being able to sing? At that point in my life, singing was the only thing I cared about. It was my passion—and worse—my identity.
Thankfully, when the day of my surgery finally came, everything went as well as it could. Still, rehabilitation took a long time. I had lost a lot of weight, and my voice didn’t work the way it used to. I felt that I had to start from scratch and that all my plans were shattered. I was shattered. But I didn’t give up. I started to put in the work every day, just like I used to. It was tedious and frustrating, but I kept going. I had no idea that a local businessman was about to change the trajectory of my life. He said he had been listening to me for a while and thought I was talented. He asked what my future plans were, and told me that if I wrote him a business plan, he would help fund my vision. I didn’t even know what a business plan was at that point. But somehow, I figured it out, and presented him with a proposal. And true to his word, he funded my vision.
I went to Germany, the opera capital of the world, to try my luck. I was full of hope, but it wasn’t long before I realized I lacked many of the requisite skills to excel in my field. While I had graduated from a very good music program in Canada and could sing pretty well, I wasn’t prepared for the “business side” of the music industry. But I kept trying, and eventually, I was able to build the expertise I needed on my own, without the guidance of an expensive degree program or agent—the paths that most singers are taught to pursue.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the skills I was gathering would later serve as the foundation for the work I would eventually do at Living Opera, the company I founded to inform, equip, and empower artists to build lasting careers with knowledge and competency beyond their immense artistic talents. It wasn’t until those knowledge gaps were filled that I experienced my first “big break” and landed a job at the prestigious Festival Aix-en-Provence, eventually going on to sing all over the world until the global shutdowns of 2020.
While the opera industry allowed me to realize my dreams of a singing career, when I started Living Opera in 2019, I noticed that many performers I interacted with were struggling with the same professional issues I had overcome. It seemed that not much had changed in the 10 years I had been singing professionally. I had a light bulb moment in November 2021 when I attended NFT.NYC and learned about the potential that blockchain technology had to rally seemingly dissimilar communities around social causes. I was hooked. I quickly expanded the focus of my company from education to developing digital assets that could be used to fund philanthropic activities.
I discovered how blockchain could securely connect people directly with one another, eliminating intermediaries and overhead costs that complicate the process and drive up the cost of conventional grant-making. When I learned about NFTs, I saw them as the vehicle for bridging the gap between artists and philanthropists. Now, as we’re preparing to launch the Living Arts DAO (decentralized autonomous organization), I believe we’ve finally landed on a solution that will fund our artist community and take our philanthropic aspirations to scale.
While singing is still my life’s passion, and I’m thrilled about my performance opportunities in the upcoming season, the work that I do to ensure that the artists that come after me have something worthwhile to inherit drives me day by day.
Grit Daily: Talk about 2023 and the benchmarks we’ll see from the project
Soula Parassidis: My first main goal is to get back on the road with my operatic debut in Athens in March.
Between the theater closures of 2020, and going through the immigration process in 2022, I have not performed live on stage for a while. I’m so thrilled to sing live again, and it’s really special to make my debut in the city where my parents met.
I’m also really excited to see Magic Mozart and the Living Arts Foundation fully launch and begin. Digital credentials offer so much potential to the artist community because it not only provides crucial know-how they’re not getting in colleges, but also a public signal that’s theirs, forever – no need for them to even go to a university registrar to prove it. And that process will help onboard many more users to web3 as they see the benefits of digital wallets and self-sovereign identities.
I would also like to partner with more fine arts institutions and help onboard them to web3. We’ve been talking to several opera companies about how to create exclusive experiences for their donors and we look forward to introducing more companies to this ecosystem.
Grit Daily: Tell us more about the Magic Mozart NFT collection(s)
Soula Parassidis: While we’ve already touched on the Mozart collection a lot, I want to highlight that it’s not just a new spin on a Kickstarter account. That was a great leap forward for crowdfunding, but it still does not create skin in the game from the donors – the people who donate walk away and are not given a mechanism for journeying with the project owner. And the person seeking the funding does not have a way of journeying with the funders – they just put information out there. Our aim was to create a more interactive community of practice through the combination of tokens for micro philanthropists and digital credentials for the artists to strengthen incentives.
Grit Daily: What does success look like for Living Opera in the next 5 years?
Soula Parassidis: When we created Living Opera, our biggest goal was to create a new internal culture within classical music. Our success fundamentally comes down to transforming peoples’ lives – the ability for artists to thrive, and the ability to create spaces for people to learn from and enjoy artists’ talents. So what does that transformation look like?
- Increases in real wages – we believe that web3 can change the business model in the arts, and we want to be a driving force behind the adoption of that technology to change the dynamic so content creators and artists of all forms can get properly remunerated
- Expansions in social awareness – we believe that everyone can enjoy and like opera, but sadly there is the perception that it’s just for the elite or certain groups of people. We want to break down that stereotype, and we’ll see that as the demographics in attendance of opera houses begin to change and shift to a younger crowd.
- Expansion of the marketplace – The USA is churning out thousands of top notch artists every year, but the job market is decreasing, forcing most of our talent to look abroad for opportunities. There are cost effective ways to keep artists at home, but it requires humility, creativity, and team work at the regional level. We have a plan that would create dozens of jobs for our sector and cost a lot less than current artists budgets. We modeled it off of the system they use in Germany, where Norman and I were full time employees for three years.
- Physical locations – we want to create spaces for communities to gather and invite them into our world! My dream is to create hubs all over the world where people come and enjoy classical music over a great cup of coffee and get to know each other, enjoy performances, and learn about local artists. I’ve spent a lot of time in Austria and have seen firsthand how their cafe culture brings people together and I think it’s a beautiful thing.
Grit Daily: Where are you currently deriving some of your greatest sources of inspiration?
Soula Parassidis: We all absorb so much information these days, and there is so much competition for our attention, so right now I am totally fascinated by nature and the processes of nature. I love to stop and listen when I’m on my daily walks. I think it probably sounds ironic, but in order to consistently produce digital content, I need to get into a still environment and pay attention to my immediate surroundings. I’ve gotten so many ideas just by studying clouds, watching a brook flow, or just listening to birds chirp. I think it’s a very healthy way to declutter my system and get a fresh start each day. Embracing stillness is a superpower few have mastered in this era where business is constantly glorified.
Grit Daily: Any predictions you’d like to offer for any of the industries you’re touching in your work as CEO at Living Opera?
Soula Parassidis: I think we’re going to continue to see a shake up in the music industry as more artists opt for a direct to consumer approach. The traditional record label model will have to create a more fair and equitable way to remunerate artists as more and more performers take control of their intellectual property and brand image.
Peter Page is the Contributions Editor at Grit Daily. Formerly at Entrepreneur.com, he began his journalism career as a newspaper reporter long before print journalism had even heard of the internet, much less realized it would demolish the industry. The years he worked a police reporter are a big influence on his world view to this day. Page has some degree of expertise in environmental policy, the energy economy, ecosystem dynamics, the anthropology of urban gangs, the workings of civil and criminal courts, politics, the machinations of government, and the art of crystallizing thought in writing.