BWW Interviews: Artistry and Prudence - William Mason, Part 2
EM: From what you've told me, Bill, clearly the people here at SDO can learn a lot you, things they can come to you and ask, and you'll always have something to draw upon.
WM: I've had the good fortune to work with wonderful people at Chicago Lyric, Carol Fox and Ardis Krainik, Board members and senior staff. Then again I worked with Kurt Herbert Adler (San Francisco Opera) and saw how not to run an opera company. So, the experience side. My background was artistic and production, it was not marketing, fundraising and finance. The people in those positions I've worked with were wonderful, too, and bright. What I learned from them in those areas, with all that experience, that's hopefully what I have to offer.
EM: That's what we need, and it means a great deal to the company. Everybody was in shock after the announcement about closing. I interviewed Ferruccio (Furlanetto) just after the announcement (link), during rehearsals for the Verdi Requiem and Don Quixote. He was just devastated.
WM: He's a lovely man. In San Francisco we opened with La Gioconda, Giorgio Tozzi had been around for a long time and finally we decided he wasn't going to be able to continue. Ferruccio was a last minute replacement. It was the beginning of his career, 1979.
EM: Just before his debut at the Met in 1980.
WM: Right. When he came to the company he didn't speak any English. I was one of the few people who spoke Italian, so he and I sort of bonded. All those years he never came to Chicago because we had Ghiaurov and Sam Ramey. I would see Ferruccio at various times in my travels. We were very cordial and would chat. Then I saw him in Vienna in Boris and it was simply, "We've got to." So we brought him to Chicago for Boccanegra. And I knew he was going to have a future. When he heard I'd become Commendatore he said, "Sweet." He was very touched. Lovely.
EM: A great artist. I was lucky enough to interview him this season and last. I found him a delight. We've been lucky to have him here. I hope somehow we can bring him back.
WM: I hope so, too.
EM: Do you think, generally in US opera companies, is there a trend? Are they going to survive?
WM: I think these are difficult times in general for classical western art and performing arts. There's a demographic change, culture changes, education tends to go down the tubes. But everything changes. Companies have to change and adapt. Those companies that will find ways to do traditional opera and expand their community engagement and outreach will be the companies that survive. I think some of this music, Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Strauss, is all going to continue to be done. It may take a different shape. But some things may become expensive. Maybe Wagner will go the way of Meyerbeer. It would be a terrible thought, but they're big, expensive things to produce. One can never tell the future, but I do feel the art form will continue. At least I hope.
EM: I've looked at the plans for next season. They are keeping three of the big operas and doing a Mariachi opera, the Gala concert. Is there anything you can reveal about the plans for that concert?
WM: Not so much at this time, because we're still working on it. When you cancel Tannhauser you have a cast, as good as it is, that's pretty much limited, by and large, to German opera. And as wonderful as that stuff is it's not necessarily what makes up a gala concert. We're working, getting some artists. There are not that many artists these days. You don't have Pavarottis and Beverly Sills today. And those artists that have any kind of recognition are booked up pretty much by this point. So we've been going with some popular works for the concert, bread and butter stuff, with exciting young singers who, if the public doesn't know them when they come in, I want them to go out feeling "Wow." There are enough young singers around that they don't know yet, and that's going to be the tougher part, getting people to go, because perhaps they will not have heard of a lot of these singers. But I think when they come out of the theatre they're going to say, "Wow."
EM: Even Domingo and Pavarotti had to start somewhere.
WM: There's a young tenor named Barbera, from our Opera Center in Chicago, who said he would participate. Two or three years ago he won the Domingo Operalia. The only singer who's ever won that, the Zarzuela prize and the audience prize. If you go on YouTube and search Rene Barbera and hear the Fille du Régiment aria - it's not just that he knocks off the high Cs with ease, which a lot of tenors can do, it's the beauty of the voice. When I played the YouTube here for some of the staff, you saw people smile, because the voice just has instant appeal. And a superb technique.
EM: I think that's a smart move, because more than anything that's what people come for, especially in Italian opera. It's all about glorifying the human voice. That's something that makes people sit up and pay attention. Will you be participating in the search for a permanent General Director?
WM: The first thing we've agreed needs to be done is to set a job description, and I think that process will start in the next day or two, there are some meetings going on. It has to be defined what they're looking for exactly. The General Director reports to the boss, not the other way around. The board, with the staff, have to set some parameters of what they think this public wants and where they want to go. You don't want to bring someone who is too traditional and conservative or be so cutting edge you're going to alienate the audience. So setting some general artistic parameters without being stifling about it, and a little more discussion about what the job requires, what's expected of the person, the artistic, the fundraising. Once you establish that, then you can put together a job description, and they're going to want to do it fairly quickly. You need a search firm to assist you, to do the mundane things, because you're going to get letters from people coming out of the woodwork. People with no qualifications for the job. So responses have to be written. There's a lot of stuff the company doesn't have the time or resources for. I will be happy to assist in the winnowing out of the candidates if they ask me to do so, but I certainly don't think I should be, or there's any intention that I be, on the search committee. The Board will put that together and with the assistance of a search firm I have great faith they'll have great success in finding the right person.
EM: So what you're focusing on is just helping the company get back on its feet?
WM: I'm not here to tell anybody what to do. I'm here to help them in any way I can. In many cases they know what they have to do. If I can provide assistance, make things easier, that's fine. Make suggestions, then get the hell out of the way.
EM: Like a good conductor.
WM: Exactly. Don't get in the way of the music, that's what I've seen. Conductors fascinate me. Abbado to me is one. I watch him conduct and I never feel he's posing himself, just lets the music flow through him.
EM: A rare gift. Orchestra players have a love-hate relationship with conductors. Mostly the latter.
WM: I'm sure. And I've noticed sometimes - not always - the conductors they hate get better music out of them than the ones they love.
EM: Getting back to the types of operas. Putting Wagner aside, for the moment.
WM: For the moment, I would like to think.
EM: Are you planning on doing any Gilbert and Sullivan, operettas, things like Candide?
WM: I've discussed and will mention these, but I'm not intending to do any planning for the future. I think they've got to give the new person the free hand to do this. If we get to the point we've got a season planned - 2016 is put in place, there's one opera that's been put into '17 - I would hope the rest of that could be done by the new person in terms of the traditional operas. I have a couple of suggestions in terms of the outreach, If we get to the point where we have to start just for the sake of engaging artists cutting into '17, then, yes, I think I'll go in. But I'm really hopeful the new person with their artistic vision will be able to do that rather than have to live with what I'm putting together.
EM: Or it could become a mutual admiration thing where you're so in love with each other.
WM: It's possible and I really enjoy being out here. But as much as I'm enjoying it I see this as a short-term thing for me. I loved my job and, I gotta tell you, I love retirement. I would like to feel at a certain point they'll say, "Bill, thanks a lot, we don't need you anymore." That's the perfect setting. Because everybody's got a shelf life. I'm not the person to be running this company in the future. They certainly will find someone to do a very good job.
EM: Any details about future seasons?
WM: One thing they did announce was a co-production of Jake Heggie with Dallas. Anything else, I could be remiss if I revealed. I know what it would have been like in Chicago. The PR lady would have just had my head if I'd said anything I shouldn't.
EM: Understood. Tell me more about community outreach. Can you describe what you did in Chicago, and how you think you might be able to implement it here in some way?
WM: I wasn't as involved with that in Chicago, just because of running with eight operas a year. The education department did more of that. But we headed out to the neighborhoods, opera in schools, we had a lot of lectures that went to various places, sometimes with singers, sometimes without. The thing about Chicago was, how many months a year can you perform outdoors. You get to summer it can be brutally hot, you get to winter and forget about it. But here you've got endless possibilities. Here, they know where the communities are, where the facilities are. I expect you're going to see a lot more interesting ideas and much more community engagement, certainly more than has ever been here in the past. Right now the possibilities are endless. But it's all about the money in many ways.
EM: So initially the priority is to get everything back on track.
WM: Right. Getting these next few seasons in line and everything that implies artistically and financially, getting leadership. Once you get that in place you can move forward, little by little. Piano, piano.
EM: Certainly over the last two and a half months it's been a "wild ride."
WM: I can only imagine how traumatic it's been, especially for the staff. Not knowing if you're going to have a job, then going through this period of, is it going to happen, is it not going to happen. The whole closing was a bad idea, badly handled.
EM: From rock bottom to euphoria, and not overnight. The White Knights Committee, the outpouring of support, from here to New York. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I was so impressed.
WM: It's been remarkable. It's touched a lot of people and I can't help but think in some ways this has been the best thing that could have ever happened to the company. Hopefully it will be a ripple effect for other arts organizations. Without this, if Ian had just retired quietly, the company might have hired somebody and not reexamined the whole thing. It's forced the Board to take a look and see what they've got to do differently, the idea of getting out to the community. I'm convinced that unwittingly the past administration and board did this company a great service, even though it was pretty scary for those people that went through it.
EM: A painful process. But sometimes you need those growing pains.
WM: I think it will turn out to be a major turning point for the good. And we have Ian to thank for it (laughs). We'll try to look at the bright side. It's interesting that whatever I may have heard from various people, I've only heard good things about the product that was on the stage. It would be nice if that's how people remember him. It would be lovely if ten years from now people will be talking about that part as his legacy. From what I hear when he took over, even if kicking and screaming, he brought the level up. In a similar way that Jimmy (Levine) did with the Met.
EM: No question.
WM: Andrew Davis, our Music Director in Chicago, what he's done with that orchestra is great. For an orchestra, the music director is really what it's all about. For the company, the General Director. You realize what you've got to provide. I learned from Ardis to create a harmonious atmosphere that allows people to do good work. Everyone wants to do a good job. You give them a chance to do it. That was the one thing about Adler that was just so hateful, the way he treated people. He could be enormously charming but I really just learned a lot about how not to run a company. I left after a year. Adler drove the singers crazy. The people Adler liked - the Jean Pierre Ponnelles, would fight him tooth and nail, wouldn't take any of his guff. But there was a mutual respect, so people like that were treated well by Adler.
EM: Was he more of a tyrant than Bing?
WM: I never met Bing, I certainly don't know much about him, I don't know whether he did as much damage. I watched Adler conduct. A fine musician, but never a very good conductor. A smart board will not let anyone take a conductor who's a General Director. A GD has got to be there - it's not a part time job. You can't run around the world conducting. If you've got a great orchestra, it can work, but I think they're mutually exclusive. Even then, you can't be running the company if you're conducting rehearsals and performances.
EM: Not to mention studying scores.
WM: Julius (Rudel, who passed away last week) was unique in that he managed it at City Opera. It was chaotic, but he had something there, and also had some good people.
EM: Like Beverly (Sills). Aside from superstardom, she had a great attitude. Those were the days.
WM: It seems it. In 1971, there was Beverly and Maralin Niska, a wonderful performer. Patricia Brooks, Gilda Cruz-Romo. They did good stuff. It's a tragedy what happened to that company. If it could have survived, who knows. But I'm afraid that board had a lot to answer for.
EM: Thankfully, SDO now has a board that will bring us back better and stronger. Bill, this has been totally delightful.
WM: It's been a great pleasure, thank you so much.
Photo credit: San Diego Opera