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These articles by Nicole Plett were published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on September 2, 1998. All rights reserved.
Opera Festival: Tiller at the Helm
Ask any central Jersey opera lover about Deborah
Sandler, general director of the Opera Festival of New Jersey since
1992, who resigned earlier this year, and they will tell you she is
going to be a hard act to follow.
During her 12-year tenure at OFNJ, Sandler shepherded the company
from an obscure young regional company, founded in 1984, into one
of the noted summer opera companies in America. This summer, having
graduated up from its home at the Lawrenceville School, the festival
moved into McCarter Theater where ticket sales have boomed. Sandler
resigned earlier this year to become general director of the Kentucky
Last week Karen Tiller arrived from her former position as executive
director of Opera Memphis to become the new general director of the
Opera Festival of New Jersey. Selection of the 1999 season repertory
was foremost on her agenda. Tiller’s appointment brings to a close
an eight-month nationwide search for Sandler’s successor.
Board president and search committee chair James Sullivan, a manager
at Lenox Inc., says Tiller is just the person with the vision and
energy to move the festival into the new century. In a related
development, he also announced that Michael Unger, the festival’s
artistic administrator since 1988, has been promoted to the
newly-created position of general manager. "Bringing together two
very special people in a creative partnership gives us the opportunity
to focus on critical tasks while expanding our reach," says
This summer’s productions of "Marriage of Figaro,"
"Tosca," and Carlisle Floyd’s "Susannah," mark the
most successful season in OFNJ’s 15-year history. The company made its
first appearance at NJPAC in Newark with two performances of Mozart’s
"Marriage of Figaro," part of the New Jersey Symphony’s
Amadeus Festival. At McCarter attendance broke all previous records,
and 13 of the 15 performances were attended by SRO crowds.
Known for its lively and musically accomplished
productions of favorites of the operatic repertory, OFNJ has also won
acclaim for its commitment to 20th-century opera. It produced the
world premiere of Peter Westergaard’s "The Tempest" in 1994,
and has also staged Samuel Barber’s "Vanessa," Stravinsky’s
"The Rake’s Progress," Britten’s "Turn of the Screw,"
and Peter Maxwell Davies’ "The Lighthouse."
In a phone interview from her office on her second day on the job,
Tiller brimmed with enthusiasm for her new organization. She grew
up in a rural Virginia coal-mining town on the Kentucky-Tennessee
border. Her mother was a singer and pianist, and she began performing
in musicals and outdoor drama in high school. A 1990 graduate of
William and Mary College, Tiller majored in theater and history, and
stayed in the state for her first job. "It happened that my first
job out of college was Virginia Opera," she explains. "I fell
in love with the form and never looked back."
Currently engaged in selecting three operas for OFNJ’s 1999 season,
she says the choices will be announced in the next few weeks, and
will remain within the current formula of two traditional and one
A director in her own right, at Opera Memphis Tiller directed
"Madama Butterfly," "Werther," "The Turn of the
Screw," and the world premiere of "Buoso’s Ghost" by
Michael Ching, composer and general director of Opera Memphis. The
latter work is something that she would consider bringing
to the stage of OFNJ. While works by Stravinsky and Britten are
still considered "modern," operas by living composers offer
"Any time you can produce a new work and have the composer part
of the process, it’s just a richer process," says Tiller.
are several pieces by living composers that I’m interested in for
the future. I definitely want to bring my own feel to the
At OFNJ, the proportion of the audience — over 30 percent at last
count — that is over 65 years old is an issue that also confronts
music organizations across the nation. "This is definitely a
challenge that all classical music arts organizations are facing,"
Tiller. "I am impressed that OFNJ is ahead of the industry
for getting younger people into its seats. And statistics are starting
to show that overall, opera audiences are getting younger."
Opera Memphis found success in this area with a commission from
Nashville songwriter, pianist, and former football star Mike Reid (he
wrote the Bonnie Raitt hit, "I can’t make you love me") to
write a new work that it produced in collaboration with the
Metropolitan Opera Guild. Reid’s opera, "Different Fields," is
set in the world of football, addressing the myth and responsibilities
of celebrity. Premiered at Opera Memphis in 1996, it has enjoyed
productions in New York, Cincinatti, and elsewhere, beyond.
"That’s a good shelf-life for a new work," says Tiller,
"and I think it was the first opera to be reviewed in Sports
Opera is enjoying a revival nationally, she says, helped along by
the trend in bringing in artists from other fields. "My
experience is that new works do provide an avenue for gaining support
in younger audiences," she says. "Once you have them in the
theater, they are much more likely to come back and see your `Marriage
of Figaro’ or `Don Giovanni.’" Clearly, there are new works and
old on the horizon at Opera Festival of New Jersey.
In another "hard act to follow" scenario, Septime Webre has announced
his resignation as artistic director of American Repertory Ballet to
accept the artistic directorship of the Washington Ballet, in
Washington, D.C. Webre, who joined ARB as a dancer in 1986, was
appointed artistic director in 1993, following several years as
resident choreographer. He and managing director Harris Ferris are
widely credited with raising the company’s profile from ho-hum to that
of a brash, dynamic company that is going places. A one-year
transition period that begins immediately will keep Webre at the ARB
helm during its 1998-’99 season and talent search. During the same
period, he will take over the reins from Washington’s founding
artistic director Mary Day.
— Nicole Plett
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