Changing Focus: Making the Switch from Performer to Administrator
Who will be the next generation of opera administrators? Finding qualified and enthusiastic new staff members can be very difficult, especially when companies are looking for a person with operatic knowledge and a dedication to working in and promoting opera. New staff members traditionally come from other arts organizations, or they come from the business world but have an interest or background in liberal arts. However, another source of employees may be right under the noses of today’s opera managers: the performers on our stages, in our rehearsal halls, and in our orchestra pits.
Opera administration is not the first option that comes to mind when singers are thinking of changing their career paths. But it’s a viable and extremely fulfilling vocation for a performer who is interested in leaving the stage but staying connected to the art form.
Additionally, performers can bring qualities to the table that many job applicants cannot, including in-depth knowledge of the art form and performance practices, as well as broad experience with various companies and administrative styles.
Many singers, pianists, conductors, and directors have made successful transitions to positions in education, public relations, development, and marketing. Some of the most talented, committed, and dynamic administrators in opera today are former performers who chose to make the switch from the stage to the administrative office. Beverly Sills, who served as general director of New York City Opera, is one of the most prominent and successful performers-turned-administrator, along with Ardis Krainik, former general director at Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Plácido Domingo, general director at Washington National Opera and Los Angeles Opera.
Performers go through serious soul-searching before making a career change, which can result from any of a number of reasons. Some become tired of the vagabond life of an opera singer. Others realize their performing career isn’t going where they had hoped or isn’t as fulfilling as they had imagined.
“In early 1973 as the opening of the Sydney Opera House approached, I saw it as a turning point. I wanted to be Nicolai Gedda or Fritz Wunderlich, but that was not very likely, so I had to decide if I would enjoy a lifetime of comprimario roles,” said Ian Campbell, San Diego Opera general director. “I sought advice from several people I trusted, considered my options, and decided that the end of that season was the time to retire from the stage.”
“Although I loved performing, I increasingly found myself becoming frustrated with the transient lifestyle, the career unsuredness, and everything else that goes along with being a freelance opera artist,” said Allan Naplan, Pittsburgh Opera director of artistic administration. “By my fourth year, I was on the road ten out of 12 months and found I wanted far more stability for my professional and personal life. As I was actually having success as a young working singer, I was lucky to get an early taste of what the rest of my career would be like and realized that I didn’t want to wait too long before changing professional directions.”
“Early on, I realized I was very interested in what the stage manager and stage director were doing,” said David Grindle, production manager in the School of Theater at Indiana University. “The more I [sang in] shows, the more I realized [stage management] was where my passion lay.”
Early in her career, Lyric Opera of Chicago Chapters Endowed Chair for Education Jean Keister Kellogg worked as accompanist, coach, and repetiteur. However, administration won out for three reasons — “I believe I’m more talented as an administrator than as an artist, financially it’s more secure (than freelance work), and working in the arts education field is very fulfilling — knowing you are giving back to the community and making a difference in many people’s lives.”
Any regrets? Most performers-turned-administrator would say “No.”
“What I thought would be difficult would be sitting in the audience seeing singers with whom I had worked for 20 years on the stage,” said Darren Keith Woods, Fort Worth Opera general director. “This, oddly enough, was not a problem. I love being a producer and seeing people whose talent I love and admire on stage.”
Assistance from colleagues already in the business is critical for a performer hoping to make the switch to administration. “I was fortunate to have strong mentors every step of the way, including Pat Houk (director of production, Opera Pacific), Jay Lesenger (artistic/general director, Chautauqua Opera), Jane Hill (former executive director, Opera Omaha), and Hal France (artistic director/conductor, Opera Omaha),” said Shannon Stoddard, Opera Omaha director of artistic administration. “They were willing to take a chance on me and let me try something new. I’m so grateful that I’ve had that kind of support in my career development.”
Many singers hold part-time jobs with for-profit companies while they get their performing careers started. This gives them a background and confidence, as they enter an administrative position with an opera company.
“I had worked in big business for Kraft Foods and Phillip Morris International — yes, a cigarette company — in New York before my ‘break into the career,’ so I had office experience. I have been fortunate to have Pamela Rosenberg as a role model. I have the greatest staff to work with, and that has made this transition all that much easier,” said Sheri Greenawald, who boasts a 30-year singing career and was represented by Columbia Artists Management, Inc. Greenawald is now opera center director at San Francisco Opera.
Some performers cite their knowledge of the art form as the greatest asset in making the switch to administration, because the part of opera that is so foreign to others was completely familiar and helpful to them.
“A strong background in music (and opera) is essential for understanding the artist and the repertoire,” said Kellogg, who uses her background as a performer to give lecture/performances in the community on Lyric Opera’s season.
“I truly enjoy helping to make performances happen,” said John Wehrle, Chattanooga Symphony and Opera executive director. “While I am fortunate to be involved in planning and executing an artistic vision, even having the right copier or telephone company helps prepare for the performance experience.”
“I have the pleasure of truly participating in the full artistic process. I collaborate with the artistic director on everything from choosing season repertoire to physical productions to artist casting and everything in between. I frequently collaborate with stage directors as their second pair of eyes, and with conductors as their second pair of ears,” said Naplan. “I also take great pleasure in overseeing the young artist training Opera Center. It wasn’t too long ago that I was in their shoes, and I certainly can relate to their difficulties, frustrations, and hopeful successes. I know that they also see me as a receptive administrator in that I know what they’re going through.”
“When the audience applauds, I know that I helped get the performance there,” said Grindle. “I made sure everyone had what they needed to give a fine performance, and performing was all they had to think about. Currently, as a teacher of stage management, that is what I try to instill in my students: great service to create great art.”
“The most surprising aspect [of working in administration] was that I took to budgets, planning, and management like a duck to water,” said Campbell. “I had always been very interested in how the opera company was run while I was a
About the Author: Director of Development, The Old Globe, San Diego