A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Nov 2, 2011
12:30 PM
Classically Speaking

A Bi-Coastal Executive Finds Herself Right at Home

A Bi-Coastal Executive Finds Herself Right at Home

Growing up in Seattle, then working for a number of years at that mecca of opera, the Metropolitan, before returning to Tacoma, Kathryn Smith never imagined she’d end up in the Midwest—and loving it.

After rescuing Tacoma Opera from a pile of debt and growing it from one production a year up to three, Smith kept her eyes open for her next career move. Over coffee last week just down the street from the office she took over in July, she explained the unexpected move.

“Why Madison Opera? It was a bigger company with a great reputation—but I needed to go to a city I wanted to live in. Several friends described Madison as a ‘soft landing’ for someone familiar with New York. Well, during the interview process I was thrilled to find real bagels here—I had lived in a city without them for seven years—and I said ‘I could live here…’”

Of course, there was a little more to it: “I love the fact that Madison is a real walking city, and there are so many Renaissance people around. It seems every time I meet someone and talk with them for any length of time, I feel like I have to go home and read another book—often authored by the person I just met!”

No matter how great the situation—and outgoing general director Alan Naplan had left a very healthy company in its fiftieth year—there are special challenges in coming to a new directorship. For one thing, repertoire choices were already well in place before Smith took over. “I was wondering how a company goes from Marriage of Figaro and La Traviata to Eugene Onegin and Cinderella. But a good company serves a broad range in the audience, from someone for whom Madama Butterfly is a ‘world premiere,’ to people who want to explore.”

Rehearsals had already been underway for a couple of weeks, and Smith—like the 10,000 or so who once again attended last summer’s “Opera in the Park”—had heard some powerful excerpts from this weekend’s season opener, Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky. “Onegin I think will blow people away. It moves and dances and is so beautiful to look at.”

Later in the season Madison Opera offers Philip Glass’ Galileo Galilei and Rossini’s La Cenerentola (“Cinderella”). What are some of Smith’s ideas about future seasons?

“I believe in balance between a ‘classic’ opera and one we haven’t done before—not necessarily avant-garde, but not ‘Top 10.’ The middle slot (which has become a tradition in the Overture Center’s more intimate Playhouse) won’t necessarily be something ‘modern,’ but definitely something different than what you’ll see in Overture Hall.”

And does Smith have any feelings about the kind of director that is brought in to stage the works? “I just want someone to tell a story. I’ve seen some directors take a very traditional approach and fail to tell the story, and I’ve encountered radical looking productions that tell the story very effectively.”

That should be no problem in this week’s Onegin: director Candace Evans returns following her 2009 triumph of Carmen. With the reliably romantic interpretation of John DeMain and the Madison Symphony, the returns of Hyung Yun and Maria Kanyova and the debut of Scott Ramsay, the second half-century of Madison Opera will enjoy an auspicious start.

And when Kathryn Smith fully takes over the reins, it should be quite a ride … or walk.

Performances of Eugene Onegin take place Friday, November 4 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, November 6 at 2:30 p.m. For tickets, call the Overture Center box office at 258-4141 or go to madisonopera.org.

Photo courtesy of Madison Opera.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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