Photo by Richard Cawood
Innovative director Nic Muni talks about the challenges and rewards of producing opera. [26:20]
Jo Reed: That was an excerpt from the 2004 US premiere of Peter Bengtson's The Maids; it was performed by the Cincinatti Opera under the direction of its then artistic director Nic Muni.
Welcome to Art Works that program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
The prolific director Nic Muni is known for his innovative approach to opera, whether its rethinking the standard repertoire or bringing accessible new or less familiar works to the stage. As a freelance director, Nic has directed over two hundred productions with companies in North America, Europe, and Australia.
Nic has served as Artistic Director for the Tulsa Opera and then the Cincinnati Opera, stepping down after nine years at the helm. He is now artist-in-residence Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and a freelance stage director, in fact, this past season, he scored a critical hit this past season with his staging of the little-known opera Cardillac by Paul Hindemith. When I discovered Nic Muni that he was serving on one of the NEA's opera panels I jumped at the chance get his thoughts on this enduring art form and the upcoming Opera Honors. I began our conversation with an obvious question:
Jo Reed: What does an artistic director do?
Nic Muni: What does an artistic director do? Basically responsible for assembling, negotiating, arranging all of the artistic elements that go in to an opera production so some of those are more or less set. For example, in Cincinnati we worked with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra so that was a set group. All the singers were hired individually. The chorus was auditioned and hired and so forth, scenic designers, costume designers, so that's one part of- that's the- sort of producing part of it. The other part of it I think is to sort of work with the board of directors and the community to sort of articulate- develop and articulate the long-range plan, the mission, the- sort of the artistic direction of the company. Obviously artistic director does that. So there's a- kind of a community board-based sort of overarching direction aspect of the job and then there is a producing nuts and bolts aspect of the job.
Jo Reed: I guess if it's fair to say that a singer or an actor thinks about his or her role and then the director of the opera looks at the whole production the artistic director looks at that production in relationships to other productions that season and in the seasons they've had.
Nic Muni: Beautifully put, absolutely beautifully put. It's both a moment-to-moment eye on the ball but a very long-range view of a company as well.
Jo Reed: Part of your mandate was to help define Cincinnati opera. It was in a bit of a transition. What was going on?
Nic Muni: That's right. Well, the general director before me had--well, he was the artistic director as well, Jim de Blasis--was there for about 30 years so there was a long line of his regime where he was general director, then became artistic director and then he retired. And the company wanted to look at a new direction for itself because they felt they had gotten a little bit stale, the repertoire had gotten a little bit narrow, presenting mostly chestnuts, mostly Puccini and Verdi, and so they undertook on their own of course the sort of assessment with the community as to what the company was and what they wanted to become. When they got that evaluation done then they set out to look for what they felt was the right person and thankfully they thought it was me, which was great, and so it was really a transformation of the company that they were looking for and that's one of the things that excited me very much about that company.
Jo Reed: Let's talk about some of those transformations. How did the opera transform?
Nic Muni: Well, I would say that one of the mandates was to open up the repertoire in terms of just its range and we presented early- I think my second year we presented Jenufa by Janacek, which was completely unknown to them, and I've always loved that piece. I had done a production of that at the Canadian Opera Company a few years before which was very, very successful thankfully and once I sort of got to know the company a little bit I said, "This would be a great piece to do for this sort of transition because it's very- it has sort of romantic and very dramatic elements to it like Puccini and Verdi but of course it's a new musical language but it's one that's- it doesn't have a lot of arias, set arias but it's very easy listening in a certain way and it's an absolutely brilliant work" and the audience went crazy. And that was terrific because it got us on a solid footing of trust with the audience that okay, well, the new guy is here and he- we can do stuff and we like that; that's okay." So we still did a lot of traditional work but we stretched the repertoire and- as one of our mandates and the other mandate was to take the traditional repertoire and do it in a different way, do new productions of it in a new aesthetic, stuff like that. So we did traditional operas in a new way and we did operas that were new work to our audience and then eventually this arch of eight years culminated in actual new work, which was Margaret Garner that we presented in 2005 so- and prior to that we led up to it with U.S. premieres. We did the U.S. premiere of The Maids by Peter Bengtson. We did the first production outside of San Francisco Opera of Dead Man Walking as part of a large consortium. So we sort of ramped it up slowly and gradually and took the temperature of our audience in terms of how they were receiving this on sort of a constant basis to make sure we were staying in touch with people, not alienating the audience, which is very, very important for opera companies to keep an eye on.
Jo Reed: You had tremendous growth during your tenure.
Nic Muni: Yes. Yes. The budget grew. I think when I got there it was about 2.6 million and by 2005 it was 6.2 million so in a span of eight years it more than doubled and what I loved about my time there and I salute the board--they were fantastic--was it was very prudently done, done in a very measured way and a very careful way without them being sort of maniacal about it. They were very open to change. They wanted change. They trusted me because I proved myself to them but they were very active and not in a micromanaging way but in a very supportive but clear-eyed way, and I think that enabled us to grow as- and that's radical growth, more than doubling your budget. In fact, we went from 2.6 to I think actually in even- there was a big jump in the first few years to maybe four or five million within that very short time span and then it sort of ramped up more slowly, but it was done in a very measured, prudent way and I really admire that about this company.
Jo Reed: The company also is a festival company.
Nic Muni: That's right.
Jo Reed: Is it not?
Nic Muni: Yes.
Jo Reed: And now explain what that is.
Nic Muni: Okay. A festival as opposed to what we would call a stagione. Stagione means you present one opera at a time and most American opera companies are in that system and they spread it over a performing season, usually September to May. They might do three or four operas. I'm talking about regional companies the size of Cincinnati, which is again about $6 million budget. Cincinnati Opera is the second oldest opera company in the nation and it was started in 1920 as a summer festival, has a very strange and wonderful history because they performed in a pavilion at the zoo--The Cincinnati Zoo--for about 50 years, and almost everybody- anybody who was anybody in the opera world at one time or another performed at the zoo because it was one of the very few summer festivals that existed, summer opportunities, and a lot of the-- It was almost like the summer camp at the Metropolitan Opera because there were no other opportunities and singers who were singing at the Met could either go back to Europe 'cause most of them were European but a lot of them stayed and just went down to Cincinnati for the summer. And they would present anywhere upwards--I believe I'm not mistaken to say--maybe 12 operas over the course of a summer, but it was more like summer stock opera- version of opera. So they would do two or three different operas in a week and just sort of rotate that over the summer so it was quite a thing. In 1972, they moved in to a theater and they stayed in the summertime but they were now in an air-conditioned renovated theater, which is where they are today, and did anywhere from I think eight-- Gradually the number of productions reduced over time to what has been now for a number of years four productions so that's summer format, festival format.
Jo Reed: You called the festival experience a supernova.
Nic Muni: It is a supernova <laughs> because it's very, very intense, and I think it's amplified in the case of Cincinnati Opera because the size of the hall is quite large, 3400 seats, so a lot of the repertoire choice and the production choices are sort of big, grand operas which have a lot of elements to them and it hits the fan regularly there. So it's a very, very compact schedule. It's about eight weeks. I don't know what it is now. I think they may have expanded a little bit, but when I was there it was eight weeks, four operas performed one at a time. During my time there, one of the things we did is we went to a little more of a festival format in terms of doing two operas at once. Prior to that they had done one opera at a time just in a condensed time span, but we would say we would open Marriage of Figaro on a Saturday, a Thursday, Saturday, and then we would hold it over to the next Friday and open another opera so that we were trying to attract out-of-town people to come in and see two operas at once and that was quite successful. It was more costly because you had more technical time to turnaround. You had to turn the sets around more but we reckoned that that was worth it to get the word out that- because now we were competing with many summer festivals, Glimmerglass, St. Louis, Santa Fe. When I say now I mean in the last 20 or 30 years whereas before they had- were the only act in town so one of the things to compete is to offer numerous opera experiences on one trip so someone would come from out of town but they'd be able to see two operas instead of just one. That made the supernova even more super.
Jo Reed: What do you think accounts for the extraordinary growth of opera in the United States?
Nic Muni: I would say that one of the things, and I have mixed feelings about this personally, but it's surtitles, the projected English translations introduced in- around 19- early '80s. A Canadian opera invented it apparently in 1983 but Cincinnati Opera was the first U.S. company to adopt projected titles in 1984, and I really think that did open the doorway as-- The artistic part of me that doesn't like them has to yield to the part of me- the management part of me that does like them in the sense that it really did break down the barrier for the audiences. You really could understand on a moment by moment basis what was going on. Even though most opera plots are fairly simple and easy to understand, still you just feel you're with it on a moment-to-moment basis, and I think that opened the door for a lot of audience growth, and I think if you look at Opera America statistics that the growth in the number of opera companies since the early '80s has been pretty phenomenal. There's been a lot of new companies.
Jo Reed: You've worked in a- with a lot of different companies over the course of your career. What are some of the benefits of working with the various companies but what are some of the challenges as well?
Nic Muni: Well, the benefits I think are artistically it's exciting, it's invigorating, you get to learn a lot about how different communities operate, how different companies operate in sort of technical and practical ways, but also the different field of each community so you- it's just very interesting. I think the- sort of the difficult side is if you have a family like I do--my wife and I have two children--is a lot of traveling. It's tough to be away from your kids. So one of the great things for me personally about the Cincinnati experience was I got to be home more, which was fantastic, and my kids at that point were very, very young. They're more grown now but they were very young and now I'm getting back in to the freelance directing now that my kids are grown I am able to do that and so that's also exciting.
Jo Reed: Let's talk briefly about directing opera because as an audience member I'm always very impressed. There are a lot of moving parts.
Nic Muni: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. There are. That's one of the thrilling things about opera and I think it's one of the things that, it's not only surtitles. When I answered before what has given rise to that, it's not just that. I think that was one of the things but another one of the things now that you mention the moving parts and the various parts is that it is- opera is the original multimedia art form, and as our society, at least the American society, and I think the world has become more technologically diverse and advanced and more multimedia I think the art form of opera resonates with a larger group of people in our society because it is multimedia. It is very visual. It's very oral. There's storytelling in terms of narrative but there's also poetic storytelling in terms of lighting and technology and stuff like that so you have a chorus; you have often dance; you have singing; you have orchestra playing; you have acting. When you just enumerate the list of what an opera is comprised of it's a supersensory kind of experience so directing that is a thrill. It's amazing, and one of the best things I love about directing is that I get to do research. I love it. To sort of be offered an opera, especially when one you haven't done before, one of my favorite parts of that is that oh, yippee, I can really get in to depth, in to this or that area or this or that period, and really come to terms with it the best I can.
Jo Reed: Opera's also very expensive. It's expensive to mount a production. It's also fairly expensive to be an audience member. I notice throughout your career you do a lot of co-productions.
Nic Muni: Yeah. Co-productions is one mechanism to counteract the very poor sort of financial matrix that opera is trapped in if you will. It is poor in the sense of very challenging. Look. If we were in the business world and you had a business plan in which 35 to 50% of your income was earned, right, and that's all you had, earned income, you'd never be in business. Right. Opera depends on 50, even 60% of the income being unearned; that is to say contributed. That is a tough business model and no business would ever exist. Right. So what I've been intrigued by is what actually generates that reality and it's a- much too long a discussion for here, but that's what we're faced with. Right. So one of the ways of helping that or counteracting that is co-productions where you can actually amortize the cost, the up-front cost, of a production, which is very expensive, not only over numerous performances at your own company but with other companies. The cost gets spread out and that's one way of being able to do new work, which is what people really expect. An audience wants to come to the theater partly to experience something new and that newness can be not having heard a singer before, it could be not having heard an opera before, it could not having heard- seen a certain conductor work or a certain director work, but it can also be not having seen this opera done in this way, right, in a new production. So doing a new production really helps satisfy reinvigorating our art form in taking a different look at La Boheme or Carmen or what have you, helps to keep the art form vital, because one of the things I've noticed in opera that is a challenge to all of us in the opera industry is most of our repertoire that's done is work that has been written a hundred years ago or earlier. We have a very low percentage of actual new work relative to the total output and that's a real challenge, and to keep the art form vital one of your mechanisms is to do new productions of these older works. The main one should be to do new works but those are costly, they're risky, and so forth, so co-productions is also a mechanism of spreading the financial load out.
Jo Reed: What first drew you to opera?
Nic Muni: I got in to opera via singing, via music. I was a singer, trained as a singer, and I was a voice major at Oberlin Conservatory and a conducting minor so came through the music door, but while I was there was an experimental theater director who was running the theater department and I took some classes and worked in that ensemble and got very fascinated with acting as well and then I tried my hand at directing sort of as a lark like a lot of people do. And I found myself after college trying to figure out what it was that I was going to do with all these things I loved to do and that took a few years to work out, but I finally ended on directing as the thing that satisfied me the most and was the most interesting to me so that's how I got in to it and opera as opposed to theater because I was just around music all the time, and I miss theater. I have done some straight theater. I'd like to do more. What I miss about theater is the tool of silence <laughs> that you just don't have in opera except on the rare occasion, but silence as an expressive tool is an amazing thing so I miss that a little bit.
Jo Reed: Actually, one of our honorees, Philip Glass, certainly uses the tool of silence in his work.
Nic Muni: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. I think all opera composers use that tool. I guess what I meant was an extensive use or the possibility of silence.
Jo Reed: Let's talk briefly about the opera honors. Nic, what do you think it means that the nation in fact honors lifetime achievement in opera?
Nic Muni: Well, I think that it means much more than any of us can imagine in the sense that our society, and I hope this changes and I hope all of us are playing a part in it who are interested in the arts, I think really does lack an appreciation of art as a whole. There are art lovers absolutely. I'm one of them, you're one of them, but our society as a whole I think we really need to be vigilant about really trying to inspire people to be more appreciative of the arts and to have it in their lives more, not just to appreciate it just because we all have egos but to really make it a part of the fabric of our society, and right now in America sadly I still don't feel it is. I do a lot of work in Europe and in Europe art is considered an essential service in the government just like in building interstate highways. They support art in that way. Right. We don't here. We still as a society view art as a kind of an extra, as a kind of a cultural status symbol. We know we should have it. We know it's important but not important enough for it to be part of the fabric of our society yet. Hopefully that'll change over time but I think having honorees and recognizing it helps to elevate the status of the arts as recognizable and appreciable and appreciate-able and that is important. So I think it's vital and I'm thrilled that it's happening now with the honorees here.
Jo Reed: Finally, our toes are in the twenty-first century now. What do you see for opera in the twenty-first century?
Nic Muni: Oh, my. How much time do you have? <laughs> Well, I- after I finished with Cincinnati Opera in 2005 I took a few years to sort of reflect and just sort of recharge my batteries and I really took a look at my view of what I had learned in the previous 20 years and kind of wrote an article/thesis on this just to sort of put it down and organize my thoughts. And in short what I came up with is that as an art form I think opera has more potential than ever, and I say that--I'm a Gemini so I'm able to sort of look dispassionately at things that I'm passionate about. I think I have a good ability to do that, and even taking that sort of step back from the art form, the reason I think it has the greatest potential I think of all the classical art forms is because certain key elements of opera I think are right in tune with the way our society is developing. And those are that opera deals with in extremis situations, and if you look at the sort of popular culture movement, reality shows, making a drama out of a chef or making a drama out of losing weight or making a drama out of renovating a house, and they make dramas, life and death dramas, I think there is a real hungering for primal, elemental extreme situations and that's opera. If opera's nothing else, it's that. Also opera is multimedia and I think we are in a multimedia age so I think it really connects with people. And thirdly, the storytelling of operaâ¦If you look at the way stories are told in our society in the last 15 years or so, they're much more episodic, they're much more fragmented, they're much more abstract, they're much more- many stories use kind of- sort of like a puzzle technique where they don't tell you a story straight through narratively but they let you piece it together. That is how opera functions because of its abstract nature. There is a narrative but often it's episodic, time leaps. All of that's been done in opera so I think opera's really in tune. Now the bad news is, that we really have to watch out for, is I think the way we produce opera in some ways is out of step with our society. Our society values youth and the new over age and the old, good or bad, right or wrong, doesn't matter. That's our reality and when you take a step back and you look at the repertoire that opera companies produce in America it was I would venture to say upwards of 90% old work so we're-- It's great work. I love it, you love it, people who love opera love it, but when you take a step back and look at the broader population we are presenting old work, a preponderance of old work to a society that values new and youth. That's an issue we need to look at in my view on the long term. The second thing is I think we produce opera in houses and theaters that are far too large to connect to people, far too large, and so our society is one that has to do with visceral immediacy and opera can supply that if it's done in more intimate spaces. Why do we do it in such big houses aside from the fact that those big houses exist is that opera is so expensive that we have to maximize the per-performance revenue so it's necessary to do it in large houses but it's actually undermining the ongoing power of opera to reach larger audiences. About two percent of the adult population attends opera and for this art form to continue to exist we all need to find ways, and of course we're all trying to market it and get more than two percent, but we need to look at why is it stuck---and that's been true for about 20 years. There was a little bit of uptick after surtitles, right, maybe like .3 percent. It's higher than it was, right, but that's not really enough so we have a lot of challenges. I see we're trying to wrap this up, but I- it's a subject that's near and dear to my heart and something that I want all of us in the industry to just sort of take a step back and look at the challenges we have in a holistic way, and I think we'll see that there- the way they- the way these issues connect is very profound, much more profound than I thought when I was running Cincinnati Opera so anyway- but this is a much longer discussion.
Jo Reed: It is but thank you for beginning itâ¦
Nic Muni: Thank you for asking it.
Jo Reed: I appreciate it.
That was Opera Director Nic Muni. You've been listening to Art You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from The Maids, composed by Peter Bengtson, The Maids, performed in 2004 by the Cincinatti Opera.
Excerpts from L'Amico Fritz, composed by Pietro Mascagni performed in 2009 by the San Fransisco Opera Merola Program
Both used courtesy of Nic Muni.
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Next week, 2011 Heritage Fellows, Roy and PJ Hirabayashiâ¨talk about the music and spirit of Taiko Drumming.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.