Argento Opera

Michael Ching

Karen Tiller Bio

Encore for Summer Chamber Music

Corrections or additions?

This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 16, 1999.

All rights reserved.

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.

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Argento Opera

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."

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Michael Ching

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."

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Karen Tiller Bio

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

Don Giovanni, Opera Festival of New Jersey, McCarter

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.

Madama Butterfly. Saturday, June 26, 8 p.m., Friday, July

2, 8 p.m., Sunday, July 11, 2 p.m., Thursday, July 15, 8 p.m., and

Saturday, July 17, 8 p.m.

Postcard From Morocco. Saturday, July 10, 8 p.m., Friday,

July 16, 8 p.m., and Sunday, July 18, 2 p.m.

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Encore for Summer Chamber Music

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.

Lark String Quartet, Princeton University Summer Concerts,

Richardson Auditorium, 609-497-1642. Tuesday, June 22, 8 p.m.

Future programs in the series are:

Miro String Quartet, prizewinner in the Coleman, Fischoff,

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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