Keith Cerny, in the Winspear Opera House

That Was the Year That Was

In the first of our year-end essays from the arts community, Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny reflects on 2010—and looks to the future.

published Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I stepped into the exciting and challenging role of General Director and CEO of the Dallas Opera about seven months ago, and immediately realized how lucky I was to be leading this great company. Between the announcement of my appointment and my actual start date, Dallas itself had become the talk of the opera world, from the Bay Area to Berlin. However, I’m getting ahead of myself.

By this time last year, the Dallas Opera had already staged a new Tim Albery production of Verdi’s Otello, based on William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello, about a Moorish general returning home from the wars to his faithful wife and a conniving lieutenant. Don’t worry about the difference in spelling; it’s an Italian-to-English-then back to Italian thing.

Reviews for the production design were mixed; however, it was nothing but unabashed praise for the debut of the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center. The combination of a huge workable stage; generous wings and fly-space; beautiful, traditional house design, striking red glass panels and stunning acoustics—especially for singers—made the new venue a must-see for local audiences and for critics who came from the ends of the earth to get an eyeful, as well as an earful. Nearly everyone came away with a favorable impression of both the new house and the sophisticated work of the Dallas Opera.

As the New Year began, the Dallas Opera was preparing for a change of format that would allow patrons to experience two different operas on consecutive days. Now, this may not sound like a big deal, but try to put yourself in the shoes of the stagehands who worked, on average, four to six hours each night to break-down one production and move it offstage in order to raise another. It’s rather like rearranging all the furniture in your house, every day.

Our first venture into this territory was a pair of romantic comedies, one by Mozart, the other by Donizetti. Così fan tutte was an unqualified smash, set during World War I in Monte Carlo with an outstanding cast that included the great Sir Thomas Allen as the jaded mastermind, Don Alfonso. Don Pasquale also fielded a tremendous ensemble cast that included Donato DiStefano, Adriana Kucerova in her dazzling American debut, Norman Shankle and Nathan Gunn. The revival of this eccentric and delightful production by the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle charmed audiences out of their seats.

However, our biggest test lay just over the horizon: the world premiere production of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s monumental Moby-Dick playing in tandem with a revival of Francesca Zambello’s lovely, minimalist production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

I found the experience of opening night of Moby-Dick absolutely staggering. A superb cast led by the towering figure of Ben Heppner as the obsessed Captain Ahab (excrutiating peg-leg, and all) and the Dallas Opera Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of Patrick Summers, showcased brilliantly Heggie’s sweeping score and Scheer’s intelligent and dramatically truthful version of Herman Melville’s seminal American novel. Elaine McCarthy’s projections, beginning with a ghostly Pequod looming out over the audience, provided the first clue that this was going to be no ordinary theatrical experience. By the time the curtain fell and the crowd went into a frenzied, eight-minute, paper-shredding standing ovation, I knew I had witnessed opera history.

One of my first tasks after assuming the post of General Director was to re-engage Jake and Gene to create a world premiere song cycle, inspired by several unforgettable works in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art. This new song cycle will be unveiled at the Dallas Opera’s annual gala in April. I am making both new productions and regular world premiere productions a top priority for this company in the coming years.

My first official season began last October with a one-two punch: John Pascoe’s larger-than-life production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, starring Tony Award winner Paulo Szot (Emile de Becque in South Pacific on Broadway) in the title role. It also marked the Dallas Opera’s very first simulcast. With outstanding help from WFAA, the AT&T Performing Arts Center and a host of generous sponsors, we succeeded in bringing all the action to an eager audience in the newly recommissioned Annette Strauss Square. Next time, if I get my way, we won’t schedule our simulcast up against Game Six of the American League Championship Series.  However, we still managed to attract a healthy crowd of (mostly) newcomers who shrugged off a brief rain-shower and obviously enjoyed themselves, from start to finish. 

We’ll do it again soon, I promise.

Looking ahead to the spring season and beyond: I’m quite curious to see what sort of sparks will be ignited onstage by Charles Castronovo (fresh from his world premiere triumph as the star of Il Postino at L.A. Opera) and the glittering Lyubov Petrova in the roles of Romeo and Juliet. I absolutely cannot wait to experience the incredible Paolo Gavanelli as Rigoletto and Laura Claycomb in her overdue Dallas Opera debut as Gilda. And I am steeling myself for the incredible challenges we will face in our grand and glorious Russian season finale: Boris Godunov.

We are already well into the planning stage for future seasons of the Dallas Opera and working hard to achieve every bit of a $10 million matching gift (no gift is too small and every donation counts double) with the deadline less than a year away.

In the meantime, major changes are already afoot. I am determined to inaugurate a new chamber opera series for contemporary works and opera rarities. I am also moving the company in the direction of a five-year-planning strategy rather than the current three-year window, which should enable us to engage more of the finest talent in the world at the very peak of their careers.

What it all adds up to is a greater number of options for people like us: busy consumers juggling life, family and careers.

The Dallas Opera wants to present more interesting works and varied theatrical concepts for opera newcomers and aficionados; share the gift of opera as widely as possible; and reaffirm our total commitment to the North Texas community. We’re going to discover new ways to elevate our national and international cultural profile, and consistently strive to produce works that demand the best we have to offer.

If we can pull it all off with genuine artistry, wit, style, and a passion for the truth, we will have done our job for another year and helped make opera smart, exciting and accessible for the next generation.

◊ Keith Cerny is General Director and CEO of the Dallas Opera


Editor's Note: The year-end essays will continue through Dec. 31 on TheaterJones. Over the next two weeks, look for reflections on 2010 from Circle Theatre's Rose Pearson, director John Otte, Kitchen Dog Theater's Tina Parker, actor Cedric Neal, producer Tim Shane, Fort Worth Opera's Darren Woods, actor/director Joey Folsom, WaterTower Theater's Terry Martin, Jubilee Theatre's Benjamin Espino, and others. If you're interested in contributing, e-mail Mark Lowry at marklowry@theaterjones.comThanks For Reading

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That Was the Year That Was
In the first of our year-end essays from the arts community, Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny reflects on 2010—and looks to the future.
by Keith Cerny

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