Developments of Note

With the retirement of founder and artistic director Richard Rescia, the Florence-based Commonwealth Opera is entering a new era. Its leadership team, comprised of Artistic Director Alan Schneider and Executive Director Kara Noble, has ambitious goals to bring opera to new and wider audiences, and thus create new opportunities for the institution as it approaches its 30th birthday.

Kara Noble says many people have preconceived notions about opera — assumptions that often keep them from experiencing something wonderful.

"They have it in their head that ëthis is what opera is,’ but they don’t really know what it’s about,î she told BusinessWest. "When they come to opera and actually see it, they are absolutely blown away by the real experience — by the pageantry, the theater, the acting, the music, and simply by how much fun it is.î

Bringing this experience, which blends music and theater, to new and wider audiences is one of Noble’s primary goals as she takes a leadership role with the Florence-based Commonwealth Opera (CWO). She and recently named artistic director Alan Schneider, who succeeds founder Richard Rescia, will usher the 28-year-old regional opera company into a new era.

They plan to build on the solid foundation laid by Rescia and an active board of directors and expand the company’s reach — and its horizons.

"The company is in a very exciting place right now,î said Noble. "It’s really starting to grow, and it has chances to develop new audiences, new partnerships with area organizations, and to re-enliven an already rich cultural community.î

Schneider, a tenor who has sung in five of the CWO’s productions and with a number of other companies as well, agreed.

"This is an exciting time for the Commonwealth Opera,î he said. "We want to take full advantage of the opportunities in front of us, and make this company more visible and relevant.î

As they talked about their plans for the CWO, both Schneider and Noble drew many comparisons to the business world. Managing an opera is much like directing an actual business, they said. It requires both short- and long-range planning, a focus on continued growth, good customer service, effective marketing — and new product development, which, in the case of an opera company, is an intriguing assignment.

"What we’ve been presenting up to this point has been the classical repertoire, both in terms of what we choose for an opera — things that are well-established and have been performed for centuries in many cases — and for our musical theater component, where we lean toward the popular shows,î said Noble. "We would like to open up opportunities to have some new productions; a lot of people don’t realize that new opera is being composed right now.

"We’d like to have some opportunities to present some of the newer works, and even to commission artists to write works expressly for us,î she continued. "We’ve done some of this, and we’d like to do much more.î

Tenor of the Conversation

Schneider told BusinessWest that an opera company is much like a business — a successful one, at least — in that its managers must keep one eye on today and the other on tomorrow.

Indeed, while he is busy with details of the two upcoming performances of Bizet’s classic Carmen (Nov. 19 and 21 at the Fine Arts Center at UMass), Schneider is already planning for what will be the CWO’s 30th season next fall — and well beyond.

The Barber of Seville has been scheduled as the opera for that anniversary season, he said, while Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte is on tap for 2006 to mark the composer’s 250th birthday. Such a long-range focus is necessary, he said, because top opera singers are booked years in advance and it takes several months of planning to pull together the myriad details and subtle nuances that make a performance successful.

"You have to be a visionary and look well down the road and make sure you have all the resources you need for a performance; you need to choose the works to be done four or five years out, and then focus on how you’re going to do them,î said Schneider, adding that it was the opportunity to become involved in all aspects of operatic production — and to flex his creative muscles — that drew him to the CWO. Like Noble, he brings a diverse resume to the opera company.

A native of Westfield, Schneider later relocated to Conway. He studied music and theater at UMass, in the early ë90s, and became versed in set design, costume, and lighting, talents that helped him emerge from a field of 60 candidates to succeed Rescia, who will still play an active role with the company and assume the title artistic director emeritus.

Schneider started performing for the CWO a decade ago, while he was still a student at UMass, and he has worked with the company off and on over the years. After graduating, he went to Boston, where he performed with several opera companies. After six years in the Hub, he and his wife relocated to the Pioneer Valley. He still sings with a number of companies, including Opera Boston, the Boston Lyric Opera, the Florida Grand Opera, and others.

When asked to offer a job description for a company’s artistic director’s role, he laughed, and said the role defies description.

"What I do is essentially choose the repertoire that is to be produced, and I do so based on a lot of considerations, including personal taste, operas that I think we can do well, and variety, which is important for us because we produce both an opera and a musical theater piece every year,î he said. "Within the course of a season I want some variety — a tragedy for one, a comedy for the other, different historical time periods, and different musical styles.î

After choosing the works, the artistic director will, in time, run auditions, hire singers, conductors, and stage designers, and facilitate the entire process. "It’s taking a performance all the way through, from start to finish,î he said. "And that’s what attracted me to this job.î

Noble, who assumed the director’s position in early July following the departure of Dara Lewis, brings a background in publishing and the music industry to the CWO.

Her husband, Clifton, is a well-known professional pianist who has performed with the Commonwealth Opera, providing her exposure to the group and its broad mission. Professionally, she worked for a number of years with Merriam-Webster, first as an editor, and later as director of electronic product development.

She then started her own business, Artisttec, which brought technical support to musicians and other musicians. Services included Web page design, digitizing music, type-setting score electronically, and computer consulting. Through that venture, Noble began working with several area colleges and universities, especially Smith College, where she became facilities manager for the music department.

She was in that role when she heard about the pending opportunity at CWO, a position that affords her the chance to utilize many of her acquired skills.

"I was very interested in working with a company that was in a transition state and in a place where I could help it grow and move in new directions,î she said. "Because both Alan and I are new, there are a lot of opportunities to set a new course; this gives me a chance to try some new things and to use some of the talents I have to help the company.î

Orchestrating Growth

Schneider and Noble inherit a rich tradition of quality performances, one they want to continue and enhance.

The CWO was founded by Rescia in 1972 as Project Opera, and was designed as a vehicle for area singers interested in grand opera. Its first endeavors were concerts of arias, ensembles, and operatic scenes for small audiences in mainly the Project Opera studio on the third floor of the building at 160 Main St. in Northampton.

The company produced its first fully staged opera in 1976, a production of Carlyle Floyd’s Sussanah, conducted in conjunction with the Pioneer Valley Symphony as part of celebrations for the nation’s bicentennial. A year later, the opera undertook its first solo, in-house production, Die Fledermaus, with Rescia as artistic director and conductor. It also launched its annual Messiah sing-alongs.

Over the years, the opera developed an educational component. It has coordinated a number of in-school productions, conducted workshops, and introduced students to the world of opera. Last year, for example, the company bussed more than 1,000 students to the Calvin Theater for performances of Hansel & Gretel.

In 1989, the company changed its name to Commonwealth Opera. As Schneider explained, the group’s productions had grown in professionalism, to the point where it was auditioning people from hundreds of miles away. The name Project Opera did not convey permanence or stability, he said, so the name was changed so singers would feel comfortable with putting the opera on their resumes.

The road has not always been smooth for the company. Twice over the past 25 years it found itself without enough money to produce a scheduled opera. On both occasions, the general public helped the institution get out of debt.

For the past several years, the CWO’s season has featured four main performances; an opera in the fall; a Broadway musical in the spring — this season, it will Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate; two Messiah sings each December, one in Northampton and the other in Springfield; and a Guild Concert each spring.

Looking forward, Schneider and Noble want to bring opera to a wider audience and bring different types of performances to area theaters and schools — and grow as a business in the process.

One priority is to expand the company’s base, which is the Northampton-Amherst area. "We’re starting to see people come down from the Greenfield-Brattleboro area and discover the company,î she said. "We’re also trying to increase our visibility in Springfield and Holyoke, so that people there are more aware of what we have to offer, and also how we can help them and enrich their communities.î

Noble said the CWO’s leadership, working in conjunction with its board, is engaged in strategic planning initiatives.

"Like any business, you need a long-range plan and a day-to-day plan to make things happen,î she explained, adding that the group plans an in-depth study of its fund-raising activities, repertoire of shows, and educational programs with an eye toward improving both the quality and quantity of each one.

"I think this market will support more shows, and that’s one of things we’re going to be looking at, "she said. "We want to reach more people and conduct more educational programs as well.î

Among the planned new initiatives is an apprenticeship program for singers, to be coordinated with UMass, that will involve several students with this fall’s production of Carmen. It’s part of the CWO’s broader mission to introduce people, especially younger populations, to opera and then provide them a place to get started.

"There are a lot of singers in the area who don’t have a place to perform,î said Noble, "especially young singers who want to try it and see if opera is a career opportunity for them. Right now, there’s no place for them to go; if you’re a young person who plays the violin, there are young people’s symphonies and community orchestras — there are performance opportunities that help you determine if you can pursue this as a career. For singers, there is nothing.î

Schneider concurred, and noted that performing an opera involves much more than singing. "To be an opera singer requires more skills — acting, working on stage, working with costumes — and we want to help people acquire those skills.î

While planning for the future, Schneider and Noble are immersed in Carmen, a four-act drama set in early 19th century Spain, that is based on the novel by Prosper Merimee. It is, as Schneider described it, "the story of an independent and self-destructive woman (Carmen) and a very violent man that ends badly.î

The basic storyline can be adopted in a number of ways, he said, and the CWO will look to puts its own mark on a story that has stood the test of time.

Carmen is a very special work that can be played in so many ways,î he explained. "It doesn’t depend on a particular setting or musical style. And it’s got love, jealousy, betrayal — all the biggies; there’s a lot of stuff there.î

It’s a show that people should come see, said Noble, whether they are opera fans or, like many, think they know what opera’s about — but don’t really know.

Curtain Call

Schneider joked that the planned 2005 opera, The Barber of Seville, should be familiar to many people. There was a famous Bugs Bunny episode that borrowed the story and music, and a Seinfeld episode that did the same — sort of.

By the time the CWO is done with its performances, he hopes hundreds of area residents have a better, more grounded understanding of the story.

Exposing more people to the drama, the music, and the fun, as Noble put it, is at the top of the to-do list for the company’s new leadership team. Doing so will be an accomplishment of note, in more ways than one.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]