Wednesday, July 8, 2015

David Bennett, Part 2: New Seasons, New Concepts

By Erica Miner

EM: You don’t strike me as a person who is easily daunted.

DB: Thanks [Laughs].

EM: There’s always a lot to do. Getting everything solidified is one piece of the puzzle, but then you’re constantly trying to push the envelope. And that’s always a work in progress.

DB: Absolutely. There are so many things we haven’t started - so many things I feel are imperative, the conversation we need to begin having. I had a meeting in New York City with the Consul General of Mexico, who introduced me to the Mexican Consul General here, a very powerful presence. There’s a lot of energy about co-producing and collaborating in many ways, between cultural leaders across the board. A cultural leaders group that meets once a month, and I’m interested in starting quickly meetings with other cultural groups. Trying to make the opera company more responsive to needs of all the communities in San Diego, for instance the military community. A couple of operas have been commissioned about soldiers returning from Iraq, the Middle East, dealing with post-traumatic stress. One is going to appear at Long Beach Opera next season, and one is premiering at Saratoga in New York next month. The possibility of bringing something like that here, if appropriate, is amazing.

EM: Amazing how many composers are bringing these subjects to the opera stage. 

DB: Reaching out to the Latino communities, African-American community, LGBT community, trying to find ways we can address all of those needs. So there’s a lot to be done still. But very exciting. There’s a chamber opera, Champion, that St. Louis Opera commissioned a couple of years ago that Washington National Opera is going to do in a couple of years, about an African-American boxer and his experience in the 50s and 60s, a true story, very interesting. It’s also LGBT because he was a gay closeted boxer, Spanish-American. Someone called him a Spanish derogatory name while his opponent was weighing in and he wound up killing him in the ring. He comes out of the closet later. A lot of racial and LGBT issues and also beautiful music, written by Terrence Blanchard, a wonderful jazz musician. 

EM: It doesn’t get much more controversial than that. 

DB: Right. But also they’re good operatic works, well written, intense, taut, well-constructed libretti, a lot of good dramaturgy, dealing with all those prime issues. I’ve already started a conversation with Fort Worth Opera and Arizona Opera, about commissioning a new opera about Frida Kahlo, which I would love to bring here. It’s smaller scale, three principal singers, a chorus of 16-20. Bringing secondary roles out of the chorus and featuring our own wonderful opera chorus is another thing we have to do here. I think we could have an actual concert with them. And aside from the Symphony, partnerships with a theatre company. I’ve had baby step conversations with La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe. The art museum is interested in finding ways to collaborate. It could be as simple as a Frida Kahlo opera and a Kahlo exhibit at the same time. Or it could be producing something at the museum, finding ways to enliven galleries with actual operas as opposed to doing them in a theatre space at a museum. I’d love to stage an opera in their sculpture garden courtyard. There have got to be a million pockets inside Balboa Park we haven’t even looked at. 

EM: The Old Globe is right there. 

DB: Exactly. That’s burned into my brain, producing a Shakespearean opera, probably a chamber opera, in the Old Globe. I would love to do that. Christopher Beach said, “What about the Salk Institute, it’s such a gorgeous location, the Symphony does a concert there every year, why not stage something there?” These all are opportunities for enlivening spaces with opera that haven’t happened yet. 

EM: Are you thinking about a collaboration with L.A. Opera? 

DB: We will have a partnership with them to some degree. They have already extended their generosity to help us in any way they can. Houston in effect gave Nixon in China to us with no cost - we just had to pay the shipping here and back. Don Giovanni was given to us by Cincinnati at no cost. The opera community overall is helping us stabilize. Speaking opportunities are coming up, this fall in the La Jolla Community Center distinguished lecture series, and the Rotary Club. Perhaps an event together with Martha that involves press, a round table talking about partnerships.

EM: Getting the word out. 

DB: Yes. Showing an evolving model of how a company that’s been doing only traditional opera reinvents itself - that’s where we’re going to be headed. There are some “best practice” examples. Philadelphia, Fort Worth Opera - companies that have tried and succeeded in reinventing themselves, basically facing the same issues we had here, declining sales, over- reliance on smaller and smaller pool of donors. Trying to find a way to broaden the experience and make the civic impact of the company bigger. We’re trying to make sure that community engagement increasingly is not just about engaging those that already come - though that’s an important part of it - but to get those people interested who are not yet opera attendees. We do that in our own community conversations. We’re having one with Nic (Reveles) in September. Sometimes we think all we need to do is tell people we’re doing Tosca and Butterfly and there’s nothing else we need to say because everybody knows them - not true. Even those who do, want to be reminded how fabulous those are. We can sometimes be guilty of saying, “We need to do all this work on Great Scott because it’s a new production,” when we actually need to make the case for why Tosca and Butterfly work and why they’re so engaging.

EM: People have asked me why you’re doing two Puccini operas this year.

DB: I don't know if there’s actually a reason, other than the fact that Puccini sells. They’re all new productions. We bought Tosca from Fort Worth for nothing, so we have a nice, traditional new Tosca that was almost given to us. We’re getting Montreal’s Butterfly, which is a beautiful traditional gorgeous production. The decision might have been that the writing on the wall was terrifying and we had to have some surefire bets. But it also is a little peculiar to do two Puccini in one year [Laughs].

EM: It’s a great opportunity for new singers to make their impact. 

DB: These are all people that were booked before I came into the picture. Latonia Moore has a huge career as Aida. I haven’t heard her sing Butterfly, so it should be interesting. The Tosca, Alexia Voulgaridou, is Greek, sings all over Europe, and I’ve listened to clips on line. I’m sure she’ll be great. If you look at her biography, she sang Butterfly everywhere, then she added Tosca to her rep and did it everywhere. So she’s does a role for a while - I think we’re in her Tosca era now - but she’s sung in major opera houses and gotten great reviews, so I’m sure she’ll be very compelling. Greer Grimsley is coming back as Scarpia. That should be fabulous. 

EM: He must be. Have you seen that Facebook page, “Greer Grimsley is an Opera God”? 

DB: [Laughs] He’s amazing. I saw him last summer in Santa Fe. The voice just kind of rolls out. It’s gorgeous. Healthy, virile, big sound. 

EM: It’s all so new and exciting, and I can’t wait for September. Thank you for spending so much time with me

DB: My pleasure.

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

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