By Erica Miner
Former Lyric Opera of Chicago General Director and Commendatore dell’Ordine Della Stella Della Solidarietà William Mason learned the ropes of opera artistic administration from such luminaries as Carol Fox and Ardis Krainik. As the newly minted Artistic Advisor for a reborn San Diego Opera http://www.sdopera.com/Home, the modest, unassuming Mason shares his considerable wisdom and talks artistry and prudence in his new role.
EM: Welcome to San Diego, Bill. We are so excited to have you on board to help create the company’s future vision and keep it thriving. You’ve been called an “Opera hero,” and Carol (Lazier, President of the SD Opera Board) has praised your “reputation second to none.” Please tell us about your background.
WM: I worked at NYCO (New York City Opera) for a season, fall and winter ’71, was in New York for a while as a tech and “fly man”, at San Francisco Opera in 1979 and 1980 and stage-managed around the country. In fact I stage managed three shows here in San Diego. But I’ve spent most of my opera career in Chicago.
EM: I’m really curious about “Commendatore dell’Ordine Della Stella Della Solidarietà”. That’s quite an honor.
WM: It really was because of Maestro Bruno Bartoletti. I sang with him when I was a kid, the Shepherd Boy in Tosca. He became like an older brother to me, then a colleague and close friend. Unbeknownst to me he started working on this for a couple of years in advance, because I speak Italian and I know Italian opera and love things Italian. At some point I got a letter telling me I’ve gotten this award, “Commendatore, ” etc. Nice little ceremony at the Italian Consulate there. But it’s nothing huge, you know (laughs). I got a little plaque and a button. It was very sweet.
EM: When you sang as a kid, you worked with some of the greats, including Björling, Steber and Tebaldi. Do you remember much about that?
WM: Before Lyric Opera of Chicago existed, New York City Opera used to come there on tour. My parents liked music and didn’t know much about opera, but in 1951 for my tenth birthday they took me to see Rigoletto, my first opera. In those days before television was around much, there were a number of smaller amateur opera companies. I joined one of them, the Children’s Grand Opera Company. In ’52-’53 we sang the Children’s Chorus when New York City Opera came on tour. When Chicago Lyric was formed in 1954 I auditioned for the role of the Shepherd, and got it. I became passionate about opera. From ages ten through seventeen or twenty I was just consumed with it, and learned a lot of Italian and French repertoire. In 1962 when I asked what I could do with the company, they put me to work with Maestro Pino Donati, who became my mentor and second father. He spoke very little English, so I had to learn Italian. In those days Lyric Opera was called “La Scala West.” Italian was almost the first language. I was Donati’s gofer and assistant with the scheduling for a number of seasons, then I became assistant stage manager, then I did some stuff as an assistant director. I was at City Opera, then Light Opera of Manhattan in 1972, then director of production at Lyric for a few years, then went to San Francisco as Artistic Administrator, then went back to Chicago. When Carol Fox died and Ardis Krainik took over I was head of artistic and production. When Ardis retired because of illness they made me General Director.
EM: That’s quite a journey.
WM: Somewhat early in my career I thought, “I sang in the first season. Wouldn’t it be nifty if I could be General Director in the fiftieth season?” And it happened. I’ve had the most wonderful life in opera, it’s been so good to me. Somebody once said, “It’s only work if you’d like to be doing something else.” I feel I’ve rarely worked.
EM: You started on the stage, then came full circle.
WM: I’d thought I’d never work again, but I got a call from Mark Scorca of Opera America about SD Opera. I thought, “I’m so retired, I can’t get back to an office and working. A lot of people can give artistic advice.” But I saw what was going on here, so many members of the Board had resigned, and after a very gentle but persuasive email from Mark I thought my experience might be very useful. In Chicago we had a wonderful, dynamite Board. They provided leadership when they needed to and stayed out of things that didn’t need getting into. We didn’t do things the right way but we did them a right way. It was a great experience working with those ladies and gentlemen. And I thought that was something I could help pass on to the company here. What I see is that the remaining Board members are a terrific bunch - all of them bright, accomplished people, who know what they have to do. I sometimes refer to this as “San Diego Opera 2.” When someone has been here for thirty years as head of the company there’s a tendency for it to become somewhat of a rubber stamp operation. Fortunately Carol and others, after having thought about it, said, “Wait a second … we can’t let this die.”
EM: Everybody, even Carol, was surprised at how the city just banded together. Do you think NYCO’s tragic demise affected the mindset in any way?
WM: I really don’t know, but I think all of a sudden a lot of people, certainly those who have come to the opera, thought what it would mean to them if the opera weren’t here. Even people who didn’t come to the opera suddenly realized being without the company would be a loss to the city. I really can’t understand the thinking of those folks who thought it would be a good idea to shut it down. You’re talking about an organization that altogether probably pumped tens of millions of dollars into the city’s economy, so I think the imperative was to do everything possible to keep it afloat, and make the changes necessary to do so. That’s what I see here. I just came out of a wonderful meeting where this was all discussed. Hopefully people will realize how important our culture is. I don't know what’s the problem in America that people don’t believe that.
EM: We’ve been very lucky in San Diego with the patronage of people who have generously contributed to help make our arts groups into wonderful organizations.
WM: Yes. It’s somewhat strange, but this may be the best thing that ever happened for the company. I think there were a lot of people in the community who first of all probably didn’t even know there was a San Diego Opera. With all this publicity they were aware there was a company here, and realized it was an important thing. Now the company will get out there with more communication and engagement. I’m very positive about where this company is going.
EM: So you don’t mind too much coming here one week a month.
WM: Particularly in November and December (laughs). But no, I’m really enjoying working with the people. They’re a nice bunch, they’re committed, they’re bright. I came out for about ten days in June, and if I didn’t think they had the wherewithal to make this work I would have said, “Thank you very much.” But having seen that these people can make it happen, I’m delighted to work with them.
EM: We’re very fortunate to have you.
WM: Thank you. I don’t necessarily want to tell people what to do, just sort of enable them to find their path. Ultimately they will know what will work in the community and what won’t. I’m just there to provide some suggestions, however I can help.
EM: It seems like you’re brimming with experience and information about things they can come to you and ask.
WM: I hope so. I like to think they will (laughs).
EM: Have you seen any changes in the past month since your first time here?
WM: Things done to fill the gap. Not surprisingly, when the company announced the cancellation some of the artists went out to find other engagements and some were successful. So there have been those things to fill, production things to take care of and finalize, some looking at budgets. I’ve been on the phone a lot, emails back and forth. Trying to put together this fiftieth anniversary concert. Those things are ongoing, as will some strategic planning. I think changes will be a more gradual process as the synergy between the Board and staff starts to take hold, and will become more obvious as we proceed over the months.
EM: Has the atmosphere improved since you were last here?
WM: Excellent now. I can only imagine what it must have been like for these people. It must have come as a total shock, no idea it was coming. I was told the voting was not even on the agenda. People were taken by surprise, putting it mildly. But that was the past, something I only hear about anecdotally. What I’m concerned about is the present and future. I think there’s a wonderful atmosphere now, and a very grateful, optimistic attitude, certainly among the staff. People who thought they were not going to have jobs are delighted to have jobs.
EM: We’re delighted to have an opera company. About financial issues. I know you helped keep the Lyric afloat, that while you were there you had a stunning record on audience attendance and being in the black. Supposedly SDO is not in the red. How do we stay clear of that?
WM: It’s an interesting point. Fundraising was never my strongest point, but having been brought up by parents who had gone through the Depression, one thing that was always impressed upon me was you don’t spend money you don’t have. I’ve adhered to that in my personal life as well as in running Chicago Lyric Opera. You’ve lost some Board members who were substantial givers, some of them may come back, some may not - but it’s expanding now. There are some wonderful stories about people who came out of the woodwork, people sitting up in the balcony who came up with some very sizable donations. So it will be about getting out into the community, finding support where there’s not been support before. With what has happened here, the almost failure of the company, people had to take notice about how many people thought it was important to keep the company. You’ve got to go to people, and make them realize this. Ardis said it always boils down to money. That will be the large task that lies ahead for the company. They’ve got to build more, establish contacts, get out to people, talk to people, make them realize the importance of the arts to the community.
EM: What about cutting back expenses from previous seasons?
WM: Obviously opera is not cheap, so you’ve got to find ways of doing it. Judiciously allocating your money. One of the things I’ve been doing is going through budgets and finding ways we can save money, or where you have to spend money. You’ve got to put on a first rate product. I’m a big believer in the word “balance” - you’ve got to balance the artistic and the financial. You can’t cut to the point where you’ll lose the artistic but you can’t spend so much money on the artistic that you’ll lose the financial. So what the company has to discover in the next couple of years - and it will be a couple of years’ process - is, what is that balance point. As they raise more money, what can they spend it on. I think prudence should dictate things in the next couple of seasons. It’s really a delicate act, because you’ve got to move forward. This is the time to strike out and do things that have not been done before. You have a city where you can perform outdoors twelve months a year. So you can be out in plazas or shopping malls with some good young voices, having a year round presence in the community. I would hope and trust that would start to engender some more fundraising. It’s all that combination of moving forward with the artistic part and the fundraising.
EM: That’s a great point, because the outdoors may be what distinguishes this city from so many others, even L.A. There, you’ve got the Hollywood Bowl, and everything else is so far apart and hard to get to. But here everything is smaller and closer.
WM: I don’t know the city yet, but I hear about places where things can be done. I understand they’ve got some sort of outdoor thing at the zoo. I don’t begin to know what the possibilities are. But the people here do, and they’re coming up with ideas as to how we maintain a twelve-month a year presence in the community.
EM: That’s a wonderful concept.
WM: I think it was something everybody here was aware needed to be done. Perhaps it wasn’t done for reasons I don’t pretend to understand, but I don’t think it was for lack of those thoughts being presented. So now it’s possible to move forward with those ideas.
Next, Part 2: Bill Mason talks artistry and prudence
Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera