Monday, April 1, 2019

Seattle Opera's New General Director: 2 New Operas, Cultural Exchange, and Wagner

Christina Scheppelmann.

INTERVIEW: Christina Scheppelmann, Part 2 

McCaw Hall, Seattle 

EM: I know it’s a bit early, but do you have any thoughts of commissioning a new opera? 

CS: I think it’s too early to ask me that. In general terms, I believe that we have to keep commissioning pieces, small and for the main stage. We have to also repeat pieces, because the second and third repetition is ultimately what will establish a piece as an addition to the repertoire. If we don’t add a few pieces to the repertoire, opera is dead. We have to keep adding. Every opera that today is part of the repertoire at some point was contemporary, brand new, and established itself because if it was successful, it got repeated. We have to find these pieces for the future. That means we will also fail on occasion; there will be pieces that will not become part of the future. I do think that commissioning is important, but it’s as important to do the second or third round of performances or the second or third production of a new piece. All the opera companies, all the colleagues, if we feel responsible for the future of opera, that’s something we need to keep in mind. 

EM: Luckily we have a number of talented composers and librettists who are doing one new commission after another. 

CS: And if one out of 50 becomes repertoire, that would be fantastic, because if you really dig in the history books of opera, there are so many more operas than the ones we have now in the repertoire. Countless operas have been commissioned, produced, disappeared. Today it’s much more expensive to produce. Cost structure is different, salaries are different, wages. And that’s good, because there were times when musicians and singers got paid nothing. But the reality is consequently that being the most complex art form of all, it has a certain cost. So we have to take the risk and be adventurous and keep commissioning even if we do it on a smaller scale. By commissioning a small piece you can detect the talent of a composer and a librettist and maybe go to the next step, commission a bigger piece. Commissioning comes in many shapes and variations, can be small and can be bigger. You don’t have to always go instantly for the big stage. Composers also work their way up. It’s not that easy to write a full-length opera. 

EM: Or a libretto. 

CS: Or a libretto. Also, full-length today means something else than at another time. Full-length cannot be anymore 3 ½ hours. For a new piece people just don’t sit through it. 

EM: For instance the Steve Jobs opera, which I saw at Santa Fe and again here. it was only about 90 minutes. And audiences were tremendously excited about it. I’m hoping that bodes well for the future. 

CS: I hope so, too. I really think if you find the right stories, production teams and composer and librettist teams, if we can connect somehow with the audiences and make it exciting. We’ll see. We have to keep trying. 

EM: I totally agree. New topic: can you describe the difference between producing opera in the west and in a place like Oman?

CS: We don’t produce opera in Oman. It’s not an opera house, it’s a performing arts center. Everything was invited. 30% of the programming was stars of the Arab countries, artists of their culture—huge stars. 

EM: We don’t hear of them over here. 

CS: Of course not. The truth is we don’t care. As much as for them Beethoven might be a chocolate, you wouldn’t know about their stars because we don’t pay attention. There is the cultural issue, we always think we’re the center of the world. But we had world music and jazz, we did 2 to 3 ballets, 5 to 6 operas. I brought Vienna State Opera, San Carlo from Naples, Bavarian State Opera. Also operetta because I thought it was important to give the range of what performing arts have to offer. I also brought a company from Budapest—ultimately it’s a very Austro-Hungarian art form—and My Fair Lady from Opera Cologne. I wanted Omanis to see the musical the way it was written, produced by an opera company, and not the reduced version—not 3 choristers and amplified, but full orchestra, chorus, opera singers, ballet. It was really great. So it’s mixed programming there. Arabic shows were produced from Arabic companies. The company Caracalla in Lebanon, which does dance and music events, the Rahman Brothers who do shows in the Arab style of music. 

EM: It sounds fascinating. 

CS: It was. Our culture is not the center of the world in other places, nor the best type of cultural music there is. It’s not about cultural colonialism, it’s about cultural exchange. Every culture has different taste, different history, different trajectory. It’s the differences that one should want to get to know. The Royal Opera House Muscat, the philosophy, the Sultan’s idea behind it, is the cultural exchange. For the Omanis and the expats that live in Oman to get to know the many different musical cultures—dance, opera, ballet, world music, folklore from Central Asia—I brought groups from Iran, the Fajr Music Festival, a lot of the Arabic stars. And of course we had an Arabic advisor for that; I’m not an expert in Arabic music. I learned a lot while I was there. the Omani audience and expats got a wide range of experiences of different musical styles and performing arts. But also all the groups coming to Oman got a taste of Oman, to experience the culture of Oman by visiting and performing there for a few days. The cultural exchange really goes both ways. I also did talks with the audience, had the artists give autographs and talk to the audience. I started using Omanis as supers in some of the opera performances. I loved living there. It was fantastic, an absolute great experience. 

EM: You should write a book about it.

CS: [Laughs] Funny, you’re not the first one telling me that. I visited Iran, Qatar, Emirates, Bahrain, and traveled to various parts of Oman. I can only recommend it. It’s a really fascinating country. 

EM: And you’re bringing all of that experience here. How wonderful for us. 

CS: I try. [Smiles]

EM: I’ve heard from a number of Wagnerian singers growing up in Germany that it’s expected they eventually will sing Wagner. Do you think that’s true? 

CS: I’m not sure it is. Of course, who better than a German singer could actually sing Wagner, you would think. But then you have fantastic singers also in other places. Ben Heppner or Greer Grimsley… 

EM: Christine Goerke. 

CS: Christine Goerke. So many fantastic non-German singers have sung Wagner phenomenally. The greatest Wagner soprano was Birgit Nilsson and she was Swedish. So I think that seems to me a bit exaggerated because there are also German singers that never end up singing Wagner. I do think there is this pressure on a German singer that they should be singing Wagner. As long as it is right for their voices and they go that direction, fantastic, because German is not an easy language. But neither is Russian, and you have many nationalities singing many repertoires. Music is a universal language. If you sing a different language, you have to make the effort to learn it well, to have good diction and know what you’re singing. Russian, Italian, French, whatever. Of course, as a native speaker it is somewhat expected that you sing your native language. French singers will not get around singing French repertoire, Italians of course will sing Italian repertoire. I think it’s great if you are a German singer and it’s right for your voice. Of course the sensitivity for the language is very natural because it’s your language. That is felt sometimes. But Alan Held and Greer Grimsley are fantastic Wotans. Both are so moving and so warm. They sure know exactly what they’re singing even if they’re not German. 

EM: I’ll tell them you said that. They’ll appreciate it. 

CS: Yes! [Laughs]

EM: There’s this perennial debate going on, that even if you could translate the Ring operas efficaciously, it’s the sound of the language in Wagner that cannot be duplicated. 

CS: The composers of any language have written the music to fit the language and the language to fit the music. There’s an extremely strong interrelation between the words and how the music is written for those words, or vice versa. Yes, you can translate it, but it’s not the same, because they’re supposed to work together. When I was in Germany, for example, a lot of Italian repertoire was sung in German until the late 60s, 70s, in smaller houses even late 70s. In Barcelona where I am now, basically everything that wasn’t Italian was still being sung in Italian. They sang Wagner in Italian. 

EM: And the Russian repertoire. 

CS: Russian repertoire, French repertoire. Last time Pearl Fishers was done in Barcelona was in the 60s. We’re doing it now in May, the first time it’s being done in French there, because in the 60s it was still being done in Italian. So Pearl Fishers in French is a debut in Barcelona in 2019. It’s surprising, but on the other hand also understandable. Several decades ago, singers wouldn’t travel all that much. The majority of singers were Italian, so they sang in Italian no matter the repertoire. It changed slowly over the decades as more research was done, more singers came. 

EM: More coaches became available. 

CS: Coaches. Then slowly one went back to singing actually in the original language because more singers were able to and there were more singers around Europe and around the world. 

EM: Like Nicolai Gedda, who could sing in any language. He was amazing. 

CS: Yes. That was great. Gorgeous. 

EM: As you know, people are Wagner-hungry in this town. 

CS: Yes. Actually I am myself. 

EM: I’ve read that you mentioned the possibility of a Lohengrin here sometime in the future. 

CS: We’ll see. Again, I still have to land here, I have to also look at what plans there are and the budgets, how seasons are planned and what the cost structure is here, then see what we can do. Yes, I’d like to do Wagner again but I will not say we’re going to do the Ring cycle every other year. I think that for any major opera company it is obvious and normal to have Wagner as part of the seasons at some point. Even more so in Seattle. But [Laughs] before I make firm commitments I think I’ll be careful. 

EM: I’m not trying to put you on the spot. 

CS: No, I know, don’t worry, I understand. That’s why I’m saying let me analyze—this is only my first visit since I was appointed. My other visit was in January for the interviews. So we’ll see. I’ll be back now in June and July for a week respectively and then slowly will go forward full steam.

EM: I imagine you might have a bit of an adjustment to the climate here. 

CS: For right now, yes, but don’t forget I’m from Hamburg, where the climate is very similar to here. Although I left Hamburg 31 years ago. 

EM: After Barcelona, it will be a big contrast for you.

CS: But I love the seasons, spring, fall is my favorite—the colors, smells. In Oman it was always great and wonderful and hot. There are no seasons in that part of the world. So living in a place that has seasons and a lot of green and forest and trees. It’s nice. 

EM: And endless opportunities for outdoor recreation. I read that you like to kayak. Lake Washington, what more could you ask. 

CS: It’s fantastic. When I lived in D.C. I used to kayak frequently on the Potomac. In Oman I went to the gym, but in Barcelona it’s been so much work the last year, it’s been nearly impossible to find time to exercise. I look forward. As we get older we have to exercise a bit more, but I also have always done sports all my life, so I hope to find the time here. 

EM: I hope you'll find time to go out and about. 

CS: I’ll find a niche. I’ll make a niche. 

EM: Christina, this was such a delight. I look forward to seeing you again. 

CS: Oh you will. Thank you so much. 


Photo credits: Christian Machio 
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

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