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This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 16, 1999.
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For the Opera, a Modernist
As the home of the blues and of Elvis Presley, the
Southern metropolis of Memphis has a unique character and a host of
civic institutions. Yet it couldn’t keep Karen Tiller.
Tiller left her post as executive director of Opera Memphis last fall
to take on the general directorship of Opera Festival of New Jersey.
In a breezy and open manner during a telephone interview from her
Princeton office, she explains how OFNJ lured her to New Jersey.
"Their openness to 20th-century work was the siren song for me,"
Tiller says. "Opera Festival of New Jersey is a medium-sized regional
company with a reputation for quality. They only do three operas a
season, and one of them is modern. That’s quite a statement."
On the threshold of her first season at OFNJ Tiller is looking at
a season consisting of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s "Don Giovanni,"
Giacomo Puccini’s "Madama Butterfly," and Dominick Argento’s
"Postcard from Morocco." "Giovanni" plays for five
performances, starting Saturday, June 19; "Butterfly" plays
for five performances, beginning Saturday, June 25; and "Postcard"
plays for three performances, starting Saturday, July 10.
The tried-and-true Mozart and Puccini operas are joined by an Argento
work that premiered in 1971. The one-act Argento opera is a surreal
fantasy in which seven people waiting for a train confront each other
and their luggage. The luggage plays a unique role in moving the action
of the opera forward. It consists of a coronet case, a paint box,
a shoe sample kit, a hat box, a cake box, and an old valise. Some
of the travelers are singers. There is a puppet maker and puppets.
Born in 1927, Argento has written more than a dozen operas. Children’s
theater director John Donahue is the librettist. He directed the Minneapolis
premiere of the work.
OFNJ’s Tiller is interested not only in the existing body of 20th-century
operas, but in creating new vehicles. She made her position clear
to the OFNJ board at the outset. "I’m interested in commissioning
new work here," she says. "Commissions are the way to keep
opera alive and vibrant. I want to get this season under my belt.
In a couple of years the commissions will happen. The board knows
that this is important to me."
After little more than half a year in New Jersey, Virginia native
Tiller is still getting used to the area. "I’m not settled yet,"
she says. "I hit the ground running. I’m collecting no dust. I
have yet to feel at home."
Asked if she has encountered surprises in her new position, Tiller
says, "this is my first general directorship. It’s 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
Tiller succeeds Deborah Sandler, who shepherded OFNJ’s
growth for 12 years and oversaw the move of the company from the Lawrenceville
School to McCarter Theater last year. Sandler resigned to become general
director of Kentucky Opera. "My personality and artistic opinions
are different from Deborah’s," Tiller says. "The board wanted
someone different. They didn’t want Deborah to leave, but when she
did go they saw it as an opportunity. The move to McCarter opened
up new artistic possibilities. I was lucky to have come when the transition
to McCarter was made. It was the perfect time."
Both "Giovanni" and "Butterfly," on the OFNJ roster
this year, were performed at Opera Memphis last year. The duplication
was a matter of chance, according to Tiller. "It just happened
that they turned up also in New Jersey. `Giovanni’ was already on
the schedule when I came. And we decided that `Butterfly’ would have
a better box office than some of other things we were considering.
Both are in the 10 most-performed operas category. It’s great for
me because I know them really well."
Tiller directed "Butterfly" in Memphis last season, and a
reporter wonders if she will she be able to resist giving advice to
Linda Brovsky, who directs the OFNJ production. "I’m pretty good
at keeping my mouth shut," Tiller says. "All the OFNJ directors
this season are talented professionals and I trust them." Still,
Tiller discusses the shape of OFNJ’s performances with her colleagues.
"I just got off the phone with Linda," she says. "We batted
things back and forth." Among the matters Tiller and Brovsky discussed
were whether the opera will be done in two acts or in three, and what
to call Cio-Cio San’s child. "We mutually decided on two acts,"
Tiller says. "Two acts is tough for her; she has to stay on stage
longer without a break. But she says that as long as she’s out there
she might as well make a go of it. It makes more artistic sense, and
more sense musically. But an opera can be done in many artistically
valid ways. The wonderful thing about opera is that it’s a collaborative
process involving the whole artistic staff."
Michael Ching, the conductor for the OFNJ "Butterfly,"
is Tiller’s longtime mentor. General director of Memphis Opera, Ching
is also a composer. He conducted "Butterfly" in the Memphis
production directed by Tiller. His participation in New Jersey is
the result of Tiller’s quick-witted response to a personnel problem.
"Opera Festival had hired another conductor who canceled because
of another offer," Tiller says. "Michael and I had done `Butterfly’
together. I knew he knew the opera well and had done a good job on
it. I also knew that the OFNJ appearance fitted into Memphis’ schedule.
So I asked him. Anytime you’re doing artistic things, there are always
random acts of God that you have to deal with. Michael is a very good
conductor, and a good friend." Tiller mentions him often as she
talks, grateful for his artistic guidance and his warm friendship.
At 30, Tiller is self-possessed, self-confident, and down-to-earth.
How does she handle being younger than many of her associates? I don’t
have a lot of choices," she says. "I am what I am. I’ve worked
hard, and have enthusiasm for the project. I’ve been in this business
a long time. It was my first job out of college. I’ve been in opera
about 10 years," she says, rounding out her professional experience
venerably upwards. She points out that the opera business is small,
and many people in it already know her. However, sometimes she deals
with professionals who have not met her before. "Any time I walk
into a room with strangers," she says, "people will say, `How
old is she?’ `Does she know what she’s doing?’ But preconceptions
fall away once you get into the work. I’m aware of being young and
being a woman. And I think I have a lot to offer."
Tiller grew up in the mountains of Virginia, on the border with Tennessee
and Kentucky. "It’s a beautiful part of the world," she says.
"Both of my parents are from there, but no one lives there any
Tiller’s mother has musical interests. She plays piano and sings;
and has been involved with church choirs both as a singer and as an
organist. Her father is an entrepreneur. Tiller has three brothers.
"I was a huge tomboy," she says. The family moved to the Tidewater
region of Virginia when Tiller entered William and Mary College.
Tiller considers playing clarinet her area of greatest musical proficiency.
Before reaching college, she also studied piano and voice. Her exposure
to opera came after college.
A 1990 graduate of William and Mary, where she majored in theater
and history, Tiller decided to take a year off before going to graduate
school. At the time Virginia Opera was looking for an artistic administrator.
Tiller got the job. Her duties as a fledgling arts administrator included
dealing with company travel and individual artists, and with their
housing, with auditions and contracts. "In that time I discovered
opera," she says. "I fell in love with the form and never
looked back," she told U.S. 1 last year. Within three years she
rose to be the company manager.
It was Michael Ching, then at Virginia Opera, who hired Tiller, and
later took her with him when he went 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. "He let me try to do
anything I wanted, and I have worked in every part of opera. I tried
not to let him down. It was fun to direct with him conducting. He’s
very easygoing and supportive. He’s a talented composer and conductor,
and he encourages people in their careers and encourages them to stay
in opera." Tiller spent six seasons in Memphis working with Ching.
About her experience there Tiller says, "Opera Memphis
enjoyed a coming of age. It is more than 40 years old." (Opera
Festival of New Jersey, founded in 1984, enters its 16th season this
year.) "It was doing very well the last few years, when Michael
and I were there together."
Tiller comes up with a thumbnail-sketch of her former home. "Memphis
is surprisingly west," she says. "It’s directly south of Detroit.
It’s a southern city, but it’s the new south, so it’s cosmopolitan.
There are a million people and large corporations. Memphis is the
home of the blues. And rock was born in Memphis. It’s a lively music
scene. Nashville is 200 miles away — and in that part of the world,
that’s close. So the country music scene is present. There’s a rich
musical history and culture in Tennessee. The ducks that march to
Sousa in Memphis’ Peabody Hotel at tea time are an aberration. But
they’re very cute. Memphians love them."
However, being an opera fan is a great leveler, according to Tiller.
"Opera lovers are the same all over," she says. "In some
ways I haven’t noticed a difference between Memphis and New Jersey
because I’m in the same field in both places."
Opera Memphis drew on its indigenous tradition in its commissions
during Tiller’s stay there. The new works that come to Tiller’s mind
are "River Song," a blues opera for families, and "Different
Fields," commissioned from Nashville song writers by Opera Memphis
and the Metropolitan Opera Guild.
Relocated to Lawrenceville, Tiller lives there with her husband, who
works for Princeton BMW. "He has now moved for me twice,"
says Tiller. "He’s very supportive, and he’s an arts fan. He has
worked in film and theater, and he’s a good volunteer. He knows what
it takes to get an artistic project done."
Collaborating with Tiller at OFNJ in getting projects done is Michael
Unger, the festival’s artistic administrator since 1988, who has been
promoted to the new post of general manager. "We consider it a
partnership," Tiller says. "We both hear auditions and we
make decisions together. OFNJ has six full-time employees, and two
part-time employees. I don’t want to play up divisions of labor. We’re
all involved in almost every project. It’s not big staff, but it’s
a lot of work."
The hard work has paid off as OFNJ prepares for audiences that will
set new attendance records. Last year, when subscriptions were offered
for the first time, 1,715 were sold, and that number has already been
exceeded for 1999. "Opera is hot right now," says Tiller.
"A decade ago when supertitles appeared, it opened up a whole
new audience for opera. It’s a great art form that’s being rediscovered.
It’s a synthesis of the arts. Also, it’s hard to turn on TV and miss
opera. The background for commercials is often opera. People are pleasantly
surprised when they go to a performance of Carmen and discover that
they already know half the music. Nobody really knows exactly why
there’s a resurgence of opera, but it is taking place all over the
— Elaine Strauss
Theater, University Place, 609-683-8000. $22 to $70. Saturday,
June 19, 8 p.m., Friday, June 25, 8 p.m., Sunday, June 27, 2 p.m.,
Saturday, July 3, 8 p.m., and Friday, July 9, 8 p.m.
2, 8 p.m., Sunday, July 11, 2 p.m., Thursday, July 15, 8 p.m., and
Saturday, July 17, 8 p.m.
July 16, 8 p.m., and Sunday, July 18, 2 p.m.
Ask any 50 residents why Princeton is a remarkable place
to live and you may get 50 different answers. Or all 50 may reply
that the Princeton University Summer Concerts, a free summer series
of world class chamber music, is precisely what makes their home remarkable.
Now entering its 31st season, led by founder and artistic director
Barbara Sand, the summer concert series is a boon to Princeton music
lovers of limited means.
The five-concert summer chamber music series at Richardson Auditorium
opens on Tuesday, June 22, at 8 p.m. with the Lark String Quartet.
winner of the Naumburg Chamber Music Award.
Sand initially presented her one-woman productions outdoors at Princeton’s
Graduate College, and featured artists with whom she had personal
contacts. She was involved in every aspect of performance, from hauling
lamps from her living room to illuminate the makeshift stage to providing
clothespins to prevent performers’ music from blowing away. Presented
in the comfort of Richardson Auditorium since 1991, the series is
steered by a governing board of 27.
One of the hallmarks of Sand’s artistic leadership has been her selection
of emerging young artists. Among those she has brought to Princeton
are the Tokyo Quartet and the Emerson Quartet, whose names have since
become household words in the music world. Many people believe incorrectly
that the concert series is paid for by Princeton University. "The
university provides us with the use of its good name and its tax-deductible
umbrella, benefits that are obviously of great value to us and for
which we are most grateful," says Sand. However, except for a
Mercer County Cultural and Heritage grant, the lion’s share of the
funds, including artists’ fees and the rental of Richardson Auditorium,
are provided by individual and corporate contributors.
As they have been since 1991, free tickets are distributed at the
Richardson Box Office beginning at 6 p.m. on the day of the concert
only. All tickets are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis,
with a limit of four tickets per person. Seating is unreserved and
early arrival recommended.
Richardson Auditorium, 609-497-1642. Tuesday, June 22, 8 p.m.
Future programs in the series are:
and Banff competitions, Wednesday, June 30, 8 p.m. Peabody Trio,
Monday, July 12, 8 p.m. Brentano String Quartet, the group due
to become Princeton University’s first Quartet-in-Residence this fall,
Tuesday, July 20, 8 p.m. And Trio Solaris, featuring David Jolley,
French horn, Daniel Phillips, violin, and Samuel Sanders, piano, Thursday,
July 29, 8 p.m.
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