Stepping In

Classic Arts Features   Stepping In
Gracie Cavnar speaks with Anthony Freud, Houston Grand Opera's new general director.

Anthony Freud took the reins this month as the new general director of Houston Grand Opera‹only the third to hold this title since the Opera's birth over 50 years ago, and the first also to be named CEO. He inherits a mature company of world renown, celebrated as the undisputed leader in commissioning and producing new works and a host of other innovations.

Freud initially trained as a lawyer in England, but practiced for only six months before answering the siren call of the performing arts. After executive posts at Sadler's Wells Theatre, Philips Classics (a division of Polygram Records), and earlier stints at the Welsh National Opera as both company secretary and director of opera planning, he returned to WNO as the general director‹a post he held for the past 11 years. On his watch, WNO won more awards than any other British company, including two Laurence Olivier Awards, a Barclays Theatre Award, an Evening Standard Award, and four Royal Philharmonic Society Awards. It recently moved into its spectacular new home‹Wales Millennium Centre. This broad base of experiences has created in him a special character patina‹a fine balance of enthusiasm, wisdom, creativity, and pragmatism.

Conservatively dressed with a short-cropped Van Dyke and carefully smoothed hair, Freud's polished British accent has no haughty attitude attached. Quite the opposite, he is a man who is head over heels for opera and wants to spread the love. "Opera is exciting, relevant, potentially life changing," he declares. "If I can get someone through the door, opera will do its magic."

That attitude is compounded by his enthusiasm for his new job in Houston. "Moving to the United States is something that I have dreamt of doing for a long time," says Freud. "Houston seems to be a welcoming, diverse, and energizing city with a vibrant cultural infrastructure. I can't wait to jump into the deep end and take advantage of all it has to offer." His regular visits to the city over the last seven months have given Freud the chance to meet many of HGO's supporters and to explore his new home. "Houstonians have a passion for the arts which I find invigorating," he observes.

Freud is thankful for the legacy his predecessors have left him. "The first 50 years, HGO developed a secure foundation and reputation and I'm very grateful to be inheriting such a mature organization," he says. "But I'm my own man. I can't stand still. To succeed, an opera company has to regard itself as a living organism; it must evolve to grow‹to understand what it is to be an opera company in the 21st century‹and the change must be organic."

The repertoire for HGO's next few seasons is set and Freud wants to fully understand his new company and the civic environment of his new city before making any operational changes. Still, he had to focus on the programming for fall 2008 straight away, so he went to work with his new colleagues immediately after being appointed in July. Wrestling with a regular trans-Atlantic commute while launching WNO's fall season did nothing to dampen his fervor. "It's great to begin discovering the company and to dream," he says. "You can let your mind be really creative without yet having to apply stern business criteria." Still he is relieved to finally give full focus to his vision for Houston Grand Opera.

Freud's easygoing personality belies a resolute determination when he says, "The person lucky enough to be given the buck-stopping job enjoys the privilege of the dreams but also endures the nightmares. I hope I'm a leader who can inspire and motivate. I love this work; it's a wonderfully invigorating challenge from which I derive constant excitement." And he has aggressive goals for his new company. "I'd like to explore a whole range of activities‹small to large-scale‹allowing us to touch the lives of more people in more communities around the city," he says. "We must be imaginative to see that the depth and breadth of the company will break down barriers and become relevant to a diverse audience."

Freud is also eager to work with Houston Grand Opera Studio. "I think that it is the most important part of the company and essential to our effort. I have no doubt that it will continue to play an integral part in HGO, and any changes I might make would be to further enhance the Studio's role. It is our responsibility to build the great artists of the future."

The general director's chief ambition is to make Houston Grand Opera indispensable to the cultural fabric of the city. Will this mean more experimental work for HGO or a concentration on time-honored productions? It's a fine balance. Freud explains, "I think that taking risks is the absolute lifeblood of an arts organization. Opera is not pickled in a jar of preservative. We must find the right balance between respecting and honoring tradition while interjecting vitality‹innovation is fundamental. We must broaden our audience while retaining the faithful and encouraging opera lovers to take more risks."

Sanguine, but not naïve, Freud explains his philosophy: "Those of us working within the company are completely committed to it being the best entertainment around and our role is to convince as many as possible to share our passion; to break down barriers. We must find the right level of imagination and energy artistically while producing a range of both familiar and unfamiliar opera; make it affordable to a broad audience; and maximize the budget through both income and contribution. We must stay on a precarious tightrope in order to grow in front of an enthusiastic audience whose support we will have to earn. A company must take the audience by the hand and lead them on a path of discovery. If it is carefully structured it can be artistically exciting and popular. Achieving the balance is everything. That's at the heart of what we do."

Gracie Cavnar writes frequently about the arts.

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