At Seattle Opera, New Era Wafts In Via New Zealand

Aidan Lang, Seattle Opera's new general director, with his predecessor, Speight Jenkins.  (Photo by Alan Alabastro)
Aidan Lang, Seattle Opera’s new general director, with predecessor Speight Jenkins, who ran the company for 31 years.
(Photo by Alan Alabastro)
By Philippa Kiraly

SEATTLE — It isn’t easy to find the right successor to an icon. It isn’t easy to effect a seamless transition. In both respects, Seattle Opera has achieved notable success. After an extensive hunt worldwide, the search committee chose Aidan Lang, 57, general director of New Zealand Opera, to follow Speight Jenkins, who has run the company for the last 31 years.

Lang donned a Valkyrie helmet for a community event. (Jonathan Vanderweit)
Lang donned a Valkyrie helmet for a community event. (Jonathan Vanderweit)

In 1983, Jenkins took the reins in Seattle, at one of the few companies worldwide that performed Wagner’s four Ring operas together. By the time of his retirement at the end of August 2014, Seattle Opera had become a company of international repute for the quality of its productions — and for regular Ring cycles that bring in Wagner lovers from all 50 states and four continents.

According to board and search committee chairman John Nesholm, Seattle was looking for commitment to the Wagner repertoire, as well as a continuance in the quality of singers and productions, while ensuring that the community remained at the center of what Seattle Opera does. A critical requirement was proven fundraising ability. And the company wanted to continue having one person in charge overall.

“We were looking for a new direction which built on the past,” says board president Maryanne Tagney. “Aidan has a perspective on how it works in different places.  He has vigor, enthusiasm, immense knowledge, and an amazing memory.”

Nesholm said he went to New Zealand to see that company’s Madame Butterfly. “The quality of the production was terrific. The pre-concert lectures and the interaction with both the public and the donor base was terrific.”

Lang, Jenkins and tenor Bill Burden greet patrons. (Brandon Patoc)
Lang, Jenkins and tenor Bill Burden greet patrons. (Brandon Patoc)//serial comma? -aj//

The last four finalists, out of 42 applicants, were invited to spend several days at Seattle Opera.  The only finalist who was not an American, Aidan offered a clear vision of where opera education could go, according to Tagney. “He had a new way of thinking on how to make opera more accessible to a wider range of people, and make it fun, not a rarified thing.”

While Jenkins had made his wishes clear — a fiscally stable company to hand over, a long transition time for the designated successor — he stayed away entirely from the search process. Lang was appointed in the summer of 2013. He saw that season’s Ring cycle and arrived in March 2014 to spend six months working with Jenkins before taking over on Sept. 1. “Aidan was very experienced.” says Jenkins. “He knows what he’s doing. He’s inventive. He didn’t need for me to be here, but it was valuable in order for him to meet donors and get familiar with the community.”

Lang has been working in opera since his college years in England, his first professional job being assistant stage manager for the Handel Opera Society at Sadler’s Wells. Since then he has held leadership positions at England’s Buxton Festival and Glyndebourne Festival Opera, the Netherlands’ Opera Zuid, and, from 2006 to 2013, New Zealand Opera. He has been a guest stage director around the world and will direct the Seattle Opera’s production of Marriage of Figaro in 2016. In all his work, he says, he has striven for exciting, relevant productions and, for the companies, fiscal improvement.

Lang with Education Director Sue Elliott. (Jonathan Vanderweit)
Lang with education director Sue Elliott. (Jonathan Vanderweit)

One reason he applied for the Seattle Opera job was its policy of producing one opera at a time, instead of alternating several operas in repertory, which Lang says “can be alienating. You are an ingredient in a sausage machine churning out bratwurst. Here, it matters how the front line (the singers and conductor) feels about what you are doing.”

What he cares most about is the audience’s experience, he says. “Nurture the front line and you have a chance for a great performance,” he says. “The audience feels the buzz, and they return.”

The six months he spent working with Jenkins “was about getting to know people and what makes them tick, understanding how arts and opera sit in the community. I wanted to understand the structure here, how the company works and to understand the audience: essentially a road map for going forward with built-in speed limits. What works in one culture won’t work in another. Comedy is a minefield. What tickles the funny bone in Barcelona won’t in Phoenix, so the way you present the art form differs and companies create a way to present that.”

Last summer, Lang visited other U.S. opera companies, learning their local cultures and differences. He went to the Glimmerglass Festival and the Santa Fe and Opera Theatre of St. Louis summer festivals. “These are the crème de la crème of the younger generation of singers,” he says.

In late fall of 2013, Lang went to Jenkins’ annual four days of auditions in New York, and again in 2014. “When I look at the number of singers I’ve seen, it’s a lot in a relatively short time.”

Jenkins presents Lang with Siegfried's sword, Nothung. (Alan Alabastro)
Jenkins presents Lang with Siegfried’s sword, Nothung. (Alabastro)

Lang is passionate about the way an arts organization engages with its community. Its most visible recent effort is what the company described as “an adventure in community storytelling, exploring stories of your most precious possessions.” Dozens of stories were sent in, and those selected were formed into an opera called An American Dream, set in World War II and its aftermath, about two Puget Sound women — a Japanese American facing internment, and a German-Jewish immigrant preoccupied by the memory of those she left behind.

Sue Elliott, director of education for Seattle Opera, says she considers it a stroke of genius by Lang to offer the premiere of An American Dream, with music by Jack Perla, in August 2015, concurrently  with Verdi’s Nabucco, a tale of people exiled for religious reasons. There will be seven performances of Nabucco, Aug. 8-22, and two of An American Dream, Aug. 21 and 23, both staged in McCaw Hall, Seattle’s opera house.

Elliott’s recent activities meshed closely with Lang’s view on community involvement. “I was excited on hearing her (education) plans,” Lang says. “It’s not about building our main stage audience. That’s a halo effect. It’s to show we are a vital community asset. Beyond the economic impact, there’s the social impact. It takes us out into the community. Opera doesn’t have to happen in an opera house.” (In 2013, Lang produced Handel’s Acis and Galatea in a New Zealand woolshed.)  

In August 2014, Lang hosted a community open day at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, featuring arias, videos, costumes, choreographed fights and Valkyrie helmets to color. Wearing a Valkyrie helmet and laughing as hard as the audience, Lang led an impromptu orchestra of museum-goers supplied with brightly colored kazoos in “The Ride of the Valkyries” and more. “He’s expert in building relationships,” Elliott says. “He has the best kind of youthful passion in what opera can mean.”

Lang is building connections with the new populations surging into Seattle, particularly in the tech sector. He’s also closely involved in re-branding the company. “It’s important we are messaging correctly to the audience in a changing city. I’m thrilled with the graphics company the Seattle Opera has chosen. It is developing a radically new style that we hope will position us as a company of our time.” Nesholm describes the new image as “a bit edgier. He expects them to be rolled out in July.

Lang: "We should be always evolving." (Rick Dahms)
Lang, on Seattle Opera: “We should be always evolving.” (Rick Dahms)

Coming up in the 2015-2016 season are three operas not yet seen in Seattle — Verdi’s Nabucco, Perla’s An American Dream, and Donizetti’s Mary Stuart (in Italian, Feb. 27-28, and March 2-12, 2016) plus The Marriage of Figaro (in Italian, Jan. 16-30, 2016, Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (in French, Oct. 17-31) and Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (in German, May 5-21), 2016, all of them with English supertitles. In the future, he hopes to bring Britten operas as well as Slavonic repertoire, and Baroque opera, particularly Handel.

There will be a new Ring cycle, probably not for a few years, the dates being somewhat dependent on Seattle Opera’s move to more spacious headquarters next to the opera house, McCaw Hall. The International Wagner Competition will continue, maybe every three years. Seattle Opera Young Artists Program, which ran for 14 years from 1998, may remain in abeyance in light of competition from many other similar programs around the country.

Lang doesn’t want sudden change at the opera: “In five years, I hope people will say, ‘It’s different, but I have no idea how we got there.’ We should be always evolving.”

Philippa Kiraly has been a freelance classical music critic since 1980. She wrote for the Akron Beacon Journal, then the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until its print demise, and now for The Seattle TimesCity Arts, and a blog, The Sun Break.