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‘A Natural Fit’ – an opera company and its community in western North Carolina

Gordon Williams interviews David Starkey of Asheville Lyric Opera

I remember reading an article last year on operatic activity in New York state and being overwhelmed by the number of companies in one state alone. ‘Of course’, you might say, ‘that’s New York, one of the bigger states’. But there’s a proliferation of opera companies all over the USA. Whether or not all companies are success stories is a matter for separate study. But it’s worth noting that operatic activity in the US is not limited to the big cities.

Downtown Asheville. Photo: ExploreAsheville.com

Asheville Lyric Opera (ALO) is a small, regional company situated in a small city nestled in the mountains of North Carolina, about 334 miles or 537 ½ kms from the Atlantic coast. It presents a season each year in the intimate 500-seat Diana Wortham Theater and has been getting stronger since its inception in 1999.  In the South we heard a lot about Asheville itself (a ‘niche city’ as the description goes) from Southerners who summer there to escape the stickiness of coastal Charleston and Savannah. It’s on the western edge of North Carolina at the beginning of the Blue Ridge Mountains, It’s also a very ‘artsy’ city. Home to poet Carl Sandburg (who lived in the neighbouring county) and novelist, Thomas Wolfe (author of Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River), ‘the area’s numerous galleries,’ says the ALO’s website, ‘feature works ranging from classic fine art to fiber and glass art and traditional quilting.’ While the metro area’s population is nearly half a million, the city itself, according to the 2010 census, hosts 83,393 people. It’s interesting to consider whether we could have a company like this in a city the same size in Australia.

Asheville Skyline. Photo: ExploreAsheville.com

I met ALO’s director, David Starkey, in March 2012 when he was observing Sherrill Milnes’ VOICExperience workshops in Savannah, looking to see if there might be synergies between his company and that of another emerging entity in the US southeast.

Starkey began his career as a singer. He spent three summers (1994-6) with Brevard, the music festival founded in 1936 in the Blue Ridge Mountains which is partly how he became familiar with the Asheville area. I spoke to David by phone on the evening of the third presidential debate in October. He mentioned that the Fall colours had just started in the mountains back of the city.

GW: Why did you want to set up an opera company out here? After all, you had a career as a singer, performing with New York City Opera and at the Bregenz Festival in Austria…  

DS: So many times you go to school and you have this pipe dream of ‘oh my gosh’ becoming an opera singer or a conductor or whatever. And then you go into grad school and you continue to grow and thrive and expand. Then you get out in the real world and inevitably ¾ of the work that you do is based upon people saying, ‘Oh we don’t do it that way; that was just college.’ And I got to the point in my professional career where I wondered what I would do if I was given the opportunity to go and do it the right way. And that’s what stirred the dream.’

David Starkey

David was working at New York City Opera when he sat down with Paul Kellog, the-then General and Artistic Director of that company, who had also run the annual Glimmerglass Opera festival in Cooperstown village in upstate New York since 1979. Together, they came up with a set of five pre-conditions they felt necessary for establishing an opera company in a regional area:

1. There must be an artistic community.

2. There must be academic institutions or some aspect of higher education in the area.

3. There must be a community of giving and a spirit of philanthropy.

4. There must be a desire for entertainment.

5. There must be a ‘centre of energy’, or localized focus in the city.

It’s interesting to consider which Australian regional centres might fit this bill. Armidale, Bendigo or Ballarat all have tertiary institutions but Bendigo and Ballarat are close enough to Melbourne to get there and back in an afternoon and evening. Perhaps ‘desire for entertainment’ also implies ‘remoteness from’. And while Armidale might have an established conservatorium, how many of our regional centres have ‘a community of giving and a spirit of philanthropy’? I asked David about some of these preconditions. Why do there have to be academic institutions?

DS: My Masters program was at Indiana University, and Bloomington Indiana where it’s based is nearly 80% the university. At a certain size those academies become cities themselves. There’s so much infrastructure, and there’s a quality of life that begins to grow out of that infrastructure. The academic institutions let you know that arts and culture are going to become an integral fabric and piece of their education of a person. And what begins to happen is that these academic towns or cities begin to breed more and more creative people, who are problem solvers. You get more unique ways to address the sorts of challenges and growth and setbacks that reset a community forward. Not every single community can have an opera company because it doesn’t have the infrastructure or it may not have the academic stimulus among the people or the economic complexities that allow people to have the idea of doing things beyond their normal needs and requirements.

GW: You mentioned somewhere that you weren’t so stuck on having the presence of corporations and I’m just wondering why that would be.

DS: It stems from the philosophy that corporations come and go and people do not. The investment that people make into a community is much deeper and much wider than a corporation. And that’s not a criticism of the corporate model because many corporations try and emulate the type of commitment that people do. But I took Paul’s wisdom and experience, which I think came from his long tenure at Glimmerglass up in Cooperstown, which, like Asheville, is a niche location too with the Baseball Hall of Fame and so on.  And he shared with me how it really is about people; people and what they care about as the fundamental core of their community. And so, my relationship with the corporate community is a little bit more from the standpoint of building relationships. Yes we talk about the bottom line, we talk about return on the investment. But when it comes down to it, the choice that an organisation makes to give to, say, my organisation is because I have relationships with people and they see that kind of return in the relationship.

GW: When I met you, you were in Savannah checking out the first outing of Sherrill Milnes’ VOICExperience there, and mulling over the possibilities of future synergies between your companies. But you used a term in talking about the feasibility of synergies to the effect of ‘some cities are still just struggling to understand who they are’. Is one of your unstated preconditions that a city needs ‘to have a sense of its own identity’?

DS: Yes, to really collaborate and to share and to work together, you’ve got to really have a strong sense of who you are, so that you don’t lose yourself. Plus you also learn by what you can give. It’s a really difficult thing for people in the arts because it’s such an individual enterprise or from a business standpoint we’re all a bunch of little businesses running around together because it’s all about who each one of us are. And then we’ve got to figure out how to share that and put it together in these projects that then need some co-ordination. A real big trust has to come together with that. That trust has to then be shared with another city which is going through its own processing period. But for me, I consider this co-operation to be a higher calling of the arts. I think it has to always be part of our craft and when it happens it’s really marvellous.

GW: Your repertoire – and this seems deliberate – is conservative and, yet, it’s what you determined Asheville was looking for. I just wonder if you take a broader view, what you see as the future of opera if the sort of repertoire that appeals to a town like Asheville is verismo, bel canto? What happens to the music of the future and where does that fit?

A scene from Asheville Lyric Opera's La traviata. Photographer: Meghan Rolfe

DS: We have four tiers of opera companies in this country. I think the bigger companies, the A and B companies, like the Met, Chicago Lyric and Houston, then down the line to St. Louis, Sarasota and Santa Barbara, are definitely in the mindset of discovering new things. In some way I believe we smaller companies should do a bit of that. A couple of years ago, we did Hans Krása’s Brundibar, the children’s opera composed in Theresienstadt Concentration Camp; we did Sound of Music last year. So we’ve done American musical. We are going to be producing our first Tosca so the grander verismo material. We keep taking steps in different directions and just trying to discover things. I’ve just had a number of colleagues talk to me about an intimate chamber version of Milwaukee Florentine Opera’s Elmer Gantry, which just won a Grammy Award for its first recording. The parents of Robert Aldridge who wrote the opera are donors of mine.

But I believe our responsibility is to continue to stay true to the roots of the opera business. First of all, it’s not being produced as much, second of all there’s still a mission within the art-form where you’ve got to teach and nurture the upcoming talent and that’s something that we are very much thriving at. And our productions are fresh. We build our sets here and then rent them out. Rigoletto is an example of the focus of our innovation. The show had many scenes, a lot of cast members, and it was a complicated and layered show. We stretched ourselves to be able to do it.

GW: Perhaps the biggest measure of the strength of your relationship with your audience is the attitude you take to the Met broadcasts. You advertise them in your program booklets. They’re not a threat?

DS: For some of my colleagues, and some people in certain cities it’s a huge conflict. It’s basically sucking right into their opera audience. There are others that it’s helping to thrive.  I mean, I was mentored at the Met and then from my time at NYC Opera with Paul I began to have at least a glimmer of what these companies mean and why they are important. And they can do things that no other company in the country can or should or would do. But there are things that my opera company can do that they will never do.

I can do infinite productions. I can do grass-roots productions. I can incorporate the least-experienced and the most-experienced at the same time. There is a level of involvement that is very much on the level of a family. I began to see that my company could relate to the audience that was in that theatre in a way that the Met could never do. They could not customer-service them. There’d be a snowstorm and people’d have to cancel and get refunds and we’d step in. And so gradually, because of our experience and because of us knowing how to be a customer service agent, we created an initial relationship with the theatre and the audience in a way that the Met and not even a movie theatre could do. And that added value to our purpose. I think one of the greatest endorsements that the Met can do is they always say, ‘Hey, go support your local opera company.’ And I run on that phrase over and over and over again, and just recently we’ve been able to bring in some of those Met calibre talents and put them on our stage and watch them grow and develop before our eyes. And that intimacy and that connection is not something that Asheville audiences are going to gain by watching it on a movie screen.’

I think back on David’s and Paul Kellog’s five pre-conditions and realise that nowhere in them is ‘live entertainment’ explicitly stated. A desire for this must partly underlie ALO’s success. But before I can actually ask about this, David’s next sentence sums up really the reason for Asheville Opera’s success:

DS: Our company continues to survive and thrive because it is part of the fabric of its community. It’s a natural fit. That does not happen just anywhere.

Gordon Williams spoke to David Starkey.

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