Monday, May 2, 2016

Mattaliano talks about Portland Opera's move to a summer season and the upcoming operas

Starting at the end of this week with performances of "The Magic Flute," Portland Opera is opening its season in the late spring and will finish in the first week of August. This is the first time that the company has tried to shift all of its productions to the months when sunshine can dominate the weather forecast. In order to know why Portland Opera has decided to make this big change, I visited the General Director, Christopher Mattaliano, who is in his 12th year at the helm of the company. Our conversion took place at his office at the Hampton Opera Center.

What’s going on with the move of the opera season to an all summer schedule?

Mattaliano: We did an analysis of a switch to late spring and summer and saw it as an opportunity to increase revenue by bringing more Broadway Series performances to the Keller through the fall, winter, and early spring. We get a lot of requests to use this building, Hampton Opera Center, which we own. We get requests to rent it for meetings and for rehearsal space because we have two huge studios downstairs.

We spent two or three years talking about these matters and did a lot of analysis and some strategic planning. There was the element of okay if we condense our season and move it to the summer months, what opportunities in terms of additional revenue will come as a result.

It seems that the Keller is constantly booked with musicals.

Mattaliano: We’ve always had a locked hold at the Keller for the Broadway Series, which is ours. The expansion of the Broadway Series has evolved into more dates and shows.

St. Louis Opera takes place during the summer. Are you trying to imitate them?

Mattaliano: We have some excellent examples of summer opera companies: St. Louis, Santa Fe, Glimmerglass, Cincinnati, Central City. We can learn how they market themselves, what their unique challenges are, what are their strengths and weaknesses. We did a fair amount of analyzing and confirm with our sister companies around the country.

We celebrated our 50th anniversary last year. But 12 opera companies have closed in the past 5 years, which included New York City Opera and Baltimore Opera. San Diego Opera went to the brink and then came back as an entirely different company. Opera Pacific, which was located in Orange County – one of the wealthiest county in the country - went belly up in 2008.

Portland Opera is a very stable company with a significant endowment. We own our building outright, we own the parking lot across the street, and we have significant rental income. We have a strong subscription base, but like all of the other companies, we took a hit when the economy tanked during the Great Recession. With the board, we started dreaming about the next five to ten years of this company. We also discussed how we can avoid making the mistakes that have gotten other companies into financial trouble. The biggest thing we saw was that the companies that got into financial trouble were the ones that refused to adjust to the change in audience behavior. Audience behavior has shifted dramatically in the past decade.

Michael Kaiser has written a lot about the state of the arts and the challenges we are facing. His latest book is called “Curtains?” and the key argument he makes is any opera, orchestra, theater company is competing with every opera, orchestra, theater company that is online. Why should I go should I go see Portland Opera’s production of “La boheme” and pay 50 to 150 dollars for a good seat when I can at home on my spectacular state of the art home theater system download performances from La Scala, Covent Garden, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Bolshoi, the Met for a few dollars and watch it when I want to in my pajamas with a glass of wine. So Kaiser says that unless you as an opera company start a real presence online, you are going to be obsolete within 30 years.

Kaiser explains how we are on our third generation of children who have not had an arts education. So more and more kids are growing up with no choir, band, jazz ensemble, in the schools. The entire gateway for these kids to the world is through their gadgets. He says that we now have kids who don’t even know what live arts are.

So in Portland Opera's planning sessions,we talked a lot about the future and audience behavior that has changed dramatically. People are nervous about what they do with their disposable income. The internet has provided so many more options for people’s entertainment – and they can get it when they want it.

But Portland Opera doesn't have the budget to stream productions online?

Mattaliano: That's correct. But I feel that we as human beings need to congregate and experience something live together as a community – whether we go to church together, or a piano recital, or opera. I think that the live experience is still far more satisfying than seeing a great performance on a DVD.

So we felt that if we are going to change, we will change big. That means that there will be some risk included. It seemed that the majority of opera companies that got into trouble refused to think about changing what they program and how they program. And if there was a financial gap, then they would go back to Mrs. Smith and ask for that additional 25 thousand dollars. And that was getting companies into trouble – relying on a very small pool of donors.

We looked at summer opera companies and found that they were the most consistently stable through the second economic downturn and there is little happening here in Portland during the summer in terms of classical music. There is Chamber Music Northwest, which is very successful, but that’s the major player. Other opera companies said to us, you own the landscape. It became more and more difficult for us to get our message across in the fall because that’s when everything starts happening. We feel that the city has become such a destination in recent years and the weather is so magnificent in the summer. We thought that a switch to the summer would be a chance to expand our audience and build packages for the weekend where people can see two operas. We will do that this year with ”Eugene Onegin” and “The Italian Girl in Algiers.”

You started shifting last year with "The Elixir of Love," which you did in the summer last year.

Mattaliano: And that went really well. But over the past couple of years, I’ve learned that change is tough. Regardless of whether it makes sense or not, people are resistant to change. So we have a lot of people sitting on the fence wondering what the hell Portland Opera is doing. It takes about three years for people to figure out what we are doing. People have to experience our productions during the summer to find out what it’s like.

With "Eugene Onegin" and "The Italian Girl in Algiers" you are doing more performances – seven for each.

Mattaliano:That gives people who have subscribed at the Keller a few more options for their seats.

The Keller has had problems for us, because it so huge with 3,200 seats. The Newmark has problems with the second balcony which is very steep and the orchestra pit is tiny. So we will try to focus on popular operas and musicals at the Keller and we have can use the Newmark to stretch ourselves artistically and take more risks. "Onegin" and "The Italian Girl" are not all that risky, but things will change next year – which I can’t tell you more about at this moment.

For the orchestra pit in the Newmark, what are you doing for "Onegin?"

Mattaliano: We are using a reduced orchestration which was done in England a few years ago and brought to Lincoln Center. I don’t know if you remember the Peter Brook “Carmen,” which did the opera in 90 minutes, but the orchestration in that production used 15 musicians and they got rid of the chorus numbers and he really focused on following the story that was in the Merimee novella. So this is a similar idea with Onegin that essentially the Pushkin story is an intimate piece that can be done with a chamber orchestra and without the big chorus scenes. We are setting it during the Gorbachev era, so it is the Russia of the 1980s. Kevin Newberry who directed our “Galileo” a few years ago returns to direct "Onegin."

For the Italian Girl in Algiers we are bringing in Christian Rath for the first time. I was blown away by his work in Verdi’s “King for a Day” at Glimmerglass a few years ago.

And you are directing Magic Flute

Mattaliano: I was the original assistant director of "The Magic Flute" that used the Sendak designs back in 1980 at Houston Grand Opera. I was the assistant to Frank Corsaro, who was my teacher and mentor. He got an offer from Houston Grand to do a new "Magic Flute." He loved reading Sendak’s book to his kid, and he got the idea of using Sendak’s ideas of light and dark and disturbing things but they are very joyful and playful at the same time. Corsaro saw this as a key into the world of "The Magic Flute." He contacted Sendak, who is a opera lover and a Mozart fanatic, and then convinced David Gockley who was the general director of Houston Grand, to do the opera with Sendak’s designs for scenery and costumes, even though Sendak had never designed for an opera before. That was an enormously successful production that was staged all over the country. I directed several of the revivals. But the sets were stored in Florida and destroyed by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Because of very generous grants from Maurice Sendak Foundation, the Carol Franc Buck Foundation and form the Schnitzer CARE Foundation, we salvaged the costumes and purchased them, and we are having the sets totally rebuilt and repainted. So we are reviving that production.

Are you redoing the sets from old photographs?

Mattaliano: We are fortunate that the fellow, who did the original scenery paintings based on Sendak’s drawings, is still alive. His name is Neil Peter Jampolis, and he is the painter that Sendak chose when the Houston Grand Opera production was done. So Jampolis is taking the images and translating them into 3-dimensional designs and painting them to the full scale. This is a production that is very near and dear to my heart, and I have a personal connection with it. Portland Opera now owns it, and we think that it will provide us a lot of rental income in the years to come.

What kind of staging will be used for Sweeney Todd?

Mattaliano: I’m glad that you asked. When New York City Opera folded , we purchased this production from them. It’s essentially the original Broadway production. Hal Prince moved from theater to opera and adapted his original Broadway staging and scenery to the New York State Theater. We hired Albert Sherman,who was Hal Prince's assistant to help recreate the staging.

So this season, Portland Opera will be creating new productions for the Newmark Theater – that’s "The Italian Girl in Algiers" and "Eugene Onegin" – and using productions that we own – for "The Magic Flute" and "Sweeney Todd."

That's a huge undertaking. Break a leg!

Mattaliano: Thanks!

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