Jonathan Pell

Opera Dreams Coming True

The Dallas Opera's Artistic Director Jonathan Pell on nurturing talent and introducing faces and voices to North Texas in 2012.

published Sunday, December 23, 2012

The year 2012 at the Dallas Opera showed incredible momentum, from start to finish, with the announcements of two thrilling new commissions (Great Scott, to be composed by Jake Heggie with a libretto by multiple  Tony Award-winner Terrence McNally—and Everest, to be composed by Joby Talbot with a libretto by Gene Scheer), a history-making Cowboys Stadium simulcast of Mozart's The Magic Flute, and a reinvigorated education and community outreach program which included new family concerts and performances, as well as a brand-new production of Jack and the Beanstalk (based on music by Sir Arthur Sullivan) in partnership with Dallas Children's Theater.

For me, however, the year just ending was defined by two major impulses: this company's continued commitment to discovering and nurturing emerging talent, and exploiting the many extraordinary technological advances in stagecraft. 

In this one dazzling year at the Dallas Opera, audiences witnessed the extraordinary American debuts of Greek soprano Myrtò Papatanasiu as Violetta and Finnish baritone Jukka Rasilainen as Kurvenal; the exciting company debuts of supremely talented young singers like tenors Andrew Bidlack (The Lighthouse)  and Shawn Mathey (The Magic Flute), in addition to the debuts of well-established artists like Bulgarian Mezzo-Soprano Nadia Krasteva (Aida), French baritone Laurent Naouri (La traviata)and Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson (Tristan and Isolde). There were amazing ensemble casts filled with exceptionally gifted singers who have graced our stage in seasons past— Raymond Aceto, Patrick Carfizzi , Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, Clifton Forbis, Lester Lynch, Robert Orth,  Antonello Palombi, Daniel Sumegi, and James Valenti—to name just a few, as well as internationally acclaimed Texas-born sopranos Latonia Moore (Aida) and Ava Pine (The Magic Flute) whose careers were in some ways defined by their early work at the Dallas Opera. 

The offstage debuts this past year were every bit as intriguing as the onstage debuts, which included Dallas Theater Center Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty in his first experience directing an opera, Peter Maxwell Davies' The Lighthouse, which earned audience and critical acclaim. The production was notable for another reason, as well. San Francisco-based contemporary music specialist Nicole Paiement, who was making her Dallas Opera debut as the conductor, was the first woman to step onto the Dallas Opera's podium in more than 30 years. 

This was a groundbreaking technological year for the Dallas Opera, in which we brought the legendary figures of Tristan and Isolde to life onstage as never before, thanks to the exquisite production conceived by German director Christian Räth, when underwriters enabled us to turn what was to be a concert version of Wagner's seminal work into a brilliant new production. An outstanding concept was made even more compelling for Dallas audiences through the use of highly sophisticated 21st century projections created by a team headed by designer Elaine J. McCarthy (Moby-Dick). TheaterJones Classical Music Critic Gregory Sullivan Isaacs wrote, "What we have, in short, is a surreal, or maybe hyperreal, production of one of the most passionate operas ever composed. It is beautifully sung and visually stunning."

However, the technological breakthroughs didn't end there. Fulfilling a dream of General Director and CEO Keith Cerny, the Dallas Opera in 2012 also presented—with the support of The Dallas Foundation—one of the best-attended opera simulcasts in U.S. history and the largest sports stadium simulcast ever presented in Texas. The night was April 28 and a remarkably diverse crowd of around 15,000 people filed through the doors of Cowboys Stadium in Arlington to enjoy Mozart's The Magic Flute—streaming live from the stage of the Winspear Opera House. It was a night none of us will ever forget.

2012 also marked the announcement that the company would present Tod Machover's "robot" opera, Death and the Powers, scheduled for a 2014 regional premiere in collaboration with the MIT Media Lab. This work will feature Robert Orth as billionaire Simon Powers, and many of the artists who originated their roles in the 2010 Monte Carlo world premiere. 

It may appear that I'm skipping over Aida, the opera which opened our 2012-2013 season, and which was simulcast to Sammons Park on opening night (with the remaining performances  playing to sold-out houses and rave reviews) but I wanted to save this for the end.  For me one of the most significant highlights of the 2012 calendar year at The Dallas Opera was the "overnight" success of soprano Latonia Moore, the winner of the 1997 Dallas Opera Guild Vocal Competition and recipient of the 2004 "Maria Callas Debut Artist of the Year" voted on by our subscribers. A lot has happened to this young lady in the last few years. 

I first met Latonia when she was a sophomore at the University of North Texas, where she had enrolled to pursue a degree in Jazz Performance. In order to fulfill an academic requirement to participate in some sort of performance ensemble, she somewhat reluctantly joined the opera chorus for a production of Pagliacci, and fell in love with the art form. When her first teacher died suddenly, I introduced her to her only other voice teacher with whom she has studied ever since, a man named Bill Schumann, who teaches at the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. With my encouragement, and financial assistance from  a number of local opera lovers, including Margot and Bill Winspear, she went off to study with Bill. 

After years of hard work, and having won numerous vocal competitions, her career was launched with successful appearances at several of Europe's leading opera houses, including a triumphant debut at London's Covent Garden two years ago as Verdi's Aida. This led to her Metropolitan Opera debut last spring (also as Aida) as a last minute replacement for an ailing colleague on an international radio broadcast. I found out in time to fly up to New York for the performance, and was sitting in the opera house that Saturday afternoon like a proud father. The thunderous ovation after her first aria ("Ritorna vincitor") was one of the most thrilling moments I have ever experienced in the theater. Part of the excitement was knowing that I had contracted her in October 2009 to sing this role to open our 2012-2013 season.

When I first offered her this production, she had not yet sung this role anywhere on stage, but somehow I knew that this part was going to make her a star─and it has! When I went backstage after the performance (she had no idea I was there until that moment) when she saw me she burst into tears and told me that if it hadn't been for my belief in her and the help and advice I had given her over the years, that none of this would have happened. Even though I knew that this wasn't quite true, I suddenly felt like "George Bailey" in Frank Capra's movie It's a Wonderful Life, and took great joy in realizing that I had helped someone make their dreams come true.

Best wishes to everyone for an amazing 2013! May all your dreams come true!

◊ Jonathan Pell is Artistic Director of The Dallas Opera

◊ From now through the end of the year, look for essays from director Michael Serrecchia, actor/dancer Jeremy Dumont, playwright and dramaturg Vicki Caroline Cheatwood, the On the Eve creators, Jonathan Fielding of Amphibian Stage Productions and others. If you'd like to contribute an essay, email Mark Lowry at Essays in the series so far are from:

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Opera Dreams Coming True
The Dallas Opera's Artistic Director Jonathan Pell on nurturing talent and introducing faces and voices to North Texas in 2012.
by Jonathan Pell

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