Monday, March 11, 2019

The voice of Seattle Opera's podcast: Jonathan Dean

Genevieve Hathaway photo
Meet the voice behind Seattle Opera's new podcast—the company's Dramaturg, Jonathan Dean! Dean, a charismatic, multilingual opera fanatic, wears a lot of hats around the office. (For example, he often creates the English supertitles you see projected over the stage for each performance). In fall 2018, he led the relaunch of Seattle Opera's new and exciting podcast. As the host, Jon Dean makes learning about opera fun and engaging, even if this historic art form isn't really "your thing." Episodes feature a variety of fun Opera 101 content, as well as behind-the-scenes interviews for each production. Listen to the podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud, or on

 By Philippa Kiraly
What is a dramaturg? The word comes from the Greek: drama + ourgos=work, and its meaning for Seattle Opera covers everything Jonathan Dean has worked on since his hiring in 1995, when he got his start in the Education department undertaking a variety of assignments, then was named director of Public Programs and Media in 2010 and in 2015, Dramaturg.

“It’s a central position in which I perform a lot of tasks which have accumulated over all these years,” he says, his latest energies being directed towards podcasts about upcoming opera productions, discussions about various voice types with illustrations, discussions with performing artists, and discussions about the inner meanings behind such ambiguous operas as Britten’s The Turn of the Screw.

Seattle Opera's November 2018 production of The Turn of the Screw: Soraya Mafi (Flora) and Rafi Bellamy Plaice (Miles). Jacob Lucas photo

After that production last fall, he conducted a podcast with a child therapist, and in another General Director Aidan Lang talked about the different codes of emotional behavior expected of English and American children in 1940, when the opera was set.

Dean would not be able to do these so insightfully was it not for his rich educational opportunities here as a long-time member of the opera staff, and the preparation he already had from school and college, sparked by his home exposure to opera from early childhood.

He grew up in Okemos, Michigan (a suburb of Lansing), where his father and great-aunt were opera devotees. Dean learned Italian more or less by osmosis from all the Italian opera he heard on radio, plus the long-playing records which came with librettos and translations. He also studied French and German in school, and had the opportunity to take summer field trips to France and Italy.

Jonathan Dean as the "supertitle button-pusher." Today, Dean usually creates the supertitles that accompany each opera. (Musician Emmy Ulmer is now Seattle Opera's titlist, controlling the timing of the supertitles in the booth for each opera at McCaw Hall).
Yale University followed. As a double-major in literature and music, Dean studied literary analysis and honed his writing. He studied everything to do with music except performance—history of music, musical analysis, music aesthetic, also spending considerable time doing theater and comparative literature. Basically, he says, he was interested in all these things, and “realized that the whirlpool all came together in a big way—opera.”

Next came an internship in 1994 at Glimmerglass Opera between his junior and senior years, “because it sounded like fun.”

After graduating from Yale with a BA cum laude in English and Music in May '95, Dean began an internship with Seattle Opera a couple weeks later. "At which point my education really began...” He was hired at the Opera as “Education Associate” that fall, working under Perry Lorenzo, the Opera’s education director until his untimely death in 2009. ”Ironically, one thing I hadn’t studied was teaching, but having Perry as mentor gave me a rare and wonderful opportunity to learn how to get people excited about music.”

Dean had two major jobs under Perry: he was the "high school guy," and the "supertitle button-pusher." Seattle Opera was one of the first companies to employ supertitles, and the “button-pusher” is the titlist, a word many opera-goers don’t know, but a position central to understanding the nuances of opera performance through the supertitles. “No one beside the conductor has to know the score so intimately as the titlist,” Dean says, as the titles must be shown at exactly the right moment.

After a couple of years, then-General-Director Speight Jenkins suggested that, rather than renting supertitles, Dean write them himself.

It was total immersion in the language, the meaning and the ambiance of each opera. That first season, he wrote supertitles for The Marriage of Figaro, The Elixir of Love, and La bohème, each with an Italian libretto. And he admits that he'd love the opportunity for a do-over today, considering how much his understanding has deepened through the years. Tristan and Isolde was his first work in German, and a great challenge for the emerging supertitles-creator at that.

Seattle Opera's 2015 production of Nabucco included supertitles created by Jonathan Dean. Philip Newton photo
Dean continued to hold the position of titlist for nine years. Though today his position has changed, writing the English words to help our predominantly English-speaking audiences understand each work is still part of his work today.

“My approach changed as I got better at manipulating the tone of the titles. For instance, early Verdi, such as Nabucco, requires a tone which is heroic, poetic, lean and Biblical. But La bohème? It’s supposed to be verismo reality. How do four guys in an apartment talk to each other? In my experience, extremely crudely! But you can’t put that in supertitles! You have to find the appropriate tone,” he says. “Comedy has to have a colloquial, slangy vocabulary, but not too far.”

His other major job under Lorenzo was working with schools, many of which studied opera in their humanities programs. “We had an elaborate system of prepping those classes before the kids came to see a dress rehearsal. My job was to prep the material, and often teach the classes or teach the teachers. We made cassette tapes for them with model lessons."

Dean, who's worked at Seattle Opera for more than 20 years, has had a variety of roles in community engagement and education. He's even helped to create operas for young people that have toured local schools.
Lorenzo trained Dean in public speaking pretty quickly, he remembers, and the next assignment was to give talks. “I’d give one in Kent to a group of Opera Guild members and go straight from there to a Children’s Detention Center holding teenage sex offenders.”

It was using the power of emotional expression in opera to help these boys to come up with words to express their own emotions. Looking at an opera like Rheingold, Dean says, shows how frustration and embitterment turns the unattractive Alberich into a monster. “It was a heavy duty for me, but what a learning experience!”

Once the Young Artists Program began in 1998, Dean found himself very busy taking the singers to schools and on tours. “At one time we produced five operas a year with that program—a three opera season touring in the fall, a kids opera in winter and one at Meydenbauer (Center) in spring.” Meanwhile, he was also giving many of the pre-performance lectures for mainstage productions.

A student drawing of Seattle Opera's adapted Ring production, Theft of Gold, created by Jonathan Dean. 
The idea of the two Wagner adaptations for kids, each about an hour long, came from the prison program, he says. He wrote two: Theft of the Gold and Siegfried and the Ring of Fire. “Theft was about teasing and bullying, while Siegfried showed up the difference between physical courage—Siegfried—and moral courage—Brünnhilde standing up to her dad. They were both really good pieces to adapt.”

Dean’s job changed dramatically in 2010, when he was appointed Director of Public Programs and Media. Instead of working in Education, he was now part of the Marketing department. After a successful track record of teaching online classes for Opera America, Dean was asked to take on new radio programs to spread the word about Seattle Opera, which included the job of co-hosting a Saturday night opera broadcast on KING-FM with General Director Aidan Lang.

“Right at that time, we started the Seattle Opera blog,” he remembers and podcasts began being posted on SoundCloud in 2014, accessible on the opera’s website, but also at KING-FM.

With the discontinuance of the radio broadcasts after the summer 2018 production of Porgy and Bess, Dean has been able to devote time and energy to a new exciting project: the relaunch of an official Seattle Opera podcast, available on various platforms such as iTunes. “Turn of the Screw was the first opera we explored on the Seattle Opera podcast,” he says. Rather than being posted on a strict schedule, episodes come up organically, depending on the interesting facets of each opera. Audiences can expect multiple Seattle Opera podcast episodes for each production.

“I narrate the bulk of them, some of my most recent episodes explore different opera voices types. It's an oppurtunity to pportunity to share my enthusiasm and make opera more accessible.”

From supertitles, to the Seattle Opera podcast, Dean's other recent work assignments include creating the singing translations for company productions of The Combat and numbers added to Beatrice and Benedict. But it's anyone's guess as to what he'll be asked to do next.

Outside of his opera work, Dean is an avid bicyclist (he's biked in England and throughout Europe, as well as China)—and an equally enthusiastic cook, even more so now that the opera’s new Seattle Center home is close to his house on lower Queen Anne.

Jonathan Dean, Dramaturg and host of the Seattle Opera podcast. Photo by Genevieve Hathaway