‘There are a lot of moving parts to an opera company,” says Richard Russell, the new general manager of Opera New Jersey (ONJ). “In my mind I see costumed singers, moving and mugging for dramatic effect; a conductor coordinates voices and instruments; the lighting shifts and brings out subtleties in the costumes; sets change; dancers dance. Suddenly, I know that my mind has fed me only aspects of the performance. What about publicity? tickets? ushers? rehearsal space? housing for performers? selection of programs?”
All those parts come into play during ONJ’s summer season in Princeton. This year the company puts on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” Gaetano Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale,” and Charles Gounod’s “Faust.” “Giovanni” plays at McCarter’s Matthews Theater Sunday, July 11 (2 p.m.), Saturday, July 24 (8 p.m.), and Sunday, August 1 (2 p.m.). “Pasquale” plays at McCarter’s Berlind Theater Saturday, July 17 (8 p.m.), Sunday, July 25 (2 p.m.), Friday, July 30 (8 p.m.), and Sunday, August 1 (7 p.m.). “Faust” plays in McCarter’s Matthews Theater Sunday, July 18 (2 p.m.), Friday, July 23 (8 p.m.), and Saturday, July 31 (8 p.m.). ONJ partners with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) in its productions.
And what about spin-off activities? Russell commands not only the moving parts of the scheduled operas but also the rest of ONJ’s machinery, not only in summer but throughout the year. A non-resident Young Artist Program runs from September to May. ONJ presents programs in New Jersey schools throughout the school year. Partnering with the Springpoint Foundation, ONJ presents programs at senior communities. On the horizon for February is a performance in collaboration with the NJSO of Giacomo Puccini’s “Madam Butterfly” at major New Jersey theaters.
During the summer there are a variety of events beyond the main-stage operas. An annual audition day at the end of the season gives members of ONJ an opportunity to sing for around a dozen opera company executives, young artist program directors, and artist managers. Every year since its inception singers have gotten contracts or management from this event.
This season, almost a score of three-hour afternoon master classes, free and open to the public, focus on the nitty-gritty of singing. A half dozen outdoor concerts bring ONJ to various parks in New Jersey. A children’s opera camp culminates with a free performance of Hans Krasa’s “Brundibar,” a fairy tale in which two children defeat an evil organ grinder (Friday, July 23). Two evenings of opera scenes and arias feature excerpts from opera (Tuesdays, July 20 and 27). A premiere read-through of Michael Ching’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” takes place Saturday, July 24, and is free; Ching’s “Buoso’s Ghost” was part of the 2006 ONJ season. NJSO and ONJ join in a performance of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” on Thursday, July 22.
Russell moved from his position at Florida’s Sarasota Opera barely two months ago. Interviewed in a practice room in Woolworth, the music building on the Princeton campus, he talks mostly about the future. “I went into action about a month before the season opened,” he says. “It was already planned. Mostly, I’ll observe, and start planning for next season.”
Despite presenting himself as a spectator, Russell has had work to do in his short time in Princeton. “There were a few cast changes,” he says. Summarizing them, he gives a sense of his style as he tells how he coped.
Probably his biggest task was replacing the singer selected to play Mephisto in “Faust.” Says Russell: “The bass pulled out of our production because he had a chance to appear in Verona.” [The festival in the Verona Arena is a high-profile affair in the international opera world.] “If a great opportunity like that comes along, you don’t want to block it.
“I knew singers in Sarasota and called them. I knew the work ethic of the person I asked to play Mephisto. Luckily, people were available.
“When it’s a short time frame, I’m more comfortable hiring a singer I know,” he says. “When there’s not much time I want to get somebody solid, who has experience with a role. I don’t have the luxury of calling agents and saying I want to hear 10 people. You can do that six months ahead of time, but not a month earlier.”
Russell has clearly solved the problem of sudden cancellation before. “If there’s nobody I know, I contact artist-managers,” he says. “Sometimes they connect me with people I know of or have heard sound clips of. The best thing, of course, is to hear singers live.”
Although I know that Russell had no part in planning this year’s summer opera program, I test him by suggesting that the selections seem to be very male-oriented: two noblemen — Don Giovanni and Don Pasquale, and, in “Faust,” a devil and his dupe, both of whom are men. He responds serenely. “The range this year is big, musically, even if the material at first glance seems to be male-focused,” he says. “These are three diverse operas. ‘Faust’ is serious; ‘Don Pasquale’ is comedy; and ‘Don Giovanni’ is ‘drama giocosa,’ something in between. ‘Don Giovanni’ is classical; ‘Don Pasquale’ is early romantic; and ‘Faust’ is grand opera.”
Finally, he points out, the women come out well in all three operas. “The women in ‘Don Giovanni’ ultimately are the winners,” he says. “In ‘Don Pasquale’ the woman overcomes the vanity of the old man. In ‘Faust’ Marguerite goes to heaven.’
For the future, Russell would like to explore new material. “I want to diversify and expand the repertoire,” he says. “Till now the repertoire has been relatively conventional. That’s been appropriate. But I think an American company should have an American component.” He would also like to incorporate stand-alone concerts, recitals, and lectures in the summer season.
Because he is general director of ONJ, the buck stops at Russell’s door both artistically and administratively. He is prepared in both areas; his administrative experience at Citibank and Sarasota Opera was grafted onto his training as a musician. “I am an artist,” he says. “Even though I don’t raise my voice on stage, I consider myself a singer.
“It’s a challenge to have both responsibilities,” he says. “I find that very exciting. Challenge is a great energizer.” He foresees making a difference in ONJ by bringing his vision to both music and management.
ONJ came into existence in 2002 under the leadership of Scott and Lisa Altman, who believed that fiscal prudence was an essential ingredient in an opera company. Scott Altman became general manager of Arizona Opera in Phoenix in October, 2009.
“The Altmans did a great job of creating the company,” Russell says. “The next move is to make ONJ a destination. Diversifying the repertoire would appeal to opera lovers from out of town. Opera people travel to see good opera. I learned that in Sarasota. An opera lover might come to Princeton for a weekend, see three operas, perhaps scenes from opera, and enjoy being here.”
Russell has thought about the steps needed to make ONJ a destination. “To achieve this vision,” he says, “first we’ve got to create an appealing product. Then we have to tell public relations and marketing people about it. We’ll have to work with hotels and restaurants to create packages.
“I have a really good staff,” he adds. “They can handle things for me. We can work together to create something pretty magical.”
Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1962, Russell’s family moved to Pearl River in Rockland County, New York, when he was two. He graduated from Nanuet High School. His father was in advertising. His mother, jazz singer Marta Hernandez, was a member of a high school group hired by Nat King Cole for the background of his “Red Sails in the Sunset.” She still lives in Pearl River.
“I discovered opera in fifth grade, when I had a teacher who loved opera,” Russell says. “That’s why I have such strong feelings about education programs. My mother and I used to take the bus to the Met.” His younger brother, James Russell, is on the roster of the New York City Opera Chorus as a tenor.
After earning a bachelor’s degree at Indiana University in 1984, Russell stayed on to earn a double master’s degree in voice and in choral conducting in 1988. “In a lot of small colleges, voice and choral conducting are combined in one position. I thought that if singing didn’t work out as a profession, I would look for a teaching job and would have both arrows in my quiver.”
A tenor, Russell sang in regional opera in Indiana, West Virginia, Texas, New York City, and Sarasota, Florida. He sang at Sarasota Opera for four seasons and completed their apprentice program. Gradually, he drifted into banking.
“When I was singing, I started as a temp at Citibank,” Russell says. “They kept promoting me to the point that I couldn’t say no. In 1998, when I got married and was between singing jobs, they hired me full time. I knew when I started at Citigroup that I wanted to get back into the arts. I figured I would go back on the administrative side.”
By the time he left Citigroup, Russell had been promoted to vice president and global webmaster for the company’s emerging markets, sales, and trading division. In 2005 Sarasota Opera appointed him their director of marketing.
He started a blog, “High and Low Notes,” while still at Citigroup, subtitling it “Musings on Music and Life and Whatever Else Moves Me at the Moment,” and maintained it during his work at Sarasota Opera until his standards dictated that he should stop. “This will be my last post,” he wrote in November, 2008. “As much as I have enjoyed this, I just don’t have the time to update as I should.”
Russell’s wife, Cynthia Bydlinski, a social worker, is finishing a certificate program in expressive arts therapy. The couple is happy about the prospect of living in the northeast, near their families.
Russell is both correct and approachable. He wears a suit and tie when we meet, but his responses to my questions are unbuttoned and expansive. He has a quiet, confidence-inspiring energy. He seems unflappable and calm, yet he enjoys novelty. It’s pleasant to note that he’s human: answering a chain of tedious questions about his early life, his leg jiggles ever so slightly. Clearly he is anxious to begin the company’s second act.
Opera New Jersey, McCarter Theater, 609-258-2787, www.opera-nj.org. See page 22 for full schedule.