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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,"
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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