That’s exactly what led Todd Duesing, director of operations for the Aronoff Center for the Arts, to stumble upon the 2012 World Choir Games — a fortuitous click of his mouse that, unbeknownst to him, would help pave the way for an unparalleled boost in morale in the Cincinnati urban riverfront, forever altering the city’s landscape and international perception.
During winter 2007, Duesing was merely browsing the web for potential ways to fill seats at the Aronoff Center during the summer months; a time when, he says, the Aronoff doesn’t usually snag many bookings — people would rather spend time outdoors than in a theater.
His idea to search for choral festivals to bring to the city was inspired in part, he says, by the recent popularity of NBC’s reality show Clash of the Choirs, when Cincinnati native and pseudo-celebrity Nick Lachey propelled his choral team, “Team Lachey,” to victory on national television.
Aside from the timeliness of the entertainment appeal, Duesing realized that hosting choral competitions presented a lucrative business opportunity for the Aronoff and the city as a whole that’d be difficult to rival.
“In my head, I knew that with choirs come families and a built-in audience, but also a large participant base,” says Duesing.
His search led him to stumble upon a number of U.S. choir competitions, but Duesing wanted to go for the gold: “My eye was on this ‘World Choir Games’ because it seemed like the Olympics of choirs,” he said.
In 2001, Cincinnati was eliminated from the coveted 2012 Olympic bid process due the perceived perils of the recent race riots, lack of hotel rooms and no light-rail system. “Cincinnati had been trying to be an Olympic city for so long, and it seemed like a perfect fit that we would have this community support behind it,” Duesing explains.
A participant base toppling above 20,000 wasn’t what Duesing was shooting for, but it’s what he got — and, just like that, Duesing knew he’d stumbled upon something far greater than himself or the Aronoff Center, which, with a capacity just above 3,300, would only house a smidgeon of the crowds flooding into the city for the games.
He called Venus Kent, sales manager for the cultural arts market at the Cincinnati USA Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), whom he’d worked with on past occasions to coordinate arts and cultural events in the Cincinnati area. While Duesing held a strong knowledge of the city’s arts infrastructure and history, Kent brought to the table a set of connections in the regional hospitality industry that would prove instrumental in setting the framework for a cohesive, citywide effort to accommodate the massive influx of people and cultures from the games.
Much like the Olympics, applying to host the Choir Games requires an extensive bid process, including creating a thorough, well-researched proposal. For the next several months, Duesing and Kent spent time exploring the city’s potential for such a massive tourist undertaking; by far the largest and most significant international event ever to take place in Cincinnati. “We both believed in it and we were ambitious … we both knew this was going to be huge,” says Kent.
From there, Kent and Duesing began soliciting unanimous go-aheads from key community stakeholders, including the mayor, police and other arts and choral venues across the city. Kent’s confidence continued to rise as she pieced together the key components necessary to unite for an event that would permeate the entire downtown landscape.
The Bid Process
After submitting the completed bid to Germany-based Interkultur, the choral organization responsible for producing the World Choir Games and a number of other choral events across the world, Cincinnati was notified that it had been selected to come present a formal “proposal” in front of the World Choir Games congress at the July 2008 games in Graz, Austria.
To Kent and Duesing’s surprise, they marked the only team proposing in Graz that brought a representative from both the city’s convention team and the arts community speaking on behalf of the city, which Duesing is convinced gave them the extra edge they needed when presented on the congress.
“There was a quiet sense of concern from the other bid cities that we had an arts representative with us,” Duesing says. “I think that in the past, no one had ever had someone coming forward saying, ‘We are the arts and we support this.’ ”
Duesing used his Cincinnati arts credentials to convince the congress that Cincinnati possessed the richest fine arts history in the western hemisphere, exploring Cincinnati’s rich choral music background in correlation with its conscientious approach to modern arts infrastructure. Cincinnati’s strong German heritage also resonated with the predominantly German Interkultur board.
“When we said things like ‘Over-the-Rhine’ and talked about all the architecture and the homage that was paid to our German heritage, I think it flattered them,” Duesing says.
He also detailed the versatility of downtown Cincinnati’s choral venues, highlighting each venue’s visual and acoustic strengths.
On the practical end, Venus sought out to highlight the “compactness” of Cincinnati’s package, noting the cohesiveness Cincinnati’s small, walkable urban center would add a sense of unity impossible in more sprawled-out downtown centers. “Our entire event happens in a 1.25-square-mile radius,” says Kent. She recalls visiting Shaoxing in China when Cincinnati was officially announced as the 2012 host at the 2010 World Choir Games, where participants would spend 45 minutes to an hour on buses driving between venues, preventing the kind of cross-cultural interaction between choirs that ultimately makes the games so special.
Duesing recalls a moment on a street in Graz when he observed a young Croatian man strumming on a guitar with his choir singing a song in English when a choir from China joined them in harmony. It’s those instances, Kent notes, that can easily occur in between venues on Fountain Square or in Washington Park that organizers hope will give meaning to Cincinnati’s moniker as “the city that sings.”
“They might not have known what the words meant, but there was an overall feeling, while it was a competition … of camaraderie and respect … Whatever things were going on in the world, in their homeland, it was all put aside for this warm feeling of harmony and song,” Duesing says.
Since the games’ inception in 2000, the event has never taken place in the United States. That gave Cincinnati and other U.S. cities competing for the bid, including Reno, Nev., and St. Louis, an extra sense of timeliness that was appealing to Interkultur.
After returning from Graz, Cincinnati was selected for a site visit by the World Choir Games Congress in late 2008, which Duesing and Kent say gave Cincinnati the final edge it needed to beat out the other prospects.
Kent and the CVB coordinated a grand tour of the cityscape that explored potential venues and Cincinnati cultural landmarks that climaxed with a serendipitous and unplanned meeting with the late orchestra conductor Erich Kunzel, when the tour “snuck in” to Music Hall to observe a Pops performance unnoticed.
“Erich looked around in the rehearsal, saw the group and welcomed them as an ambassador of Music Hall. The next thing you knew, I had no idea what was happening because he was speaking in German to all of them and invited them to join the rehearsal, which isn’t typical of a closed rehearsal for the Pops. The sales pitch happened with him at that point — he was glowing,” says Duesing.
After that, downtown’s diverse arts community and compact, friendly urban structure spoke for itself — Cincinnati was notified in May 2009 that it’d officially won out the 2012 bid.
“It was like someone knew this was coming in the 1880s and decided to put things in certain places to make it work perfectly for this,” Duesing says.