At the Helm

Classic Arts Features   At the Helm
 
Dallas Opera general director Karen Stone and director of artistic administration Jonathan Pell discuss the factors involved in planning a successful season.


Playbill: Is the process of putting together a season a maddening responsibility or a delightful challenge?

Karen Stone: It's a delightful challenge from the artistic point of view and a nightmare from the standpoint of balancing the books.

Jonathan Pell: It's one of the most enjoyable things we do. It's like planning a dinner party for 10,000 subscribers.

Playbill: Where does the process begin?

Stone: The process begins by looking at what operas have been produced in the past (because we don't want to repeat ourselves too often) and trying to find a balance between the more popular works that appeal to a broader audience and those new or rarely performed works that will engage and challenge our audiences.

Pell: It's all about balance and combining different flavors, combining more exotic things with the more familiar staples. As I've said many times, I'm a chocaholic, but even I know that you can't have chocolate for every course! You need a menu that will appeal to a broad cross section of people. Finding the perfect balance of new repertoire, old repertoire, things we have or have not done before, is terribly exciting. When you get it right, you know it.

Playbill: People will want to know whether you follow some sort of tried-and-true formula to arrive at a great season, or is there such a thing?

Stone: We follow one formula, I suppose, and this is that it's always good to start off the season with a piece or a title or a composer that is popular and has something familiar about it. It helps to launch a season; and it's very good to finish in the same way, because popular works generate subscription renewals for the following season. Outside of that, you weigh the advantages and calculate your risks, in varying degrees, as you construct the remainder of the season.

Pell: I've often said that The Dallas Opera is "availability-driven." We can plan to do a particular piece but if we can't get the right ingredients, we have to decide whether to accept that it will be less than ideal or postpone it for some other time "when the truffles are in season."

Playbill: How do patron requests factor into the decision-making process?

Stone: The patron requests are immensely important to us. We ask for them on the Maria Callas Debut Artist of the Year Award ballot that goes out to subscribers at the end of each season. In fact, our 50th Anniversary Season presented us with a marvelous opportunity to respond to audience wishes. The number one piece that has been requested over the years‹a piece that we'd never performed‹is Verdi's great opera Nabucco, which opened this season. We do listen to our audience.

Playbill: What is it that motivates the company to launch a brand-new production? How do you decide that you're going to do that, rather than go with an already-established production? And how does that affect the overall season plan?

Stone: On two levels, really. I think, first of all, that anytime we do something new it creates a palpable energy. Producing a new opera, assembling a team‹the stage director, scenic designer, costume and lighting designers‹creates a distinctive sort of energy in the house that communicates itself to the audience. There's a freshness, a cutting-edge feeling to the process. Also, it's very useful to be a producing opera company because we rent out our productions after we create them. Over the years, this has generated a huge amount of income for The Dallas Opera. So we consider it an investment with a very good return. However, the amount of time in our workshops, the costs and the risks you absorb going in‹all of that has to be balanced against the option of bringing in a successful, already established production from another company, one that seems a ready fit with our audience.

Playbill: When planning a season, do you put more stock or trust in your past experiences or in your personal instincts?

Stone: That's an interesting question. I think it's a bit of both, really. There are operas that work in certain countries: If you are in Austria, they adore their operettas; in England, they love Gilbert & Sullivan. Do these same pieces work as well in America, or in Italy? Not necessarily. I think you have to take the time to learn the tastes of your audience and remember that your prior experience may be geographically limited. At the same time, the experience of what has worked well‹what commits an audience, what bonds them to you‹some of that comes from experience, some from your instincts and from simply asking other people the right questions.

Playbill: When I try to picture the two of you with Music Director Graeme Jenkins, Production Director John Gage, and Marketing Director Jennifer Schuder all in the same room, making these decisions, the first thing that strikes me is the very strong personalities you each possess. How difficult is it to achieve a consensus?

Pell: It isn't really that hard. There are economic issues, of course. If we're going to do a large opera, like Lohengrin, we also need to do a smaller piece, like The Barber of Seville. And you have a number of columns to consider: operas that the public has asked for, operas that are wildly popular and will attract new audiences, operas we've never done before, and less familiar works we believe could be loved by our audiences. When you start to work through the logistics‹for example, you want a particular singer for a particular piece but they are only available at another time‹you have to weigh the price of moving that piece.

Playbill: It's like a game of "three-dimensional chess."

Pell: Exactly, but with a lot of variables.

Stone: It is a complicated game. You say "three-dimensional chess," and I seem to remember watching a clip from one of the Harry Potter movies showing an extraordinary ball game where they were all flying through the air! I think there are lots of different elements. One of them is repertory: the works we haven't done, new repertory, well-known repertory. The other x-factor is the singer we would love to bring back to Dallas or to introduce to our audience‹once they find a slot in their calendar, we try to build a production around that availability. Dallas has always been famous for its singers and that's a tradition we try to both honor and develop.

Playbill: And do you, as General Director, have the final vote?

Stone: My grandfather was a captain who said, "My ship is a democracy and I run it." I think that's more or less the answer to your question. Yes, you have the entire team up there but, at the end of the day, someone has to make the decision and then take the responsibility. If it's the wrong decision, you can't turn around and say, "Well, they said we should do it." You've got to back your own decision 100 percent, once you've made that call.


Suzanne Calvin is Associate Director of Marketing/Media and Public Relations for The Dallas Opera.


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