Monday, April 6, 2015

New SDO General Director Cannot Curb His Enthusiasm

By Erica Miner

David Bennett’s creative spirit and seemingly limitless energy have caught the attention of opera aficionados worldwide over the last several years. On March 12, 2015, San Diego Opera announced that Bennett, who as Executive Director of New York’s Gotham Chamber Opera rose to the top of a short list of incredibly well qualified candidates, would be taking the reins of the company as their new General Director.

Previous to Gotham, Bennett was Managing Director of Dance New Amsterdam (DNA) of lower Manhattan, and Senior Consultant with Arts Resources International. His excitement and enthusiasm over his new post at SDO is as plentiful as the buzz surrounding him. Via phone from New York, he discusses exciting plans for SDO’s bright-looking future.

EM: David, the enthusiasm and anticipation here about your appointment as SDO’s new General Director are palpable. This feels like a perfect match. San Diego loves opera, and so do you, so we feel blessed. We are so excited here for your imminent arrival.

DB: Thank you for saying that. I am absolutely thrilled, beside myself, looking forward. I grew up in the Midwest, lived in Texas, then in New York for almost 15 years. It’s very exciting to take on another chapter in another part of the country.

EM: And we are very lucky to have you in this particular chapter. It’s not every year that SDO names a new general director. I think it’s going to be a mutual admiration society. A wonderful way to begin. Will there be any pomp and circumstance when you officially take the reins on June 15?

DB: There’s some talk about ways to roll me out. I think they’re planning some fund raising opportunities, some new initiatives to try to introduce me to people. A couple of recitals are happening, Pat Racette and Ferruccio, both in the fall. So I will likely make some kind of a public statement, probably a curtain speech for the audience then. But I don’t think there’s any big action planned for my immediate arrival.

EM: “Roll me out,” that’s absolutely priceless. I’ll definitely make a note of that one. I interviewed Bill Mason a few months ago ( Have you been working with him, or are you planning to work with him, on the transition?

DB: I haven’t yet. I’ve been doing a little internal work with staff, but I’m planning on reviewing some of his thoughts, try to pick up on the work he did and make it move forward. A lot of that was how to take the season that was already planned under Ian and modify that to some degree, definitely try to build on that. About half of next season is already planned, so we’re finding ways we can take financial obligations already in place and perhaps produce opera in a more cost-effective way.

EM: As a former opera musician, I’m curious what it’s like to switch over from being a performing baritone to managing Dance New Amsterdam, then running Gotham Chamber Opera, and now to helm an opera company that performs in venues both large and small.

DB: I think many of us in the arts find our paths circuitous, hugely non-linear, so every chapter I’ve had in my professional career has informed the next chapter to some degree. I was a singer and a voice teacher, mostly standard repertoire. I did traditional opera and grew up loving it. Most of us are attracted to opera by first experiences with standard repertoire - the first bohème or Aida, the way it moved you. That’s always been a part of what I love about opera. I moved to New York and worked first as a consultant and then the job with Dance New Amsterdam. I was already an audience member, attending the Met and City Opera, but I also started seeing Gotham’s work because it was produced at a very high level, with talented singers, designers and directors. Gotham defines chamber opera as intended for small audiences or venues. I think there are other ways to define it. Sometimes people will take standard repertoire and cut the orchestra size or cut the chorus and call it chamber opera. That was not the decision Gotham made, so I was very interested in this way of producing unusual repertoire as if it was almost grand opera, beautifully and thoughtfully with very high artistic values. I really loved exploring different kinds of repertoire, audience development, and how unusual spaces can help illuminate works. What I’m excited about now is bringing all of that back together. I still have a passion for what we call traditional grand opera and repertoire. I haven’t been able to work in it for the past 10 years at Gotham, so I’m really looking forward to that, and thinking about how we produce what people think of as traditional repertoire in sometimes surprising ways - it might be different designers or younger directors or things that San Diego hasn’t seen yet.

EM: I’m intrigued by some of the ideas you’ve implemented at Gotham and curious to see how that’s going to play out here. You commissioned Nico Muhly’s opera Dark Sisters for a world premiere. Do you plan to commission contemporary works for SDO?

DB: Certainly. San Diego’s had experience with that, with Jake Heggie’s operas. The audience has reacted positively to Moby-Dick. Great Scott is coming up next season. Daniel Catán’s first US opera, Rapaccini’s Daughter, was actually premiered in San Diego. Daniel was Mexican, became an American citizen, and this was kind of homage to his Americanized home. San Diego might be involved in the production of his unfinished opera, Meet John Doe. It would be a beautiful story to have his first and last opera be shepherded to some degree by San Diego. I’ve also been approached by Fort Worth Opera to see if San Diego would be interested in joining the consortium of cities that have large Hispanic audiences in developing a new opera based on Frida Kahlo. That might be very interesting. We also have a history at Gotham of having partnerships with Opera Philadelphia, who commissions works for both their smaller chamber opera series and their larger theater. I think my relationships with companies like that will probably continue as I move to San Diego. There are so many opportunities to explore. What the right mix is going to be for San Diego we have to still determine, but I imagine commissioning will probably be on the table.

EM: Opera in the 21st century definitely is becoming more global and collaborative. At Gotham, you also collaborated with other New York City arts institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and American Repertory Theater. Do you foresee similar possibilities in San Diego?

DB: There are lots of possibilities. SDO leadership is allied with a lot of the cultural institutions here, which is very exciting. San Diego is a sophisticated enough city artistically that I think there are opportunities for organizations to engage in ways that mean more than just one organization hiring another, like the Opera hiring the Symphony, but really coproducing. We’ve had preliminary conversations with the Symphony about that. I intend very quickly to have a conversation with the Old Globe. The outdoor theatre would be a lovely place to produce opera, perhaps based on a Shakespeare theme. We haven’t begun those discussions but those are just our dreams, my first glance of thinking about opportunities out there. In New York, we’ve had partnerships that manifested in a variety of ways. Sometimes 50-50 partnership with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where we split the expenses and revenue literally right down the middle, to other kinds of partnerships where we carry the majority of the burden of the production, and they might carry part of the expenses of the venue. You get expanded audiences because you pick up audiences of both cultural institutions. You also get this sense of what the organization is within the community that is increasing the civic impact for the opera company as opposed to just being itself inside the theatre. Because of that you have the potential of attracting all kinds of supporters and audiences. Those are things I’m really looking forward to exploring.

EM: You have other programs at Gotham, such as Composer-in-Residence and Internships. Is any of that on your slate for San Diego? Do you plan to implement certain other highly successful programs?

DB: Possibly. The Composer-in-Residence program is a very interesting relationship we have with Opera Philadelphia and another organization, Music Theatre Group, which are the three organizations that co-commissioned Dark Sisters. Out of that could come relationships that could foster young composers. Not a commissioning program, just a way to provide tools for young composers that when they come out of a three-year program they have the skills they need to have major impact on the field of opera. I don’t know if we would replicate something like that in San Diego, but I know young composers coming out of such programs and I think we could take advantage of that. There’s something wonderful about having a composer being part of an institution, which makes new music part of the DNA of the organization. That could have a really profound impact on San Diego. At SDO we’ll continue to produce grand opera but also other things. It will be interesting to find out what that mix is going to be. Of course things will change within the first couple of years. Next year is pretty much going to be three grand operas and some recitals. In the fall I think we’ll start to produce perhaps a little chamber opera, perhaps zarzuela, all kinds of things. There are great opportunities to engage the Hispanic community, too.

EM: Did SDO’s remarkable rebirth and growth over the past year make an impression on you?

DB: One of the things that attracted me to the possibility of this position was that the organizations that had been very successful have been those that have dug really deep within the community and found a way to have impact. Some of that has already happened in San Diego because the community has spoken so loudly in saying, “This Company is an asset we want to keep.” Finding a way to develop the company in such a way that it builds on that energy and excitement, really taking advantage of that, is the challenge and opportunity, and has to be harnessed quickly because that energy can dissipate fairly quickly. We need to jump on that immediately when I get there, to ascertain and talk quickly with the community and learn what the community wants.

EM: How do you envision SDO’s community impact, both short and long term?

DB: In the short term there’s rebuilding, making people feel confident about the health of the organization. Not abandoning the things people love about SDO and making sure we’re not throwing the baby out with the bath water - traditional opera, but less of it. Then trying to have a sense of really defined stabilization. The Kroc Fund, which has been virtually spent down, was providing a lot of the cushion to the company over the past decade or so. Finding a way to life size the organization so it can operate, do beautiful and artistic work, and grow some new things - it’s going to take a few years to find the right combination of things that can be sustained and can also be its basis for sound financials. So next season will look a little bit like what we’ve been this season, but the following season I imagine you’ll see a production of something new, though not radically new, on the main stage. Another year down the road we might see main stage repertoire looking a little different.

EM: It certainly sounds different but I think that’s the kind of change we’re all looking for here. What do you feel are the three most important things SDO should focus on over the next five years, between now and 2020?

DB: The most important thing is finding ways to engage the community for maximum impact. Developing the feeling that the company is a really important part of the community that’s deeper than it has been - a community asset with deep civic impact, reaching a broader spectrum of the community than in the past, serving their needs, but not abandoning what was done. Next, rebuilding and feeling like the community sees the company is headed on a plan toward stabilization and fiscal soundness, that we will have permanence for fifty or more years. Third is exploring ways to be curious, investigating new things artistically that have benefit for the company. I think all three of those stick together. Finding new ways and new things to produce certainly is a part of how you build community impact. You’re speaking to repertoire that means something to a part of community that hasn’t been reached before. They all go together, but I think community impact is the most important part of it.

EM: That sounds like an excellent plan. Thank you so much, David, for sharing so much wonderful information with us.

DB: It was my pleasure.

Photos used by permission of: San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

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