Thursday, March 21, 2019

Incoming General Director Q&A

Photo by Christian Machio
Meet Seattle Opera’s future General Director—Christina Scheppelmann. Beginning in summer 2019, Scheppelmann will become the company’s fourth leader in 56 years. She replaces Aidan Lang, who departs for Welsh National Opera at the end of the 2018/19 season. Born in Germany and fluent in five languages, Scheppelmann is currently the artistic leader of Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona’s 172-year-old company that annually produces more than 130 performances in opera, classical music concerts, and dance. 

What are some of your proudest artistic achievements? 
For one, creating Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative. Now going on its eighth season, the program offers young composers and librettists a developmental forum in which to bridge the gap between conservatory training and full-length commissions. I think it’s a useful contribution to the future of opera.

I’m proud of many of the productions I brought to Barcelona including: 
An Elektra produced in collaboration with Metropolitan Opera, Teatro all Scala, the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence; the Finnish National Opera, and the Staatsoper Unter den Linden.

Andrea Chénier: A love story set during the height of the French Revolution presented last year. This opera featured the great German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who is one of the most sought after tenors by international theaters. This was his first time performing in a staged opera production in Barcelona.

Berlioz's opera Benvenuto Cellini directed by Terry Gilliam, (known for Time Bandits, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to name a few of his feature films, and for his work as a member of Monty Python.)

Quartett, composed by Luca Francesconi. In this story set in Paris, two ex-lovers get caught up in a game of seduction. (The work was a re-reading of Heiner Müller's play based on Les liaisons dangereuses).

Also, I’m very pleased to have been working at San Francisco for the world premieres of Dead Man Walking and A Streetcar Named Desire. To have lived through, and been a part of these two world premieres was very interesting and something I’ll never forget.

Why were you interested in the opportunity to lead Seattle Opera? 
For many years, I have admired Seattle Opera and attended performances here regularly (a total of 19 times) when I was working at San Francisco Opera. In my experience, there’s a unique enthusiasm, an engaged and dedicated audience that’s always felt special and unique. I think the company is impressive, and it can grow even further. It has a great history, from more recent work, to historic Wagner productions (some of which I have seen). Seattle Opera also has a beautiful and modern opera house with excellent acoustics, and now, a civic home which will add much value and many opportunities within the community. Singers love coming to Seattle Opera, because they like the company and they like the city.

What’s your vision for opera heading into the 21st century?
The rich tradition of opera requires performing timeless pieces from the past, commissioning new works, and repeating the presentation of more contemporary pieces.

When offering modern operas, I often opt for smaller, shorter productions in smaller venues. This allows for more pieces by various composers, and it shows audiences that contemporary music has a wide range of styles, is not necessarily difficult, and can also be enjoyable and powerful. If you do a new piece, I think the creators of the work should be present. The audience needs to be able to have a dialogue with the composer and the librettist.

I believe in balance, selecting pieces for a wide range of taste. In addition to showing works such as Carmen, La bohème, and Don Giovanni, I like to also push and stimulate curiosity of audiences, because this art form can connect us to our humanity in powerful ways we didn’t always expect. Wagner was contemporary at some point, as was Mozart and Handel. Let’s keep creating. Who are the composers today who will help us continue our art form into the future?

Have you thought at all about what kinds of productions you’d like to bring to Seattle Opera?
I have ideas of course, but I still need to obtain a list of Seattle Opera’s repertoire in the past decade to ensure I wouldn’t be repeating anything too soon. I also very much want to get to know the community in Seattle better first. With that said, there is a Lohengrin I have in mind that would be interesting.

As a dual citizens of the U.S. and Germany, what are you most looking forward to about returning to the U.S.?

You’re going to laugh. In my experience entering Europe, one schleps through immigration and the immigration officer simply hands your passport back. When I’ve entered the U.S., nine times out of 10, the immigration officer says, ‘Welcome home.’ I always thought that was nice. I felt welcome all 19 years that I lived in the U.S. I’m happy to return to a place like that. I know right now is a difficult and politically divisive time, as it is in many parts of the world, including in Europe. But I feel confident that America will get through it. It is a strong and determined country, and the arts can do their part here. I also have lots of friends and professional colleagues in the U.S. I love the enthusiasm for the arts, museums, schools and universities, and have great respect for how people support these institutions because they believe in them. That’s refreshing from a European attitude, where sometimes the government-provided access to arts is something that’s taken for granted. Also, I’m very happy to soon be close to the many personal and professional friends I have in the U.S.

What type of community-based opera programming have you produced and found to be impactful?
Some of the work we’ve done to share opera in schools comes to mind. The children would help to create an opera, and each person had a role to play, and I don’t just mean performers. There was a marketing person, a costume was touching to see the children taking ownership of what was going on, not to mention the confidence they gained. Not everybody will become an opera singer or a musician. But tell me, how can a lawyer, a marketing person, a professor, do their job without creative thinking? The arts are doing a favor to society at large.

Beyond youth programming, it’s hard to generalize about what’s impactful. Every city I’ve worked in has such different demographics, challenges, and people. I want to get into my new role and learn more about what what’s been done in the past, what hasn’t been done, and what’s worked well.

Do you remember when you fell in love with opera? 
Yes. Two moments stand out in my memory as being moments I began to deeply love opera. The first time was participating with members of the Children’s Chorus in performances of Parsifal singing in “The Chorus from the Height” in Act 1. I was 14. The second was on Nov. 22, 1981; a performance of Don Carlo. I attended with a couple of my friends from the children’s chorus. We got student tickets and sat in the fifth row. What an incredible experience. I was 16. At the time, and though I was singing in the opera children’s chorus, I had never seen an opera from the auditorium.

What do you listen to aside from opera?
I love jazz. I also grew up listening to Sting, Queen, ABBA, The Police, and Pink Floyd. I also like musicals and Frank Sinatra. During weekdays in the morning, I usually listen to a pop channel in Barcelona when I wake up in the morning, actually. On the weekends, I prefer Bach, especially on Sunday mornings.

What are some of your favorite things to do outside of the opera world?
I like sports. I played team handball on a competitive level, and played basketball on my school team. I also used to go horseback riding, play squash, and I still enjoy golf if I can find time. In D.C., I played on an amateur women’s soccer league called the Killer Tomatoes—really! I also love watching the World Cup.

You have a family connection to the Seattle Area. 
Yes! My wife was born in Seattle, moved to Germany as a baby, and spent time there as a child before moving back to the states for all of her school years. She’s been away from the Seattle area for about 30 years now, but her mother lives in the area. Fun fact: Beth and I were married by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

I’m looking forward to being around water and lots of green. Hamburg, where I’m from, is also a very green city.

What are some of the first things you hope to do here?
I hope to kayak again a bit after moving to Seattle.

First and foremost, I am looking forward to getting to know the opera company, the staff, and community.