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BWW Interview: Khori Dastoor of THREE DECEMBERS at Opera San Jose Is Up to the Job of Making Art That Is Relevant for Our Times

General Director Dastoor honors the legacy of Terrence McNally with a stunning new production of Jake Heggie's opera based on an unpublished play by McNally

BWW Interview: Khori Dastoor of THREE DECEMBERS at Opera San Jose Is Up to the Job of Making Art That Is Relevant for Our Times
Khori Dastoor, General Director of Opera San José
(Photo by Chris Hardy)

Talking to Khori Dastoor, General Director of Opera San José, I was reminded of that old quote from Elizabeth Taylor when she was faced with unimaginable adversity, "Now is the time for guts and guile." Just one year into her tenure as GD, Dastoor is faced with an almost impossible situation due to the Covid pandemic. Out of all the arts, opera, the artform which she has made her life's work, arguably has the biggest challenges. After all, the act of singing operatically produces enormous amounts of aerosols, the core audience is older and thus especially at risk for Covid, and the population at large may not consider opera to be essential to their lives. Since creating new productions is practically impossible right now, many GD's are resorting to offering a sort of greatest hits of former glories, video snippets from past years that were already in the can. Or maybe something like a "reading" of an old holiday chestnut like Der Rosenkavalier, presented Brady-Bunch style on Zoom.

So what does Dastoor do instead? She goes bravely programs a brand-new, beautifully-produced production of Jake Heggie's Three Decembers, starring no less than world-renowned opera star Susan Graham, alongside two of Opera San José's super-talented Resident Artists, soprano Maya Kherani and baritone Efraín Solis. This immensely moving chamber work is based on an unpublished play by Terrance McNally, adapted by librettist Gene Scheer, and tells the story of a family struggling to connect during the early years of the AIDS pandemic. The work premiered in 2008, yet somehow feels more relevant than ever, given the parallels with what we're all going through today, as evidenced by McNally's death from Covid earlier this year. The opera is currently available for streaming through the end of December. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit operasj.org.

I spoke with Dastoor last month, shortly after the filming of Three Decembers had been completed. Dastoor was remarkably open and forthcoming about the challenges of the opera world right now, even as her passion for growing the artform burns stronger than ever. We talked about how she managed to produce Three Decembers during Covid, her successful earlier career as a lyric soprano, and the imperative to keep the arts alive during these difficult times. Her responses to my questions were invariably thoughtful, often surprising and not without humor. And, as a rare woman of color leading an opera company, her understanding of the need to open up her artform runs deep. Above all, though, she is just plain fun to talk to - effortlessly engaging, whip-smart, emotionally transparent, and without an ounce of pretension. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What has this past year been like for you?! You get this great new job as General Director of Opera San José, and then - boom! - your entire world turns upside down. How have you been navigating all that?

Omigod! What has the year been like? Well, it's been an opera into itself. I mean, the highs, the lows. The thing about being a GD is that every day is so many different jobs in one job. There's just never a time where I think to myself, "OK, today I'm going to focus on fundraising." or "Today, I'm really gonna look at mapping out a programming plan." It's just constantly being strategic about where I shift my focus.

The first year has been about listening, in so many ways. To the disappointments coming from our artists about how the business side of opera has failed them. Listening to our community about all the ways that our company could do more to meet their needs, or how far removed we've become from the heartbeat of their lives. Or listening to staff, a team who've been asked year after year to do a dollar's work for fifty cents, you know? And when you come into a situation where you're a new leader and you have big ideas, you quickly learn that everyone's thought of your ideas already and there are reasons why things are the way they are.

I have learned that it is my job to just sort of find a well of optimism that no one can take away from me, because the obstacles are overwhelming, and in a way I think Covid is just one more obstacle. Opera's already impossible, for so many reasons, and if you're not optimistic, like if you're not totally committed to seeing it through, you wouldn't be in the business to begin with. So when Covid happened, it was just an extension of that.

I am totally feeling as new in my position as I did a year ago, and the comfort is that everyone's new in their positions now because up is down, and down is up. Everything that came before feels a little bit like it doesn't apply anymore. So it's been a bit of a crazy year, but also incredibly stimulating and challenging and I do feel very grateful to have this job.

Everybody everywhere, every profession, every artform is dealing with their own specific challenges these days. What has been especially challenging in the world of opera?

Oh, are you kidding?! [laughs] Number one: You can be a ballet dancer and have a mask on. It's not ideal, but... Even if you're acting in a play, you can mike it. What we do is about the aerosols and the breath. You hear all these recommendations from epidemiologists about sort of not shouting out loud, but everything about opera singing is about expelling of aerosols, which makes it more risky and more complicated. And our patron base is older than other art forms, so they are more at risk than other audiences and they are more risk-averse for gathering in groups, as they should be. And for many people, going to the opera is just something that they have always done, for years and years the same seats, and when you rip people out of that routine and you say to them, "Well, it's not going to look like that for 6 months... 12 months... 18 months???" As those months grow longer and longer into the future, the value-add of "Just please keep giving us the money?" That's the challenge.

Another thing that I think is really hard about opera is, looking at our canon of work, the things that we produce with regularity, that our regular audiences expect, and finding a way to deal with how that fits into what our society is confronting right now. Finding a place for our diverse community in a Western European artform is also I think uniquely challenging for opera. And it's a tough, tough sell for people who aren't already converted.

I mean, I don't want to get into a competition who has it the hardest, [laughs] but certainly opera has big challenges right now. And yet, I have been dismayed to see what I would say is sort of a national commitment to other sectors, be it professional sports or other things that carry a lot of risk. It's really people in European countries that are saying, "Hey, arts and culture are a central part of how we live, so let's grapple with solutions." I have been disappointed to not see that in our national dialog. And you can put me in the camp of people that think shutting down is an existential threat to what we do, and the wrong call. My position from the beginning has been, "Yes, but how do we move forward?" Right? We can't wait for some magical thing, cause that's not coming. So what can we do?

I saw a beautiful production of Three Decembers with Frederica von Stade at Cal Performances back in 2008 and was very moved by it. How did you go about choosing it for a virtual production?

Well... first Terrence McNally died of Covid in the spring. And not long after that, I lost my mother, not to Covid, but to cancer. And I was in my house, you know, watching everything about our lives fall away, and feeling almost like I had been cheated of a moment of grief. I couldn't have a memorial, I couldn't see my family. My father, 81, was on the other side of the country. All the things that you ordinarily would do when you lose your mom, I couldn't do. And then we lost Fred Heiman on our board, and I saw myself just writing condolence card after condolence card.

Jake Heggie's been a friend for a long time, we both graduated from UCLA, and we were having conversations about Terrence and Ann Getty and my mom, and Three Decembers was just in mind all the time. We wanted to honor Terrence's legacy, and I said, "You know I think we can't do the Figaro we had planned to open the season, but I would like to do this." And so that's where it started. And he has been so supportive ever since and very involved in the whole project.

And it's funny because Three Decembers is one of those pieces where you think "Omigosh, this is my life." But then you talk to anyone else and they're like, "Omigod, this is my life." [laughs] Every single person that came together to work on this piece had their own connection to it, and their own story with it. The piece that really hit home in the rehearsal space was how the first scene takes place in the throes of the AIDS epidemic. Jake's writing about what it was like to live through that moment in time, and how you didn't know how that virus behaved, and you didn't know how you spread it, how you contracted it, and that sort of panic that came with that. It just felt so ... of this moment.

So, for many reasons, I wanted to produce it. It wasn't really that I thought, "Oh, the world needs another production of Three Decembers." It's a celebrated piece of the repertoire, but it was more that it's what I wanted to work on and what I wanted our company to bring to our patrons, because I knew that a lot of our patrons and subscribers wouldn't have seen the piece.

I have to say that when I first heard you were doing Three Decembers, I thought, "Now, that's cool!" Because it feels both doable in a virtual production and like it really speaks to where we are right now.

And it's [only] 90 minutes, which is great.

Right! The other day I was watching a play online and it was a really strong production, but it was also 2 ½ hours with no intermission, and I eventually just started to lose focus.

I know, I know! And just capturing it, we did all of Three Decembers on one day because I wanted that sort of spontaneity of a performance, of one day. So there are mistakes, it's not a music video of this piece, but even just getting the shots set up and getting through it, if it had been a much longer piece, I don't think we could have done it in one day, and then you're looking at a multi-day shoot and everything gets much more complicated to create that experience of a live performance that we all want. Which is a bummer because I'm finding all these chamber operas that I love and they're long, and now I know enough to steer clear of them.

BWW Interview: Khori Dastoor of THREE DECEMBERS at Opera San Jose Is Up to the Job of Making Art That Is Relevant for Our Times
World-renowned mezzo-soprano Susan Graham stars as Maddie in
Opera San José's production of Three Decembers
(Photo by David Allen)

It was quite a coup to get Susan Graham on board! How did that happen?

[laughs] Um, it was a coup. And I don't say that because I did anything in particular. It's just one of those silver linings of the fact that the world was shut down, and so I thought to myself, "Omigosh, everybody's available, and if there is a unique opportunity for us, it might be possible." And then it was through a mutual friend. I said, "There's no way she would think about it, would she?" and he said, "I don't know, I'll text her."

I think a lot about our resident company, what do they really need to advance in their careers, how is it that so many young artists programs and graduate degree programs sort of fail people in preparing them, and what were the moments in my performance career that really shaped me as an artist? Having the opportunity to, not take a masterclass with, or take a voice lesson with, but to be a colleague of somebody like that, you know somebody who's going to really make the art with you, those are the kinds of artistic experiences that truly transform people.

And it turned out as I got to know her, she comes from a place of "yes." You know where so many agents would have said "no," not knowing how we would do this. At the time that we started talking about it, it just wasn't being done at all. And she got in her car, she drove here, she quarantined for two weeks, she did all the testing. She's just been up for it. And of course, she's just a dream. She was a dream fit for the role. You cannot do the piece unless you know who's going to sing Maddie, and you can't justify doing it unless it's somebody who is going to have that stature. I'm very committed to Opera San José being focused on role debuts and this is a perfect example. This is a role that Susan should sing and will sing [again], but she had never sung it before so she was the top of my list and she just said "yes."

And the first time I really became aware of Susan Graham was in Dead Man Walking, also written by Jake & Terrence.

Yes, I have a picture on my desk of Baby Jake and Baby Susan and Terrence together in New York. While we were capturing, it was the 20th anniversary of Dead Man Walking and they were remembering that and remembering him, and I didn't even actually think about that. I was thinking of the character, and the voice and the acting required. Because Maddie, like so many of our moms, she's totally impossible, and yet has to be completely charming, and Susan is just the Meryl Streep of opera for me. And it's so true that it works on film or onstage, you know? There's no calibration needed for the Met or for the camera angles; it's just true. It's just a beautiful performance. I can't wait for the world to see it. She's amazing. And I can't wait for the world to see how those other two artists rose to her level, and how good it is, every performance, all three of them.

BWW Interview: Khori Dastoor of THREE DECEMBERS at Opera San Jose Is Up to the Job of Making Art That Is Relevant for Our Times
(L to R) Susan Graham, Efraín Solis & Maya Kherani in a charged moment
from Opera San José's production of Three Decembers
(Photo by David Allen)

You had a successful career as a lyric soprano before transitioning to the administrative side of the house. How did that happen? Was that part of a conscious plan?

Yep! I had so much fun, you know I spent fifteen years or something doing that. I really enjoyed what I would call this sort of crossover, theatrical repertoire. I was at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for a season doing Mabel in Pirates of Penzance about 70 times or however many times you do it there and really enjoyed traveling and all the people I got to meet. I never felt, ever for a minute, that it was going to be my whole life. I didn't have an international talent, I didn't have a desire for it, I just knew so early on the sacrifices required, and there are so many pieces of the artform that really intrigue me. I remember living in Switzerland singing Lucia and I was in a kind of Regietheater production where I was on puppet strings and I was getting gang-raped in a scene and I just remember thinking, "No, no, no! Listen to what Donizetti wrote. This isn't right!" [laughs]

A combination of just being ready to close the chapter and having dreams for what the business might be, and for what projects might be possible, caused me to sort of say "You know, I'm ready." I just called my agent and said, "I'm ready to start something new." It very much did feel at that time, and it really does feel that way now, not like the end of something, but just a continuation of something for me. And when I'm in audition and I hear some of the voices that I hear every year, I think, "Oh, well, yes. I'm doing what I should do, and you need to be doing that." [laughs]

After my performance career, I worked at a family foundation. I was evaluating a lot of grant proposals and awarding funding to make artistic projects happen, and that gave me almost a consultant's view into what needs to go into an organization, the culture of the place, the quality of the project, how you pull together the right group of people to make something successful. By just seeing so many of those proposals come across my desk over twelve years, I learned a lot about how things get funded, the mechanics of the business, and the challenges of making something where there wasn't something before. I think the combination of being a performer and then being a sort of funder have really come together in making me a producer. One thing that I knew as a singer was I wanted to be a part of a vision that aligned with my own. And I think that's my primary responsibility to Opera San José, to provide a sense of vision, of what we're going to be about and who we're going to serve, and then empower the people around me to make that happen.

We're currently in the midst of a much-needed national reckoning around issues of diversity, inclusion and racial justice. And here you find yourself as a woman of color in a leadership position within an artform that can seem pretty hidebound. What do you think you can do to effect meaningful change?

[pauses] I think if I had an answer to that question it wouldn't be a valid answer. But what's important is to ask the question every day. I do think changing the rules is called for, and I try to do it with a spirit of "yes" instead of a spirit of blame, but I certainly make space for and understand the anger and the exhaustion. I can only say that this will be the work of my lifetime. I'm not expecting that, you know, OK it's George Floyd's murder and then we dealt with that for 12 months, and then something [else came along]. It's really not that.

I draw a lot of inspiration from all the art in my life, whether it's another artform or looking and listening to The Marriage of Figaro, which is about progress, reconciliation, and examining unhealthy systems of power and challenging them, and I see that everywhere in opera. What I want for people to understand is that that is, and has been, the core of so many operatic stories. I will curate that for our audience and I will make sure that these conversations are given space and amplified, and then it's not up to me or anyone else to tell people how to react to that, but we have to make space for those conversations.

It's part of why I wanted this role. I am proud to be a different-looking GD with a different story, and the daughter of immigrants and bring my own experience to the job. I see the transformation taking place all around me. Opera's future doesn't look like its past, and that is exciting. But I don't know what I can do. I just know that it's going to be the thing that consumes my career more than anything else, as we ever strive for more equity, more justice, and to amplify unrepresented voices.

Even as you still work within a traditional artform, one with a centuries-long history associated with it.

Yes... but I mean, storytelling is old but storytelling is new, and storytelling is a basic human need. So many of the quote-unquote "new work projects" that I find are sort of like, "Is that an opera?" We're blurring those lines of what that even means and I think Covid in a weird way is sort of taking away the unhealthy crutch. We can't do the big, huge Turandots that are so tempting to do. We have to look smaller, more intimate, more personal. We have to drill down and take away some of the opulent sets. The whole cost/benefit analysis becomes different.

And what I realized is for most of America this is a very optional thing, but for those of us who live in opera, it is not optional. You know, Susan talks about how she couldn't get off the couch [when performances were all cancelled due to Covid]. For those of us who need to do it, it is an essential part of our identity. And my fear is that if more companies don't stand up and confront the problems and find solutions, a generation of promising, emerging operatic talent will be lost. And they'll be wonderful, competent CPA's or whatever, development directors at museums, but they won't be doing what they would have done otherwise, and that's what scares me the most. And, I'll tell you, the first people that we're gonna lose are the Black and Brown artists who don't have the resources and the family support to stay in the business. It could set us back, way back.

Even taking into account all the challenges we've just talked about, what is the best part of your job right now?

[laughs & takes a long pause] So one thing about our county, and it's the right approach, is we really can't sing in the presence of patrons. The best thing about my job is that I get to be in the room, and I get to hear the performances live. We try our very best to replicate that on a screen and in your speakers, but I get to sit there and I feel incredibly privileged to hear people doing that in front of my face. And now it's so special, because we rehearse on Zoom and then we tech in Max, and then it's just one day where everybody gets a test and everybody [performs]. It's like one day and it's so special. And I get to be there.

And you know we are doing driveway serenades and we go to retirement communities and people hang off the balconies and listen, and I love that because there's something about the human voice live, just hearing the vibration.


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