Thursday, August 15, 2019

Christina Scheppelmann answers your questions

Christina Scheppelmann, General Director of Seattle Opera. Photo by Philip Newton

Last week was Christina Scheppelmann’s first week on the job as General Director of Seattle Opera. We asked our fans on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to leave a comment with your questions for Christina. This week, she answers—below! 

Many audience members have expressed a desire to see more Wagner and the Ring! What are your thoughts on this?

C.S.: I, too, am a great fan of both Wagner and the Ring. Wagner, in some form or another, will be a part of Seattle Opera’s future. To do any Ring cycle at the level that Seattle audiences are accustomed requires a great deal of generosity and philanthropy from our community in advance. I would only offer a Ring cycle if I felt confident that it could be world-class. We have to be financially responsible when embarking on a Ring cycle; we owe this to our supporters, audiences, and our staff. We will do a Ring when there’s no danger of it taking us off-course financially. As our nonprofit organization continues to move toward long-term sustainability, I will gain a better sense of what is feasible, and when.

What are your thoughts on commissioning local and regional composers?

C.S.: Developing and hiring local artists has always been important to me. At Washington National Opera, for example, I created the American Opera Initiative, which provides opportunities and mentorship opportunities for young composers and librettists. I would love to continue nurturing the next generation of opera composers and librettists at Seattle Opera. Our Tagney Jones Hall in the Opera Center is the perfect venue for presenting first works by Washingtonians. Just give me a little time to start this.

The final scene of Wagner's Das Rheingold, 2009. © Rozarii Lynch

To what degree will Seattle Opera promote new operas, versus sticking with the standard 18th to 20th century "chestnuts"?
With only five productions, you can’t cover every period per season. But looking across three-four seasons, Seattle Opera will present works that range from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries.

At one point in time, Seattle Opera had a “Gold and Silver” cast system: The Gold cast had more seasoned artists, and the Silver cast had more emerging singers. In recent years, we have done away with this system in favor of trying to cast singers who represent an equitable degree of experience and skill. What is your philosophy on casting?

C.S.: With a double-cast system like Seattle Opera’s, I believe that the artists must be as equivalent in skill and experience as possible. It ensures a more consistent experience for our audiences, no matter what performance they attend. We will also continue to hire exciting rising-stars for our mainstage, as we have done for our recent production of Rigoletto. For example, our Dukes of Mantua: Liparit Avetisyan and Yongzhao Yu, and our two Gildas, returning artists Madison Leonard and Soraya Mafi are all rising stars.

Madison Leonard, who's sung Chrisann Brennan (The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs), Frasquita (Carmen) and Gilda (Rigoletto) represents an exciting rising-star in the opera world that Seattle Opera has introduced to its mainstage. Sunny Martini photo

What areas of Seattle Opera would you like to most spend your time developing, either to transform or enhance what we have?
C.S.: I’d like to make use of our beautiful Tagney Jones Hall. Located at our home, the Opera Center, this glass-box performance space offers seating for about 300 people. Because the public can literally see inside, Tagney Jones is a link between Seattle Opera and the community. I’d like to have regular—or even let’s say, even frequent—offerings here: commissions of chamber works, recitals, master classes, lectures, and more, designed with the proper variety in order to attract the curiosity of diverse audiences.

What new audiences can Seattle Opera reach, and what would be some ideas to engage them?

C.S.: We can continue to reach younger audiences, particularly though the presentation of newer operas. Many young people think this is an art form for their parents—we need to make it clear that it’s also for them, and show how this is a living art form, with many composers alive today. At the same time, we must expose young people to the popular operas we regularly offer at McCaw Hall: these are timeless stories for all.

Are you thinking about any collaborations with other community arts organizations?

C.S.: I cannot answer that question because I’m only on day eight of the job! In my previous positions in Barcelona and Washington D.C., I often collaborated with local schools and conservatories.

Tagney Jones Hall  at the Opera Center. Sean Airhart photo. 

Are there plans for Seattle Opera to use microphones in its productions the future?

C.S.: It depends entirely on the composition. Many 21st-century productions and/or compositions, including The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs use amplification for an effect or for sound design. There’s a piece I recently brought to Barcelona called Quartett by Luca Francesconi, which used amplification to help create the effect of two orchestras: one backstage (recorded), the other in the pit, playing live. The effect was impressive and striking in every way. (It happens to be a great opera!).

Additionally, sometimes it’s important to mic the singers for operas with dialogue. When Mozart wrote The Magic Flute, it would have been performed in a theater with 500-600 seats. Today, singers perform in theaters with 2,000-3,000 seats. Thus, without the use of amplification, we wouldn’t be able to fully enjoy that spoken text in The Magic Flute as it was intended to be heard and understood. 

Innovation has been a part of opera and classical music from the beginning. Of course, change is not always comfortable. When the saxophone was first introduced to an opera, it sure sounded unfamiliar and different.

Wagnerian tradition is awesome but Seattle does not have to do Ring Cycles as often now as other big cities in West Coast have been doing it. How about starting another tradition? Richard Strauss fest? Janacek fest? Handel fest? Modern fest?

A festival format wouldn’t be feasible for a company which produces five productions spread over a season, but a themed season maybe in the future. Additionally, no other company on the West Coast—or perhaps in the country—has staged Ring cycles as frequently as Seattle Opera has in the past 56 years.

Quartett at the Gran Teatre del Liceu. Robin Adams i Allison Cook (© A. Bofill).

Do you plan to keep presenting five productions a season, or do you have other ideas?

I cannot answer that at this time. However, I will say that I am not here to disrupt Seattle Opera. I am here to help the company grow, to engage and grow our audiences, grow our donor base, and help to show that Seattle is not simply great because of its sports teams, or the global companies that have made a huge difference in our economy. What makes Seattle great is also our art, our cultural offerings. But we as a region must invest in art if we want it to thrive. I'd like to help Seattle Opera be an integral part of a citywide, world-class arts scene. Look around the world at great cities like Berlin, London, Munich, Beijing, Paris, Tokyo—they have it all, and Seattle should, too.

Is it feasible to borrow existing productions from other opera companies (i.e., not co-productions with Seattle Opera)?
Rather than borrowing, we regularly rent from other companies—just like everyone else in the industry. For example, this season, Rigoletto and Cinderella are rentals.

Would you consider bringing back a Young Artists program? 
I have always been passionate about nurturing young artists. For many years, I’ve been involved with judging local competitions, and I’ve done my best to give up-and-coming singers opportunities. I would love to have a Young Artist Program at Seattle Opera, if at all possible.

An example of Seattle Opera's commitment in past years has included community programming such as Asian Arts Leaders Respond to Madame Butterfly in 2017, which included a performance by street-styles dancer and queer, disabled filipinix artist, Moonyeka. Jacob Lucas photo

What social justice and racial-equity-focused plans and/or programs do you plan to implement?
I am not sure how to answer that, other than to say we will continue the great work Seattle Opera has been doing. We apply equity principals into everything we do. Our racially diverse staff is run by a large percentage of women leaders.  

Our community programs will continue to make efforts to serve Title I schools, where the majority of children receive free or reduced lunch. We are also fortunate to have an Equity Committee on staff to help guide our work.

We hire singers based on their vocal abilities, period. Music and the arts are inclusive, they are not for one specific group of people. I hope to continue stimulating curiosity in our art throughout the community, and bring all types of audiences to enjoy Seattle Opera.

What kind of changes do you plan to implement for the Seattle Opera?

I am not actually planning any changes. As a leader, I believe that when it’s not broken, don’t fix it. When I worked in Oman, a local journalist asked—“So what are you going to teach people here?” I responded, “I’m not here to teach. I am here to learn first, and then apply my experience to help this particular company. If that means some change, we’ll feel out what is suitable and necessary.