Meet the General Director

Classic Arts Features   Meet the General Director
A conversation with the Dallas Opera's Karen Stone.

Although Karen Stone, the new General Director of The Dallas Opera, has been a whirlwind of activity since her arrival in Texas, not everyone has had the opportunity to enjoy the pleasure of her acquaintance. In an effort to address the problem of "not enough Karen to go around," here are a few of the questions you might have wanted to ask.

Playbill: You've spent the majority of your career in the opera centers of Europe‹most recently, in Graz. What is it that attracted you to The Dallas Opera?

Karen Stone: The Dallas Opera is a long-established company with an outstanding reputation. It offered me the opportunity to once again work with Graeme Jenkins, a conductor whom I greatly admire. Of course, the opportunity to be involved in the construction of a new opera house, from the planning stage forward, was quite enticing as well.

Playbill: The architects and planners are currently finishing plans for the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House. What would you, personally, like to contribute to the process of building the new house?

Stone: Particularly close to my heart is the idea of a smaller performance space in the foyer area for recitals and concerts, for a lunchtime series and pre-performance events. I will be looking closely at the possibilities. Also, years of working in a variety of opera houses has made me very aware of the backstage requirements for rehearsing and warming up during performances. This is also an area I hope to be able to influence.

Playbill: Have you formulated your goals for the season (or fiscal year, as the case may be)?

Stone: This was a marvelous season for me to start in Dallas and my goals are very clear: to reach an even wider audience and to introduce more people to the work of The Dallas Opera, to reach out to the current supporters of The Dallas Opera, and to win greater financial support from the community so that, ultimately, we will be able to extend our season and increase the number of operas we can offer each year.

Playbill: What makes a successful General Director and, for that matter, a successful opera company?

Stone: A good question! I think, in the end, although the important word is "communication," reaching out to the audience is crucial. This means having a company with a strong, united spirit because a sense of purpose transmits itself to the people in the aisles. The General Director must enable the company to move forward‹to expand, be creative, and grow‹and that means having good lines of communication inside the company as well as outside.

Playbill: How have your experiences elsewhere prepared you to get the job done in Dallas?

Stone: Many years spent in a variety of opera houses has given me a good working knowledge of singers, conductors, and directors, which is a great database to draw on. Of course, it's impossible to get through a season, anywhere, without a few hiccups. Having to find solutions to everything from singers who lose their voices during performance to financing and planning a three-week residency involving the famous Mariinsky Theater of St. Petersburg‹with 350 Russians under the baton of Music Director Valery Gergiev‹either causes despair or stimulates inventiveness, and I much prefer the latter!

Playbill: What do you consider your most meaningful artistic triumph?

Stone: Without a doubt, it was being able to win the talented young Swiss conductor, Philippe Jordan, as General Music Director for Graz. However, one of the great things about theater is that every production, every individual performance, is capable of producing a triumph. When putting together a cast for an opera, getting the chemistry right is so important because it's this mysterious, intangible mixture that will enable singers and musicians to achieve new heights of artistry. It all starts with having the right person in charge of the pit.

Playbill: How do we convey the unmatched excitement of opera to people who are new to the art form?

Stone: It will always be important to have the most loved titles in the repertoire. Thank goodness for Mozart, Puccini, and Verdi! Many people will seek out La bohème or La traviata for their first experiences of opera and these pieces‹the ones that go straight to the heart‹are the best ambassadors we have. Nevertheless, we also have to be walking ambassadors of our art form, approaching potential new audience members in our workplaces, our clubs, and our classrooms with information about the season, the artists, and the composers. A singer with a familiar name often draws people to the opera for the first time and the international stars performing at The Dallas Opera play an important role in pushing our sense of anticipation and excitement to a fever pitch.

Playbill: In tumultuous times, classical music in general (and opera, in particular) has the ability to lift us out of our mundane concerns, fill us with hope, and heal the innermost part of ourselves. What role should The Dallas Opera play in the life of our community in times like these?

Stone: Art, in its many forms, teaches us compassion and humanity. Music, in particular, has an extraordinary ability to bypass the intellectual, analytical part of the brain; to reach our subconscious and touch our emotional core. Of course, we can experience this sensation listening to our favorite piece of music on the CD player at home, but being exposed to live performance, feeling the passion and conviction of the artists on stage and the musicians in the pit, and actually participating in that creative process is an entirely different sort of experience.

The arts also help us to understand our history, our diverse backgrounds and our common past. We need companies like The Dallas Opera to bring these works to the community and keep these cultural traditions alive and thriving.

Playbill: Opera is, perhaps, the most color blind of the performing arts, with an extraordinary diversity of race, color, and ethnicity on stage for each and every production. How do we ensure that this broad measure of inclusiveness extends to the audience?

Stone: This is certainly a challenge, for opera as well as other entertainment and art forms. It's not just a question of ethnicity; it's about attracting a broad spectrum of income groups. We have to approach the issue in a variety of ways, starting with education programs that introduce opera at a young age. Performing works such as the de Falla double bill of El amor brujo and La vida breve is another effective means of developing a wider audience. As you pointed out, we do have an exceptionally diverse group of artists performing at The Dallas Opera and I believe we need to encourage greater identification with these performers. It is, however, vital that we keep ticket prices at affordable levels. This season, individual tickets start at $19 and trio packages from $47. That certainly compares well with the minimum ticket price ($36) for a Dallas Cowboys game!

Playbill: You are extremely well-schooled, having been educated in music and the liberal arts in several of the best institutions in London and in Rome. How did your experiences there affect your views on the importance of music education in our schools?

Stone: Learning music at an early age is crucial. Music, like languages, are best absorbed at an early age and music participation‹whether playing an instrument or attending performances‹provides the initial contact for a lifetime of musical enjoyment. I was lucky enough to hear great performances that left an indelible impression on me but I also owe an enormous amount to some marvelous teachers who communicated their enthusiasm and knowledge.

The Dallas Opera has a deep-rooted educational commitment. Approximately seven percent of our total budget goes to support the Company's school performances, develop curriculum, and support additional educational ventures.

Music education is more important than ever if we expect to nurture an audience for the future. We also have a responsibility to identify young people with talent and to encourage them to look to the opera or theater as a possible career, whether onstage or behind the scenes. For older generations living longer and healthier lives than ever before, education programs can also be extremely fulfilling. We are also increasingly aware of the therapeutic value of music at every age. It is one of the responsibilities of The Dallas Opera to be involved in these activities and to do our utmost to enhance the quality of life in this community.

Playbill: What was your first opera?

Stone: A performance in London at the old Sadler's Wells, in English, of the Ravel double-bill "L'enfant et les sortiléges" and "L'heure espagnole." I was eleven years old and remember finding the tales of magic and goblins very good fun. I thoroughly reveled in the naughtiness of the Spanish Hour, with lovers locked up in Grandfather clocks!

Playbill: You were born in Horsforth, Yorkshire. An Englishman once told me, "You can take the girl out of Yorkshire but you cannot take the Yorkshire out of a girl." Can you tell us what he meant?

Stone: This is an old saying, but I think it's true of all of us, wherever we come from. We keep something of our roots no matter how far we travel. People in Yorkshire have a rather alarming reputation for being extremely blunt and forthright; I do think it is difficult to make a Yorkshire lass devious.

Playbill: What word or phrase best describes you, and why?

Stone: A hard one for me to answer. I think you should talk to my colleagues, but I would hope that words like "fair" and "honest" and "hard-working" would crop up. I also rather like Blondchen's line out of Mozart's opera, Die Entfürung aus dem Serail: "Ich bin eine Engländerin, zur Freiheit geboren; und trotze jedem, der mich zu etwas zwingen will!" Loosely translated it means, "I am English, born free, and I won't be pushed around!"

Playbill: Have you been introduced to Tex-Mex food yet?

Stone: Yes! And I realized immediately that I had to go on a diet before it was too late‹those enchiladas are just to die for!

Playbill: What would you like people in Dallas to be saying about you, years from now?

Stone: I hope it will be something like: "I saw Karen at the opera last night. It was a great show and the audience went wild; this company just keeps on getting better and better!" Anyway, let's hope it's not, "Hey! I saw Karen at the opera last night. The enchiladas won!"

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