Dallas — The Dallas Opera continues to revitalize itself at a breathtaking pace. The newest member of the artistic team is Ian Derrer, who comes on as Artistic Administrator, starting immediately.
This latest addition to the artistic team does not fizz with energy. Instead, he is intellectual, deliberately spoken and physically controlled, with a keen eye that unobtrusively takes in everything that is going on around him—without comment. This is exactly what his function requires.
“My job is the nuts and bolts part of getting an opera on the stage,” he says as though it explains everything (which, in a nutshell way, does).
Behind that deceptively simple and matter-of-fact statement lays a labyrinth of millions of minutiae—a checklist that is longer than Santa’s. It starts years ahead of the first notes being sung—think of a wedding planner’s book on steroids. This being opera, once the repertoire is set, the first step has to be the singers.
Derrer certainly has the credentials. He has worked for the Santa Fe Opera, The Atlanta Opera, Opera Carolina, Opera Pacific and Washington Opera. Before joining TDO, he worked in a number of increasingly important positions at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. He has three Master’s Degrees—one each in Opera Production, Voice, and Performing Arts Management—the vocal degree from Southern Methodist University. He even did a stint at the ill-fated New York City Opera as Rehearsal and Music Coordinator.
ONWARD AT THE DALLAS OPERA
The announcement comes on the heels of other staff changes in recent years, all helmed under the leadership of General Director and CEO Keith Cerny.
It easy to underestimate Cerny under that bookish appearance, he is proving to be one of the most quietly revolutionary leaders in the business. He makes haste deliberately as he addresses, corrects and tweaks the fundamentals at the core of the operation. He is doing it in such a matter-of-fact and low-key way that it appears to be little more than routine reorganizations and personnel changes. But there is nothing routine about what he is doing and whom he is putting in critical positions.
The new Music Director, Emmanuel Villaume, is a vibrating essence of energy. He can barely contain his excitement as he talks about even the most mundane aspects of his job. That is because, in his eyes, nothing about being the musical director of a major opera company is anything but thrilling. Mundane? Please! He exudes a confidence born of competence and he is an exuberant and inspiring presence on the podium.
As the new Principal Guest Conductor, Nicole Paiement, brings a complementary skillset as a specialist in contemporary opera. She is also full of energy, but it is quieter and cooler, born of years of conducting complex scores where disasters lurk around every bar line. When she is conducting, Paiement is the center of the hurricane. She is calm, clear and precise and always ready to help whomever needs it as the scores swirl around her.
It is no surprise that Cerny wants a team approach. Thus, getting his artistic staff in place has been a high priority. Cerny has said that Derrer completes his artistic leadership team.
DERRER TO THE RESCUE
At our in-person interview in the TDO offices in the Winspear Opera House, Derrer offered a brief overview of his responsibilities in the process of putting an opera on the stage. All this was delivered like a pilot doing a routine pre-takeoff check of the plane or a chef giving out a recipe.
“We plan have our first planning meetings three to five years in advance because [a] singer’s schedule fills up that far out,” he explains. “I have to have my finger on the pulse of the singer’s world when we plan casting, it is my job to know who is available for our dates. I need to know the up-and-coming singers as well as the years-ahead predicted status and vocal condition of established singers.”
“I also have to have some idea about where they are in their careers, which is just an educated guess because they often don’t know themselves,” he adds. “Will the soprano we cast as Mimi switch to mezzo a year or so before our production?”
His first problem, once the cast has been decided and contracts issued, is how to get them here from all over the world. Even the American singers might be singing a role in Dubai right before rehearsals start. Flights have to be coordinated to make it easier to meet them all at the airport. But it doesn’t stop there. The huge job of getting visas for the foreign singers can be a nightmare itself.
As a former singer, Derrer knows all about the care and feeding of these sensitive artists. This is important because it is Derrer who plans the rehearsal schedules. No one should be called and then sit around nor should they be overused in a time period. Sometimes this is unavoidable, especially when one singer dominates the opera, but wearing out a singer in rehearsal is a disaster.
Then there are the understudies. They have to be just as carefully cast, with all the same challenges, and must commit to the same rehearsal and performance period. Also, understudies may not have the big reputation, but are singers with the same needs and wants as the leads. Often, a prepared understudy can save the day. But they may not go on if Derrer has enough notice to locate and bring in a major artist in time to sing the performance. The audience expects the best singers in the world. The big question is always “who is not currently engaged and knows the role and has sung it recently enough to still have it in their voice?”
This was a problem recently when the soprano who was scheduled to sing Marietta in TDO’s wonderful production of Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt canceled right before the show began. This opera is so rarely done that the “who knows it?” question loomed large. Fortunately, a singer was found and all was well. This easily repeatable situation is now on Derrer’s plate and he will have to know whom to call.
Then there is the problem of operas that exist in many different versions. Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Verdi’s Don Carlo are some examples. Which version does the conductor want to do? Which ones do the singers know? Do we have access to the orchestral materials?
Next, the production itself. Here, the stage director and stage department of TDO comes into play, but Derrer is the point of coordination. Do we build a new production? If so, do we build one in cooperation with another company? Do we rent an existing one? How many are available and what do they look like? Is it traditional or bizarre? Will it fit on the stage? Will they fit our singers? When can we get it? An inspection might reveal that it is not is good shape. If so, can we fix it up or do we look elsewhere? Do they have enough costumes for our large production? Will they fit our singers? How do we transport it?
Derrer had another meeting to attend so his explanation of his job function had to stop. It was apparent that he had lots more to say, but what he already described was overwhelming. One thing is for sure, I will never complain about my very short to-do list again. Well, hardly ever.