Operagasm Exclusive Interview: Madison Opera’s Kathryn Smith
Bringing you the Best of 2013!
by Melissa Wimbish
Operagasm would like to wish Madison Opera a glorious 2013 and a huge congratulations on their very first production of Handel’s Acis & Galatea which completed its run yesterday. Don’t miss Don Giovanni in April!
Check out our interview with the Diva in Charge!
You have now been Madison Opera’s General Director for about a year and a half after sharing your talents with Tacoma Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In these three totally different American cities, what have you found remains consistent among audience expectations? Do you think coast audiences are more liberal than middle America audiences? Or is that a stereotype?
One of the things I truly love about opera is that its audience is so diverse, even within one particular city – high school students, senior citizens, those for whom a $20 ticket is a happy splurge, and those who help underwrite the productions.
I believe every audience member comes into the theatre wanting to have a good time, whether that means being moved to tears, laughing aloud, enjoying the music, or gazing at spectacular sets and costumes. A great opera means something different for every individual in every city; I knew some people in New York who only liked pieces like Wozzeck, while others loved the Zeffirelli spectaculars, and the same was true on a different scale in Tacoma and is true in Madison. That’s the beauty of the art form – it has so many different kinds of operas and different kinds of productions that there’s something for every taste, and assuming there is a singular, homogeneous “audience for opera” is a massive mistake.
Acis and Galatea isn’t exactly on the tip of everyone’s tongue when asked about their favorite Handel opera — is that precisely why it was chosen? How exciting that this will be Madison Opera’s first-ever Handel production!
Acis and Galatea was actually the most frequently-performed of Handel’s operas during his lifetime and indeed for quite some time after his death, and we chose it for a number of reasons. First, we wanted a show that would work in the Playhouse, a 342-seat three-quarters thrust theatre that has no orchestra pit; Acis, which premiered on the terrace of a duke’s home, was perfect for the venue. Second, as this was not only Madison Opera’s first Handel opera, but also our first baroque opera at all, we wanted one that wouldn’t be intimidating – a two-hour Handel in English is easier for newcomers to try than a four-hour one in Italian. And third, it is simply a beautiful piece – lovely both musically and dramatically.
Do you see a bright future for Handel in Madison?
I don’t envision Madison becoming a Handel company, any more than it would become a Philip Glass company (we did our first Philip Glass opera last year). Rather, I am looking to constantly expand the repertoire in all directions, which might mean a 21st century opera one year, an 18th century opera the next, and a rare 19th century opera the year after that, all to balance the classic pieces that made so many of us fall in love with opera in the first place.
What challenges does an opera company typically face mounting a rarely performed piece like this as opposed to “chestnuts” like Don Giovanni or La Boheme?
I would say that all operas are challenging; Acis was not necessarily more challenging than any other. Handel does have some dramatic challenges, but a standard rep piece like Aida has significant challenges as well. It is definitely harder to sell a piece that the general public is less familiar with: If you only go to one opera every few years, it’s more likely to be Carmen than it is to be Acis and Galatea. At the same time, some long-time operagoers groan at the standard rep pieces. Rather than trying to pretend that all operas suit all people, I think it’s important to offer a balance of repertoire – classic pieces for those who love them or have never seen them (if you’ve never seen Don Giovanni, our production might as well be a world premiere), and more unusual ones for opera omnivores who want to see everything.
When you’re not swamped with the task of making opera companies awesome, we see that you do some competition judging. A question that cannot be asked enough: What are you looking and listening for when you are sitting on the casting couch or judge’s panel? Any audition attire advice?
For a competition, it depends on what the guidelines are – some are looking specifically for the singers with the most future promise, while some simply want whoever sang best that afternoon.
In an audition, I’m looking and listening for someone who can perform, both vocally and dramatically. If you sing the most beautiful aria in the world, but clearly have no idea who that character is, what she/he is singing about, and how that aria fits into the story, then I know you either can’t act or haven’t done your homework, and both would make me question how you would do with a full production. As operas require more than just the leads, being an excellent performer would make me look at you for smaller roles, even if you’re not my choice for, say, Rodolfo.
Auditions have no specific dress code, but don’t wear clothes that don’t fit or in which you appear uncomfortable. I confess to raising my eyebrows if someone auditions in jeans, but I also don’t necessarily expect a suit and tie. I often write down what a singer is wearing on my audition notes, because it helps me remember them quickly (i.e., the one with the awesome red shoes), but I’ve never hired someone because of what they were or were not wearing.
Our theme at Operagasm for the month of January is “New & Improved”. Will you share some of your goals for the new year at Madison Opera?
The general goal is always a simple-sounding one: put on great opera that is of and for our community. What that means is more complicated, and will include the continued expansion of our repertoire (next season includes two pieces that the company has never performed), as well as expanded outreach and previews, including the development of our Studio Artist program.
As a significant part of this, we are now in the process of building out The Madison Opera Center, a space near our regular performance venue, the Overture Center. The Opera Center will encompass our rehearsal hall, administrative offices, costume shop, and more. Having our own space will allow us to do significantly more outreach events throughout the year, and I think will transform many things about the company. Our goal is to move into the space this summer.
Here’s a big one: What about the future of opera?
As for the future of opera, that eternal topic… In doing research for an Acis and Galatea preview, I found a letter a friend of Handel’s wrote that said, “Opera is dying, to my great mortification.” If it has been dying since 1730, then it’s been a pretty healthy death, I would say.
The biggest challenges with the future of opera come down to money, bluntly. If audience members’ incomes are down, opera tickets may be what they cut from their budgets, and the same is true of donations. It’s no secret that most corporate and government sources of funding have frozen or declined in the past five years, although some entities have maintained strong support. Unfortunately, the cost of putting on opera has not frozen or gone down to match – on the contrary, expenses continue to go up. It’s bit of a catch-22, in that audiences for the classic works, which attract the most new operagoers, want to see all the trappings of gorgeous costumes and lavish sets, while economic forces dictate keeping costs down while still expanding our audience. The trick in regional houses is meeting audience expectations visually as well as musically, while also keeping to a rational budget, so that we are still here for decades into the future.
On a more optimistic note, I don’t believe opera will ever go away. Two hundred years from now, someone will still be putting on Le Nozze di Figaro, and that audience will love it every bit as much as a teenage audience in Tacoma did a few years ago, or as they did in Mozart’s day. I cannot think of any other art form for which that is true, that transcends so many years, cultures, and languages. Aren’t we lucky that we get to work with it every day?