In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

The 40 Seasons of Boston Lyric Opera: A History Part V

Sep 20, 2016 10:13:16 AM
By Jane Pisciottoli Papa

Each week during 40 Days of Opera, check back on the BLO blog for a new installment of this in-depth history of BLO!

At the end of Part IV, BLO was facing major, existential questions at the end of Janice Mancini Del Sesto’s term of leadership. What sort of vision would the next General Director bring to Boston Lyric Opera? What sort of institution would BLO be after the new leadership team was in place?


The current BLO leadership team: Esther Nelson, Stanford Calderwood General & Artistic Director; David Angus, Music Director; John Conklin, Artistic Advisor (l-r)


As if there hadn’t been enough change already, the Chairman of the newly empowered Board of Directors was himself newly arrived in his position. Coming from the world of international finance and communications technology, Steven P. Akin had succeeded Alicia Cooney Quigley in that key role in 2006. He appointed long-time Board member David Scudder and former Board Chair Hod Irvine to lead the search committee in conjunction with a professional search firm.[1]


After a rigorous selection process of eight months’ duration, Esther Nelson was named General & Artistic Director of Boston Lyric Opera, the first person in Company history to hold both titles. Nelson’s wide range of experiences in the world of opera made her a highly qualified choice for the position, experiences which included notably her six years as General Director and CEO of Glimmerglass Opera, where she dramatically raised the profile of the Company, resulting in increased ticket sales revenue and other income, deeper outreach programming, and a growing international reputation for artistic excellence. Before that she had been the General Director and CEO of the Nevada Opera Association, the Director of the Virginia Opera Association, the General Director of Triangle Opera Theater (NC), and the Director of Public Relations, Marketing and Development for the New Orleans Opera Association, where she was also artistic administrator. She had been working as a management consultant to arts organizations in the United States and in Europe prior to joining BLO.[2]


Esther Nelson publicly articulated her vision for BLO very soon after coming to Boston. In an interview with The Boston Globe’s Jeremy Eichler[3] she outlined her general goals, although she described herself as still in the fact-finding mode characteristic of one newly arrived on the scene. She spoke of adding a fourth annual production, of branching out into activities such as concerts and cross-discipline seminars that would be thematically related to a given season’s offerings, and of commissioning new works, this latter requiring the input of a yet-to-be-named Music Director. Aware of the spatial inadequacies of the Shubert Theatre and the limitations thus imposed on the range of possible repertoire and production styles, she acknowledged the need to consider the eventual possibilities of both a new performance venue and a capital campaign of some sort.


Her very first direct message to the audience as General & Artistic Director of the Company[4] explored the same themes but also made a strong statement of her intent to maintain continuity with the administration of Janice Mancini Del Sesto, citing the importance of financial stability, the development of young artists and new audiences, and ever-expanding community engagement, characteristics that had come to underlie the very identity of the Company.


In the Chairman of the Board’s message from the same issue of Playbill,[5] Steve Akin, too, spoke of building upon BLO’s existing strengths and its uniqueness and of following Nelson’s vision of positioning BLO as one of the city’s signature cultural institutions. By sounding the same notes in their messages they jointly made it clear that there would be no radical break with past, and that BLO would remain strongly committed to achieving ever-higher standards of artistic excellence and to all that had made it a truly  “Boston company.”


But if the mission and the publicly perceived aspects of the Company were to remain constant, the structure of the administrative staff would not. While retaining the title of Artistic Director, Nelson moved to support herself in that role by engaging John Conklin as Artistic Advisor and by creating an administrative position completely new for the Company, that of Director of Artistic Operations, and hiring Nicholas Russell to fill it. This restructuring would become a key to achieving the sort of growth and development envisioned by Esther Nelson and the Board.


John Conklin is an internationally recognized stage set and costume designer with extensive experience in the worlds of opera, theater, and ballet, closely identified with the New York City Opera. In 2011 he would be honored by the National Endowment for the Arts for his lifetime contribution to the world of opera, the first design professional so acclaimed. He had worked with Nelson at Glimmerglass Opera as Associate Artistic Director and had retired in 2008 after 18 years in that position, intending only to continue with his teaching career at New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts. Nelson predicted he would become bored with such a limited range of professional activity and she proved correct.[6] Since 2009 he has collaborated extensively with BLO as both designer and dramaturg, his work for the Company encompassing its numerous community engagement events as well as its staged productions.


By hiring Nicholas Russell as Director of Artistic Operations, Nelson was again reuniting with a former colleague from Glimmerglass Opera, assigning to him oversight for the auditioning, logistics, and coordinating of singers and musicians.[7] He had held a similar position at Glimmerglass and had served in other arts administrative and teaching capacities in both Europe and the United States, and was much sought-after as an adjudicator of vocal competitions. He and John Conklin would play major roles in planning for and designing future productions as well as implementing plans on a day-to-day basis for BLO. After they joined the artistic leadership of the Company only the vital position of Music Director remained to be filled.


At the end of the 2009-2010 season, the first one completely planned and implemented by Nelson and her team, David Angus was named BLO’s new Music Director. He had conducted that season’s final production, Mozart’s Idomeneo,[8] to great acclaim by all, including the orchestra and singers who had performed with him. Originally from the United Kingdom, he had extensive conducting experience in European opera houses and concert halls as well as in a number of American venues. At the time of his hiring he also held the position of Music Director at Glimmerglass Opera, although his work there had not coincided with Esther Nelson’s tenure. BLO was now in the hands of the richest and deepest artistic leadership team in its history, and taking into account the series of distinguished stage directors and additional dramaturgs it has engaged for its productions, a team characterized by an unusual degree and range of artistic collaboration. By all appearances BLO seemed poised to move into a new period of notable artistic and institutional growth.


Even before completing her artistic leadership team with the hiring of David Angus as Music Director, Nelson had put her stamp on BLO and on the finale of the season she had “inherited” from the Del Sesto era (2008-2009), a production of Don Giovanni.[9] By presenting the original 1787 Prague edition of the score instead of the expected Vienna version, which is more familiar to most contemporary audiences,[10] she signaled her interest in thoughtful exploration and innovation, in making what is old seem new again, as one means of engaging a wide range of potential ticket purchasers, employing a strategy that had been proven effective in Boston by her predecessors.


The Nelson administration had also immediately begun expanding the outreach of BLO through enhanced community engagement, as promised. Entering into an extended partnership with the Museum of Fine Arts beginning with the 2009-2010 season, the Company offered the first set of its Signature Series events at the Museum, programs featuring musical performances in a context that embraces the dramatic and visual arts as well, each followed by a reception with a meet-the-artists component. In August of 2009 BLO joined with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra[11] for a free concert at the Edward A. Hatch Memorial Shell on the Charles River Esplanade, drawing 10,000 attendees, an event that was repeated annually through 2014, at which the Company showcased music and performers scheduled for the upcoming season. In an additional overture to the entire community BLO organized its first-ever Open House at the Shubert Theatre[12] the same year, another free event geared toward families and visitors of all ages, one that has been repeated periodically since then. The Company’s commitment to its ongoing partnership with the Boston Public Library has remained firm, with the continuation of the free Opera Night at the Library series begun during the Del Sesto term. Since then there have been additional outreach partnerships pertaining to specific operas, such as those with Zoo New England and the Boston Children’s Museum in anticipation of a production of The Magic Flute with a Mayan setting,[13] and numerous others that have functioned on a more occasional basis, for instance, with the Handel and Haydn Society, the French Cultural Center, the Dante Alighieri Society, the Boston Center for Adult Education, the Boston Athenaeum, and Brandeis University.


Again moving to add a new component to BLO’s work and in keeping with her original statements about her vision for the Company, Nelson quickly sought to revitalize the Company’s approach to engaging and developing new talent. Picking up a theme as old as BLO itself and building on another foundation laid in the Del Sesto era, Nelson formalized and deepened the Company’s commitment to Emerging Artists.


Just as each of its three “parent” companies had been founded at least in part to provide performance opportunities for Boston-based singers, so had BLO been committed from the beginning to showcasing Boston’s wealth of musical talent. But as regional opera companies grow and evolve many find themselves confronting an often-contradictory situation: how to balance a commitment to local artists with the desire to cast the best available singer for each role. As it strove for higher levels of artistic excellence, BLO had had to face such choices and it had been held accountable by the press any time it had been perceived as neglecting either one or the other of these two sometimes-competing goals.


For many companies the answer to such a dilemma lies in the creation of a young artists program of one sort or another. As early as 1998 Del Sesto referred to the Company’s long range plan to add a professional development component,[14] and, as noted previously, had begun dedicating a stream of revenue raised at special events to support the casting of young artists.[15] Then in 2001 BLO announced its first Stephen Shrestinian Award for Excellence, a prize established in memory of a young chorister who had passed away suddenly, to be awarded annually to a member of the Company’s ensemble. The stated purpose of this award was to help defray the costs of training for a promising young artist and thus at least symbolically addressed the topic of the development of new talent. But this was at best an incomplete solution to the problem, and a much hoped-for apprenticeship program to be crafted in conjunction with local schools that offered graduate programs in vocal studies never quite materialized, leaving the Company without a reliable means of ensuring the availability of local talent who would truly be prepared for professional employment at the requisite artistic level.


Nelson’s approach to the problem was designed to work in a holistic way, and took the BLO Emerging Artist initiative a step further toward meeting both earlier-stated goals – advancing the development of the individual and simultaneously creating for BLO a pool of suitable locally-based talent from which to cast both principal and comprimario roles. Once selected for participation, an Emerging Artist would be offered extensive personal coaching, career advice and support, introduction to artists’ management, the opportunity to learn one or more new roles as understudy to a principal artist, and one or more engagements in a BLO production. Moreover, the local availability of these Emerging Artists would ensure that all of BLO’s community engagement programs and special events would feature performances that would exemplify the Company’s high artistic standards, and in the process would actually create more paid performance opportunities for Boston artists. Beginning with the 2010-2011 season and continuing through the 2015-2016 season, the proceeds of the Company’s annual gala event were formally directed toward the support of this initiative.[16]


The Nelson team has wholeheartedly embraced the significance of Boston’s operatic history and of BLO’s place in it in ways even beyond the redesigned Emerging Artists model and the wide range of community engagement opportunities it has developed. For instance the very first gala event designed by the team, that of the 2009-2010 season, was dubbed the Century Gala, and it celebrated Boston’s very first professional opera company of note, Eben Jordan Jr.’s short-lived 1909 Boston Opera Company.[17] In the program notes for the evening, Nelson cited Jordan’s own words about Boston from a letter he had written: “The musical spirit of the town has long been firm, persuasive, and powerful, often creating what it demanded and could find nowhere else.”[18] She made the sentiment her own by adding “I…believe that with your help, perseverance, and inspiration Boston is – and will be – a city for opera for generations to come.”[19]


A more recent expression of regard for the Boston identity of the Company was the 2013-2014 season-opening Magic Flute[20] and its accompanying gala event. Every member of the creative team and of the cast, every artist associated with the Opening Night gala, had a clear Boston connection, either through residency, education, or prior employment, and many were tied by more than one of these criteria, a fact that was celebrated by the Company.


Esther Nelson had developed a thorough understanding of BLO’s history, its past accomplishments, its potential for future growth, and a detailed blueprint for taking it there. But just as she began implementing her plans for the Company, BLO found itself revisiting some of the same issues that had plagued the Company earlier in the decade.


In the first years of the 21st century BLO had faced new challenges, some specific to the local community and some of a broader nature, and had worked hard to maintain its stability and to ensure its viability. But by 2009 the very grave financial and economic challenges that had emerged in the aftermath of the September 11 tragedy had worsened to the point of promoting an almost Depression-era mentality across the country. In such a climate of profound uncertainty, all arts, entertainment, and hospitality organizations suffered forceful financial blows, BLO certainly among them.


Once again the budget would need to be trimmed to reflect the results of declining subscription sales and a philanthropic community on edge. Nelson declared that the situation demanded that she and her team think outside the box and find ways to do more with less,[21] as there could be no compromise in artistic quality. Deft utilization of programming and fund-raising strategies and general belt-tightening would be employed instead. For instance, a decision was made to limit the run of each opera to five performances beginning with the 2011-2012 season,[22] a choice which yielded significant savings on theater rental costs while not noticeably affecting ticket revenue and certainly not diminishing artistic quality. The meeting of some of BLO’s artistic goals also dovetailed well with some of the financial rethinking. The Company found it could, in many instances, generate completely new productions for less than the cost of renting and transporting productions from elsewhere. Another positive outcome of creating completely original stagings is the generation of work opportunities for local companies that build sets and costumes, one of the ways in which Company income is returned to the community.[23] Contributing their talents to the creation of a new production inspires excitement among performing artists and design teams alike, and presents the audience with a work characterized by artistic freshness. The Company determined too that the costs of shipping productions from Europe are often less than the costs of trucking them from other locations in North America, giving focus to the wide range of available possibilities. Of course co-producing and co-commissioning operas can also be very cost-effective, and Nelson’s BLO has worked with several partners to that end.[24]


In the work of her inaugural season Nelson definitively set the tone of the artistic goals of  her administration, harkening back to the very first public remarks she had made in Boston about building on the strong underpinnings she had inherited from the Del Sesto era, as well as moving to add new dimensions. The repertoire selection of that first season showed the balance of composers, languages, and historical eras so important to attracting various audience segments, the contrast of the familiar with the less well known, programming strategies very much in line with established BLO practice. The casting of artists, too, ranged from familiar names to the new and exciting, from experienced performers to young talent, again in line with community expectations, and quite significantly, always with an eye to the ensemble quality of each cast.



The initial offering of the new administration, the 2009-2010 season-opening all new production of Carmen,[25] was a scaled-back version of the work in keeping with the limitations of the performance venue, reintroducing the spoken dialogue Bizet and his librettists had created and omitting the frequently employed sung recitatives inserted by composer Ernest Guiraud after the composer’s death. Conflicts between love, faith, duty, and class, themes relevant to every era, were explored throughout,[26] offering a fresh look at an old favorite, a historically tried-and-true strategy for the Company.


Continuing another well-established programming practice, that of presenting excellent work developed by other companies, BLO mounted the North American premiere of Welsh National Opera’s Ariadne auf Naxos,[27] an operatic exploration of the clash between high and low art. The original creative team came to town to install the production, but the singers were freshly cast for the Boston performances and included many “new stars,” as Del Sesto had pronounced young singers who were entering a new, higher profile stage of their careers,[28] one of the defining Company characteristics to be continued and expanded under Nelson.


Closing out the season with Mozart’s Idomeneo,[29] a Company premiere, Nelson’s BLO again followed an effective programming trend established by previous administrations, that of presenting the less familiar works of much beloved composers with the expectation of attracting audience members who want something different as well as those who would find the general “sound” of Mozart’s music familiar. And artistic choices allowed for another sort of culture clash to be examined with this work, this time the tension between the Enlightenment ideals of the era of the opera’s composition and the ancient ideals of the Greek myth from which its story derives. These contrasting value systems constituted the theme to be explored in the production, especially as they each regard the worth of individual human life.[30]


The production of Idomeneo also demonstrated a significant cost-cutting strategy, one that would be utilized frequently by the Nelson team – the creative repurposing and recycling of scenic and costume elements. The sets were the work of John Conklin and the costumes of Constance Hoffman, all originally designed and executed for the Glimmerglass Opera production of Orphée et Eurydice of 2007, and very successfully redeployed in this opera with which Orphée shares a historic and cultural setting.


But between the Carmen and Ariadne productions, Nelson launched a brand new enterprise, an extraordinary undertaking for an organization working through financially troubled times, the reinstatement of a fourth annual production. However this offering was not an additional mainstage production but rather a highly innovative adjunct to the regular season’s subscription series, an attempt to present opera “in new and immersive ways,”[31]  to be called the Opera Annex.[32] The Annex, conceived as a chamber piece staged in a non-traditional venue, a “found space” reconfigured to accommodate and enhance the production, has become a much-anticipated annual event after the initial offering, the February 2010 performances of The Turn of the Screw.[33]


The Turn of the Screw was performed within an edifice called The Castle at Park Plaza, originally built as an armory and opened in 1897, its inauguration contemporaneous almost to the year with the debut of the original Henry James story on which the opera is based. Its neo-gothic interior reflected the mood of the opera so fully that no actual scenery was necessary, only a few carefully-chosen props and lighting schemes. Neither the musical nor dramatic structure of the work as presented differed measurably from what is traditionally seen, but the characteristics of the venue and directorial choices regarding the use of it were most unusual,[34] an expansion of the range of what is possible in Boston, an operatically “venue-challenged” city. The first full season of the Nelson era indeed found BLO “thinking outside the box” and “doing more with less.”


In each opera of the first season Nelson’s team exhibited the attribute which would become the artistic hallmark of BLO’s approach to producing opera: its enduring dedication to maintaining the opera stage as a home for a living, evolving art form, not merely a repository for museum pieces.  Every opera performed has been subjected to a thorough preliminary review of all aspects of the work and its performance history, leading to a unique interpretation built upon on a modern psychological probing of the characters and their lives. Even – or especially – works very well known to the opera-going public are afforded careful consideration and meticulous, deliberate artistic configuration. Directorial and other artistic choices furnish the story with a message resonant for modern audiences without automatically resetting the events of the opera in the current era. As Nelson has pointed out, definitive interpretations of operatic and theatrical works do not exist, nor should they, for each new production represents a new telling of the composer’s story, a search conducted in a specific time and place for a means of connecting the audience with the universal and timeless elements and emotions contained within the work.[35] This focus, apparent from the very beginning, has added considerable depth to the Company’s work.


Next week, in the final installment of The 40 Seasons of Boston Lyric Opera, BLO  strives for new artistic heights amidst a changing performing arts landscape in Boston.


[1] Boston Lyric Opera press release, August 5, 2008

[2] Information contained in a letter from Chairman of the Board Steven Akin to BLO patrons and subscribers dated September 7, 2008

[3] “Setting the stage new director Esther Nelson shares her plans for Boston Lyric Opera,” The Boston Globe, November 9, 2008, p. N2

[4] General & Artistic Director’s Message, p. 8, Playbill for Les Contes d’Hoffmann, music by Jacques Offenbach, libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, freely based on the integral edition of the opera by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck, performed November 7, 9, 12, 14, 16, 18, 2008, at the Shubert Theatre

[5] Ibid, p. 6

[6] “A man of drama, by design,” by Anthony Savvides, The Boston Globe, November 3, 2011, p. G31

[7] Boston Lyric Opera press release, November 14, 2008

[8] Idomeneo, music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Giovanni Battista Varesco after Antoine Danchet’s Idomenée, performed April 23, 25, 28, 30, May 2, 4, 2010, at the Shubert Theatre

[9] Don Giovanni, music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte based on a Giovanni Bertati book, performed April 24, 26, 29, May 1, 3, 5, 2009, at the Shubert Theatre

[10] Joint message from the Chair and General & Artistic Director, from the Playbill, p.6, for Don Giovanni, see Part V, note 9.

[11] The Boston Landmarks Orchestra, comprised of professional musicians, was founded in 2001 by Charles Ansbacher and performs free concerts, primarily in the summer, in various public spaces in Boston. This was not BLO’s first collaboration with the Landmarks Orchestra, but it was a markedly fresh approach of staging a collaborative performance, rather than presenting a concert.

[12] BLO’s first-ever Open House was held at the Shubert Theatre on Saturday, November 7, 2009.

[13] The Magic Flute, see Part IV, note 20.

[14] Message from the General Director in Playbill for Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Werther, music by Jules Massenet, libretto by Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet, and Georges Hartmann, based on Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, performed March 4, 6, 8, 10, 13, 15, 1998, at the Emerson Majestic Theatre

[15] See p. 23 for “Corporate Night at the Opera,” p. 24 for Carmen on the Common. The Company’s annual gala events have been another source of support for the program.

[16] The number of Emerging Artists engaged for each season has varied according to the availability of roles, which is in turn determined by the repertory scheduled for that season. Beginning with the 2011-2012 season the group has included designated Artists in Residence, Emerging Artists each of whom is cast in roles for all of that season’s operas. The artists, although mostly singers, have also included pianists who play for rehearsals and accompany singers at outreach events. The 2013-2014 season Emerging Artists roster included an assistant stage director; the 2015-2016 season roster both an assistant conductor and a stage director; and the 2016-17 season roster includes a pianist, two assistant stage directors, and a stage manager.

[17] For the 1909 Boston Opera Company, see page 1.

[18] From a letter written by Jordan to New England Magazine in October, 1909, when he was President of the Boston Opera Company, quoted by Nelson in the program notes of Boston Lyric Opera’s The Century Gala event of November 14, 2009

[19] Ibid

[20] The Magic Flute, Part IV, note 20.

[21] “Scaring up an alternative venue: Park Plaza Castle is the setting for ‘Turn of the Screw,’” by Harlow Robinson, The Boston Globe, January 31, 2010, p. N2

[22]  During the Balme and Ewers administrations, two performances per opera had been the norm (1980-1989); under Moss (at the Emerson Majestic, 1990-1992), there had been two to four performances of each work; in the Emerson Majestic years of the Del Sesto era (1993-1997) there were six of each; moving to the Shubert Del Sesto presented six each through 2001, then added a seventh from then through 2005. Six performances were given of each work from 2006 under Del Sesto and then Nelson, until the reduction to five performances for the 2011-2012 season.

[23] The scene shop associated with the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at Harvard University in Cambridge and Costume Works in Somerville are two professional shops that work to specification on BLO’s all-new productions.

[24]For example, Clemency, music by James MacMillan, libretto by Michael Symmons Roberts, North American premiere performed February 6, 7, 9, 10, 20113, at Artists for Humanity Epicenter, was co-commissioned with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Scottish Opera; and Britten Sinfonia; Rigoletto (see Part IV, note 9), performed March 14, 16, 19, 21, 23, 2014, at the Shubert Theatre, was co-produced with Atlanta Opera and Opera Omaha.

[25] Carmen, music by Georges Bizet, libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, performed November 6, 8, 11, 13, 15, 17, 2009, at the Shubert Theatre

26 Joint message from the Chair and General & Artistic Director, p. 8, of Playbill for Boston Lyric Opera’s 2009 production of Carmen; see part V, note 25.

[27] Ariadne auf Naxos, music by Richard Strauss, libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, performed March 12, 14, 17, 19, 21, 23, 2010, at the Shubert Theatre

[28] Among these singers were Brandon Jovanovich, Edyta Kulczak, and Rachele Gilmore, who sang for the Metropolitan Opera, and Marjorie Owens of the Semperoper in Dresden. This category of singers is separate from that of Emerging Artists, who are generally in an earlier stage of career building.

[29] Idomeneo, see Part V, note 8.

[30] Joint message from the Chair and General & Artistic Director, p. 6 of Playbill for Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Idomeneo, see Part V, note 8.

[31] Message from the General & Artistic Director in Playbill for Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Clemency (see Part V, note 24), presented with Hagar’s Lament, music by Franz Schubert, poem by Clemens August Schücking, orchestration by David Angus, new English translation by Angus and Bernd Ulken as prologue.

[32] The concept of the Opera Annex and other new productions created by BLO have attracted special dedicated funding from the very start, beginning with a $1 million challenge grant from an anonymous family foundation and a $20,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in the first year of the Nelson administration.

[33] The Turn of the Screw, music by Benjamin Britten, libretto by Myfanwy Piper after the story by Henry James, performed February 1, 3, 5, 6, 2010, at the Castle at Park Plaza

[34] In addition to the action seen live on stage, other often-contradictory action was streamed live from the roughly textured substructure of the building and projected above the stage, restoring some of the sense of ambiguity of the original story.

[35] General & Artistic Director’s Welcome, Kátya Kabanová, music by Leoš Janáček, libretto by Vincenc Červinka, based on the play The Storm by A.N. Ostrovsky, performed March 13, 15, 18, 20, 22, 2015, at the Shubert Theatre


Topics: #40DaysofOpera, BLO, BLO history

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