Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Christopher Hahn, New Pittsburgh Opera Chief, Reflects on Career in Opera Administration

November 4th, 2008

Note from William: I recently traveled to Pittsburgh for opening night of the 2008-09 Pittsburgh Opera season, featuring the role debut of Stephanie Blythe in Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila”. This provided an opportunity to interview the newly appointed general director of the Pittsburgh Opera, Christopher Hahn.

[Below: Christopher Hahn, photograph courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.]

Wm: Congratulations on your appointment as Pittsburgh Opera’s general director.

CH: Thank you.

Wm: How did you come to be interested in opera?

CH: As a child I grew up in provincial South Africa. I read enormous amounts of English literature and poetry as a child. I was a child singer in our church choir, which was an important part of the community in which I was raised. I attended concerts by piano and  vocal recitalists touring South Africa. Meanwhile, my interest in poetry and literature evolved into an interest in theater.  I thought I would become an actor, or a dancer, or stage director, but I always expected to be associated with music.

I left South Africa to live in London, where I was exposed to a wide range of music. However, even though I came to know operatic performances through Covent Garden and the English National Opera, I expected to have a career in the legitimate theater rather than opera.

Wm: How did your career path change from legitimate theater to opera?

CH: I moved to San Francisco, looking for a job in theater. I came to understand that in that city the largest theater is the San Francisco Opera. Terrence McEwen had only recently taken over the general directorship of that institution from Kurt Herbert Adler.  I had no experience with opera, but McEwen hired me to work in the rehearsal department, where I spent eight years. There I learned the craft of opera production.

Wm: This was during a period of marked transition between the Adler and McEwen years, was it not?

CH: Yes, and it was time where there was some considerable tension. Adler had expected to continue to conduct operas at the company, and when those assignments failed to materialize, he launched legal action against the Opera for breach of contract. I remember that whenever Adler entered the building, the administrative offices had to be alerted.

Wm: What were your responsibilities in the Rehearsal Department?

CH: Opera production requires extensive planning – not just broad strokes – but very detailed advanced planning, because so many elements go into an operatic performance. The San Francisco Opera’s master schedule proved very difficult to construct, because there may be up to six productions in performance or rehearsal simultaneously. Once the master schedule was set, it became virtually impossible to change.

Wm: This website will be observing the 50th anniversary of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s American debut at San Francisco Opera as a set designer, commencing a series of articles on the Ponnelle legacy.  You were in the Rehearsal Department during a period that Ponnelle would be present as both stage director and production designer. What would you do to prepare in advance for a Ponnelle production?

CH: You’ve identified a production designer who was very much a special case and for whom advanced planning proved very difficult.  I was much involved with a revival of Ponnelle’s San Francisco Opera production of Reimann’s “Lear”.

I would plan things meticulously, but everyone would warn me that you cannot predict anything that would happen when Ponnelle actually arrived in the city for rehearsals. Ponnelle would take a look at all the advance planning and try to “blow it up”. He would try to “deconstruct” the schedule.

Wm: It sounds like you had mixed feelings about working with a Ponnelle production.

CH: Ponnelle’s approach proved to be the antithesis of methodical planning, and put a strain on and, I think, was wasteful of the company’s resources. Even so, part of Ponnelle’s genius was that he deliberately reversed the traditional ways of doing things.

However, I found that it was possible to work with his demands. I discovered that if you made an obvious effort to find a way to give in to some piece of what Ponnelle was asking to change, that it made him happy. The end result would be a better product. He always kept us nimble and humble.

[Below: Production designer and stage director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle directs his production of Reimann’s “Lear” at San Francisco Opera; edited image of an Ira Nowinski photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Fortunately, the majority of opera directors consider it part of their “expertise” to fit within the framework of a company’s planning.

Wm: How did your experiences at San Francisco Opera prepare you for your later career?

CH: In many ways, but two lessons were especially valuable. First, understanding the cost and value of each component of a performance. Second, understanding how to meet an artist’s needs.

Wm: Would you expand on these lessons?

CH: Yes. As an artistic administrator of an opera company, a position I held for eight years at Pittsburgh Opera prior to being appointed general director, your entire year is spent preparing for the upcoming opera season and beyond. For every opera you consider mounting, you have to know what every part of it will cost, and to know what things need to be done to assure that every element is available when needed. It is not an easy job. The skills learned through the experience of detailed planning at San Francisco Opera proved invaluable.

However, the best-planned season will not work unless the audience has a rapport with the performers they come to see.  During that seminal period in San Francisco I gained an understanding of how an opera company needs to relate to the principal singers. In that period, I met and worked with such legendary singers as Luciano Pavarotti, Montserrat Caballe, Frederica von Stade, Tatiana Troyanos and Marilyn Horne. But I was not just experiencing them as great artists, but helping them get through their days.

It was during this period that I first began to realize the tremendous stamina and output of energy that are required for these great performances.  I vividly remember Leonie Rysanek.  She was highly energized person offstage, constantly vocalizing. When she performed Sieglinde in San Francisco’s production of Wagner’s “Die Walkuere”, the audience would see this wonderfully mature acting and seemingly effortless singing.

As soon as Rysanek left the stage, she would become this real person, gasping for breath as if she had just finished a marathon, leaning on her husband or assistants for support. Then, when her part called for her to be onstage again, she serenely transformed into her character, and so on for all three acts.

It is absolutely crucial for an artistic administrator to anticipate what each artist needs, and to make certain that the environment exists for that artist to give a great performance.

[Below: Leonie Rysanek at San Francisco Opera; edited image, based on a Carolyn Mason Jones photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Wm: Of the great artists with whom you have worked, is there one who is a particular favorite?

CH: Yes, I regard Mirella Freni as one the kindest, friendliest, nicest people I have ever met, as well as a thorough professional.

Wm: As you move from Artistic Administrator to General Director, how does your job change?

CH: Both jobs need the skills of understanding all the cogs in the machine that makes up opera performance.  As Artistic Administrator, I always had a good relationship with donors, but the General Director has a much greater exposure to donors and to other sources of funding and, of course, the opera board.

Wm: What do you regard as the differences between the San Francisco and Pittsburgh opera audiences?

CH: Each audience is different. In San Francisco the seasons are longer, with many more performances. Also, the number of subscribers is much larger, and, as a whole, those subscribers are very knowledgeable about opera, and very sophisticated.

If you compare the San Francisco and Pittsburgh audiences, the latter, at least in the aggregate, do not have the experience with all aspects of the operatic repertoire, and so may not seem to be as particularly well informed of operas beyond the central core as the San Franciscans.

However, I find that you cannot make too many assumptions about what the Pittsburgh audience will like and not like. Our audiences seem to be intrigued by our efforts to maintain a careful balance between the repertoire with which most are familiar and less well known works. We have found them responsive to such 20th or 21st century presentations as Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” and Britten’s “Billy Budd” and to avant-garde ideas, such as production designer Christopher Alden’s take on Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman”.

Wm: Speaking of fund-raising, what is the impact of the troubles in the economy on the Pittsburgh Opera?

CH: I’m cautiously optimistic that we will get through these times in relatively good shape. Pittsburgh over the years has had to adjust to the traumas of the downsizing and virtual disappearance of major industries. Over time we have developed a better balanced economy, with important elements of technology, small business, health care and education. We are, therefore, a little less vulnerable than we were in the past to economic downturns. Today’s Pittsburgh is resilient and creative.

Naturally, people are concerned and some are frightened. But, on balance, Pittsburgh’s opera, symphony and theater are holding their own. There always will be good times and bad times, but we will be doing good work ten years from now.

Wm: What would you like to see happen with the Pittsburgh Opera?

CH: I have watched with interest [San Francisco Opera General Director] David Gockley’s efforts in bringing opera into the community, such as the cinemacasts at the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Ballpark. S. F. Opera has always been innovative in bringing opera into the community.  I especially liked the free concerts at Sigmund Stern Grove (working with the S. F. Department of Parks and Recreation) on the fall season’s opening weekend.

I presently am very interested in the idea of doing some great open air opera concerts in one of Pittsburgh’s river venues in late summer or early autumn. We will figure out how to do this.

Wm: Recently, your administrative offices and production spaces have moved to a new site in Pittsburgh’s Strip area, near the Allegheny River, a now fashionable former industrial and warehouse area in which there is extensive urban redevelopment. How has the move from Pittsburgh’s Downtown Theater District to the Strip impacted the opera company?

CH: Over the past year, we have moved into a sizable new facility (where this interview is being conducted) that originally was the industrial home for the manufacture of George Westinghouse’s air brakes. We are freed from our previous constraints resulting from our lack of space.

This has been an artistic shot in the arm. It will allow us to plan a series of special events, including the baroque chamber operas with which our musical director and lead conductor Antony Walker is associated.

Wm: Did the new space facilitate your decision to purchase and refurbish the production of Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila” that opens your 2008-09 Season?

CH: Yes, we believe that “Samson” is an opera that is within the reach of smaller opera companies to perform, but that they need a “right-sized” physical production. Many regional companies would not have the space and capacity to mount, say, the Nicolas Joel-Douglas Schmidt production from San Francisco Opera. We already have had interest from other companies about renting our “Samson” sets.

Wm: What other physical productions do you own and rent to others?

CH: Our rental productions currently include Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Verdi’s “Macbeth” and Jonathan Dove’s “Flight”.

Wm: Are there other aspects of the “opera business” that interests you, about which we haven’t talked?

CH: I am fascinated by the training of young opera singers. So many receive training in university programs, but the experiences they really need are those that they receive in live performances at an established opera company.

Wm: It’s been my observation that there are a much greater number of good operatic voices in the United States than there are operatic performances to use them. Do you agree?

CH: Precisely. Even though the number of opera companies and performances have increased in recent decades, the number of great American opera singers has increased also, so that the existence of the network of European companies remains critical for many American artists to obtain the experiences they need.

Wm: Christopher, thank you for your time.

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