For Operations Head, Balancing Act to Style the Perfect Season
Ever wonder how “The Barber of Seville” gets the season-opening slot for the Washington National Opera (WNO)? Or why “A View from the Bridge” — a very contemporary opera — makes it on the list? Christina Scheppelmann, who has been the WNO’s director of artistic operations for the past five years, could tell you a little bit about what goes into those choices.
Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” kicks off the WNO’s 54th season this month, an echo of the upcoming performance of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” slated for the spring — both light, romantic comedies with elements of music and moments that are near and dear to the hearts of opera goers.
“One of the things you have to consider is that these kinds of decisions, putting together a season, choosing which operas will start the season or end it, are made several — usually three to four or more — years in advance,” said Scheppelmann, who works closely with WNO General Director Plácido Domingo. “Lots of factors are involved. You have to look at availability of performers, singers, directors, conductors. When you’re looking at a season, you think about Mr. Domingo and what he might want to do, and that’s part of it.
“In the case of ‘Figaro,’ the whole season was very much a factor especially in the beginning,” Scheppelmann explained. “As you know, this was going to be the season of ‘The Ring Cycle,’ which is Wagner, which is big and ambitious and spectacular and heavy. So the first thought about ‘Seville’ was that it would be a perfect way to start the season for audiences before they waded into the ‘Ring.’ ‘The Barber of Seville’ is very familiar, very light. We had the right people in mind for it; it was a pretty simple mechanical thing in terms of the set; it was romantic; it had wonderful music.
“And then, well, you know what happened. ‘The Ring Cycle’ turned out not to be feasible. We experienced what all cultural organizations appear to be experiencing in these [economic] times. Nobody is immune,” Scheppelmann said.
“But that didn’t’ mean all the reasons we wanted to do ‘The Barber of Seville’ didn’t still apply,” she added. “Oddly enough, it remains a wonderful, even festive way to start the season. And it does complement and complete the Mozart opera in the spring.”
So instead of composer Richard Wagner’s epic four-opera “Ring Cycle,” romance and Shakespeare rule the roost this season, with Giuseppe Verdi’s “Falstaff” — based on the Bard’s drunken but beloved rascal — also complementing Ambroise Thomas’s version of “Hamlet” later in the spring.
As director of artistic operations, Scheppelmann gets to rise to the challenge of such major production changes. “It’s part of the job,” she said. “Actually, there’s a lot of parts to the job. I am involved with personnel decisions, of course, and some of the economic factors involved in the operation of the company and the season and in finding the best possible artist and projects so when certain things become available, by other companies, then we can make them a part of the season. That’s happening more and more. Sometimes, I think my job is to be a shrink.”
But Scheppelmann is no bean counter. She mixes an appreciation for the arts with an equal appreciation for pragmatics and logistics. She plays the violin for one thing, and is well versed in the world of opera. A native of Hamburg, Germany, she received her musical training there as well as a post-graduate degree in banking and economics. Somehow, you suspect that combination of an artistic yet hard-nosed education makes her ideal for the position she occupies.
“It certainly helps to have the background I have,” she said. “I know very well what’s going on in Europe at all the major [opera] houses…. I guess there’s a tradition there that I’m part of, to be sure.” Indeed, she’s worked with companies all over Europe, beginning with Walter Beloch Artists Management in Milan, moving on as assistant to the artistic director at the Gran Teatro del Liceu in Barcelona and later the Gran Teatro in Venice, followed by an appointment as artistic administrator with the San Francisco Opera.
“I was asked by Mr. Domingo if I wanted to come here and I accepted,” she said. “It’s a wonderful company, a wonderful city and great audience. One of the things about Washington patrons and subscribers is that they have seen, if not everything, quite a lot, so they’re open to doing productions like ‘A View from the Bridge,’ or welcoming directors who are daring and different. That might not totally sell out, but there is a big audience.
“‘The Barber of Seville’ for instance is just full of tremendous music,” she added. “But I also think for its time it was somewhat daring. The French Revolution was not that far away, and the opera said something about class. But it remains enduring and endearing.”
The WNO production will feature an all-star cast, including American tenor Lawrence Brownlee in his WNO debut as Count Almaviva and Bolognese bass-baritone Simone Alberghini returning as Figaro. Based on the first play of the “Figaro” trilogy by 18th-century French playwright Pierre de Beaumarchais, the comic opera follows the adventures of the young count as he attempts to woo Rosina away from her soon-to-be fiancé, enlisting the help of Figaro, the sharp-witted barber, along with his farcical plans and hilarious disguises. But the story doesn’t end with the happy nuptials, and the saga continues with Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” in April and May.
“I think opera continues to move forward, to have its appeal, because it’s such a rich experience for an audience,” Scheppelmann said. “So there’s the capacity for innovation and surprise, for seeing things at a deeper level.”
About the Author
Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.