Video Published: 22 Jun 2022

An Oral History with Grethe Barrett Holby

On November 3rd, 2021, director, choreographer, and artist Grethe Barrett Holby 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 November 3rd, 2021. 
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. 

Grethe Barrett Holby, director, choreographer

In her four-decade career, opera director, choreographer, and artist Grethe Barrett Holby has established herself as a boundary-pushing creative. She was an originating cast member of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, choreographer and assistant director for the world premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s final opera, A Quiet Place. Holby also launched the groundbreaking organization American Opera Projects in 1987. Most recently Holby’s focus has been on two major projects, BOUNCE The Basketball Opera, and The Three Astronauts.

Oral History Project

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

Transcript

Marc A. Scorca: Thank you for participating in this. This is a remnant from our 50th anniversary celebration, when we had decided we wanted to create an oral history and talk to 50 people, who had really made an indelible impression on American opera. And, when I think back over the history of American opera, as I know it, you've just been really central, so I'm just delighted we could schedule this.

Grethe Barrett Holby: Well, I'm so grateful, because sometimes you get involved with these pieces and they take so long to develop and we have challenges and setbacks, and I got to look at all the stuff that I pulled out from who knows where, and I didn't realize I'd done so much.

Marc A. Scorca: Well, we are going to reach back into the recesses of your memory, because in creating some documentation of how American opera got to where it is today, it's important to look at some of the earlier years. And I start every interview by asking this question: who brought you to your first opera?

Grethe Barrett Holby: Well, in sixth grade, if you had good grades, (it had nothing to do with music apparently), they took you to the old Metropolitan Opera house, and my mother being my mother decided to buy the tickets in the last row of the last balcony of the old Met. And the stage was this big. And Don Giovanni certainly shouldn't be your first opera, because it's very long. And then finally at the end, there was smoke and I'm like, "Great, there's smoke; there's smoke." But my real memory of my first opera was my mother then decided, at some point, to bring us to Madam Butterfly, which probably also was at the old opera house. And she said, "We're going to an operetta; it's called Madam Butterfly." She came from Norway. The Nazis came in just as she was probably going to extend her education. She got put in a prison camp for over a year. Then she somehow made her way through Sweden and England and finally to the United States. So, she was, in a way, trying to enrich her cultural knowledge as well. Every year we would go to something. And she took us to Madam Butterfly, because it was going to be lots of dancing and singing because it was an operetta. And we sat there, "There's going to be dancing," and then suddenly she's killing herself.

Marc A. Scorca: Not very operetta-like for sure. It's funny, Grethe, that you mention the old Metropolitan Opera house, and I don't know whether you have any vivid memories of it, but as we've been going through these discussions, if someone has been in the old Met, I ask for any recollections they have of it. It's now so long - torn down in 1966. Do you have any strong memories of the old theater?

Grethe Barrett Holby: Mostly that it was very, very far from the stage with the kind of ticket my mother would buy.

Marc A. Scorca: You could say the same about the family circle today.

Grethe Barrett Holby: It was grand and it didn't make me fall in love with opera, but I remember it: that's for sure. And to tell you the truth, after that Madam Butterfly, I'd never - in a thousand billion years - thought that I would be involved with opera.

Marc A. Scorca: I look at your education: in architecture at MIT; your work early on as a choreographer. How did you get to opera? Here you had two back of theater experiences, one of which was a Madama-Butterfly-operetta (false advertising). How did you then make your way to opera?

Grethe Barrett Holby: While I was at MIT, Sarah Caldwell was doing her big productions, and unfortunately I never went because I was not interested in opera, and I still rue the day that I didn't go. I never wanted to be an architect. It was parental pressure. I just wanted to dance. Between high school and college, I danced professionally actually in Norway when I spent a year in Norway. Then I came to New York and I didn't want to go to college. And my parents said, "Off to school young lady," and they sent me to these tests - human engineering lab, and said that I should be an architect with a strong interest in music. And so I said, "That's choreography..." So I applied to MIT, primarily because you could start your architecture in junior year, so you didn't have to go through four years of undergraduate, and then three or four years of graduate. And I got there and I can tell you, it was the most creative place in the entire world. It turns out that the women's dorm had the most gorgeous dance studio; it had just been built and I started the dance program at MIT, and I actually choreographed my first ballet in a laser beam set to Stockhausen Mikrophonie 1. And the dancers would move through the laser beam and change the sculpture. Now, "Where do you get laser beams?" Well at MIT: to give you an idea of MIT, because it's so different than most people think about. At MIT, I went into the place where you would go to get lasers. "What color do you want?" I didn't know it came in many colors. "All right, red, thank you." "What are you going to do with mirrors? You need scientific mirrors. Go to room so-and-so." I probably signed my name somewhere, but it was just that kind of place that anyone who has a great idea...However, I still wanted to be in theater...

Marc A. Scorca: But you've gotten us to ballet: dancing and dance studio. So we've gotten to ballet, but that's still not to opera, yet.

Grethe Barrett Holby: That's right. So, I cross-registered to Harvard and took set design at the Carpenter Center and the person teaching there is Franco Colavecchia. And he'd never done an opera, but just towards the end of that year...remember because of architecture, I could draft; I could make models; I understood a ground plan. His art education in Europe was totally hands-on. He didn't draft; he could barely read a ground plan. He didn't need to. He drew the paintings of his ideas and someone else always did the graphics. So I became his assistant and sure enough, Frank Corsaro called him up out of the blue and said, "We're doing Treemonisha, the professional premier at Houston Grand Opera, and I'd like you to be the designer." So I became the assistant designer and I loved it, because guess what? It was in English and sort of like a musical, we could sit there and go (sings) "Shut up old, man. You can't fool Treemonisha; she has a level head." And you could sort of sing the lines... And I thought this was pretty cool. And we were at Miller Theater and Carmen Balthrop... Anyway, it was great. Meanwhile, by the time we were doing this, (this was 1975) I think I'd started my dance company. And everything's impoverished. You don't have money for anything; and you can barely buy the unitards; and you're up all night putting up the posters; and then you take class; and then you have the performance; and no one's getting paid. And then when I saw that I went, "Wow: sets and lights and costumes, and forces of 50 and music and stage crew. And what more can you want?" I may be a little bit out of a sync here... In 1975 also I was dancing. I went to every audition notice I saw. I was ballet-trained. I had been taking ballet during my time in Boston: Boston Ballet and Tatiana Babuskina. I got to New York. I said, "I'll just go to every audition notice I see." And the first one: we stamped and we spun and we walked, and they said, "We'd love you to join the company." I said to myself, "Beggars can't be choosers." So I ended up falling into the avant-garde...my New York premier was spinning for 40 minutes to the sound of her refrigerator. And we made all the history books. Well, the reason I tell this story is because I could spin now for 40 minutes, like a dervish. It took us a very long time to do that. But when we were lying on the floor, dizzy, trying to get back up; learn how to spin again, they would be talking about "Bobby, BAM; Queen Victoria," and I had no idea what they were talking about. And even if I said, "What's BAM?" And they went, "Brooklyn Academy of Music." I had no idea where that was: nothing. So now I could spin, and the next audition I went to was for Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach and who can spin? And who could dance? And who could sing? Not like an opera singer, but I used to play the guitar and sing folk songs. And I ended up for a year of my life in Einstein on the Beach. And once it was made on us...oh, I have to tell you one little story. We did a showcase and my parents came and remember, I have a masters in architecture at this point from MIT. And they saw it, and I got a call that night, and my father said, "It's a sick cow, and even if it were a well cow, it's a cow: you're ruining and wasting your life." But I did it anyway. And that changed my life too. Suddenly I was in the avant-garde, in the '70's, in New York City, and that was where everything was happening, artistically.

Marc A. Scorca: Let's pause for a second, because you mention Frank Corsaro and I knew Frank and I was chatting in another conversation with Chris Mattaliano about Frank Corsaro. Give us a quick sketch...working with Frank: what was Frank Corsaro like? Because he is indeed credited so much with bringing theater into opera in his work, in the '70's. What was it like working with him?

Grethe Barrett Holby: We would sit in the studio. At that point, I had a loft on Green Street; completely raw, and that's where I lived and that's where the studio was also that Franco used. And Frank would come in and Frank and Franco would just have these extraordinary discussions about the design, about what we were doing. It was probably a lesson in itself of years of school, that this was a real collaborative art. And he just loved the piece. And it was those kinds of discussions; I don't remember anything specific, but I do just remember the collaborative nature of the whole thing. And even I was brought in a little bit, because I was making the models and everything.

Marc A. Scorca: Then we hear the great legendary performances of Einstein on the Beach at The Metropolitan Opera house. Philip Glass was still driving a taxi cab at the time, but what did that event, Einstein on the Beach at The Metropolitan Opera house, mean in that moment of time in New York, in this country, in terms of traditional art form like opera meeting contemporary art?

Grethe Barrett Holby: Well, I think it's important to understand that we did a whole many-month tour to Europe. And so we'd been asked at La fenice; L'Opéra comique; Avignon Festival, and in communist countries and not-communist countries. And so, going to The Met of course, was an extraordinary experience. And I remember coming to the edge of the stage and Bob was standing there, and I went next to him and said something to him. I didn't say it loudly, but the voice just boomed all over the opera house. But when we performed, pretty much all over Europe, we would have these major standing ovations and Bob and Philip would be on the edge of the stage bowing, and we would long since be showered and out of the theater after our bows. So it was embraced in that way, all over Europe. But at The Met: Franco told me about Frank Corsaro who went back and forth. "This is a sham." He was just out in the hallway, going back and forth; all these kinds of things. I don't know if any of the downtown folk went. That's interesting. I'm not sure about that. Certainly, as far as I'm concerned, it changed the course of theater and music in the second part of the 20th century. It was definitely that and its waves going out. I still get interns that come in and go, "I was so afraid to apply to the job because you were in Einstein on the Beach." So, Einstein itself just has this aura about it. And, in fact, that aura was extraordinary.

Marc A. Scorca: Have you gone to see it since, when it's been back at BAM?

Grethe Barrett Holby: I have. And it's a very different piece now, because Andy de Groat choreographed the first one and the dancers, everyone, (except for one or two people), was a dancer and a singer. So you followed the line of each person through the whole piece. When Lucinda (Childs) took over, right after Andy's tenure, the dancers were separate; the singers were separate. It was done in a very different way, and the dances were so different because they were mechanical. So one time, I leapt off the stage in Avignon, and I ended up with my bare feet 'cause it was the dance, I ended up right down on an I-beam. So I missed one or two performances, so I sat out in the house. And before that, I didn't realize really the strength and the humanity in the piece, because everything was slow motion. And of course the dancing was sort of free. And we did different things every night; we got assigned the solo or the duet or whatever, and that was improv, but I'm a trained dancer. And I was one of the few really trained dancers in the piece. In fact, I was known as the 'trained member of the avant-garde' and whenever Jerry Robbins would be in the audience, he'd run into the dressing room, "Grethe, Grethe: Jerry's in the audience." That meant - do your leaps... The reason I bring all that up is: when I sat out in the audience, because I really didn't at that point think much of the dances, right? And I sat there and I went, "Oh my God, it's called The Field." It's called The Field because all these mechanized robots that are everything, going in to space; taking their cups of coffee in the office, all this stuff. Suddenly you saw humanity in The Field. And there were, I think, two or three fields during the five hours. And I went, "This is brilliant." And suddenly I loved doing that dance and it was so humane and, from my point of view, that got lost in the subsequent productions.

Marc A. Scorca: How very interesting to be a part of that and to know the piece so well. As I look over all of your early work and you really studied informally, if you will, by working with Nat Merrill, Cynthia Auerbach, Bliss Hebert: these were people who were really populating the opera productions of the day. Nat, who of course had been at The Met, but went and founded Opera Colorado. Cynthia Auerbach, who I remember from my days at City Opera and was very important at Chautauqua. Bliss Hebert: he and Allen Charles Klein, with like 200 opera productions between them. This must've been really important for you in your artistic development, and even your work as director to study with these people and work with them.

Grethe Barrett Holby: I believe that I had my National Opera Institute grant in stage direction before Houston, because then I was the resident choreographer and assistant director of the Houston Grand Opera for the prior year: that was 82/83. I made my directing debut actually with Lo speziale at Wolf Trap right before I went to Houston. But the incredible thing about Houston was, that because I wasn't just the assistant, but I was also the choreographer. I got to really work with all these directors, incredible directors. Generally, I would say that most opera houses: the season is the star singers. But that year, the season was all the star directors from all over the world, and it was extraordinary and I got to work with each of them and see what they did. And, in fact, I don't know if Cynthia was there, but Rhoda Levine was there and maybe both of them were there as well, which was nice that there was some women directors, because there weren't many. Yes, that was definitely my education in opera.

Marc A. Scorca: And with whom was your NOI apprenticeship?

Grethe Barrett Holby: Both Cynthia and Rhoda. With Rhoda, we did Where the Wild Things Are in Brussels, which if you remember - Oliver Knussen hadn't finished the music, so she got the credit for being the premier director. So we did the entire second act because it was Maurice Huisman's swan song. He was going out with this huge, wonderful premier, and people were coming in from all over the world to see Where the Wild Things Are and the music wasn't done.

Marc A. Scorca: In its finished form, a marvelous piece. And so brilliantly designed of course, by Maurice Sendak in that iconic production. So that means that with the NOI apprenticeship in such a good program, you got to work for a year with two directors, assisting them in what kinds of productions they did, whether it was inherited repertoire or new pieces. So a real opportunity to observe and assist.

Grethe Barrett Holby: And I remember I'd never done a rehearsal schedule, and I really didn't how it was done. So I asked one of the women (Cynthia or Rhoda), "Do you think I could come with you, while you make your rehearsal schedule?" And she looked at me and said, "I'm sorry but I wouldn't be able to do it with you there." And now I understand, because if anyone ever talks to me doing my rehearsal schedule, it's like the biggest, amazing puzzle, so you don't waste anyone's time, because opera is different than theater. You make sure that they have only a certain number of hours, et cetera. It was an extraordinary year.

Marc A. Scorca: Really remarkable. So there you are in the middle of the 1980's, and you've had this really varied experience. Moving forward, it was in 1987 that you started American Opera Projects.

Grethe Barrett Holby: I'm sorry, but before that was A Quiet Place/Trouble in Tahiti: 84/85. This was in Houston, La Scala, Kennedy Center with Leonard Bernstein. You asked about Frank Corsaro before, but I have to say that I learned more working with Leonard Bernstein. It was like a whole masters in how to work in with theater.

Marc A. Scorca: Say more about that; what was so special about what you gleaned from him, what he imparted to you?

Grethe Barrett Holby: Well, one thing is: he knew everyone's name down to the lowliest assistant stage manager - everybody's name. One time we were sitting in a lighting rehearsal...I think it was at La Scala. And he had all his orchestrators in the back, always working; making it better, making it better, but we were doing the lighting and suddenly he comes and goes, "That light cue is totally wrong." It's in the garden towards the end, "That lights totally wrong." And the lighting designer said, "What do you mean, it's wrong?" And he didn't tell him how to do it; he told him through what had to be expressed. And he said, "This is the one moment in this piece where everything crystallizes and everyone's together. And then it breaks and shatters again. And it's been broken from the beginning, right from the opening scene in the funeral. And this time it's clear; it's set in stone." And he just described it in such a way. And I remember at one point earlier in the year when I was in Houston, there was a lighting cue and I was sitting there 'cause the assistant director often does all the lighting cues with the lighting designer. And I guess I wasn't paying attention, because the lighting designer was so proud of this. He said, "Look, look, look. I've just done this new cue and it's great." And I said, "Oh, I loved the old lighting cue." And not even saying "Don't you understand what I did?" he said "OK" - and the old lighting cue was (back) in there. So, that's not the way to handle things.

Marc A. Scorca: Let's move forward then. So, you started American Opera Projects in 1987, and you've had this incredible experience over 10 years, but in starting the company, you had to have had a sense that the field needed something; that the field wasn't perhaps exploring new opera as much as it should be, or not in the style that spoke to you. What motivated the creation of American Opera Projects?

Grethe Barrett Holby: Well, there were two things. One is: I started directing the golden oldies (which are great), but I was flying from one to the next, Traviata, Hoffman, whatever. And Faust. Faust was my big grand opera debut. And then I did quite a few Faust’s. And finally I said, "Where's the new stuff?" And someone turned to me and said, "But you've done the new stuff," because I'd done Einstein; I'd done Quiet Place; I'd done Vincent Persichetti's The Sybil; I'd done Gian Carlo Menotti's Bride from Pluto, and some others too. And 'I'd done the new stuff'. And I went "Really?" And then at the same time, before 87/88, when I started AOP, I worked with Glenn Branca, and I worked with Robert Longo on their new sort-of opera projects, because suddenly after Einstein, everyone downtown in the Soho avant-garde were interested in opera, and who would they come to? They'd come to me and I had my loft down there and they'd come to me and say, "Well, what do we do? And I'd say, "Let's do this, this, this." And so it was really those two experiences that said that we really need a place where people can come and just try; not write a whole opera, because what are you going to do? Write a whole opera that's no good and throw it away? We'd just do 15 minute operas; or we just come in and work with a singer. And we had Wednesdays at seven where they could show just their aria that they worked with. And, this was at the very, very beginning of Steven Osgood's tenure. He was just assistant to someone; he was learning how to conduct and then Charles Jarden was on the board from the beginning, because I also knew him. I don't think I'd ever met you Marc, but during my Faust...that was right after I got out of Houston for Opera Company of Philadelphia...I understand you were in the box office perhaps or something like that? Charles was Margaret Everett's assistant. Right? I came in at the last minute, Franco was the designer. He said, Grethe. Grethe knows Faust. And I that's a whole other story. So at any rate, I was catching up. I was serving Christmas dinner or something, and I got this call. "Can you come down and direct this piece?" "I'm like, "Yeah."

Marc A. Scorca: And what's so interesting, is that the way people said, "Oh, you've done new work," as if you go through a phase of doing new work in order to then be fully ready to just do the inherited repertoire. So that statement implies that it's just something the young people go through before you get onto the main course.

Grethe Barrett Holby: I guess so. So my friends and colleagues down in the Soho avant-garde would come to me. And I just thought, there has to be an organization or a company. Of course I knew Charles and in the winter he would be up in his townhouse in New York working for Santa Fe Opera, and so we would meet and have lunch and I'd tell him my ideas and he'd come with some ideas. And every now and then, if he was free, he would come in and help cast because between the two of us, we had a lot of main opera house experience, and we'd get incredible singers, but he wasn't there most of the time, and it wasn't really until 1995, he said, "Grethe, if you're ready for me, I'm ready; I'm putting down my bags and I'm with you." We did a lot of good work with him just on the board, and we also had Richard Peasley; we had Ed Korn, and then Linda Golding. But when he came, he was a real producer. He knew how to produce. He knew how to produce creatively. It was the most creative producer. And it was an incredible partnership for many years. And so AOP did a lot of good work before he (made his) 'bring his bags in' comment, but after he came, it really grew into a powerhouse.

Marc A. Scorca: I'm just going to take a pause for one second, because you mentioned Ed Korn's name, and Ed was such a force in American opera in the '70's and early '80's. Ed hired me at the Opera Company of Philadelphia. And of course, you worked for him doing the Faust when Charles was Margaret's assistant, and Ed was still the head of the company. And then Ed went off to the NEA, where he was the head of the opera and music theater program. He'd been an assistant manager at The Met, and one of those visionaries who thought American opera needed to be different than what we were seeing at the time. How did you work with Ed?

Grethe Barrett Holby: I believe he was at Wolf Trap, because I think he was the one who first hired me for Wolf Trap. I didn't realize he was part of Opera Company of Philadelphia when I was there; I just knew Margaret Everett. But he also went to Minnesota Opera and he hired me to open the Ordway with Animalen, this Swedish new opera. And I just found him, no matter when I would call him, he'd always be able to answer the phone and give some advice. I'm thinking of this program: 1995, during the time AOP need(ed) to make some family operas for wider audiences, more on the Nutcracker model, with major professionals and major music, but for family audiences. And he went, "Family Opera Initiative." He came up with that. He just was so supportive of me and my career. I'm so sorry he left. In fact, he married a Chinese woman, and they were going on a boat trip down the Yangtze River, the last time before they built the dam. They invited me to go; didn't go. And I cannot believe that I didn't go.

Marc A. Scorca: Those missed opportunities. Ed was a real visionary for American opera back in those days. A remarkable, quixotic man, but someone I wish we could interview today for our oral history series, because he did so much. So, Family Opera Initiative. So, the name, at least: your idea - a name that came from Ed Korn. What motivated the creation of Family Opera Initiative? The need for more opera that will speak to and engage a younger audience?

Grethe Barrett Holby: Well, by this time, 1995, I guess I have three children by then. I would go as a parent. They went to private school in New York and at 92nd street Y, you go to the cocktail parties and everyone's going, "Oh, business; oh, lawyer; I'm a doctor; I'm a this..." And they turned to me and said, "Do you work?" "Well, I'm an opera director," and they go, "Oh, isn't that nice?" And then they turn and keep talking to the other people. And I thought, "It's not them; that's not their problem. These are educated people. We don't have a Nutcracker for opera. We don't have something that's a ritual that everyone wants to go to every year. And it's not just for kids, it's for everybody." And it brings people in, even if they don't go to another ballet all year, and then orchestras have Peter and the Wolf, which I also always played and read for my kids. And we've got to make this for opera. So actually, my goal was to make The Nutcracker for opera. And in fact, even the ETA Hoffmann story. So then, my youngest son was actually in The Nutcracker. And I had always gone to The Nutcracker. In fact, it was my husband and my first date. But being backstage, and seeing what these kids really learn and they're eight, nine, ten year-olds, and if they get late, they're out. And if they don't know their part, they're out and they're onstage with these incredible performers, these professionals, and I remember Ansel (Ansel Elgort's my son), and he got to be a soldier one year, and he had his little red things (she demonstrates on his cheeks). He's probably the only boy who was a soldier ever, but they needed someone tall and he was outside the State Theater. And he goes, "Mom, mom, mom: now I know what I wanna do for the rest of my life." It was just such an experience, and such an experience to be backstage. And so Animal Tales has a children's chorus and Fireworks has a children's chorus, so does Three Astronauts. (That's not done). But Bounce, you have children; I should say youth, 'cause it's not just for little kids. We have basketball players; they can either be really professional basketball players, or they can be the basketball league in the community where we perform, and their experience back and forth is extraordinary.

Marc A. Scorca: Just a great vision. And I love how your insight is rooted in The Nutcracker experience of your son. I notice in reading the extraordinary background material on all of your work, that long before there was an OPERA America program, thanks to the Toulmin Foundation, to award opera grants to women composers, you were working with Kitty Brazelton, Paula Kimper, Lisa Bielawa...Did you have a specific intent to work with women composers? Or were you just going after the good talent?

Grethe Barrett Holby: Going after the good talent. So my daughter's a ski racer, so every weekend, I'd be in the car going up and they'd finally go to sleep. And then I just put in all the CD's, that had been sent to me and frankly, it's dark. It was night time. I would just put in the CD's and go, "That one's really good," and put that in that pile and keep driving, 'cause it's five-hour drive. And maybe there's something to say that may be from a woman's point of view: a woman's music speaks more, or the stories they've chosen or whatever. I don't know what it was, but it's the same thing with people that I've hired to be part of the company. I just get a feeling about them. It would be just a resume and for a very, very, very long time had diverse casts and diverse staffs and colleagues and it just has to do with what I like.

Marc A. Scorca: So your career has been distributed in some ratio across the inherited repertoire: largely 19th century European. You've also done works of the American canon: some of the more traditional, now 50 year old American opera - 60 year old American operas, and of course new work. Do you see all of those threads intersecting in a healthy way for an opera diet? Do you still enjoy the inherited repertoire? Do you still enjoy the canonic American works? Do those still have a place in your life, even though you're not directing those today?

Grethe Barrett Holby: I'd like to be but: no, I still have my Met subscription and I go; I love grand opera. It's hard to find people who want to come with you, still. And I feel as though with this new work that I'm doing also, part of it is not just new story and a new composer, but we should be using more American music, even contemporary American music. You think of when we worked at La Scala, during the dress rehearsal, everyone's family who worked at La Scala got tickets. So the place was jam-packed of all the wives and kids of the stage manager and the guys in the flies and the stagehands and the ushers and everybody. And they all knew the music, because guess what? They also knew all the tunes. It spoke to them. People back in the day actually sang them on the street. They knew if the singer wasn't doing a good job, this is dress rehearsal; they booed. I feel as though we're not really using enough current American music and that's what we've really tried to do in Bounce.

Marc A. Scorca: It's hard to describe what current American music is because in a way, even if we roll the clock back, A Quiet Place is musically so different from Einstein on the Beach, and today new American opera tends to be somewhat more rooted in operatic traditions than some of the works that broke the mold back in the '70's and '80's. Variety is a good thing. Are you happy with the state of American opera today, or if you could write a prescription for it, (to make it healthier, more vibrant) what do you feel about the progress that has been made and what needs to happen still?

Grethe Barrett Holby: I think it's great that this much new work is being done. I still feel though that an end, and even when working on something like Bounce, or some of the pieces that have more of a wider palette of American music, from jazz and hip hop and rock and whatever, I want a great singer. There's a big difference with an opera singer, especially when they cannot sing/use their voice in a 19th or 20th century way. And so for instance, the lead of Bounce, up until recently when he aged out and changed his life: he was singing the king in Aida. But when he sang as this basketball guy, who's been shot and is going through trauma, he didn't sing it like it was 19th century or early 20th century, he sang it like you would have, if you grew up in a neighborhood which played a lot of basketball, whether it be Harlem or somewhere in Brooklyn or whatever, and he sang it that way, but you knew that there was something more in that voice. I think why I always say I'm an opera director and not a director is that I've actually never directed, (except for something like Carousel) a play, because my mode of expression is not verbal. And the thing about opera is that it's the music still has to convey the story and the emotion and touch the soul. It's not like you foister up what's going on with a wonderful song. I love musicals, but to have someone like that sing, and I know one time when we were rehearsing, it was with all the basketball players and he has to play basketball too, and he had to learn how to dunk, and they were teaching him how to really dunk and how to really play, and finally they say, "Come on, you haven't sung for us." And we were just on a break and he just started singing a cappella songs from Bounce and they're going like (jaw drops), but he wasn't singing it (AWWW: mimics caricature of opera singing); he was just singing it. One of the things he could do also was that: it transposes up to the next key; into the next key, and you start to subconsciously don't expect him to be able to keep going, but he can keep going. Or, the second lead, (sings excerpt) and the guy who created that piece last year won The Met auditions, and that's sort of like the dunk of opera, or the high note of basketball. And so I still want and seek really trained voices. But I still think you could still do the rap and the hip and put those all in between, as long as you know that you're still working in opera, though sometimes we have to sort of let that go. But the kids think it's cool. We were out in East Flatbush, which is where a huge majority of the shootings happen. In fact, we didn't know it, but on the basketball court that we performed on, there had just been a shooting the year before. And, in fact, when Chidi was unloading the truck (that's my colleague, Chidi Ozieh) to do the showcase performances out there on a beautiful court, he called me up, I was doing notes and he said, "Grethe, they say that they're going to shoot me if I unload the truck," and thank goodness for my incredible community partners, and Bounce does have incredible community partners. And I had everybody's cell phone and I called up Jumaane Williams who's now public advocate, but at that point was the councilman out there. I go, "Jumaane: they say he's going to shoot Chidi if he unloads the truck," and he said, "Why do you think that I introduced you to Shanduke from GMAC (Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes); they were our main, and still are actually our main community partner. So I call Shanduke and (the response is) "Oh, don't worry, you just send over some VI's, and I knew what VI's were because some of my guys had to leave the show because they had been promoted to a VI, which is a violence interrupter. They sent over the two Vi's; they said, "You guys play on that side of the court; you want to live on that side court. When you're finished, you'll go over there, and you guys are going to play on that side of the court." And it was done. Of course, if I had said that, that would not have happened.

Marc A. Scorca: How wonderful.

Grethe Barrett Holby: Why I brought that up was because: everyone loved the music and the partners in Harlem say, "It's so nice to have music that's different and not violent music, because some people are saying no, you've got to change Bounce because it's not the real kind of rap and da-ra-ra.” And I say, "No, we're telling a story here, and nobody walks away. Everybody comes and stays. Outside the basketball court, they don't have to stay. It speaks to people and it speaks to people because the music somehow touches them. And of course, so does the story. So it has to be a good story.”

Marc A. Scorca: Well, Grethe: thank you. Thank you for taking this time with me today to capture not only your current vision for opera, which you articulate so well, but also to get a picture of that creative cauldron, that was part of your early years, working with some masters; the NOI apprenticeship; everything from traditional repertoire to the iconic Einstein on the Beach. It's wonderful to hear all of the forces that shaped you as an artist and producer, and that then informs the work that you do today. I think it's this 50 year story that we're trying to capture that matters so much, to let everybody know the road that's been traveled. So thank you for spending this time and for all that you do. We wish you such success going forward and can't wait to follow your work.

Grethe Barrett Holby: No, thank you. But I have to say one thing about you: remember way back when you were just really building OPERA America and you called and said, "We should have a meeting of people doing this kind of indie work," and you came down and we had that meeting in Chinatown at the Holiday Inn. So you're amazing, because you got it right off the bat and you supported this idea and I'm very grateful.