So, how did you come to opera?
I discovered opera as a really young child. I grew up in London and was taken to the opera by my parents when I was 5 or 6. When I was 10 or 11, my parents took me occasionally to Covent Garden. My father worked for mining corporation and the board always had great seats at the Royal Opera House. But when the board didn’t need them, they were circulated through the staff and every year parents had an opportunity to go and they took me with them. I got to see extraordinary performances, and from 11 or 12, I was seriously interested and completely hooked on opera, theater, symphony, and ballet. London in 70’s was good time to indulge. I was a member of the Young Friends of Covent Garden when I was 12 and 13. They gave vouchers that could be exchanged for seats. My parents were not wealthy, and the opportunity to see great performances at a low cost was extraordinary. As I said, I was hooked very young. I would take the underground from the suburbs to London Covent Garden and I used the one hour commute to plan opera seasons. If you had asked my what I wanted to do when I was 14, I would have said “I want to run an opera company.” I am earning a living by pursuing my passion.
What is it like running an opera company in the UK versus in the United States?
The most obvious difference is fact that in the UK, there is tradition of public funding for the arts. That doesn’t exist in US. You can’t generalize about Europe as a whole because different countries support the arts differently. In Europe, arts are built on an assumption of public subsidies, but subsidies have never been enough to function without income from private sources. England is like a halfway house between European houses where private support is unknown and the US where public support is unknown. On a financial level, public subsidy is a significant difference. I don’t believe in generic opera companies serving generic cities. Every company needs to develop its own characteristics and ideas of how it can best be of service to its city. This is the third company I’ve run (Welsh National Opera and Houston were the first two), and I believe strongly that every company has to develop its own personality and relationship with its city and the needs of a city like Cardiff are very different than the needs in Houston or in Chicago. The key difference is company to company and city to city.
Tell me your thoughts about musical theatre pieces in the opera house. How do you justify their being performed by a full-scale opera company?
I don’t start with the assumption that opera companies should do musicals, but there are many musicals that benefit from the resources and skills of opera company. The musicals we have been exploring up to now all benefit from the scale of an opera house, a chorus, a classical orchestra. Those are the pieces we have something to offer and in the commercial theatre environment, it’s hard to find productions done at that scale. We’re offering something that can’t be recreated elsewhere in repertoire that benefits from this approach.
What is your personal taste in opera?
Generally, my favorite opera is the one I am working on at any moment. Doing what I do, it’s hard to have specific favorites. I’m passionate about opera, passionate about Lyric Opera. I’m passionate about the the seasons I’ve planned. I work closely with our music director, Sir Andrew Davis, to create plans for seasons that become reality. We are in the midst of Der Rosenkavalier and tonight we open Romeo and Juliette, and because we have been producing these operas for the past few weeks, I have immersed myself and become very passionate about them. I adore the great opera composers, but I have a passion for pieces not often performed. Last season we gave the premiere of The Passenger, next season we give first performance of Les Troyens. These works are not seen often and I believe in them and I want them programmed here and established in the minds of audiences as great pieces that haven’t occurred in repertoire. What you need is balance in a season. Popular works, lesser-performed works, and new works. I hope we can get everything in over 8-10 years to excite and stimulate audiences to the greatest possible degree.
Lyric has so many community engagement platforms. Why are these important and what has made them effective?
Lyric Unlimited is initiative for engagement and education. It started as something as part of a strategic plan. It is absolutely fundamental for a successful 21st century opera company to do more than great opera in an opera house. We are a cultural service organization. We provide a broad, deep, relevant service to city. We have many opera lovers in Chicago who come to performances and I am enormously grateful for that, but we can’t simply do seasons in the opera house. In a city like Chicago, the majority of people have never been to opera house. We need to embrace the opportunity to produce a large range of cultural services beyond opera house. Lyric Unlimited was created to establish connections with people who were previously unconnected to the opera and create partnerships with different companies. We want to explore the different environments in which opera can take place. Who knows? In 100 years, opera may not be happening in a theatre any more. Lyric Unlimited explores the way the art form of opera is evolving and changing beyond doing existing rep in opera house.
What direction do you see opera going in?
To me, if you distill opera down to its basics, its telling stories through words and music. Though many regard it as old art form and ask what relevance it could have to now, when you distill it down, it has utter universality. It transcends centuries, continents, and ethnicities. We produce a most-relevant cultural service. We are excited to explore a world class opera season and all sorts of other projects and initiatives about experimenting with the art form in radical and unexpected ways. It’s a non-negotiable part of our mission to do a great season in the opera house and do groundbreaking work that takes us outside of opera house and into communities around the city.
Why commission new work?
The fundamental responsibility of any major opera company is not to regard opera as a heritage of existing works, but to contribute to the expansion of the repertoire. In 2015, we gave premieres of 4 different operas. A new Mariachi opera, a Klezmer opera, a Children’s opera, and Bel Canto. Creating work is a fundamentally important part of our job and responsibilities as guardians of our art form.
What do you think gives a work staying power?
There’s no specific answer. When we create a work, we hope that it will have a future life, but we don’t have power to give it a future life. We just create it in as exciting and accessible and high-quality a way as we can. I am very proud of Bel Canto and how it was so successful. Through the PBS broadcast, it will be made available to a wider group of people. I’m trying to generate interest in it with other companies around the world, but so far, Bel Canto has had its success based exclusively on performances at Lyric and the important PBS transmission.
Can you give some insight into the commissioning process?
Different commissions happen in different ways. In Bel Canto, the idea of turning Ann Patchett’s novel into an opera was initiated by our creative consustant Renee Fleming. We set about to find a composer and librettist with specific interest in that subject. We found the right creative team to make that idea a reality. You start by having a conversation with a composer, not necessarily about a particular subject. There is a range of ways for commissions come to reality. For the Mariachi opera, it was my idea to find operatic form for Mariachi. With that Idea, I went to a composer and librettist and tried to interest them in that idea. Once you get a librettist and composer, you provide them with a framework for how they should complete this. Deadlines, running time, performance forces, etc. Workshop for every new work explore what creative team has done up to that point. Then you give the creative team revision time, and then you arrive at the final rehearsal period and world premiere.
More information about the exciting work being done at the Lyric Opera of Chicago can be found here.
Photos by Robert Kusel, M. Spencer Green, and Todd Rosenberg