As opera houses around the country warily resume indoor performances, two of the biggest are ushering in new leadership — along with a heightened commitment to building new audiences.
In San Francisco, Korean-born Eun Sun Kim becomes the company’s first female music director and first Asian. Nearly 2,000 miles to the east, Enrique Mazzola is taking up the reins as only the third music director in the history of Chicago’s Lyric Opera.
The nation’s largest company, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, will have a relative veteran on the podium when its season opens Sept. 27: Yannick Nezet-Seguin has been in charge since 2018-19.
But the changes at these and other houses go beyond personnel. As Marc Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, sees it, there’s a greater determination to bring in new, more diverse audiences and to champion new works.
“COVID was a time of discovery in this regard,” Scorca, whose organization works with companies large and small, said in an email.
Forced to abandon indoor productions during the pandemic, many companies devised digital offerings as well as in-person programming in open-air venues like ball parks, drive-in movie theaters, tents and even a parking garage.
“We’ve heard that between 25% and 40% of audiences for these activities were new,” Scorca said. The question now is how to retain these neophytes.
“Does this ‘alternative’ activity have to become part of our regular work?” he said. “Will some of these new audiences gravitate to the opera house?”
Mazzola sees making that happen as a crucial part of his job.
“My mission is not only to be a good musician in the pit waving my baton,” he said in an interview, “but to inspire a new audience, to stop showing the new generations that opera is only for certain rich elites, which disturbs me a lot.”
His commitment to new work was one of the factors that impressed Lyric’s general director, Anthony Freud.
“We needed somebody who would honor the achievements of Andrew (retired music director Andrew Davis) during his 21 years and at the same time take us in new directions,” Freud said.
So although Mazzola will open Lyric’s season on Sept. 17 with Verdi’s “Macbeth,” a staple of the 19th century repertory, he will also conduct an opera that premiered in 2018: “Proving Up” by Missy Mazzoli. It will be staged not in the Lyric Opera House with its 3,276 seats but in a nearby theater that seats just 400.
Kim also challenges the notion that “opera is for high society and a little bit difficult to come into.”
“Everybody says opera is old-fashioned,” she said in an interview. “I don’t believe that. These masterpieces stay with us after 100 years … If we tell the story really well, then everybody feels like it’s their story too.”
She’s well aware that the symbolism of her appointment may be a factor in drawing new customers from the San Francisco Bay Area, with its large and growing Asian American population.
“Whenever I meet audiences after the performance, women and also Asians tell me I am kind of an inspiration for them,” Kim said, “I’m happy if I can be that kind of figure.”
Expanding the repertory with new opera is high on her agenda, she said, though because of COVID-19 disruptions to scheduling this season offers only one recent work — a revival of “Dream of the Red Chamber” by Chinese-born composer Bright Sheng.
Kim kicked off the season on Aug. 21 with Puccini’s “Tosca,” a warhorse that is a sentimental favorite for the company. It was the opera that opened the War Memorial Opera House in 1932 and the first work performed in 1997 after the house was retrofitted to withstand earthquakes.
“It’s a piece of new beginnings for us,” said Matthew Shilvock, the company’s general director.
Music directors aren’t the only things that are new in San Francisco and Chicago. Both houses have completed installing all new seating throughout their auditoriums, promising greater comfort, wider aisles and better sight lines.
Meanwhile, at the Met, Nezet-Seguin will help make history when he conducts the first opera by a Black composer ever performed there — Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” which is set to open the season Sept. 27. And it’s just one of three operas composed in the past 10 years that will be part of the Met season. (Lyric is also presenting Blanchard’s opera later in its season.)
Looming over all these plans is the growing threat of the Delta variant and the surge in coronavirus cases. All three of the biggest houses are requiring that audiences be vaccinated and wear masks — and hoping that’s enough to allow performances to go on.
“The coming years are full of uncertainty,” Freud said. “But if there’s one lesson we’ve learned in last 16 months, it’s the ability to live with uncertainty.”