Q & A: F. Paul Driscoll, Editor of Opera News, on Where Opera in the U.S. Is Headed
By Matthew Westphal
"The reason we decided to do this issue now", says Opera News Editor-in-Chief F. Paul Driscoll about the August 2006 "Power Issue", featuring the magazine's list of the 25 most powerful people in opera in the United States, "is that August 1 is when Peter Gelb takes the general manager's job officially at the Metropolitan Opera. While that represents a changing of the guard at the biggest job in the classical music industry, there are lots of other big changes going on. There's new management in many other houses, including major companies in Houston and San Francisco as well as dynamic smaller companies such as Atlanta Opera and Madison Opera. And everyone's talking about the same thing and asking the same questions: What's the future of the art-form? Where are new audiences going to come from? How are we going to maintain the cultural relevance of opera in the United States? In response to this compelling scenario we made a list of 25 names that represent power in the industry now as the industry looks forward."
So ... what is the future of the art form? In the following interview, conducted by Albert Imperato of 21C Media Group, F. Paul Driscoll looks ahead to the 2006-07 season and beyond and discusses some of the issues opera companies are facing as they map out their plans for the future.
You are looking at a spectacular 50 years that just passed in opera in the United States. I can't speak globally but I think it does apply globally too! Look how many companies are celebrating Golden Anniversaries: Chicago just did, Washington just did, Dallas is about to, Omaha is coming up on an anniversary. Opera boomed in the immediate post-war years here in the Untied States and fed into that particular place in the culture that the arts had. The arts, I think, were central to the culture in a way perhaps that they're not now. So you're looking at changes coming to a head in the United States — in terms of where funding is coming from, how the baby boomers are maintaining their place within the power structure, who the major donors are, what the ticket buying patterns are. So these companies are all facing similar issues. People who supported the art form are not necessarily replacing themselves. Is it because that art form has changed or because the audience has changed and there's more competition for those entertainment dollars?
Is there a similar sense of major change occurring amongst the singers as well?
I think, for a number of different reasons — especially because the star system was really locked in place for a long time in Europe and the U.S. — a generation of stars held on very long. There are people who are top box office stars today who were top box office ten years ago. That's not the case in movies and television, which re-generates all the time. I think part of it is that opera takes a long time for a talent to settle, a longer time for talent to get booked, it takes a longer time for talent to get accepted, so that now we have a lot of the baby boom-type artists who are beginning to phase out and retire. Lots of important singers are hitting their 60s and thinking about stepping off the stage. Those operas aren't going to get retired just because the singers are, so a new generation has to be put in place that appeals to a new generation of the public.
And all of this impacts the way opera companies manage their affairs.
Management is changing because the public is changing and the stars are changing because the public is changing. It's all come together at the same time.
Is this all mostly good news, or is there also a sense of alarm or even crisis in the air?
I think this is all a cause of excitement all the way across the board. I think there has been some doom-and-gloom and nay-saying about this. Some think that the art form has been diminished. But I think you could call it a correction. There's been a great deal of classical music presented or covered in this country and now the opportunities for presenting it and listening to it have become more focused because the competition has become much greater. People spend their time and listen to music differently than they did 50 years ago. People work harder, so the idea of coming in to work late because you were at the opera the night before — that's not an option!
How is this changing the way people present and experience opera?
People are looking at things like earlier curtains, different presentations of operas for families, people going to the opera as a family unit as opposed to leaving kids at home with a babysitter. Presenters are appealing directly to children through their parents. Music education is not happening in the schools to the degree it was 50 years ago, so opera companies are going directly into the home to reach the children. I think that anything that happens with a sense of urgency is ultimately exciting.
Is it just plain difficult to market a sophisticated art form to a general public? How do you market to the opera audience of the future?
I think there are some people who define the art form and the people who work in it very narrowly. You're seeing that come home to roost in companies that direct all of their marketing and fundraising efforts towards a few wealthy donors with conservative tastes. That might be great for bringing in money for a particular production but it does not build the audience of the future. It's doing exactly what the portfolio or fund manager would tell you not to do: don't put all your eggs into one basket. You should diversify. I think that, if you're trying to capture the audience of the future, the person who buys a subscription in the family circle or balcony may be as important to the future of the company as the person who is contributing $25,000 downstairs and is doing it because the opera is the "thing to do" for a person who has reached that point in life. You want people who really love it and who are going to commit to coming frequently and who are excited about the product. There's a reason they're called opera fans: they're fanatics! Opera can't exist unless the audience is passionately engaged. It's a difficult art form, an obscure art form; it's something that requires a commitment of time and money. People have to be engaged. It's not like the casual conception of a TV program, where you can turn the box on and walk in and out of the room and pay attention or not pay attention. It has to be something that really grabs you. And that's what companies are working on.
What are you excited about, looking ahead to the new season — starting here in New York with the Metropolitan Opera?
The Met's new season looks great. The Anthony Minghella production of Butterfly, which I saw in London, is beautiful visually. I'm very excited by Bart Sher coming to the Met to do Barber of Seville; his work has been fantastic. I loved his Don Juan at Theatre for a New Audience a couple of years ago and Awake and Sing and The Light in the Piazza for Lincoln Center Theater were sensational. The Met is taking a bold step by giving him a comedy that has been a Met repertory staple since the 1880s. He'll do a great job.
The First Emperor, the world premiere by Tan Dun, will be very exciting. It's only the fifth time a living composer has conducted his own work at the Met; it's also Plácido Domingo's first world premiere at the house. I think Deborah Voigt in Egyptian Helen is going to be a terrific experience. David Fielding, who is directing the Met production, has gotten excellent reviews for his production of Helen in England. The Magic Flute in English — the 90-minute reduction — I hope it will be the beginning of a great new relationship between the Met and families in the New York area who will bring kids to this event that Julie Taymor has created from her original Zauberflöte production. And the [Puccini] Trittico with Jack O'Brien directing — a total master of the theater — is another interesting thing that the Met has coming. Those three operas haven't been played in the repertory in a long time and the Met's cast is a fantastic collection of artists: Stephanie Blythe is doing all three mezzo roles, Barbara Frittoli is doing Angelica; Salvatore Licitra and Maria Guleghina are the lovers in the Tabarro.
New York City Opera will be doing Handel's Semele with a great cast, headed by Vivica Genaux and Elizabeth Futral. Peter Sellars's Tristan Project is coming to New York next spring, courtesy of Lincoln Center. Looking outside New York to other companies, I am excited by Lyric Opera of Chicago doing Robert Carsen's staging of Dialogues of the Carmelites with Patricia Racette singing her first Madame Lidoine. Chicago's Salome with Deborah Voigt should be amazing — a real milestone for this wonderful artist.
There are terrific things going on at Los Angeles Opera — such as the Mahagonny with Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald. Marcus Haddock is a terrific tenor, an American just coming into his own in this country. He's doing Ballo with Deborah Voigt at San Francisco Opera. Dallas Opera is doing Donizetti's Mary, Queen of Scots [Maria Stuarda] with Ruth Ann Swenson.
Two exciting world premieres by American composers this season are Ricky Ian Gordon's The Grapes of Wrath at Minnesota Opera and David Carlson's Anna Karenina at Florida Grand Opera. There's a lot of activity going on all over!
So much happening and yet you've only mentioned activities in the States! Do you feel that the magazine can adequately cover so much activity at home and abroad?
We try to be a resource for our readers in terms of identifying the most interesting work that's being done. We focus on the States because that's primarily where our readership is. But we have great critics who regularly cover events overseas for us. We observe what's available and we try to cover as much as we possibly can.
If you had a lot more resources to work with or do you feel that things would be very different?
Of course we'd want to give readers more if we could, but given the limitations of what we feel we must cover, we feel the most important activities are receiving plenty of attention. Sure, we'd like to include smaller companies and experimental work.
This is always a difficult choice to make. But for our readership here in the States we have to cover the Met and City Opera seasons, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco, Houston Grand Opera, Dallas, Seattle — all of the major American companies. This means that for some of the smaller regional companies we can't cover the whole season but rather choose to review just one or two things. But it's important to cover smaller companies, because if you look back through old issues these theaters feature names that later on will move in to bigger venues. It's the place you look for interesting work by singers, conductors, singers, designers and then follow them as their careers evolve.
Is there pressure to make each issue an event, and do you need to tackle a specific idea in each issue?
We try for that because I think it's something that the reader has responded to very well. They like having a "theme" issue, for lack of a better word. In the case of the August issue, for example, we had commissioned an essay by Philip Kennicott about whether opera is still relevant. Of course we think it is, but having scheduled it for a future issue, we asked, "What would happen if we moved the essay to a different issue and built something around it? So in August Philip asks "Is it relevant?" and we respond "Yes, but it's going to have to change."
Do you think that audience development programs — such as getting opera out into schools — really work, or is an audience built by stars on stage making it so exciting that this is what people are talking about?
I think this is a discussion that happens at alumni associations all the time. My uncle says you can't raise money for an alumni association unless you have a winning team. That's the driver. You know — the big game on parents' weekend. If the team is winning, the donations are up! The excellence of the activity determines whether people stay interested and come back. It's like dating. You can do anything you want to get someone to go on a first date — an expensive restaurant, flowers, poetry, chocolates, follow up, thank-you notes. But that doesn't guarantee a second date. It needs a spark! There needs to be a connection.
Last November you presented the first ever Opera News Awards, and rumor has it you will hold the second annual Awards early in 2007. Were you pleased with how things went first time out?
Looking back at Opera News Awards, which were given for distinguished achievement for a body of work, I was really struck by the reactions and comments of our winners Regine Créspin, Plácido Domingo, James Conlon, Susan Graham and Dolora Zajick, all of whom had been on our cover — some of them multiple times. I made the offer personally to each of them and they were incredibly moved. It brought back so many memories about their early careers! Each had their own story about when they first noticed the magazine and how they followed it throughout their career. Maestro Conlon told me he had been reading Opera News since grammar school! Susan Graham looked it at when she was a student at the Manhattan school in New York. This was a real validation of what the magazine had achieved in terms of keeping its integrity over the last 70 years: it really meant something to these wonderful artists. They confirmed that the magazine was an important way that opera reached people. These luminaries said this was a way in for them when they were young. I'm not sure whether the Awards will be around in 70 years, but maybe there's someone reading it today in junior high school who will win an award in the future.
How are things going with the Opera News web site?
One reason the web site works is that it does what the magazine can't. As a monthly, we have to plan far in advance and have long deadlines. We can give sober, thought out coverage, but at the website we can react to breaking news. Everything that's in the magazine is on the website, but our online editor, Adam Wasserman, covers additional breaking news that comes out of all the companies around the world and the U.S. It's a way of keeping readers and subscribers plugged in to what's happening. We get a lot of responses to it. We have all kinds of coverage that is exclusive to the website — recording reviews, audio and video clips, interviews with artists, blogs, etc. We're also incorporating our older, archived issues into the current search capacities afforded by the website — soon, we'll have issues dating from the 1940s for both browsing and searching.
And you continue to review recordings in each issue.
Despite the troubles the recording industry has faced, there are still plenty of recordings to review each month! Twenty years ago C. J. Luten, our long-time recordings editor, was chatting with me about the impact of CDs on the marketplace and he said that the major labels would be diminished but that you'd still have a high level of activity — similar to the beginning of the LP era, when mom-and-pop labels contributed all this diversified repertoire, wonderful singers, offbeat stuff. People got competitive because they were being creative on a smaller scale. That's happening now. Record companies are becoming more creative about how they present their artists, the repertoire, what operas are being presented. Chandos is doing their Opera in English series — lots of smaller labels are presenting fantastic repertory that has been around for a while but that hasn't been recorded often. Whether there's a future in recording a new Bohème or Butterly is a different question! Even major labels are looking off the beaten track. Plus more and more opera companies and orchestras will be releasing their own materials in the future. Downloads are changing how people purchase music. There's a lot of healthy change going on here.
So overall, would you say that things are looking up for opera in America?
I'll respond to this question by telling you two quick stories. First, when I was in Columbus about 15 years ago, one of the board members of Opera Columbus told me something that I still remember. I asked him why and how he got involved in opera and he responded, "I made the decision that no civilized city should be without an opera company. We wouldn't be treated as a major city in Ohio if we didn't feature the arts in an important way."
More recently, a patron of Opera Colorado came up to me at one of their opening nights and asked "Tell me — how are we doing? Where do we rate?" That sense of pride — of wanting people to talk about what their company is doing — will be an important factor in keeping the industry vital and forward-thinking.
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