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
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.
Back then it was a very different world. Opera Memphis was performing four times a year instead of three, before robust crowds, and almost always at the Orpheum. Rehearsal space was an issue, but one Ching could politely explain away to the guest artists he hired. Then it was all part of the usual hustle and bustle of logistics with which small arts groups are well-acquainted.
Opera Memphis rehearsed shows in various high school auditoriums and gymnasiums, often in exchange for allowing students to sit in now and then. “To block out an opera, you have to have a space that mimics the stage; you can’t take up the Orpheum stage for three or four weeks,” says Handorf, head of the Pathology Department of the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, who’s been on the Opera Memphis board for over 20 years and is a past chairman. “Of course, a positive of that was that it engendered some good relationships with some of the arts programs in the schools. But it was always teetering on the brink; a new principal could say, ‘No, we don’t want to do that,’ and in a sweep of the hand you’re out of rehearsal space. You have to have a sense of place so that people understand that it’s a real thing.”
Plans for a permanent facility came and went over the years, but the turning point came with a very favorable land deal on acreage at the corner of Wolf River Parkway and Kirby Parkway, a few yards from the Wolf River Greenway near Germantown. The sale price was low enough to make the transaction a de facto donation. The board of Opera Memphis then launched its first multimillion-dollar capital campaign to create the Clark Opera Memphis Center. Completed in 2003 and designed by the local firm of Hnedak Bobo, this contemporary white building with its signature architectural slant in the walls of the largest part of the building (the 5,400-square-foot rehearsal hall) caused passersby to fear that the structure was close to falling over during construction. Happily, it’s still standing.
It took more than ten years to complete the fundraising campaign, launching with a signature gift from the Adams Foundation and finishing with individual and family donations pledged over time. The $7.3 million facility incorporates administrative offices, costume storage, meeting space for the board, a lobby that doubles as an art gallery, and the high school gymnasium-sized rehearsal hall.
“We moved into the facility at a high point when the economy was pretty good,” recalls Michael Ching. “That lasted for another couple of years. The donor base being a little older, I think they were not hit as badly by the earlier [economic] downturn.” But ticket sales did begin to decline slowly after that at what Ching calls a “fairly controllable rate.”
“I think what happens [in such circumstances] is that you end up producing a lot of Carmens and Traviatas,” says Ching. “We did a lot of popular shows that would sell a lot of tickets to counterbalance that [decline].”
The recession of 2008 was another story altogether. To help make ends meet, Ching was required to put together a 2009-2010 season with low-budget operas, and spoke frankly to the media about the need to save money through creative choices.
First, there was Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, a lighthearted comedy of errors in which two soldiers bet that their true loves will be faithful to them when tempted. He staged it at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre (GPAC) with a single set — a simple, moveable staircase and an aqueduct-like bridge extending across the center of the stage. The orchestra was seated onstage, behind the set.
Next was Orpheus, based on Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, perhaps the most experimental of the three productions that season. Ching staged it in the Clark Opera Memphis Center’s rehearsal hall, with temporary seating set on risers along one wall. Of the three principal roles, one was filled by an Opera Memphis staff member. Finally, Opera Memphis offered an old favorite, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, at the Orpheum, but with a nontraditonal set noticeably bereft of blooming cherry trees.
One of the two performances of Cosi was on Halloween night, and attendance was low. The small scale of the production also seemed to leave a bad taste in the audience’s collective mouth. The third performance of Orpheus was cancelled due to a snow storm and the stylizing of Butterfly disappointed some ticket holders. The season left Ching with some regrets.
“You have to be creative and you have to do some things that you didn’t want to do,” says Ching. “I can say this, now that I don’t run Opera Memphis — I despise Cosi Fan Tutte. When I got to Opera Memphis in 1992, I had to do it because it had been programmed by my predecessor and I pretty much vowed never to put it on again. But it’s an opera that requires only six singers and a small chorus and it’s written by a composer that everyone knows.”
Criticism for Orpheus came from inside and out.
“The Orpheus production was a failed experiment,” says Charles Schaffler, the current board chair of Opera Memphis. “It was well-intentioned, but the Clark Opera Memphis Center wasn’t suitable for it. I’m not going to say that that necessarily cost us a lot of audience. We were declining anyway, and I’m not sure that that really hurt us in terms of numbers.”
Schaffler adds that he believes Ching’s time with Opera Memphis was productive and notes that Ching’s final show, Aida, in the fall of 2010, drew back many straying audience members with the spectacle of a parade of live animals on stage.
“A lot of people seem to think Orpheus had less quality because it wasn’t done in a more formal theater setting,” says Ching. “I would disagree with that. But if you have an audience used to seeing shows with a proscenium, putting them in the headquarters is just different. You see the cords and the lights and the sight lines are not as good even though it’s considerably cheaper.”
After resigning, Michael Ching moved to Iowa with his wife in order to focus on writing new operas. The latest of these, performed in 2011, A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Opera A Capella, stirred new interest in the company by combining the casts of Opera Memphis with non-operatic singers from Playhouse on the Square, and two a capella groups, Delta Capella and RIVA, all on the Playhouse Stage. Already, Opera Memphis was starting to reinvent itself.
By that time Ned Canty, a free-lance stage director with a national and international following, had been hired as general director. The position, while still encompassing artistic decisions, has an emphasis on administrative and fundraising duties.
“I had a good feeling after the interview,” says Canty. “I wasn’t offered the job, but I had a really positive feeling. When you’re trying to make a good match between an opera company and the person who’s going to lead it, it’s very difficult for them and it’s very difficult for a person in my position. You want to make sure it’s a place where you can grow and thrive and be excited by the work.” Canty got the job offer while he was celebrating his 40th birthday. He had become one of the youngest opera-company directors in the country.
The 2010-2011 season had already been slated and cast by Ching, which gave Canty plenty of time to meet subscribers and donors and do a lot of listening that first year. It also gave him time to strategize about bringing back former members of the audience who had given up opera in Memphis for dead.
“I have tons of flaws,” says Canty. “There are all kinds of things I don’t do well. I have a terrible memory, I’m very messy, as anyone who’s been by my office can see — it’s horrific — but the one thing I can do is that I’m very good at encouraging people to share the love of opera. The longer a company has been around, the more you need that.”
Canty called out to singers, conductors, and directors from his freelance years and surveyed them for works they might be interested in. In the end, about 90 percent of the artists hired for the 2011-2012 season — his first — would be people Canty had worked with previously, some taking lower pay as a personal favor to the new Opera Memphis director.
For his first season, Canty chose operas with new audiences in mind. First up was Puccini’s always-dramatic Tosca, staged at The Orpheum, featured the up-and-coming Scottish soprano Lee Bissett in her American debut. The second show, at GPAC, Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, ran to the opposite end of the spectrum — slapstick comedy — complete with a parade of supers in the masquerade scene dressed as characters from other operas and an appearance by the choir from the Stax Music Academy. For the finale back downtown, Canty chose what he says got him hooked on opera in the first place, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, a romantic comedy of errors in which a crusty, aging miser’s plan to stop his nephew’s wedding backfires.
At the same time, the Assisi Foundation funded Opera Memphis’ New Audience Initiative, a study of those attending operas for the first time and their reactions to the productions. Attendance for Tosca was between 800 and 900 including a significant number of first-time attendees. Die Fledermaus, at GPAC, sold out.
“I’ve been accused of focusing on ‘younger’ audiences,” says Canty. “It’s not about younger audiences, it’s about new audiences. It’s about reaching out to people who think they don’t like opera. When we did our New Audience Initiative, we had kids, Boy Scouts in uniform at age 10, all the way up to people in their 60s.”
Of those who participated in the study, 55 percent said they would definitely come to another opera. Another 29 percent said they probably would and 88 percent said they would recommend Opera Memphis to a friend. A slew of pleasantly surprised individual comments followed. Canty’s hope that improved attendance numbers would be the first step toward improved donor participation seemed to be viable.
“The job of opera leaders all over the country right now is seeing this is how our audience has changed, this is how giving patterns have changed, so we can no longer produce the way we have before,” says Canty. “We can either pretend that that isn’t true and keep trying to make opera look like it did 20 years ago with less money and cut corners, or we can go and look at what is the most essential element of opera.”
Don Pasquale seemed to epitomize Canty’s growing vision for Opera Memphis. The cast featured star soprano Monica Yunus, who sings regularly for the Met, and Stefano de Peppo, a well-known Italian bass very familiar with the title role, along with a rising star, baritone Matthew Worth, whom Canty had never worked with before, in the role of Malatesta.
Worth explains how he got to Memphis. “Ned, after seeing work that I had done in Sante Fe the previous summer, had written to me on Twitter . . . and said, ‘Is there anything you want to do in the coming season? We’re looking for the young, important talent around America to come here and perform in Memphis.’ And I wrote to him with a list of roles that I hadn’t yet done that I would love to get underneath my belt. One of those was Malatesta.
“Ned said, ‘Would you believe that we’re looking for somebody [for that role] this March?’ Well, I happened to have exactly one month off between jobs then. He had directed a couple of shows with the master’s program at Juilliard when I was in the post-graduate program. And the girl I was dating at the time couldn’t shut up about how much she loved working with Ned.”
Don Pasquale also featured a set that put the show in early 1900’s America, as opposed to Rome. The show was hailed as an artistic triumph by the core of Opera Memphis’ subscriber base and while it didn’t sell out, it sold as many tickets as Tosca despite being a lesser-known title.
“It was not your typical opera audience,” Worth recalls. “I got the feeling that in Memphis people came to their feet [for Don Pasquale] not because of the influence of other people [around them], but because they were genuinely excited. Having someone like Monica Yunus in the role of Norina, she’s such a fantastic singing actress, and Stefano de Peppo? He’s one of the best Don Pasquales you’ll see in the world!”
So what of the 2012-2013 season? There’s no question about the biggest change Memphis opera-goers will see this year. Noticeably missing from the coming year’s lineup is the Orpheum Theater, Opera Memphis’ primary home base since 1984.
November’s production of Puccini’s La Boheme and February’s production of Donizetti’s Elixir of Love will both be held at GPAC, while the third major production, a first-ever Chamber Opera Festival, will be staged at Playhouse on the Square in April. The Orpheum’s tight calendar didn’t allow room to offer prime schedules; meanwhile, the costs of hiring union stage crews, which the theater requires, remain daunting.
“People will cry about that, and I will cry about that a little bit, too,” says Canty. “The problem is one of time. The more successful they [Orpheum management] are, the less time there is for us to do an opera. There are weeks in the calendar when you don’t want to do an opera — for instance, the weekend of Easter and Passover. It’s just not something you can do.”
“We were very reluctant [to leave the Orpheum] at first,” says board chairman Schaffler. “We were acting under the assumption that everyone just loved the Orpheum. But when Ned got here, he did a pretty detailed analysis of our audience and he came to conclude that that wasn’t the case. The majority weren’t hung up on the Orpheum.”
Some actually had complaints that the Orpheum was too far to drive from the eastern suburbs and parking was not easily accessible. “We like GPAC — I like the parking,” says Marian Himmelreich, who with her husband Bill, has been a season subscriber for over 20 years. “The Orpheum is nice, but it’s a long trip for us and expensive with the parking. At GPAC parking is free.”
Still, Canty is conscious of the effects of moving east for two-thirds of the coming season. To help promote the season in as many parts of the city as possible, Opera Memphis will host “30 Days of Opera” from September 15th through October 14th, a month of impromptu, pop-up scenes and arias occuring all over Shelby County. If the company can expose 50,000 Memphians to ten minutes of opera, Canty thinks he can sell a couple thousand to come to Germantown or Midtown.
“As far as I know, no opera company has done this kind of thing,” Canty explains. “The gold standard is for people to be standing at the water cooler saying, ‘You know, the weirdest thing happened to me the other day at the farmers market — a bunch of people started singing opera,’ and to have the person they’re speaking to say, ‘Yeah, that happened to me at the zoo.’”
As for choice of operas, Canty again has gone for diversity. If La Boheme is considered the Mona Lisa of opera, Elixir of Love is the Guernica. An old favorite and a striking new flavor, in other words. The chamber festival selections for Playhouse on the Square — Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, and two works by Lee Hoiby, Bon Appetit! and This Is the Rill Speaking — range from controversial to nostalgic to largely unknown.
The name “Britten” is as tough for some opera lovers as the word “rape,” but Charles Handorf says the show can be pulled off. Britten is a twentieth-century composer known for capeless, maskless, morally ambiguous villains who are harder to dislike because they seem so identifiable with everyday audiences. Audiences leave Britten productions with the unsavory feeling that they may not be above horrific acts themselves.
“I’m a big Benjamin Britten fan,” says Handorf, adding with a chuckle, “I’m one of six people in Memphis who love Benjamin Britten!” Adds Matthew Worth, who is returning to Memphis this season to play the villain in Lucretia, “Britten is controversial, but I think when they [the audience] see the melding of music and theater that’s happening on that stage, they’re going to be bowled over.”
Bon Appetit! makes opera out of the story of Julia Child and her television cooking show. This Is the Rill Speaking has only been produced professionally once before. Moreover, hosting the chamber festival at Playhouse will bring Canty back into his element, using unfamiliar quarters, the intimacy of small spaces, and whatever resources he can find to make the kind of intense experience he says opera audiences enjoy.
“I know for a fact that you can put on an opera for $200,000 that is better in every respect artistically from an opera that costs $500,000,” says Canty. “I know this because I spent last year doing it. That was our average budget, and I’ve worked for plenty of companies that spent $500,000 for the exact same product.
“With opera, people are looking for an intense, extreme experience. Some of the best shows I’ve done as a director were in Tel Aviv with a training program with students from all over the world. We did eight operas in eight days. The sets were chairs we brought in from other rooms. It was stripped down, and yet it was powerful. If we had presented that as ‘come see the cheapest opera you’ve ever seen,’ nobody would have come. If you think of it in terms of what it costs, instead of what it is, I think that’s an issue.”
While artistic quality is not on the chopping block, other parts of Opera Memphis’ $1.4 million budget are. A youth piano competition and other parts of the education department which, according to Canty, had “drifted off mission” were cut to shift funds to audience initiatives like the “30 Days of Opera” project. The cost of hiring Memphis Symphony Orchestra musicians for the chamber festival will be less than for a full orchestra. And yes, Playhouse and GPAC are less expensive performance venues than the Orpheum.
“Next season we’re going to be cutting, but it’s not a question of budget,” says Canty. “We’re doing four operas instead of three for the first time in a long time. We’re producing more for less. A lot of it is finding efficiencies.”
What will not be cut, though, is Opera Memphis’ efforts to make hired singers feel at home while in Memphis, something Canty says will increase Memphis’ presence in the opera world regardless of ticket sales. Rather than putting singers in hotels, the company houses them in homes of its board members. Matthew Worth stayed in Charles Handorf’s backyard guesthouse during Don Pasquale.
“I was staying with Dr. and Mrs. Handorf [during Don Pasquale] and we kept in touch,” says Worth. “In my drive from Connecticut to Fort Worth recently, I stopped and stayed with them on the way down, because this is a family that I care about and I think they care about me too. It was just a few short weeks of rehearsal, but I feel like there’s a home for me in Memphis.”
And as Ned Canty points out, there’s a home for opera in Memphis as well.
Jonathan Devin writes regularly for MBQ, The Commercial Appeal, The Memphis Daily News, and several monthly magazines. He sings baritone for the Memphis Men’s Chorale, and has been following Opera Memphis since he fell in love with the art form in their 1991 production of Faust.