Sitting down with San Diego Opera’s David Bennett

David BennettIn early 2014, San Diego Opera surprised everyone with an announcement that the company was closing at the end of that season. In the past, the opera had featured stars like Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills performing together in Die Fledermaus in 1980 and brought in young opera singers such as Renée Fleming and Plácido Domingo before they became world famous.

A good opera plot always has twists and turns and the story of San Diego Opera has followed that arc. Within months, a group of board members voted to rescind the decision to close.

Three years after the scare, I sat down to talk with David Bennett, the General Director of the San Diego Opera, hired in 2015 to lead the ‘saved’ opera in a new direction. David Bennett started his career as an opera singer, a baritone, added teaching, and then continued in arts administration. He came to the San Diego Opera from New York City, where he was the executive director of the Gotham Chamber Opera. He talked about his vision of how to keep attracting audiences and community to opera, about the 2017/2018 season, the first that will be comprised of his choices entirely, and even about his favorite operas and singers that he is excited about.

On bringing audiences to opera and the 2017/2018 season, which will feature Pirates of Penzance, Turandot, and Florencia en el Amazonas in three Main Stage operas, and the dētour Series that explores new directions in opera with As One, Maria de Buenos Aires, and Lise Lindstrom and Rene Barbera in concert in One Amazing Night.

“San Diego has a very traditional opera audience. The long-time subscribers who are the loyal base have stayed the same since 2014. This is different than nationwide where subscribers are declining and single ticket buyers are increasing. We have a lot of churn with single ticket buyers, people who respond one year to buying tickets but not the next year. We then go out and market to a whole new group of single ticket buyers.

Pirates of Penzance San Diego Opera
A scene from Pirates of Penzance at the San Diego Opera

You have to be thoughtful about the repertoire that those people are going to be responsive to. Someone who comes to Pirates of Penzance may not be the same person who comes to Turandot, and the person who comes to Turandot may not be the single ticket buyer who might come to Pirates.

In terms of selling tickets, it’s a combination of the repertoire and how you communicate what to expect. It’s not necessarily about a starred name but being able to communicate how expressive the artists are.

There are a lot of barriers for people to attend opera. There are real barriers, which are cost, foreign language, transportation, and even the theater itself, which people might think of as old or unattractive. There are also perceived barriers by people who’ve never seen opera – it’s going to be long, I don’t know how to act, I’m not going to know how to respond, will I really understand it, is the opera going to be stuffy. We have to fight both of those types of barriers.

New repertoire and new venues can break through some of those barriers. New repertoire and Main Stage are not always in a foreign language. New operas are generally shorter and they can be performed in smaller spaces [San Diego Opera has added new spaces for its dētour Series] and that sometimes is a less intimidating experience.

Our hope is that product diversity and different kinds of product will lead to audience diversity. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that audience diversity might lead to donor diversity. Donor diversity can reinforce more product diversity. It’s circular.

Pirates of Penzance San Diego OperaWe’re on that wheel now. We have product diversity and we’ve seen audience diversity in our first year of the dētour Series. We had almost 600 households of ticket buyers who’d never bought a ticket to the opera before and who came to dētour. Some of them are subscribing now to Main Stage.

I stood in the subscription tent at the last opera of the season, La Traviata, because I wanted to hear people’s comments. A lot of people had questions. I explained if you want to experiment come and see, but if you can’t, well you can’t. I think it’s good to talk to our audience and see who they are, to listen and communicate with the audience.

I’d rather have reaction on either side than no reaction at all. I think we had no reaction at all for a long time.  People were starting to think it always felt the same, in some ways.

Next season is different. Of course, Turandot is traditional opera.

Pirates of Penzance is operetta and very engaging. It’s a way of communicating the musical values we remain committed to. We’ve already produced The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus with this company, which are also operettas. We haven’t performed English operettas. I wanted this season to feel different.

Florencia San Diego OperaI cast Greer Grimsley, who has a huge voice, as the Pirate King, and his wife, who has not sung here, Luretta Bybee, as Ruth. She has a big round gorgeous mezzo, and their daughter, Emma Grimsley, who is a young soubrette coloratura will round it out to the whole family coming. It’s an anchor for our audiences who respect beautiful signing. We’ll produce this as grandly as we can, and engage a family-friendly and wider population.

Florencia en el Amazonas is grand opera. The orchestration sounds like Debussy, very colorful. And if you like the lines of Puccini and Strauss, this is how Daniel Catán writes. It sounds like grand opera but it’s by a Mexican American composer in the Spanish language. I tell people to try it, experience it. Most people say they’ll give it a shot.

On future seasons

“We have plenty of titles in the future that are very traditional. The 2018/2019 season will open with a new production of Le Nozze Di Figaro, which we haven’t seen in this company for quite a while. It’s a new co-production between us, Philadelphia, Kansas City and West Palm Beach. We will also have a big Carmen as opposed to this past season’s Tragedy of Carmen [chamber opera that was part of dētour Series]. I’m going to choose a very traditional production because I want it to look different from what we did in dētour. We’re going to be doing Eugene Onegin and we’ll bring back Rusalka, which we had a few years ago. These are some of the A lists we all know and some that have been here before.

There are also titles that everyone loves but that aren’t the A list titles. There’s plenty of traditional stuff in the works but we’re also going to experiment.”

On opera in the U.S.

Maria San Diego Opera“It feels like opera has now reached a place where it’s settling. It feels like there was a sloughing off of a lot of companies in the past decade, large and small companies closing. Companies are shifting in size. It feels like some of that has settled a little bit, especially with the big companies.

There’s been an explosion of smaller companies. There’s the New York Opera Alliance, with more than 40 members that aren’t the Met or the NYC opera. There’s a lot of that activity in San Francisco, smaller companies that are doing great work and also many in Los Angeles and Boston. That’s where the really interesting explosion is happening.

A lot of these smaller companies are artist driven by a composer or conductor or a singer. They choose repertoire that attracts a younger audience. There’s a lot of exciting risk taking in those places that begins to inform the bigger companies and making them think differently. That’s why a lot of the bigger companies are doing exactly what we’re doing here, a little of everything.

The companies that have been successful in the last few years are the ones who’ve done this. Philadelphia reinvented themselves a few years ago. Minnesota does a combination of things, Atlanta has a whole new series. Seattle has a new series. All are thinking about how to do this, get a wider audience with a wider repertoire.”

On big name stars and expressive singing

“I think the era of the star singers is pretty much over. Even at the Met, Anna Netrebko drives some sales, Jonas Kaufmann drives sales and Renée Fleming still drives sales. Beneath that, it doesn’t drive the sales anymore. Part of the reason is there’s no recording industry anymore. The cult of personality that revolved around singers was driven by the recording industry, to sell those recordings. It was also the artist. It has to be real. You can’t fake that. But that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s maybe part of why we have changed.

Here and nationwide, excellent singing is the key, the core, the primacy of what we do.

Carmen San Diego OperaThe expressive nature of the voice is the key to everything we do. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a room this size or if it’s in a 3,000-seat hall. The expressive nature of the voice is the centerpiece.

Expressive doesn’t always mean beautiful. If you think of Carmen in Act 4, she doesn’t always sing beautifully. She screams and yells sometimes and that’s what’s called for. Also, beautiful in one person’s opinion isn’t always beautiful in another’s. It’s not beautiful signing but rather the expressive nature of the voice that’s important.

I want to be able to close my eyes and hear the character in the sound. If I don’t hear the characterization in the sound, it’s not going to make sense when I open my eyes. I have to hear it first expressed in the voice and when I open my eyes and see it expressed in the face, I want to see it in the body. If someone is acting with the body before it feels expressive in the face and in the voice, it feels phony to me.

Those are my thoughts as an artist but I also think the two people who preceded me leading the San Diego Opera built a culture and audience that really appreciates expressive singing.

On favorite operas

“I love Le Nozze di Figaro. I find it to be a very profound opera musically and in what it means to say. It has some of the most beautiful moments in all of opera. It’s one of my favorites.

I love Die tote Stadt by Erich Korngold as a sonic experience. It’s such an eerie atmospheric story.

I also love Monteverdi, both Orfeo and Poppea. They’re two of my favorite operas. In the operas of Monteverdi, all of the drama is dictated in the score. The score is as dramatic as in Verdi. I don’t think people expect that when they think of early Baroque opera.

There’s an opera from the 1970s by Krzysztof Penderecki, The Devils of Loudun, a very crazy opera, which I also love. It is expressive, in its own way, of that moment in composition. It uses electronics a lot in the score. It’s so dramatic.

Of course I also love Rigoletto, Lucia and other operas like that. What I love in those operas is that the expressive nature of the singing is evident in the score.

I think audiences react to that too. People may not respond to as wide a variety of musical styles as I do but I think they can respond if you introduce them in the right ways. Everybody’s not going to run and buy a ticket to The Devils of Loudun but if you play it for them and show it to them, they’re astounded that this odd 1970s composition is as expressive, in its own way, as any other opera.”

On exciting new artists

Turandot San Diego Opera“I have a fabulous Liu in Turandot. Her name is Angel Blue. She went to UCLA and was snapped up by Plácido Domingo. She has a big career in Europe. It’ll be a role debut for her and her San Diego opera debut and she happens to be from Temecula [near San Diego]. I’m thrilled. She’s like Leona Mitchell, has an astounding voice and is a gorgeous woman. She participated in a Miss California pageant. That’s how she financed her arts education.

There are two sopranos I’m very excited about in Florencia en el Amazonas. Elaine Alvarez, a Cuban American soprano who hasn’t performed here will be Florencia. She was a sensation at the Lyric Opera Chicago about a decade ago when she was covering Mimi for Gheorghiu. She was very young and had a huge overnight success. She studies with Renata Scotto. She has a beautiful round luxurious voice and is a wonderful person.

Florencia San Diego OperaMaria Fernanda Castillo is the second soprano, Rosalba. She’s a young Mexican soprano I heard in Mexico City last year, very young and with a very impressive big round voice. I think she’ll be a major singer. I’m very excited about having two big voices on the stage for Florencia.

The following season in Le Nozze di Figaro, there are two men I’m excited about. Figaro and the Count. Figaro is a young man from Los Angeles named Nicholas Brownlee, a fantastic young bass baritone, who won first prize at the international Belvedere Competition last year. He’s going to have a huge career. The count is a Canadian, Joshua Hopkins. They’re about as different as they can be, which is perfect. He’s a very elegant but intense lyric baritone. The two of them together on the stage are going to be very dynamic.

We’re also bringing in a very distinguished and esteemed American conductor, John Nelson for Le Nozze and it’s his debut here. He’s been on the staff of the Met for years and he recently recorded Les Troyens in France with Joyce DiDonato. He’s connected with a lot of important artists and I heard him conduct Figaro in Santa Fe two years ago and thought this is the kind of conductor I think our audiences will respond to. Many people who conduct Mozart these days conduct with very brisk tempi.  That can be exciting but this was a more relaxed and luxurious tempo that really showed the singers off well in Santa Fe.”

San Diego Opera
San Diego Opera, photo supplied by San Diego Opera

On community

“It’s not concrete yet but we’re having fruitful conversations with San Diego State University about the opera program they’re trying to build out and bringing some of those voice graduate students to be young artists with the company, a resident artist company within San Diego Opera. I’m very excited about any kind of partnership like that I can do in the community.”

On San Diego Opera being saved

“We are saved, and each year we have to save ourselves over again. Each year is an entity unto itself. Our budget is smaller next year. Wand we needed to do that, to build up the reserve funds. We are the company we need to be:, a smaller, leaner company.”