Tuesday, February 9, 2010

HGO Interviews Kim Witman of Wolf Trap Opera

Kim Witman of the Wolf Trap Opera Company is celebrating today’s announcement of the WTOC 2010 season by doing guest blog posts and interviews in a few places across the blogosphere.

Link back to Kim’s blog at www.wolftrapopera.blogspot.com for a complete list.

WTOC – like Houston Grand Opera – has a particular commitment to emerging artists. How does this influence your programming? (I note you choose your programming post- audition tour).

It influences our programming heavily, because all of the roles and assignments in all of our projects are performed by our emerging professional singers. (There are no other singers in the WTOC; emerging artists form our entire roster.) Because the typical 20-something singer isn’t trafficking in heavy roles in romantic opera, we almost never do any of those big grand opera or verismo pieces. (Things like Tosca, Aida, Pagliacci, etc.) And yes, we program our repertoire after the audition tour – it allows us to identify the best singers and then respond by choosing operas that contain roles that they could sing well at this point in their careers.

What purpose do Instant Opera and recital programs have in the training of emerging artists? How do they amplify or complement the mainstage experience? What do they offer audience?

Instant Opera is going into its sixth season, and it has become an even bigger asset to our program than we had hoped. Because its two basic building blocks are improvisation and recitative, the participating singers come out of that project with significantly enhanced theatrical and musical skills in those areas. Instant Opera gives us a way to connect with family audiences in the way that our mainstage identity typically doesn’t.

Our recital programming (both with Steven Blier, and more recently, as part of the Vocal Colors mini-recital partnership with the Phillips Collection in Washington DC) gives our singers a chance to develop the non-operatic part of their careers, and these projects offer an opportunity for a completely different kind of musical growth that complements the operatic experiences at Wolf Trap.

Doing new productions puts both audience and artists in an interesting, potentially quite advantageous position with respect to the piece – share your thinking on this aspect of your program?

There are both functional and philosophical sides to our commitment to doing new productions.

Functionally, our theatre is so unusual and specific in its technical requirements and size that we would limit ourselves severely if we were to only (or primarily) consider operas for which we could rent sets. It’s probably not that much more expensive for us to create our own than it would be to rent, ship, and modify someone else’s production.

And philosophically, it not only gives us a chance to participate in the careers of an entire generation of designers, it gives the singers a chance to be present for the life cycle of a new production and have costumes build specifically for them. There’s a creative energy that the director/designers team brings that spills over to the rest of the staff and cast.

Times Are Hard (aren’t they always?). What do you see ahead for the art form, and for those who make opera, and what if anything do you think companies and artists need to do (or do differently) to continue to be viable? What role do programs like WTOC and HGO Studio play?

I never see this expression without hearing Mrs. Lovett sing "Times is haaard, times is haard!"

If I really had the answer to this question, I’d probably be much more in demand than I am. None of us really know what’s ahead, but it’s incumbent on us not to take anything for granted. Most importantly, we need to constantly be on the lookout for what matters and be willing to let go of things that don’t. And as boring as it sounds, we just need to be fiscally conservative. The companies that are struggling and even going under aren’t necessarily the ones whose artistic standards weren’t up to snuff. They simply just couldn’t pay for what they bought. Those of us in the arts too often think we’re above such mundane discussions, and heaven knows that it’s painful to walk away from some of your dreams and fondest desires. To top it all off, some people do get away with it, and so we think we’ll always be lucky too.

What role do programs like WTOC play? We need to turn out singers and other aspiring opera professionals (coaches, administrators, directors, and technical staff) who are regularly practiced in reconciling their artistic selves with their realist, pragmatic selves. We should all practice this balancing act and instill a tolerance for it in our emerging artists, so that they not only can stay afloat as businessmen and women, but so that their muse can stay strong while they’re doing it.

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