On May 13th, Opera America launched its first annual conference online, marking the organization’s Fiftieth Anniversary. Over 1200 people had signed in when I checked the count of attendees, representing fellow artists and organizations the world over.
Many, I’m sure, had been feeling scared or depressed, struggling through shutdowns, layoffs, and most especially questions regarding what lies ahead. But judging from the sidebar chat, people were feeling giddy for this chance to reconnect. People are still wrapping their minds around the idea that the world will never be the same (and maybe we acknowledge, at last, that in some ways that’s good.) But what does it mean for music-theatre and specifically opera in the future?
Distinguished speakers took turns presenting the opening theme of the conference – “Having a Vision for the Future.” Francesca Zambello, arguably the most important woman in opera today, and one of a handful of visionary and organizational opera leaders in the world, was one of the elect group of presenters.
I caught up with her by phone the following day and wanted to go a little more deeply into her responses as a stage director and opera producer of not one but two companies, Washington National Opera and Glimmerglass Festival in upstate New York. I wondered what she thought of this time of reset and reflection and how she was navigating steering two ships through such uncertain waters.
You said to those virtually congregated for the Opera America gathering, that for you the most resonating statement that was offered as a framework was “Our business is to improve the quality of life.” That’s pretty bold especially now with so many competing needs. How do you see this applies to opera now and in the future?
I guess I’ve always thought that our job is to tell stories through music. Maybe that sounds pretty simple, but it has everything to do with how we capture an audience — Entertain. Educate. Create dialogue. And, most especially, I said, forge community. Now, when we are separated from our audiences, our community, it can make us lose perspective and even the responsibility we have.
You mean the responsibility toward each other, artists and audience? That relationship?
Yes, exactly, and the list of things David Gockley wrote for us to consider were important reminders of what we can and perhaps should be doing. That’s why I chose what I did: theater is most of all community. And now the challenge we are trying to redefine is what is community?.
You serve very different communities in DC’s WNO and rural upstate New York with Glimmerglass? Do you find it difficult to program and make the same stories work with such different communities?
I think I start not thinking about productions but the talent pool. I think of the two companies like a Venn diagram where there is an overlap. But the biggest overlap, I think, is really about talent. When you’re looking to the next generation, which is what Glimmerglass does best, it’s about taking young artists who are either still training in school or right after graduation. Then, after working together over the summer, we can bring some of the best who seem ready and interested to develop further to the Kennedy Center, and, in collaboration with Robert Ainsley (or before with Michael Heaston,) put together a team that is the Young Artists Program. Likewise, we take artists who have trained together closely for a sustained period and bring them to Glimmerglass. I like to have a cycle. When you have developed an artistic community in young artists and when you know your people, everything goes better.
When you ask about productions, absolutely there are productions that speak to both theater communities. Of course a work is going to change. The Violetta that sings in a Glimmerglass production may be more of an emerging young artist, but she can bring many new things to the character. In Washington, I am going to present an established international artist. But the production can serve both theaters quite well. And of course that makes the economics of producing more reasonable.
And this seems to be more and more the way opera companies share the up-front costs and the risks of a new opera or a big production, right? Don’t you think these strategic partnerships will be key going forward?
Indeed. But also, you may try something out here. Let’s admit, productions are not always perfect when you first let them out of the gate. With a commissioned opera like Blue (by Tazewell Thompson and composer Jeanine Tesori,) we were already doing a lot of community up-front work in Washington, and definitely it speaks directly to that community. Here (at Glimmerglass) it had a huge impact and it made people think about the issues, but it was different than in an urban setting. But it was an important story to tell and I think relevant to our larger community as a whole, right?
Another thing that came up in the Opera America conference was the statement, “We are not custodians of the old order.” This was meant to challenge opera companies, suggesting that perhaps going forward they should not hold on to the programming of the big old operas from the canon. I’m thinking you hold a different position.
I still want to see Aida, Bohème, and Carmen. I want to produce them in a way that is socially relevant. And that doesn’t mean they have to be updated.
You are alluding to the way that many stage directors choose not only to dress up the characters in more up-to-date fashion, but also transport the action to a contemporary setting, yes?
And that doesn’t mean it suddenly becomes socially relevant in a Cosi Fan Tutte if they are all wearing contemporary clothes. It is important that if you tackle one of these pieces, you try to infuse a contemporary mindset. It means that certain operas can touch on various themes that suddenly resonate so that we hear the work in new ways. Tragically now, if you are doing a Bohème, you’ll understand it’s about a respiratory illness (tuberculosis) that was in its day incurable and deadly. This is what Mimi dies of and also Violetta in La traviata.
I saw your production of La traviata both in DC and Glimmerglass. I’d like to point out that it was not the first time you seemed very prescient in the staging of a work that foreshadowed things that were to come.
Good, and so you’ll agree, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t produce these works. It means we should use them as springboards for dialogue and conversations in ways that are interesting and engaging for our audience. Don’t dump Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, and Mozart.
Look, I’m all for new works. But you’ve got to produce what you’ve got to produce. A lot of the smaller companies are more agile and more suited to producing new, sometimes smaller works. That’s fantastic. But sometimes such works don’t necessarily reach out in an enormous theater.
You said yesterday how important it was to get artists and audiences out of their silos. So what do you think of opera audiences in Washington? Do you agree with those who say artistically audiences here are on the whole more conservative in term of their music-theatre taste?
Washington is always an interesting audience. I don’t think people realize it’s a deeply intelligent city. So many people with college degrees, people working for the government, international people. Not all go to opera, of course, some go to theater. I do think it is hard to connect with the international sector. I wish there was more international theater here.
What do you think WNO has and will be doing that is unique?
I think coming to WNO, you are often seeing singers here first. I pride us on presenting people in debut roles. Also, people who fall in love with opera often fall in love hearing Puccini or Verdi or Mozart for the first time. We also present performances that feature our Cafritz Young Artists. Those Young Artist performances of standard rep sell out. They sell out! I don’t think it’s a bad thing. We try to present the widest range possible, and I believe strongly that programming seasons have to be a balance. There is a huge level of pragmatism in designing a season. And as I think about the future, that sector that Washington represents of younger, well-educated professionals is fertile ground for further development.
And thinking about our community’s audience being so much part of the city’s political climate and discourse, would you agree opera and other forms of music-theatre can and should address social issues so much in new ways?
Yes, but perhaps it was an error in programming on my part producing back-to-back Dead Man Walking and Champion. Unfortunately, there were people who thought, “Two contemporary operas? I’ll only go to one.” Let’s face it, being contemporary doesn’t mean it will connect more. I’ve sat through many contemporary operas that were a bore. They forgot to tell the story and they forgot to direct it.
When we get out of this, what has to change? What’s next? Where is your heart leading you?
I am so raw. It’s all about figuring out what we can do to recreate the feeling of togetherness. I’m working so hard working with both companies to create digital programming that can bring something new, something with conversation, or art, or some other added experience. But that’s where we all are, right? Trying to figure it out. We hope to make some announcements in two weeks.
The Opera America 2020 conference can be viewed for free by everyone here. (registration required)
WEEK 1 — May 13 and 15
HAVING A VISION FOR THE FUTURE
WEEK 2 — May 18 and 20
NEW TECHNOLOGIES AND THEIR IMPACT
WEEK 3 – May 26 and 27
CREATING REAL BELONGING
WEEK 4 – June 1 and 3