Webre Leaps Forward

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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

contemporary work.

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

different possibilities.

"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.

Top Of Page
Webre Leaps Forward

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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