New faces, new ambitions at the reopening of operas

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – As opera houses across the country cautiously resume theatrical performances, two of the biggest are ushering in new leadership – as well as a heightened commitment to creating new audiences.

In San Francisco, Korean-born Eun Sun Kim becomes the company’s first female musical director and Asian premiere. Nearly 3,000 miles east, Enrique Mazzola takes the reins as the third musical director in the history of the Lyric Opera in Chicago.

The country’s largest company, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, will have a relative veteran on the podium when its season opens on September 27: Yannick Nezet-Seguin has been in charge since 2018-19.

But the changes in these homes and others go beyond the staff. As Marc Scorca, President and CEO of Opera America, sees, there is a greater determination to attract new, more diverse audiences and to champion new works.

“COVID has been a time of discovery in this regard,” said Scorca, whose organization works with businesses large and small, in an email.

Forced to abandon indoor productions during the pandemic, many companies have designed digital offerings as well as in-person programs in outdoor venues like ball fields, drive-in theaters, tents, and even parking lots. ..

“We’ve heard that between 25% and 40% of audiences for these activities are new,” Scorca said. The question now is how to retain these neophytes.

“Should this ‘alternative’ activity be part of our regular work? ” he said. “Will some of these new audiences gravitate towards opera? “

Mazzola considers this to be a crucial part of his job.

“My mission is not just to be a good musician in the pit wielding my wand,” he said in an interview, “but to inspire a new audience, to stop showing new generations that opera is only for select wealthy elites, which bothers Me, a lot. “

His commitment to new works was one of the factors that impressed Lyric CEO Anthony Freud.

“We needed someone who would honor the accomplishments of Andrew (retired Music Director Andrew Davis) during his 21 years and at the same time take us in new directions,” Freud said.

Thus, although Mazzola will open Lyric’s season on September 17 with “Macbeth” by Verdi, a staple of the 19th century repertoire, he will also conduct an opera premiered in 2018: “Proving Up” by Missy Mazzoli. It will not take place in the Opéra Lyrique with its 3,276 seats but in a neighboring theater which only accommodates 400.

Kim also takes issue with the idea that “opera is for high society and a little hard to get in.”

“Everyone says opera is old fashioned,” she said in an interview. ” I do not believe that. These masterpieces stay with us after 100 years… If we tell the story really well, then everyone feels like it’s their story too.

She is well aware that the symbolism of her appointment may be a factor in attracting new clients to the San Francisco Bay Area, with its large and growing Asian American population.

“Every time I meet the audience after the performance, the women and Asians tell me that I’m kind of an inspiration to them,” Kim said. “I’m happy if I can be that kind of character.”

Expanding the repertoire with a new opera is a priority on her agenda, she said, although due to COVID-19 programming disruptions this season offers only one work. recent – a cover of “Dream of the Red Chamber” by Chinese-born composer Bright Sheng.

Kim kicked off the season on August 21 with Puccini’s “Tosca,” a workhorse who is a sentimental favorite for the company. It was the opera house that opened the War Memorial Opera House in 1932 and the first work done in 1997 after the house was renovated to withstand earthquakes.

“It’s a new start for us,” said Matthew Shilvock, CEO of the company.

Music directors aren’t the only new arrivals in San Francisco and Chicago. Both homes have completed installing all new seating in their auditoriums, promising greater comfort, wider aisles and better sight lines.

Meanwhile, at the Met, Nezet-Seguin will help make history when he conducts a black composer’s first opera ever to be performed there – Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” which is expected to open the season September 27. And it’s one of three operas composed over the past 10 years that will be part of the Met’s season. (Lyric also presents Blanchard’s opera later in its season.)

Above all these plans looms the growing threat of the Delta variant and the upsurge in coronavirus cases. The three biggest houses are demanding that the public be vaccinated and wear masks – and hope that will be enough to allow the performances to continue.

“The coming years are full of uncertainties,” said Freud. “But if there’s one lesson we’ve learned over the past 16 months, it’s the ability to live with uncertainty.”

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