Friday, January 8, 2016

Aidan Lang and Seattle Opera Form a Perfect ‘Marriage’- Part 1

By Erica Miner

How many opera directors have directed Wagner’s first Ring cycle in Brazil? Newly minted Seattle Opera general director Aidan Lang can make that claim. He also is one of only three general directors in the history of Seattle’s opera company.

Described as “an Englishman by way of New Zealand,” the London-born Lang served as general director of New Zealand Opera from 2006 to 2014, and took the Seattle Opera reins from Speight Jenkins, who helmed the company for 30-plus years. Lang’s remarkable blend of talents, which include expertise in the theatrical, artistic and business realms, serve him well in his new position. 

After a well-received run of Bizet’s all too seldom performed early opera The Pearl Fishers (, Lang takes to the stage to direct the current production of Mozart’s beloved classic, The Marriage of Figaro, which incidentally is the first opera Lang saw as a child. Lang’s Figaro is all about marriage: three couples of three different generations and their diverging and intersecting journeys in matrimony. I caught up with Lang in the midst of a hectic rehearsal schedule that itself resembles the busy-ness of the Figaro overture. 

EM: This is your first full season under your aegis at Seattle? 

AL: Yes. Last season was all in place. We did actually have a new production, Semele, which I kind of helped steer through the designs, but the designs were complete when I arrived. This season is a funny one, in that the program was kind of in place but we made changes. The fifth opera got suspended, so I added it back, and I put in a new Jack Perla piece. The Pearl Fishers was mine and Flying Dutchman I put in, which I cast together with Speight (Jenkins, former general director) because obviously he knows his Wagner. Figaro was a curious one - no production was in place. So I’ve had total say over the production style we’ve gone for, the productions we’ve done. In the case of Figaro, the main casting was all in place. The smaller parts hadn’t been cast yet when I arrived. So it’s a bit of a hybrid season, but I’ve had a lot more influence, especially from a production point of view, than is normal for the case when you inherit these jobs. All of next season, which we just announced on January 1st (, is entirely mine. So I’ve had a lot more input this year than I’ve had any right to expect (Laughs). 

EM: What has it been like to take over from Speight, who was such a legend and had such a long tenure? 

AL: I actually came six or seven months before I was due to start, so we had a very long handover. The reason the board wanted that to happen - I think was a really good idea - was most importantly that it gave me time to understand how all the arts sit in this city. Running an arts organization in one city - each community has its own kind of tastes, and that of course is the legacy of what’s gone before. But also the arts sit in different cities in different ways. Some are more “arts” cities than others - New York, Chicago, San Francisco - than cities of a lesser size. A lot of cities are strong in one art form and not necessarily in another. So it gave me a chance, not only to look at how opera was received, was placed, in this city, but actually the arts in general. Also to get to know the company without the burden of office quite yet, which was really useful, and give our donors a gentle easing from one general director to the next. So it was a very amicable handover, which isn’t always the case. I’m not going to name names, but as we all know… (Laughs). Speight and I would go to things together. We felt it was very important to have a smooth transition for audiences, donors, staff, as we go off in a slightly different direction, that they have seen a logical progression - an advancement rather than it being a change for change’s sake. So that was really our secret, that Speight and I worked beautifully together in that time. It allowed him a really graceful retirement, which was very important to me. It could have felt awkward, but actually felt really nice, that really smooth handover, rather than it be, okay, now we’re going to do it differently. Inevitably things change, but I want it to evolve and develop. 

EM: It’s a testament to the great characters of you and Speight, that it was such a smooth transition. 

AL: I think we all felt it was important, but I think we all wanted it. It seemed like the most logical way to do it, a lovely thing to do. It met both our needs rather than it being “imposed.” It worked really well. 

EM: It makes perfect sense. And by the way, I loved Pearl Fishers. I never got to play it at the Met, because as you know it’s been a hundred years since they’ve done it. 

AL: The last person who sang Nadir at the Met was Caruso (Laughs). 

EM: That’s astonishing. 

AL: Isn’t it just? (Laughs.) 

EM: I know it’s early in the season, but things are going well so far? 

AL: They are. I like a season to be varied, not only in terms of repertoire but in terms of style. I hate it when the audience know what they’re going to see before the curtain goes up. For me it is about varying style, finding the right visual style for each individual piece. The needs of one piece are very different from the needs of another. We’re doing the arts, not commercial entertainment, where things are focus-grouped to death, where there’s no risk. One needs that element of risk. If you make an artistic statement about a piece, you’re not going to appeal to 100% of the audience. It’s the nature of the beast. Not being frightened about it. As long as what we do has a clarity and integrity, people will respect that even if they disagree with what the solution or interpretation is, the fact it’s been properly thought out and considered. For me that’s what it’s about. But also giving people a varied feel to each piece, so that even if they didn’t particularly like the way we did Pearl Fishers they’ll come back to Figaro knowing that we haven’t adopted a house style, that it’s going to be different. It takes time, you need to get some runs on the board in order to develop that trust. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about. For the arts it’s developing your audience so you can put on the telephone book in Chinese and people will come, because you’ve got a reputation of being interesting (Laughs). You can’t do that in your first year. You don’t get there in your first year. 

EM: No, but I imagine Seattle audiences will be open to just about anything. 

AL: I think I’m very lucky having Seattle. I think with other cities it would take much longer to get there, and again it’s a legacy of what the company has done in the past - create a very inquisitive audience. That’s what I really like. They can be eager to discover things. We’ve always put in new pieces - next year we’ve got two pieces new to Seattle. With Speight there was always at least one piece Seattle had never seen before. So you cultivate an inquisitive audience. We have our talk back after the show. We get 150 people. They want to talk about what they’ve seen immediately after the show rather than go back to their homes (Laughs). They’re great. I’m really lucky to inherit that. 

EM: They’re very lucky to have you. In your most recent experience at New Zealand, you collaborated with other companies such as Glyndebourne and Welsh National Opera. Do you have plans to seek similar partnerships eventually? 

AL: Absolutely. More than eventually, like next season (Laughs). I arrived in New Zealand in 2006. It was very much considered a kind of poor cousin to Australia. I thought, there’s actually a full time big company producing a lot of work, and three state companies who were all basically putting on shows created for that company. I thought, we have an advantage in New Zealand to actually set up a workshop and make new productions rather than renting all the time. I would then find partners, because I knew each of the state companies - Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide - all wanted to do different things but didn’t really have a resource to make shows themselves. Labor rates were very high, and they didn’t do workshops. So I set up a workshop and began to create a number of new productions, for which I found partners, first of all in one company, then the others. It worked on both sides. Here in Seattle we didn’t really have a reputation of collaborating that much. We’d rent-in shows but not do new shows in co-production. That’s what I’ve gone about addressing. We have two new shows next year. Interestingly, on one of them which we haven’t finished the designs yet, a company has just come in and said, “I’m quite interested in co-producing, is it too late?” I said, “No, it’s not.” The following season we already have two new co-productions in place. By 2017-18 we’re up and running. But also next season, 2016-17, I’m bringing a show from Glyndebourne. In other words not just out of the American pool. And I’m bringing a show from London and Graz -Traviata, very successful production. So I want to show some interesting but not over-the-top controversial European works, which really have fantastic pedigree and deserve to be seen by our audience, because I know they’re going to like them. 

EM: That does sound exciting. 

AL: That’s what I mean about learning about how the arts sit. Getting a sense of taste, where they’re at now, where they can be in five years’ time. Planning what the audience sees over a long term, to lead their taste, as it were. 

EM: You’re wearing two hats with Figaro. How do you make the tricky transition from your administrative offices to directing an opera? 

AL: I did Figaro In New Zealand - we rehearsed it during the summer holidays. There’s a difference when you’re creating a thing from new, you really are living it 24 hours a day. When you are reviving it, although with two completely new casts, you’ve got the framework for it already, so it’s not quite the all-embracing task it is when you’re creating it. And secondly, we’ve done it over Christmas holiday and New Year, so everyone was only really back yesterday, and we’re on stage on Friday, so all the main rehearsal was done when everyone else was toasting their muffins over Christmas. It turned out that it wasn’t such a bad time to do it. 

EM: Sounds like the stars aligned. 

AL: Yes. But it’s not my intention to do more of this. I put this production in because the search committee when I was being appointed spent a lot of time - a lot of it online - looking at my productions as examples. They looked very carefully at the aesthetic and style of opera I believe in. When I saw that Figaro was already planned and there was no production in place, the obvious thing was to bring the New Zealand production over - it fits perfectly on our stage - and kill two birds with one stone. It’ll be evidence of what I believe opera should be, because it’s a fun production. But it was not really my intention to direct a lot of stuff. I’ve got three years planned out and I haven’t got any plans to direct. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe in five years’ time I might do one, but it’s not my purpose. It’s the exception rather than the rule.

Next: Aidan Lang and Seattle Opera, Part 2

Photos used by permission of: Rick Dahms, Philip Newton
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

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