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Video Published: 19 Oct 2022

An Oral History with Anne Ewers

On August 11, 2022, arts administrator Anne Ewers sat down with OPERA America's President/CEO Marc A. Scorca for a conversation about opera and their life. 

This interview was originally recorded on August 11, 2022. 
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. 

Anne Ewers, arts administrator

From 2007 to 2021, Anne Ewers served as president and CEO of Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center. During her tenure, she led the growth of the Kimmel Center to become the second largest performing arts center in the country, second only to Lincoln Center, and spearheaded the organization’s merger with the Philadelphia Orchestra. She was previously president and CEO of Utah Symphony | Utah Opera.

Oral History Project

Discover the full collection of oral histories at the link below.


Marc A. Scorca: Anne Ewers, thank you so much for being with us, as part of our extended celebration of OPERA America's 50th anniversary. We wanted to capture interviews and stories from people who've really had a role in shaping opera in this country, and you are one of them. So thank you so much for being with us.

Anne Ewers: Well Marc, I am so honored to be a part of this, so thank you.

Marc A. Scorca: I look forward to hearing some of your stories here but first, I start every interview with the same question: who brought you to your first opera?

Anne Ewers: Well, Marc, I have to answer that actually in two parts, because being from a small Illinois farm town, I had my exposure to opera for years aurally, only. So every Saturday, Mom and I would listen to The Met broadcast on the radio - Saturday afternoons. My fondest memory is making Christmas cookies, listening to The Met. So I did not see my first opera until I was 21. Mom and Dad took me to Chicago Lyric to see Tosca.

Marc A. Scorca: A great company, and a wonderful opera for a first opera. I assume that you were kind of taken in by the real live experience.

Anne Ewers: Totally, totally. And it was shortly after that, that the next event happened that actually got me on the road to an opera career. You may be aware of The Muny Opera in St. Louis, in Forest Park? So 25 of us were chosen to be in the chorus. Now when we say opera, we're talking music theater. So we had Take Me Along with Gene Kelly - amazing, and we did Man of La Mancha with Herschel Bernardi. So the gal who was teaching us voice during that summer was on her way to the University of Texas at Austin to get a Master's in vocal performance. And when she got there, she and her husband kept calling and saying, "Anne, you gotta come visit; you gotta come visit". So, I finally went for a weekend, and I spent the entire weekend with all of these opera students. And I saw my first rehearsal, which was Ariadne auf Naxos, and that was it. I had to get into opera after that.

Marc A. Scorca: Now, what's interesting is you were a chorister, so one thinks singing, but your entry into opera was as a stage director. And it's not easy to enter the area of stage direction, unless you have lots of theater credits or somehow have a chance to experiment with staged work. How did you start your career as a stage director?

Anne Ewers: Well, you'll love this piece, because when I went to UT, the head of the department was Walter Ducloux, and Walter believed women could sing and have babies, and that was it. But I wanted to be a stage director. I had directed in high school and college theater or music theater, what have you...So the assistant director of the program, his unlucky break became my lucky break. So, he literally broke his foot, and could not direct the fall scenes program. So the only one who was left to direct it, was me. And after that, Walter Ducloux became my strongest advocate until the day he died.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow. And of course Walter Ducloux, founder of Austin Opera, so he certainly goes back into our opera history here.

Anne Ewers: ...and look at the back of most G. Schirmer scores, and he did the English translation in those scores.

Marc: Right, right. He did a lot of that; absolutely. So you were a graduate student at that time and seeking a degree in stage direction?

Anne Ewers: Well, it was called a Masters of Music in Opera Production, so it was direction and set, costume, lighting design. So I did get good experience in school, but as you know, it's the real experience that makes all the difference. So, I was really lucky to be hired by San Francisco Opera. It was a seven month contract. I did it for three years. So, for seven months I would observe and assist the big guys - Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Lotfi Mansouri et cetera. And then in the off-time, I would go and direct myself in the little companies.

Marc A. Scorca: Again, creating a career in stage direction is really hard to do, and here you were taking advantage of an opportunity that came your way and finding an advocate in Walter Ducloux. Did Walter Ducloux help you get to San Francisco?

Anne Ewers: I can't remember, but I was working for a tiny opera company called Hidden Valley Opera. And people came down from San Francisco, and I had directed and designed Gianni Schicchi. And so, they saw my work, and that's how I got hired. Thank goodness.

Marc A. Scorca: How fantastic; that really is a great story. And then, working with people like Ponnelle and Lotfi, and I know that you had an ongoing friendship, professional association with Lotfi. And I wanted to pause there, because Lotfi's such a special force, and as time goes on, people won't quite remember how special he was. What was it like knowing and working with Lotfi?

Anne Ewers: I have to tell you how that all began. He was my mentor, Marc, for 33 years, but the first time I worked with him was a new production of La Gioconda at San Francisco, and I loved how he directed and I loved how he worked. So I went up and I said, "Lotfi, could I come up and assist you in Toronto?" And he said, "Anne, we have no budget for an AD (Assistant Director). However, I'm doing Peter Grimes. And I would love to have you come, but you must pay your own airfare, pay your own housing for six weeks, and get no salary". Marc, it was the best money I ever spent, because ever after that, he would budget for one opera a year to have an AD. But after the second or third year, he gave me my own opera to direct, and all the companies in Canada saw my work. So 50% of my career was in Canada, you know, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Winnipeg, and of course, Toronto. So there we have it.

Marc A. Scorca: What an incredible story: your initiative in asking for it. Thankfully your ability to sponsor yourself in that first year, but it opened the doors for you.

Anne Ewers: It did. It absolutely did. And frankly, every decision that I have made professionally in my career, Lotfi has been a part of that discussion and that deliberation.

Marc A. Scorca: I don't think people know what a positive energy Lotfi could be. And his belief in opera, his belief in talented people. He had that leadership energy.

Anne Ewers: Yes he did. And he really cared, and he would support and encourage. And of course, he was funny as hell, and he was a marvelous, marvelous mentor. I wouldn't be where I am today without Lotfi.

Marc A. Scorca: Well, you know, what's interesting is of course Lotfi was a stage director, but also a general director of Canadian Opera Company at the time that you started to work with him, and you were a stage director, but early on, you took on an opera company, Boston Lyric Opera. Did you envision that you would have kind of that dual career, as Lotfi had?

Anne Ewers: Marc, you know how the Boston thing happened? So they were doing the complete Ring Cycle, uncut in German. And I had just moved to Boston, and they asked me to be a guest stage director and direct it. So of course I went to Lotfi, and I said, "Should I do this?" And he said, "Anne, you're so young. Even if you mess up, it won't wreck your career". I said, "Okay". So we did four performances across six days in Boston. And then we took it to The Beacon in New York. And it was a great success artistically, but financially it was a disaster. It was an $80,000 a year budget. The Ring took the company into debt $450,000. And they closed their doors immediately. And a year later, the board came to me and said, "Anne would you reopen this company?" And I said, "Are you kidding me? I have no administrative experience". I call Lotfi. He said, "Anne, look, everyone knows the company's gonna fail. Get a six month contract and get administrative experience." So I did. But Marc, I knew nothing. My second day on the job, my sister was getting her MBA at BU, and I called and I said, "Joan, how do I figure percents on a calculator?"

Marc A. Scorca: Wow. I did not know the story.

Anne Ewers: Crazy.

Marc A. Scorca: We're talking about the early 1980's here?

Anne Ewers: Right. 1984 to '89.

Marc A. Scorca: And so you were in Boston and they were looking for a stage director for the Ring Cycle. Now, was it full orchestra Ring Cycle, or was it a reduced orchestra?

Anne Ewers: It was reduced. Probably 60 or 70 players.

Marc A. Scorca: Still a full size Ring Cycle.

Anne Ewers: Yeah. It was called 'The Ring on a Shoestring'.

Marc A. Scorca: So you went in as a stage director. You did your best, had an artistic success with it. It closed the company. No fault of yours. And then they said, "Hey, we kind of like you, will you reopen this company?" And that began the administrative side of your career.

Anne Ewers:Right. In fact, you'll love this story. So - board of 13, all men, of course. And at the first meeting, somehow I had figured out that we needed $18,000 to reopen. So I handed out pledge cards, and I said, "I will not leave tonight until we have 18,000". So, I collected the pledge cards, got out the calculator: "$3,000 short gentlemen", and passed the cards around again. And we made it.

Marc A. Scorca: You know, there's nothing like being new to the scene, because why not?

Anne Ewers: Exactly.

Marc A. Scorca: And you had success not only in opening the company, but sustaining the company, and it's gone on to mergers and all sorts of things, and it is Boston Lyric Opera, as we know it now in Boston. But you had success, built a company and a bigger company called, and that was Utah Opera. So you went out to Salt Lake to lead the company, and had success in leading the company, as we know. But then, your success was such that when the Symphony was looking for new leadership, they knocked on your door. And was that another one where you thought, "Are you kidding me?" Or how did you react to that?

Anne Ewers: Well, it was interesting. I had been running Utah Opera for 10 years, and they had fired the CEO of the orchestra. So the chair of the board asked for a private meeting, and he said, "Look, we would like to hire you to run the orchestra. We know you won't leave the Opera. So will you consider merging the two?" And so I said, "Well, I won't consider anything until I talk to my board chair". But we put together three board members from both sides. And there was one board member who was on both boards. So we called them 'The Magnificent Seven', and we spent probably January to March talking, figuring out what was possible, working with a consultant. I was excited. The orchestra was already playing for the Opera, so we weren't replacing jobs or what have you. But anyway, the group decided to go public with the study in March, and all hell broke loose in the community. Those who were opera people thought, "Oh, wow, Anne's gonna be pulled away and won't focus on the Opera". The orchestra people thought, "Well, she came from opera, so she won't focus on the orchestra". And so actually it was the community that was the biggest struggle. But finally in July of that year, we voted and merged, and it was a great success and still is.

Marc A. Scorca: It is one of the mergers that...'cause there have been other mergers...but I think that of the successes, this is the one that we can point to. And yet I know it wasn't easy...

Anne Ewers: No...

Marc A. Scorca: ...and there were points of learning. There were things that were tried and didn't work, and then things that were adjusted and started to work. If there is a learning point or two that you would say: the biggest points that you would just pass along, what are those, from that merger experience?

Anne Ewers: Well, Keith Lockhart was the music director of the orchestra. And so you've gotta have people who can really work well together. And I had said to him from the beginning, as we were talking merger, before we did it, "The three legged stool structure of the orchestra no longer works. So we don't want to do that here. We'll have the CEO reporting to the board and the music director reporting to the CEO". And he was great with that. So I think that was a huge thing. But you know, there are so many things that you don't realize. I will never forget the first rehearsal of Othello, and the orchestra...it was their first reading...and I was amazed. The sound out of the pit was extraordinary. And I went down, and I said, "Guys, this is great. What's happening?" And they said, "Anne, we are no longer the hired help".

Marc A. Scorca: Isn't that interesting.

Anne Ewers: What was great, was the ability to schedule, now that you were one. You could say, "Okay, this half of the orchestra does the opera; this half does chamber orchestra work and does education". But you could schedule it, so that when the opera was rehearsing, this half did chamber concerts. When the opera was performing, this half did education, so you weren't competing with performances. If you decided to do Otello, you could do a smaller chamber section over here. So we saved tons of money not hiring a bunch of subs.

Marc A. Scorca: How interesting. And it's so interesting what you say, 'cause there's the three legged stool and that refers to the old orchestra model where there was the executive director, the music director and the board president. That was sort of the three legged stool, a model that really never pertained in opera where you had the general director who was responsible for the whole organization and the general director reported to the board chair/board president. So we have always been that two-legged easel; we'll call it an easel versus the three-legged stool. And a lot of people, I think, think that the arts disciplines must all be alike, but there really are profound differences - attitudinally, structurally between a symphony orchestra and an opera company. Were you surprised by some of that?

Anne Ewers: Well, I think the thing that is the biggest difference is that with an opera, you work, work, build, build, build, build, build up to a huge production. With the orchestra, you're cranking out concerts every week, and that is such a different culture. And that was one of the hardest things for both staffs to learn: how to operate in that different way.

Marc A. Scorca: Very interesting, because you're right. I mean the life of an opera company is peaks and valleys. And for a symphony orchestra, it is a steady productivity. I mean, if they do the St Matthew Passion, it gets a little bigger, but it is a steady productivity. How interesting. You know, it continues to be one of the mergers that has worked and clearly you just learned from it as you went, and created a successful structure, which of course opened the door of the possibility of you going to the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. So here you were, you were a master of opera. You became an expert in the symphony field. But here's a venue: a presenting organization, a performing arts center knocking on the door. So, Anne, was that immediately attractive to you?

Anne Ewers: You know, I was interested in the chance to serve an entire community. When you're doing that much variety, there is something for everyone. And of course there was a big challenge here. You know, they had a $30M construction debt from the time they had opened in 2001, and this was now 2007. And I said to the search committee, "Coming from the producing world, we know how all of these pieces are put together, and that is an advantage when you're presenting, because you already know what happened along the way, and you have a much clearer understanding of the bigger picture. Plus I spent my whole life at a resident company, so I was used to that piece, and knew what res cos needed, and what they wanted. So it was exciting. It was exciting.

Marc A. Scorca: And I guess inheriting deficits is something you were already used to from Boston Lyric Opera, but passing the hat doesn't quite work for 30 million dollars.

Anne Ewers: It was wild. But you know, in my first year, we galvanized the board and I think the foundations could see it was a different way of looking and approaching things. And I said, "We've got to use a honeymoon period. This is our window of opportunity". So in that first year, we completely retired the $30 million debt. Deloitte had done a study and said, your endowment needs to be 72 million. It was 40 at the time, which isn't bad for a new company. Anyway, during that first year, we got the endowment to 72 and we got 10 million to start PIFA, the international festival.

Marc A. Scorca: I guess, because of something like the festival, you didn't lose the pleasure of producing.

Marc A. Scorca: I guess, because of something like the festival, you didn't lose the pleasure of producing.

Anne Ewers: Right.

Marc A. Scorca: I was wondering - here you are a producer, you are creating as a stage director, you're thinking about bringing people together and creating something. And even in managing the merged Utah Symphony/Utah Opera, you were still a producer. Going to the Kimmel Center, the producer, in a way, had to step back.

Anne Ewers: Oh, very much. Yeah.

Marc A. Scorca: You were a support agency for those who were producing. Did you miss the producing side of it?

Anne Ewers: You know, I was so excited by all the other things - and each time in my career, going from singer to director/designer, to producer, to presenter, I never looked back and thought, "Oh, I wish..." I would be excited about what I was doing. And PIFA did help with producing, I will say.

Marc A. Scorca: Right. And that was the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts. And what is that? I remember the first year, the French theme, the Parisian theme.

Anne Ewers: Yes.

Marc A. Scorca: I remember going into the Kimmel Center with the Eiffel Tower.

Anne Ewers: 81 feet tall and 6,000 light bulbs. It was fabulous. So the idea was - each time - and we did four PIFA's, every other year - and each time there was a theme, a focus. And so the first was Paris. The second one was, 'If you had a time machine, where would you go?' We built a hundred foot long time machine in the plaza of the Kimmel. It was great. Interactive, but the idea was bringing artists from around the world, as well as from around the block. And the street fair was always sensational - (we) closed down from City Hall to Pine. And when we had Trans-Express that first year flying 150 feet above the corner of Broad and Spruce: 195,000 people standing on the street, watching. Fabulous.

Marc A. Scorca: That absolutely is. And I love your statement that, when you are a presenter and you have a performing arts center, you can have something for everyone. And I really like that sensibility of making the Center a home for all kinds of arts activities.

Anne Ewers: Right. Exactly.

Marc A. Scorca: Upon your departure from the Kimmel Center, there was announced then a merger between the Kimmel Center and The Philadelphia Orchestra. And by way of background, The Philadelphia Orchestra owned and operated the Academy of Music, which was their historic home from before the civil war. And then the Kimmel Center was built and it was managed separately, but here a merger. And I'm kind of curious to know what motivated that merger. And then I want to talk to you a little more generally about mergers. So tell us about that one.

Anne Ewers: So, I was the instigator, so when COVID hit and I watched it go on and on, I thought, "Things are never going to return to the way they were. So let's take advantage of this crisis and let's make transformational change". Because at the moment, the Kimmel had been 93% earned and the minute COVID happened, every earned revenue line was gone. And we didn't have to have a deep fundraising base, because we didn't need it. So I thought, "Who has a deep, philanthropic base? The orchestra". And then people kept saying, "You could do this, do that..." But we didn't own content. So there were a lot of things we couldn't do. So I thought, "Who owns content? The orchestra". And I thought back to 20 years before in Utah, and I thought, "You know, there are a lot of things that we could do if we were merged". So in October of 2020, I reached out to my dear, treasured friend Matías, who runs the orchestra. I said, "What do you think?" He was willing to explore it. So for six weeks we talked about it. Susan Nelson, who I'm sure you know from TDC helped and worked and guided us. By January of '21, we felt we could talk to both of our chairs. They loved the idea. And I then was concerned about the people who had founded the Kimmel. So I reached out to them and they said, "Anne, we tried to do this in the beginning and couldn't make it work. It's fabulous. Go for it". So we continued working - and unlike Utah - we had unanimous approval from both boards. And I had already, in December of 2019 - so even before COVID - I was working on my new contract with my chair and I said, "Mike, I'm going to be 70 years old in January of 2022. This has to be the last contract". So we didn't tell anyone, but that was also a piece. So it was very cute. Matías, about two months before we were gonna do the board vote, he said, "Anne, we have to figure out who's gonna run this thing". And I said, "Matías, I'm retiring. It's you". So that was that. So, the vote and everything happened and then I retired. But I'm still on the board and the executive committee and the nominating committee and still fundraising, of course.

Marc A. Scorca: For sure. It is interesting. I don't know another person who has done two major arts mergers, and they are notoriously difficult of boards...if you try to merge two organizations where there are two general directors, who goes? But in both instances, the other person was gone or going. How do you deal with two boards that have different egos and different corporate cultures? So, you've pulled it off twice. And do you intrinsically think mergers are a good thing in our industry?

Anne Ewers: I do, Marc. I think it a lot depends on people. So Matías and I: no egos, working to figure out what was best for the new company, and what was best for the two coming into it. You have to have that. I think that, especially in this day and age, there are so many nonprofits, and there's only so much money to go around. So how can you be careful and economic in your choice. But frankly, we didn't do this for financial reasons. We did this because we felt it was better for the community. The fighting that went on about who gets the space and how much to get it for... On and on. And of course, the orchestra had no incentive. They weren't getting money if we rented the space out, but now it's one entity. And my favorite thing, shortly after this happened, a national choral group wanted to do their conference for three days. The orchestra would never have allowed this. Now they're going, "Oh wow. Maybe we can go on tour for three days". It's great.

Marc A. Scorca: And does the orchestra still use the Academy of Music for some things?

Anne Ewers: They do their ball there. Although I think with COVID the ball idea maybe is going by the wayside.

Marc A. Scorca: So the Kimmel Center really is their concert hall now.

Anne Ewers: Yeah, it is. Verizon Hall. I mean, they'll do film or something unique in the Academy, and the Academy is jammed with Broadway, opera, ballet...

Marc A. Scorca: Just the most beautiful opera house in the United States.

Anne Ewers: Yes it is. And the oldest operating. Oldest or the first.

Marc A. Scorca: Absolutely. And I guess the impediments to merger. There is organizational leadership, like the executive director, general director; there's the staff; there's the board, where you have resident artists - as a symphony orchestra - the artists in their view. What would you say is the biggest impediment to successful merger?

Anne Ewers: I think change is so difficult for people. And so it's getting people to put their arms around change, and to give it time. It takes time. It takes patience and finding how to basically integrate two completely different financial systems, ways of doing marketing and PR...you name it.

Marc A. Scorca: Yeah. Time, time. One of the things I've admired about you so much, Anne is your ability to create warm, enduring relationships. You are someone I think, who really personalizes the work with donors, with board members, with staff members, with colleagues. Do you believe that the kind of personalization of the work is a real contributing factor to success?

Anne Ewers: Oh yeah. I feel the most important thing is to listen to people: what do they need? What do they want? What are the uniquenesses or things about their life? In fact, I remember doing the Deer Valley Music Festival in Utah. I would go barreling down the mountain after our V I P dinner each week. And I would call my answering machine, and I would download everything I learned about everyone that evening. People love it when you know their dog's name, and you remember about the niece: you know what I mean? And so I've done that my whole life. And then I write notes.

Marc A. Scorca: Made easier with cell phones.

Anne Ewers: Indeed. Indeed.

Marc A. Scorca: I call my answering service and just leave voicemails for myself about things that I learned.

Anne Ewers: Right.

Marc A. Scorca: But when you personalize it, as you do, you can lose the boundary between work/life balance and all of that. How have you navigated that in your own life, given your tremendous dedication to your work?

Anne Ewers: Marc, I am the last person to ask about work/life balance, 'cause I've never done it. My career was my life and now I'm learning about life outside of a career.

Marc A. Scorca: Good. That I'm glad to hear.

Anne Ewers: Yes.

Marc A. Scorca: Were there role models for you during your decades of work?

Anne Ewers: Oh, yes. I mean, obviously Lotfi first and foremost, and Ardis Krainik. I didn't know Ardis well, but I saw her at OPERA America meetings, and I so loved what she said, how she thought. But you know, I have had one or two or three mentors at every point in my career. I still have two. And they were all different - CEO's of for profit companies, all kinds, but I learned so much from them. Oh, my favorite title. On her business card, it says 'Corporate Shaman'. So I learned about how to bring energy into the room, how to put energy around people. But anyway, each of those mentors has been invaluable. And so now I feel it's time to give back. I have eight mentees right now.

Marc A. Scorca: In a formal way or in just a casual, personal way?

Anne Ewers: Well, I don't charge anything because my feeling is I'm giving back. So one of them is every two weeks, and others are as needed; others are once a month. So it depends on what they want, and what they need. And they're in a wide variety of disciplines, and at various points in their career.

Marc A. Scorca: How wonderful. I'm delighted to hear about that.

Anne Ewers: Yeah, I love it.

Marc A. Scorca: Obviously you're asked for advice, and not only from the people you mentor, but people who may encounter you casually at some events: young, rising administrators want to talk to the person who was the president of the Kimmel Center. What's at the core of Anne Ewers' advice?

Anne Ewers: You're gonna love this, Marc, because this actually was a statement created by you - long ago. You said "Anne, 'No' to you just means a longer time getting to 'yes'". Right? So that's it. And that works for fundraising. It works for working with singers. It works for working with a board, with a staff. It's that chance of - yes, you have your ideas and what have you, but so do they, so how do you come together? Work together? Some compromising, but everyones' pieces come into play so that you ultimately get to yes.

Marc A. Scorca: You know, I say that all the time. 'No is just the slow way to yes'. But sometimes you just have to catch your breath and keep on going. Anne, that is so funny. Anne Ewers, thank you so much for spending this time with me just to capture the incredible trajectory of your career and the wisdom gained through all of it. I know that this will be a valuable interview for lots of people. So thank you for this time, and please let's get together in person soon.