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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 14, 2000. All rights reserved.

For Opera Festival, an Expanded Season


Karen Tiller, general director of Opera Festival

of New Jersey, marks the 2000 season with her personal imprint. Although

Tiller was in Princeton in 1999, the company last year executed some

commitments made before her arrival. This season, however, Tiller

was in command of the staff that developed the offerings. "This

is truly a season presented to the board by me; I feel a great deal

of ownership," she says in a telephone interview from her Alexander

Street office. The OFNJ season opens at McCarter Theater Saturday,

June 17, with Bizet’s "Carmen."

The expanded season into which Tiller has steered the company includes

four operas instead of the usual three. Two are from the standard

opera repertoire: Bizet’s "Carmen," and Verdi’s "Falstaff."

One, Hugo Weisgall’s "Six Characters in Search of an Author,"

first came to prominence in the 1960s. And Frank Lewin’s "Burning

Bright" gets its first professional performance at OFNJ. The scorecard

by opera is "Carmen," seven performances; "Falstaff,"

five; "Six Characters," four; and "Burning Bright,"

just two.

The enlarged season is a response to an accelerating demand for OFNJ

tickets in the past. "We pulled back from marketing in Philadelphia

last year because we didn’t have the seats to sell," Tiller says.

"It’s wonderful to have that problem."

She attributes the precise distribution of operas this season partly

to an eye on the box office, and partly to her interest in modernity.

"Carmen" ranks among the five most popular operas in the United

States, as does "Madama Butterfly," which OFNJ mounted in

1999. (OFNJ presented number one on the list, "Tosca," in

1998.) "Last year we could have sold two more `Butterflys,’"

Tiller says. "We were more than 100 percent sold out! To begin

with, we sold out, and then people turned back tickets, which were


In Princeton, Tiller will not go wrong, however, by scheduling non-traditional

opera. "This is an audience willing to try new things," she

says. "They purchase tickets to contemporary works."

When OFNJ hired Tiller as general director, they got

not only an administrator, but an experienced stage director. During

her first season in Princeton last year she refrained from directing

at OFNJ. However, she directed "Tosca" for Opera Memphis in

January, and directs the new production of Lewin’s "Burning Bright"

for OFNJ in July.

Lewin’s three-act opera is based on a Steinbeck play and novella.

Lewin wrote his own libretto. The opera had its first performance

in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1993. "Burning Bright" is both

appealing and challenging," says Tiller as director. "It’s perfect

for me. Even though it’s a fairly large scale work, it deals with

four main characters and their interrelationships. That appeals to

me. I like to get into the individual characters and discover them."

Lewin is involved in the OFNJ production. One of his preliminary tasks

is to reduce the size of the orchestra; the original is scored for

an orchestra too large to fit into the McCarter pit. Lewin has been

participating in rehearsals of the piece. Conductor for "Burning

Bright" is Patrick Hansen, recently appointed music director for

OFNJ. He and Tiller have collaborated previously as conductor and


Tiller is doing her part to help give Lewin’s opera a solid place

among American stage works. What counts for viability in the world

of opera is not a single staging, but repeat performances of a work.

"I hope that other companies will have a look at the piece and

put it on," says Tiller. "I’ve invited many general directors

to see it."

When I talked to Tiller about a year ago (U.S. 1, June 16, 1999),

she noted that it was "the first time that I’m the head of a company,

so everything is unexpected. It’s like parenthood. You can’t understand

the magnitude of it until you’re there." Clearly, however, she

has taken command in short order.

In addition to leading the way to the addition of a fourth opera to

the season, Tiller is responsible for other innovations. For the first

time this year there will be a series on Wednesday evenings, a time

slot intended to attract an audience that is not available on weekends.

A related development is the increase of the OFNJ budget from $1.7

million in 1999 to $2 million in 2000. The increase is due to the

added performances, and the fourth opera.

Of significance to the long range fiscal health of the enterprise,

Tiller has initiated the creation of an endowment for OFNJ. The seed

money comes from a one-time grant of $500,000 from the New York Community

Trust-Scheide Fund. Princeton philanthropist and music lover William

Scheide is the protagonist in this gift to the community. The terms

of the grant provide that $250,000 be used to underwrite the fourth

OFNJ production, and that $250,000 establish the endowment. "The

endowment gives the company a degree of financial stability,"

Tiller says. Plans to grow the endowment are now being developed.

Under Tiller’s leadership some personnel changes have occurred. Patrick

Hansen, the new music director, comes to OFNJ from Ithaca College,

where he has been the music director of Opera/Musical Theater. He

has been the director of the Young American Artist Program for the

Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York, in recent summers. Amidst

frequent appearances on the podium in a wide range of opera performances,

he has appeared as a performing pianist. He holds a master’s degree

in piano performance from the University of Missouri at Kansas City.

He has also been active in the publication of reference works in the

field of opera and musical theater.

Other personnel changes include the shift of Robert Coleman from technical

director to production manager; and the appointment of Meg Pierce

to the marketing and public relations slot. "I’m very pleased

with staff," Tiller says. "They slave all year to make seven

weeks happen."

Tiller, 31, grew up in the mountains of Virginia, on the border with

Tennessee and Kentucky, the only girl of four siblings. The family

moved to the Tidewater region of Virginia when Tiller entered William

and Mary College. Her mother plays piano and sings; she has participated

in church choirs both as vocalist and organist. Her father is an entrepreneur.

After graduating from William and Mary with a theater and history,

major, Tiller decided to take a year off before graduate school. During

that time she studied voice and began to perform in musicals, adding

singing to her performance skills on clarinet, piano, and violin.

That same year she moved into the position of artistic administrator

for Virginia Opera. In three years she rose to company manager.

Conductor-composer Michael Ching of Virginia Opera, who hired Tiller,

took her with him when he moved to Memphis. "He convinced me that

I should stay in opera, give it a little time, and not go back to

graduate school," Tiller says. She spent six season in Memphis

working with Ching, who conducts this year’s "Carmen" for

OFNJ. Tiller found him to be encouraging and supportive.

Tiller finds the world of opera to be "a supportive field,"

she says. "If I have an issue or a question, I have a long list

of colleagues who will be honestly helpful. Opera is competitive.

Each company has to define its own mission. Once the niche is defined,

opera companies do not compete with each other. There are a lot of

opera lovers out there and potential opera goers."

Tiller, who lives in Hopewell with her husband, Scott

Lunceford, who works for Princeton BMW, is becoming fully aware of

the geographical advantages of New Jersey. "New Jersey is a great

location for me," she says. I didn’t realize how easy it would

be. From Memphis I would fly up for several days to audition singers.

From here it’s just a matter of hours to hear someone in New York

or Philadelphia. It’s easier on the ears."

When it comes to casting, Tiller looks for what she calls "the

total package," a mix that includes musical competence and talent;

poise, stage presence, and an understanding of characters. "Opera

has changed," Tiller says. "Companies are hiring not only

wonderful singers, but wonderful performers. When I cast I want that

mix — that indefinable sparkle that makes a riveting performer."

For Tiller that ineffable package will have to include the capability

of going beyond the conventional. She told U.S. 1 that the openness

of OFNJ to 20th-century work was the lure that brought her to New

Jersey. Commissioning an opera in the early years of the 21st century

ranks high on her priority list. "It’s a personal love," she

says. "It will be coming." Does she have any feelers out?

"Sure," she says. "But I can’t talk about it yet."

Tiller sees extending the season to four operas as a step towards

that end.

Meanwhile, until a commissioned opera becomes a reality, Tiller intends

to use the four-opera format as a license for flexible programming.

Already, she can foresee that her mark at OFNJ will come to include

scheduling operas of sorts that OFNJ has not included in the past.

"The fourth spot is a way of expanding the repertoire," she

says. "We might use it for a baroque work or for a French opera.

The fourth opera is a way of including parts of the repertoire we

haven’t done before."

— Elaine Strauss

Opera Festival of New Jersey, McCarter Theater, University

Place, 609-258-2787.

Opening Night Gala, Princeton Theological Seminary and

McCarter Theater, 609-279-1750, ext. 107. Dinner under the tent followed

by Bizet’s "Carmen." Proceeds benefit OFNJ. $150. Saturday,

June 17, 5 p.m.

Carmen. Opening night for the 17th annual season. Free

post-performance celebration. $22 to $82. Saturday, June 17, 8

p.m. Also performed: Wednesday, June 21, 7:30 p.m., Friday, June

23, 8 p.m., Sunday, June 25, 2 p.m., Saturday, July 1, 8 p.m., Saturday,

July 8, 8 p.m., and Friday, July 14, 8 p.m.

Falstaff. Giuseppe Verdi’s last opera, a comic masterpiece.

Saturday, June 24, 8 p.m.; Wednesday, June 28, 7:30 p.m.; Friday,

June 30, 8 p.m.; Sunday, July 9, 2 p.m.; Saturday, July 15, 8 p.m.

Six Characters in Search of an Author. Hugo Weisgall’s

20th-century opera based on the play by Pirandello. Friday, July 7,

8 p.m., Wednesday, July 12, 7:30 p.m., Sunday, July 16, 2 p.m., and Saturday,

July 22, 8 p.m.

Burning Bright. The first professional production of Princeton

composer Frank Lewin’s work based on a John Steinbeck novella. Friday,

July 21, 8 p.m., and Sunday, July 23.

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