The Next Act

Ned Canty's vision for a brand-new Opera Memphis

(page 3 of 4)


Hnedak Bobo's sleek Clark Opera Memphis Center

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’m very good at encouraging people to share the love of opera. The longer a company has been around, the more you need that.” – Ned Canty

“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!”


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