The Next Act
Ned Canty's vision for a brand-new Opera Memphis
Man with a plan: Opera Memphis director Ned Canty
photograph by Larry Kuzniewski
(page 1 of 4)
Sometime back in the late Nineties, Dr. Charles Handorf, formerly the board chair of Opera Memphis, visited Michael Ching, the company’s artistic and general manager at the time, in the metal Quonset hut that served as the company’s home on the South Campus of the University of Memphis.
The building, the use of which was donated by the university, was one of a handful of leftover relics from the World War II-era hospital at the corner of Park Avenue and Getwell, which later became the university’s married-student housing, and at the time at that point was the broadcasting center for WKNO. Pigeons roosted under the eaves, a run-down shopping center glared at it from across the street, and at night a blanket of darkness settled over the area, largely uninterrupted by a few scattered light poles.
Ching was working in his office area at the front of the stuffy little building when Handorf arrived. He asked Handorf if he’d mind opening a window at the back end of the hut. “I went over and started to raise the sash and the whole window fell out onto the ground below,” says Handorf. “It did help emphasize that the opera needed a real home.
“If you’re in a dump, reputation is everything. Singers come from around the country. They’ve been to other mid-level opera companies around the country. Nobody is going to expect us to be the Metropolitan Opera, but nobody is going to expect a Quonset hut. It’s part of the branding of the company. Word gets around.” (Ching remembers a similar moment when an air-conditioning unit stopped working. “We couldn’t get it fixed, so we pushed it out the window.”)
Symbolic though they were, windows were the least of Opera Memphis’ space and financial problems, some of which would morph into artistic problems in the years that followed. Rehearsal space was transitory at best and rendered the company unable to offer true Southern hospitality to guest artists. And while that problem was largely solved when the company moved into new headquarters on Wolf River Parkway in 2003, many Memphians still believed that Opera Memphis was headquartered downtown at the Orpheum Theater, where it performed, or else that its three productions a year were actually traveling shows, like that theater’s Broadway musical series.
Factor in the Great Crash of 2008 — after which ticket sales and attendance plummeted, controversial creative decisions were made, and a low-level accounting employee embezzled thousands in a highly publicized scandal — and those at the organization’s core were beginning to wonder about the viability of Opera Memphis in its own community.
Clearly, the company needed a fresh start. Enter stage left, in 2010, current general director Ned Canty, who himself fell in love with opera only in his late 20s. A native New Yorker and a summa cum laude graduate of the Catholic University of America who did graduate work in Shakespearean studies in London, Canty had already developed a thriving career as an actor/director in classical theater before he turned to its musical counterpart.
“As a [former] freelance opera director, I’ve worked in dozens of theater and opera companies over the years, and if you’re lucky you’ll find a few companies that have you back several times in a row,” says Canty, who was hired to replace Ching when the latter retired two and a half years ago. “For me, I went to Wolf Trap Opera for several years, Connecticut Opera — when there was a Connecticut Opera — I did several shows there. I was happiest when I could do that because you knew the audience a little bit, you got to know some of the donors, you knew where the good coffee was.
“More importantly, you could see the contributions you were making to the community. If you talk to someone three years after you did a show and they remember the show, to be able to see that effect is incredibly rewarding. Even if it’s bad comments, there’s a kind of direct connection you can get with your audience.”
After settling into a Central Gardens home he says he hopes never to leave, where people stop him on the street to ask him if he’s “the opera guy,” Canty says that he finds himself on fertile ground for new growth. But he finds himself in a very different place than Ching, his predecessor, when the former took the reins in 1992.