Saturday, July 19, 2014

Taminophile interviews Francesca Zambello

Longtime readers will not be surprised to know I'm a big fan of Francesca Zambello's work. As Artistic and General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival, she has done work that has garnered great acclaim, including from this humble blogger. She is also Artistic Director of Washington National Opera, and has worked in all the world's great houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Paris Opera. She has staged musicals on Broadway and London's West End. Her long list of awards includes France's Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, Germany's Palm d'Or, and three Olivier Awards.

Francesca Zambello
Photo: Claire McAdams
What would you especially like to communicate to my readers?
We're working hard to curate the art form. That's important today. I think a lot of companies are too busy doing other things instead of focusing on a really good product. That's my interest--that's what I work very hard to do in these two places. When you run the company, or are Artistic Director, you make decisions to keep it on course.

I'm glad you included great singing in that answer, since sometimes there is a perception that opera directors today lose that focus.
Great singing generally leads to great character portrayal. Nothing is worse than being in a rehearsal when a singer can't sing the role. They're never going to give you a good acting performance because they're wrapped up in trying to get through it vocally. That's not to say everyone has to sound like Birgit Nilsson. There are some singers you know are B singers but A actors, and they sing in a way that you believe their voices.

Here we try to get the best singers for the role vocally. There are times when a singer doesn't look right, but you work with everyone else--the costume, set, and lighting designers--to figure out how to make somebody look good. But the singing has to be good.

Most of the singers here at Glimmerglass are debuting these roles. That's part of who we are.

You've garnered a lot of praise for building a community in this area around the Festival.
I came here, and I had ideas about what I wanted to do. Historically, the most successful companies have followed an impresario. Whether it's Rudolf Bing (Metropolitan Opera), or John Crosby (Santa Fe Opera), or David Gockley (Houston Grand Opera). Those personalities basically dictated, for better or worse, what the company was doing and saying.

We changed the name to Glimmerglass Festival. We broadened the programming. We worked with other organizations in the area--the museums, food places, the brewery. We worked with the community to make this a destination. Culture has to be a destination if you're not NYC or Berlin or Paris.

We also worked on raising the product quality within the financial constraints that we had. That meant getting the best music people here. We hired Joe Colaneri as Music Director, having him work with the orchestra. Calling in a lot of my friends--Eric Owens, Debbie Voigt, Christine Goerke--to come and not just perform, but really mentor all the Young Artists. I have a great guy who's head of the Young Artists Program (Michael Heaston). Over 1,000 kids apply for 36 Young Artists slots.

So we've built it up from the inside. On the outside, it's publicity, like trying to get on the financial page so that somebody reads about us and comes. This month we're in United Airlines in-flight magazine. We try to find other ways to make culture a destination. That's what I've been focusing on. It's a lot of tickets to sell in the middle of a cornfield!

It has improved your donor base, your supporters both in the area and outside, hasn't it? 
50% of our audience comes from within a two-hour radius. I feel obligated to give them Aida or Dutchman. They're never going to see those operas live unless they go to NYC. That's why we have them. Only 10% of our audience comes from New York City. 10% from DC. 10% from Canada--we're very grateful for our Canadian patrons.

Does it feel like starting over again each summer?
I'm here a lot during the winter, but we also do a lot of events during the year. We go to someone's home, bring some singers, talk about the company. This year we did events in Boston, Miami, Washington, a number in NYC, Albany, Utica, Ithaca, Binghamton—I can't remember them all! I go to all those places with a couple of singers. Try to get 50 people in somebody's home, encourage people to come here, buy tickets, donate, whatever. We try to convince people to come, to give for a variety of reasons, but again, we're not in NYC, we're not Chicago. We're in a place where people forget about us ten months of the year.

It's a year-round job. And then the planning!

We're doing four shows out of the gate really fast. Each show gets four to five weeks of rehearsal. You gain the most in the rehearsal hall. That's a problem with many big companies--they cut down on the rehearsal period. We benefit from that slow rehearsal process. People can go home and think about the work, or go swimming in the lake and think about the work. They have time for their roles to gestate.

Working in a festival has a lot of great karma around it. A festival is very different from a repertory company in a big city. In the first part of my career I was lucky to work with a lot of festivals like Santa Fe. I love it. I love summer. I love doing this.

You once said you thought music critics had the wrong focus.
I probably said that before the internet era. The internet definitely helps us sell tickets if there is good word of mouth. By contrast, New York Times reviews are more helpful with fundraising than ticket sales.

Everyone's a music critic now. That's OK. I don't have a problem with a point of view, but I do have a problem when a writer doesn't know what he's writing about. I'm not saying you don't have to critique. I think a critic has a responsibility to educate as well as critique. Tell a story. Say something like, "I hated it, but the audience was all standing at the end." I think it's interesting to the reader. Report, educate, evaluate.

A question I stole from Inside the Actor's Studio: What's your favorite swear word?
I try to tone down the cussing, because there are kids around a lot. Kids are important.

I was amazed at the kids in Passions last season.
Weren't they amazing? I am so proud of that show. It didn't sell a lot of tickets, but I'd been trying every year to build up the children's chorus, just having kids involved as much as possible, and look what we accomplished.

It was so powerful for those kids. Such difficult music, and they loved doing it. And what's so nice is during the winter they stayed together. They're from different towns, and they kept in touch, went to see each other's school and community shows.

Being involved with our Festival has been an amazing transformative experience for some of these kids. Many are from working-class families. Many of them are from schools whose music programs are being cut. They gain confidence and direction working with our artistic staff and our artists, and it's often reflected in greater accomplishment and focus in the rest of their lives. That's the kind of thing that makes this job worthwhile.

I work really hard to get kids in the theater or to put them in shows. Sometimes we have groups from 4-H, or the Dairy Princesses, for example. These are kids who are coming to the opera now. They might not do it forever, but they have exposure culture in their lives now that might not have been there before.

That's why we're here. That's our calling.

Click here for part 2 of my interview!

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