Earlier this year it looked like Opera San Antonio, the 2009 start-up company that won a residency at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, was in trouble. In February the company announced that its high-profile artistic director, composer Tobias Picker, was leaving. Its first season at the Tobin was well-attended, but the cost of three brand-new productions, two of which were staged in the smaller Alvarez Theater, was taking its toll.
Now, as Mel Weingart sits in front of me in the TPR studios, he smiles as he says that October’s production of Madama Butterly is “fully funded.”
One way that costs are being kept down for the moment is that Weingart is wearing three hats: Board Chair, Artistic Director, and General Manager. He grimaces a little, but there's a smile around the edges.
“Is that tough?” I ask.
“Well, it’s challenging, but extremely interesting! [There are] more moving parts than I ever imagined,” Weingart says. “Every day is a new experience.”
Help for Weingart is on the way. He says there are many people that have already expressed interest in taking over the role of artistic director, and a decision will be made sometime this season, which opens October 1 with a production of Madama Butterfly at the Tobin Center.
In the interview below, Mel Weingart speaks about the opportunities he sees for Opera San Antonio, and his artistic, financial, and logistical vision for the company, inspired by the successful Glimmerglass Opera near Cooperstown, New York. Note: the interview has been edited for clarity, length, and content. The full audio is also linked below.
Nathan Cone: I went to the Tobin’s website to find tickets for 'Butterfly' and it looks like a significant number of them have already sold. Congratulations!
Mel Weingart: Ticket sales are going very well. The three lower-priced categories of tickets have already sold out for both performances. There are some tickets available in the higher-priced categories. There’s been a tremendous interest in doing traditional Puccini opera. Far different than there was last year. I think people in the greater San Antonio area have a real hunger for what we might consider 'traditional' opera that they have not had the opportunity to see here for a really long time. So as time goes on, we will see exactly what that plan is in terms of what the makeup of what each season’s repertoire is going to be. That really was the plan, anyway. It so happens that the inaugural season did not include any Verdi, Donizetti, and traditional Italian opera.
In my talk with Tobias Picker last year, he mentioned wanting to do Puccini this season. But the move toward doing specifically 'Madama Butterfly,' and Verdi’s 'Il Trovatore' [next spring]… was that a deliberate choice to say we’re not going to do a 'Salome' or lesser-known opera? We really need to get something popular that people can sink their teeth into?
There were a number of reasons for that. If you analyze all the productions during our inaugural season, each one was done for a specific reason. All of them were brand-new productions. We own them, we designed them, and we built them. That translates to lots of money. Two productions were held in the Alvarez Studio Theater, [which] holds 230 people. From a financial standpoint, the earned revenue from those [smaller] productions is just totally unrealistic. That’s just not something we can continue doing. So the opening production was Fantastic Mr. Fox, and of course that was one of Tobias’ operas. The reason for doing that opera was to send a message to the greater San Antonio community that this opera company wants to do productions for families and children. It’s not [only] blood and guts opera.
That came later, with 'Salome!'
There was a reason for that, too. The opera company really had not done any production of any kind in the HEB Performance Hall. So it was an unknown quantity to us. We didn’t really know how multi-act operas or scene operas would work in terms of changing scenery and sets. So we were looking for a way to kind of get our feet wet. Salome is a one-act opera with no chorus, and the San Antonio Symphony was doing a Richard Strauss festival [last season], and we had a chance to do the opera with Patricia Racette. Just three or four months prior to that she had sung her first Salome at a concert version in Ravinia, and really wanted to do a staged production. So it gave us a chance to see what we could do in the HEB hall, and do well. That first season was a tremendous learning experience in all kinds of ways. Not only from a financial standpoint but an artistic standpoint, and a standpoint of possibly selecting repertoire in the future.
In regard to that, right after the double-bill of Il Segreto and La Voix Humane, we had a major decision to make in terms of what we want to do going forward. When I established this company in 2009, there were a lot of goals, some of them artistic, some of them financial, some structural. But I went on the record saying that this opera company has to be run in a financially responsible way. I wanted 100% of every production to be fully funded, excluding ticket sales. And I failed the first year. Why we failed is not really important, but we failed, and I was not going to fail the second year. So at the end of that first season we had a significant deficit. But as our fiscal year ended June 30, 2015, we had totally paid off that deficit. Now the company is in very good shape financially. We have fully funded the production of Madama Butterfly, excluding ticket sales. The goal is for the ticket sale revenue to be put in a reserve account to commit to future productions. Now, that having been said… when you asked me about what my role was, there’s no question that the company structurally needs to hire a general artistic director and that is among our goals after Butterfly, after Il Trovatore.
Opera is really the most expensive art form on stage to produce. What kind of support do you need now? You obviously have great ticket sales.
The production is being underwritten by a combination of foundations, businesses, individuals, city, county, et cetera. And on an ongoing basis, what the opera world is like, that’s going to be an issue that we will have to deal with. Obviously the more productions we do in any given season, the greater our budget is going to be. This is a project that will grow as time goes on. It’s kind of in a sense a difficult model because as difficult as it is to raise money, the more successful you are, the more productions you do, and the more money you need to raise. If you do three productions and three performances of each production of the type of productions we’re doing, we’re talking about significant dollars.
After that inaugural season ended, the thought occurred to me that what would be most helpful over the next several years is to rent productions guaranteed to fit the Tobin stage from another opera company that has a stellar reputation for doing great productions. So in my other world with the Tobin Theater Arts Fund, I’m involved with a lot of various opera companies, etc. and the company that I focused on was Glimmerglass...I would like to form some kind of relationship with them where we could rent productions that originated in Glimmerglass, and in renting those productions, I want to have the production and tech staff come with the production, so that they all know one another, they have worked together as a unit, and I don’t have to deal with having Joe meet Tom. In coming up with the right repertoire and production, there’s a lot to think about, some of which is artistic and financial.
Does that fall in line with what you’re looking for in a new artistic director? Someone that has a vision yet remains practical?
Absolutely. If you look at many opera companies in today’s world, they’re structured quite differently than they may have been 25 years ago. What has happened now is in many instances, two roles have been combined. The general manager’s role and the artistic director’s role are one and the same. There may be an artistic administrator—which in a sense we have. We have a person who is able to coordinate all the production and artistic details. It involves airplane fare and hotel, and who’s doing what….that’s a major consideration for us. And it’s a financial consideration. Because years ago, an opera company had a general manager and an artistic director, and it’s not quite like that now. The cost of production is so high everybody’s trying to conserve any way they can.
Five years from now, where do you hope Opera San Antonio is in terms of the productions it’s doing, the people it’s reaching in the community?
While we’re interested in providing regular operagoers with productions that they have a real desire to see, what is probably more important is to generate a new audience. Younger people still think opera is Helen Traubel singing Die Walküre with horns on her head. That’s not what opera is nowadays. Every single component of the production can be changed, really, except the music. So you see all these productions that are modernized in a sense, and maybe done in a more contemporary setting. It is imperative that we grow the local audience. We are not doing this only for people who regularly go to Santa Fe and Dallas and Houston.
Yeah, because they have the funds, they could easily travel….
Well, we want them to do that, but we want them to support what we’re doing [too]. We want to grow a younger audience that will support productions that will be compelling and relevant to today. In hearing spectacular music and seeing a great production, it’s going to light a fire, cause a spark. It doesn’t take long to do that.
We did no traditional Italian works that first season, and we did a major market survey. The people who participated were incredibly complimentary. But there’s a huge portion of our community that wants to see and hear traditional opera. Carmen, Tosca, Traviata, La Boheme, etc. So we’re doing Butterfly and Trovatore. The answer to your question about where I see the company being in five years? As far as productions are concerned, I see the company doing three productions [per season] and three performances of each. The makeup of that season will be determined as time goes on. It will certainly be a combination of traditional works as well as more contemporary works, which more people are gravitating towards.
What most excites you about opera?
This summer I was at Glimmerglass. They did a new production of Verdi's Macbeth. I thought vocally it was spectacular. What excites me most is great music and great singing. I’m a person who is most interested in beautiful singing. If I listen to Jussi Björling, that excites me. If I see what is considered a great production of sorts and has mediocre singing, it means absolutely nothing to me. Because what has happened, I think, over a fairly short period of time, is a lot of productions that are being produced by various opera companies that are unique, different, special, have “shock value,” and in my opinion are doing that because the people singing them really are not doing justice to the music. A lot of singers are being cast to do roles that they may not do so well, but they’re in productions that are shocking. Personally, I don’t relate. That doesn’t mean you can’t do both, and see an interesting production of a traditional work with fabulous singers. But my personal interest is in the vocal part of it.
Finally, what can people look forward to with 'Madama Butterfly?'
The music is spectacular. Maestro Lang-Lessing is conducting. The production is very interesting. The cast is excellent. It’s a very emotional work, and I cannot believe that anybody who is there will not leave the theater delighted that they have been there.
Madama Butterfly opens at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, October 1, and repeats on Saturday, October 3. Tickets are available at the Tobin box office or online at this link.