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Video Published: 30 Sep 2022

An Oral History with Jane Hill

On July 28th, 2021, arts administrator Jane Hill 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 July 28th, 2021. 
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. 

Jane Hill, arts administrator

Jane Hill was the executive director of The Sacramento Philharmonic from 2002 until retirement in 2007. Before that, she was executive director of Opera Omaha, where she eliminated a significant deficit, established an infrastructure, developed professional staff, and restored relations with many community entities. She was also the co-founder and executive director of Dell’Arte International, a theater company and training program. Ms. Hill has had a lifelong commitment to addressing the needs of the underrepresented through the arts, and she has served on the boards of the Association of California Symphony Orchestras, OPERA America, and the Bemis Center. In 2007 she started artSMART, a consulting business for nonprofit organizations, and she’s currently Associate Producer for Bird of the Inner Eye, a new chamber opera by Gina Leishman and libretto by Joan Schirle.

Oral History Project

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


Marc A. Scorca: Jane, let me thank you for being a part of our 50th anniversary celebration. As you can imagine, rather stunted back in 2020, and it was our intention to talk to 50 people who helped create opera in America over the last half century. And it's just so great to talk to you and to include you in this set of discussions with people who have really made an indelible mark on the opera industry. You're one of them. Thanks for being here. Jane, who brought you to your first opera?

Jane Hill: A college friend of mine who was going to (then) Carnegie Tech on the G.I. Bill[1], and he loved opera and he took me to my first production ever at the old Met. And I'm trying to remember what it was. The main thing I remember is the soprano lying upside down on a flight of stairs and singing; as a theater student, that impressed me. And then I think he later took me to a Tristan and Isolde...I don't know, but I remember the first performer I saw, I just thought, "Oh my God." And it was Sam Ramey, whom, many years later we brought to Opera Omaha to do his Date with the Devil concert. So you know: those things were great.

Marc A. Scorca: And I know that your background, professionally is rooted in theater before becoming rooted in opera. So as a person studying/training in theater, what was it like to go to your first opera?

Jane Hill: It was kind of overwhelming and also difficult to grasp, theatrically because - I think this was quite an old-fashioned production - the way that the singers reacted as actors was very hard for me to grasp. They were very static, (except for...I wish I could remember who that was who was singing upside down), and it was not staged in any kind of adventurous way. I mean, compared to the operas and standards that I'm seeing today, the productions that really break, including some theatrical traditions. So I would say as a theater student, I thought, "Maybe I'd like to see some more of these," but I wasn't captured. I was impressed, but not captured.

Marc A. Scorca: And was it Sam Ramey and his performance that first captured you, or woke in you the theatrical possibilities of opera?

Jane Hill: Particularly for singers as singing actors, because it wasn't static and then, there's also the fact that he's so gorgeous - that didn't hurt - but I began to see him as an actor, not just a singer. So that made me more receptive to the field. Although I didn't really know anything much about opera before I began running an opera company.

Marc A. Scorca: I know; and that may be an advantage we'll talk about. So, how is it that you made it from a career in theater into opera? How did that come to be?

Jane Hill: It was something of an accident because I had gone to Omaha to finish writing a play script of mine; a play that was going to be done in Columbus, Ohio later that year. And I had gone to Omaha to advise an experimental theater company there on how to get their 20 year book marketed. And then I was working on this play and I realized, (and I had taken a year off from Dell'Arte, which is my theater company), I'm not used to working alone. I miss being part of a team. So I started looking for a part-time job. And when I looked, the Omaha Symphony, the Omaha Ballet and Opera Omaha, were all looking for people. I couldn't get an interview with the symphony. I was interviewed at the ballet and they didn't hire me, thankfully, because two weeks later they went bankrupt. So I went to Opera Omaha as a development associate, thinking, "This is great." You know, that's not a job you have to take home with you. So I got brought in then, but I did not understand the situation of the company at the time I joined it.

Marc A. Scorca: Right. And, just a feather in your cap professionally as having really put Opera Omaha into good sound financial shape, so that it's thriving today. Once you got involved in opera, did you see possibilities for this multi-media art form and what it could be, that you had never imagined before?

Jane Hill: Absolutely. My specialty in theater was melodrama, and not the joking melodrama: serious melodrama, Deon Bussaco and the great writers of the 19th century and the great theoreticians. So I though this will just be melodrama with music. And then when I started, it was a year they were doing Fidelio, Pirates of Penzance and Requiem Variations, so there were three distinctly different styles. So that kind of made me think, "Let's see what can happen here." And then Hal France was hired - I'm trying to remember the point at which I transferred from being a development associate with nothing to take home to an interim executive director, with everything to take home - (and Hal was hired) as artistic director. And we had a great partnership, because in addition to being a wonderful conductor, he's an amazing theatrical mind. I would go to his rehearsals with singers and think, "My God, he's an acting coach," as he walked them through musical problems. And I was so impressed. And so I knew that we had this kind of affinity for whatever you wanted to call this huge extravagant version of theater. That it could be many things: fantastical and intimate and I loved that about it. I never chose any of the operas for the season, but there was lots of discussions that I participated in. So that was wonderful when I began to get my mind engaged in something besides the money.

Marc A. Scorca: You've also worked in the symphony field and that has been fairly recent. So you've worked in theater; worked in opera and worked in symphony, and I think a lot of people will oversimplify to think that all performing arts organizations are the same; that all of the performing arts are fundamentally the same. And of course in many ways, they are similar. But, how would you describe the differences between theater, opera, symphony - not as art form so much - as businesses and are there some advantages in the opera field that you discovered?

Jane Hill: Let me think about that, because one of the things that put me off opera initially was it was extraordinarily hierarchical. And I had come from a theater collective. So the idea that the people on my staff would not see the budget reports; knew that they were about to lose their jobs because the company was going to be bankrupt, and yet they had no idea how to help because they didn't have any information. And I jokingly say that I ran the company like a welfare mother. I got everybody around the table and said, "Everything I'm going to tell you is confidential, but you must know this, if you're going to participate." And I passed a sheet of paper around and I said, "There's two things we have to do. We have to raise more money and we have to cut expenses." But I said, "That's what you always do in the arts. Those are your two major jobs in the arts, no matter. So do it a little more seriously. So everybody write down on this piece of paper we're passing around, three ways to save money and three ways to make money." And they came up with things, everything from getting rid of the postage meter...really simple, but important things. I often say I got my Masters in Management at Opera Omaha because I realized how important it was for people to feel engaged. And the thing is in opera, it's so complex and there are so many different places you can get people engaged. And I came to love that about it. And I tried to find out from my staff members, "What's your life like? What interests you? What do you care about?" Because I could quickly say, "Well, here's a way to get interested in that in opera." I taught an opera class at a drug rehab center one season, because a sponsor asked me to give them 20 tickets. And I said, "I'm not giving them tickets unless they take me." So I went and did preparation, 'cause I had some bad experiences with giving tickets to people in homeless shelters and everything. And all it was for them at the Orpheum Theater was another place to feel they didn't belong. And I did not want that to happen to these people. So I took them and it was Otello and I had told them the story about this military man who married a young girl and everybody resented him. And his best friend was his worst enemy, and they were nodding. Yeah; we know this story. I did a backstage tour with them first, so they could see what it looked like and sounded like back there. And I gave them good seats, cause I never believe in bringing first timers to the peanut gallery. And they saw the difference between what they saw from the audience, and what they saw backstage. And the next morning, I got a call from the center director and I thought, "Oh my God. Somebody ran away; somebody got drunk or loaded or something." And he said, "They had a great time. They want you to come back. They have a lot of questions now." And then they saw all the rest of the operas in that season. And I had an experience that I think has forever colored my life in the arts. A man who rarely said anything, raised his hand in the last session, and he said, "I have always said to myself, my community is my cellmate, my gang members, my probation officer, my drug provider, and I looked around there and I said to myself, Bob: there's a whole new community waiting for you when you get out of here." To me, I thought there is a life that makes a life in the arts worthwhile.

Marc A. Scorca: I noticed that in your biographical materials, there is a career-long dedication on your part to serving the people who are underrepresented in opera, probably in theater and in symphony as well. They may be well-served by other cultural traditions, other cultural institutions, but in our institutions, they are very underrepresented. And you have really had a lifelong commitment to including people who aren't normally in the theater. What is it that motivated that commitment? And this is years before people were talking about the civic practices we are today.

Jane Hill: Well, it was probably my mother. She worked at a Republican polling site and cast socialist votes when everybody in their little town was looking around like, "Who is that?" So my mother had a very strong sense of justice and she really imbued that in me and in our little town, which was a little mining town south of Pittsburgh, there were the white hierarchical people who ran the town. There were the Italians who worked in the mines and then there was a scattering of African Americans. And there was no interaction between those groups and that bothered my mother. And it bothered my mother to the extent that she insisted that a third grade African American girl in my class, we invited to my birthday party. And I said, "Well, I know her, but I don't really know her well," and my mother said, "Invite her. She needs to know she belongs too." And I think that made me have a kind of awareness that I had not had before of who's who we are, and who are the others. And, especially in my work with boards. They're always telling you they want to diversify, and you look around and there's the same faces at the table. Maybe a few more women now than there used to be, but I always challenged them to say, you cannot represent for people. People have to be on this board, so you understand their value is their point of view; what they feel that they need to represent them. And so that was part of it. And then my theater company worked a lot in native American legends. A lot of the plays were based on that. They coined the phrase 'Theater of Place.' Well Theater of Place in Humboldt County means theater, where they were many people here before you were, and that has to be acknowledged. Now we do that acknowledgement formally and we say at the beginning of meetings and everything, and that's nice, but I'm still saying, "How do we get the people at the table? How do we do that?”

Marc A. Scorca: Do you feel that, from your early years in the performing arts, our industry has made progress or do you feel the barrier still exists? The progress has been too slow? How do you react to where we've come?

Jane Hill: But one of the things that opera has always bragged about is casting; open casting where you judge only the voice and you don't look at the body or the skin color or any of those things. And that has probably been a fair statement over the years, except you get to that primary thing that is so important that none of us are good at, which is access. How do you get those singers onto the stage, if you are not able to get them into training programs; if you're not able to enable them to audition? And it's true for theater too, and then you talk about the whole management area and what I believe is the failed non-profit model. Foundations keep telling us this is a failed model, and yet they insist that that's what we are, in order to apply for any funding help. So I think access is a big missing piece. And I also think that we are better at it onstage, where we tend to brag about it, in theater too, than we are at providing the access steps to get somebody there, particularly on the management side. I was very proud this year, that one of my high school students from 30 years ago in Omaha, who happened to be an African American young woman, (and I didn't even think about that when I brought her on staff, I just thought she was smart and shy, and we could show her some things about operating in this field, because she loved music)...she ran for city council this year. And I was so proud of that. I thought, "This is how you bring people through the steps."

Marc A. Scorca: Over the years you have started and saved a number of arts organizations. Are there common threads to the ailments that have made organizations fragile and that you've had to fix?

Jane Hill: I go back to the board and the non-profit model: the board is responsible for the financial health of the organization. And if they do not get accurate representation and interpretation of that, or if they get it and don't understand it, and don't realize that they need to know about this because it's their responsibility. I think that's where a lot of it comes: a reluctance to see, accept the truth and acknowledge your role in fixing whatever it is that's wrong. We do all of this performance evaluation and we evaluate people against their job descriptions, but we don't say things like "If you had one thing that could be done to improve this organization, what would it be?" Get people's creativity engaged. And board members very often don't want to hear from staff, or they only want to hear good news. I'd love to see every board get a good news report and a bad news report every month. Then they'd be alert or safety free and in danger. Let them know and be sure that the people who are on that board embrace that role.

Marc A. Scorca: I like that: a good news report and a bad news report. Through your work, Jane, were there mentors of yours or role models who may not have known they were role models, but still from whom you absorbed lessons?

Jane Hill: When I was a single mother in New York City working for a Celanese Fibers company, the woman who became my boss there was absolutely an inspiration, because she's the one who said, "You're going to be discriminated against." And sure enough, in about a year, I got offered a job as assistant to the marketing director and they offered me a salary that was $10,000 less than the man I was replacing. And Virginia said, "Don't take that job." I said, "But I need a job." She said, "They need to understand that you need to be paid the same." And so I said, "I don't understand why my salary is so much less." And they said, "He has a family to support." "Well, hello. I have a family to support. I'm a single mother. I got to pay for childcare." And that was the other thing (that) annoyed me - my boss could deduct the cost of his secretary. I couldn't deduct the cost of my childcare, so I think that's where I began to understand the discrepancies that existed. And in the theater, my first role model was my high school theater teacher who was just fabulous. She ended up in that high school because she had been a professional dancer in New York. And she was the most glamorous thing you'd ever seen in this little mining town. And she was there because her elderly father was sick and she needed to be nearby. So she came to teach drama at our high school. And, oh my God, pretty soon I was sitting behind her at every rehearsal and listening to what she had to say. And she was very strict. Oh my God, you better follow her rules and regulations. And so that was a big, important thing to me about what professionalism really means; what the difference between a professional and an amateur (is). And then in the opera field...Well, once I got to OPERA America...When you asked me to be on the board at OPERA America, and I said to you, "Marc, I don't know anything about opera." And you said, "Good. That's why we want you, you'll think out of the box." And I came onto that board and instantly everybody on that board was my mentor. And I didn't have to pretend to know things, I didn't know, including how to pronounce things. You know, I learned that it wasn't 'Worth-her!' But we'd go to productions during the conference times and I'd walk with somebody and start asking questions, and they start answering. And then when I got back to my office, if something came up I wasn't sure about, I had a whole group of people I could call and say, "What do you think about this? Do you have any experience about this?" And they were so generous and so welcoming, and so non-snobbish that they were my mentors. Plus a couple of people on my board like Brett Simon and Dick Holland who were major donors, but who also really took me under their wing. And we didn't always agree about everything, but I could have an open discussion with them and say, "I don't see why it has to be like that. Couldn't we do this instead?"

Marc A. Scorca: It's interesting to hear you continue to espouse values of transparency, and clearly pushing back against accepted norms: does it have to be? That outside the box thinking and not taking old inherited wisdom as truth, but just being willing to look at it. And that's why we so wanted you on the board in those days, because you were just willing to examine everything.

Jane Hill: And ask a lot of questions. The other thing is that I came to understand and appreciate was: what is this thing called opera? Why should everybody enjoy it? Not to improve their cultural image, but what is in the art form itself, that people should be open to considering? When I was raising money, I would go into somebody's office and say, "Here's why I think you should come and try this, but I want you to support us, but I promise you, if you give me a contribution, I'll never make you go to the opera." And for some of them, that prompted a contribution. But the big thing is, I used to ask people, "Do you like country music?" A lot of people said "Yeah." I said, "It's the same plot; it's the same stuff." The same thing with my students at the rehab center. You know these behaviors. You know these people. You know these stories and lots of times, you know how the story ends, but you don't know how heartbreaking the process is to get there. I'm working on a new chamber opera now that's been funded by an OPERA America women composers grants. And it was postponed last year because of the pandemic and I'm working on it and I'm still asking myself why do we want our audiences to see this? What does this have to say to us that's important for these times? And so I continue to get drawn in to opera. And I'd like to see good productions, always. I'm not interested in going to something poorly done, unless there's a good reason why it has to be great.

Marc A. Scorca: And Jane, you've brought up two themes that I did want to chat with you about. One is the theme of being a woman leader, and another underrepresented population in the leadership ranks of opera companies is women. There are so few women general directors, certainly of the big companies. They're more well-represented in the smaller companies, but you were one of a few women who were general directors of important regional opera companies. And of course you started your own theater work in the theater world and worked in the symphony world. Have you felt any improvement over time in the treatments and the respect given to women leaders in our field?

Jane Hill: Well, yes I have, but OPERA America has done a great deal with the Women's Opera Network and trying to take action - not just espouse theory - but to take action to the people in those positions. I was never the general director. I was only the executive director. I would not take the title general director, because in my mind that implied a musical knowledge that I did not have. And Hal France was my artistic director, and I may have played a lot of the same roles that a general director does, but not the creative side. I stayed away from that because I knew I wasn't educated enough to do it. But I think one of the things I'm seeing, and I went through a lot of the productions that we did in the years I was there just to look at: Who was the conductor? Who was the director? And Hal was very interested in finding and encouraging women composers; women directors; women conductors. And we had - not a lot of them, but we had a few of them. And it was because he knew who they were out there, 'cause he traveled around the country and conducting, and (if) he spotted somebody, he would get them involved. When the Libby Larsen project happened, he was particularly enthused, not just because he liked her work, but because this was an important female composer that we needed to support. So I think there have been changes for the better and probably in casting, it has gotten more transparent but, you know, I'm very uncomfortable - and I went through this myself, 'cause we lost two singers for our chamber opera because of the pandemic delay, and one of them had happened to be an African American singer who was local and we wanted to replace her and we agonized over, "Can we say that?" Can we say that we are looking for a BIPOC soprano?” And ultimately in some areas, I did do that. But it made me uncomfortable, because it seemed like that's another kind of discrimination and maybe we just need to say and mean it: we celebrate open casting and open management and encourage all kinds of people to join and to be part of it and to apply. But it's not a comfortable time in that respect.

Marc A. Scorca: I also wanted to ask you about the trajectory of new opera, because even though you haven't had a lifetime in opera, Opera Omaha certainly has a history of doing new opera, but it's a spotty one: a lot in one year and then near bankruptcy in the next year. And then, back to traditional work and then another festival, because those were quite remarkable in those days. Have you seen a progress toward working with composers and librettists of today to create an American opera repertoire that is interwoven into the normal business of an opera company? Are you happy with the progress?

Jane Hill: I am happy with the progress. I am particularly admiring of what Roger Weitz is doing at Opera Omaha. I think the ONE festival is terrific. His work with James Darrah is marvelous. And I saw something that was a co-production with Tri-Cities Opera that was very unusual and interesting.

Marc A. Scorca: The composer Kamala Sankaram doing the virtual reality piece, Miranda.

Jane Hill: Right. And I didn't even know that Opera Omaha was involved in that, but I can see... That's Roger's thinking. Roger will go to the newest corner he can find, and find out how he can incorporate it. But the problem is, there is very little funding that is specifically aimed at the development of new works, because everybody wants to develop a success, and that is a bad goal; it's a dangerous goal. Can we sell tickets to these? Well, sometimes I think we can persuade the public, more easily than we can persuade our donors and the people who fund these works. So I would like to see more open-ended opportunity for new works, with no restrictions except (to) write a true report at the end and tell us what happened. A true report.

Marc A. Scorca: As we come to the end of our time together today, just to look in the future scope. Here you have had an impact on creating a healthy opera company out of one that was deeply troubled. What do you wish for the next five or ten years coming out of COVID, looking to the future of opera in Omaha; opera in America? What do you wish for the next few years?

Jane Hill: One of the problems we have and one of the problems I struggled with at Opera Omaha was the size of the venue, and the cost of the venue. And I talked to Fred Simon in the years before he died, that Omaha really needed a 1200 to 1800 seat theater that was affordable; that could be used for opera productions. I tried to take things to other venues, to the little Rose Theater, which is like 300 seats. You got to do a lot of performances there to cover your costs. So I would wish for more embracing of unusual venues, and Long Beach has done a fabulous job of that. I went there years ago as an NEA site evaluator, and I saw a couple of productions, one in an Olympic swimming pool. I was prepared for it to be kitschy, but I wasn't prepared for it to be great, which it was.

Marc A. Scorca: It was gorgeous. Ricky Ian Gordon's Orpheus and Euridice.

Jane Hill: It was so wonderful and so imaginative. And I see that and I see what's happening with the ONE festival...and all of the technical opportunities we have now, that have happened very rapidly since '19th century style' opera production. In fact, this little opera I'm working on now, which is based on the life and letters of a painter, we have permission from his estate to use all of his paintings as projections, including animating them if we want to. So, I think there's lots of possibilities, certainly for scenic design to take opera to new places and costume design, to some extent. Jun Kaneko’s Butterfly was a wonderful example of how far you can take those things. And just more of a welcoming of the adventurous. Less of a 'don't write me a plan that tells me how this is going to be a success at the box office'. Tell me what new performers you're developing; what new scenic designers; what new techniques you're exploring. We need to have more of a workshop mentality about our work. And maybe that's part of the answer is, we need more workshops before we move on to full productions. I was so thrilled to see that OPERA America was offering some travel funds, if people wanted to send someone to see our little workshop production in a hundred seat theater, 300 miles north of San Francisco. That was wonderful. I thought, "Yes, that's right. Let's get the right people to look at the right things." But I think more workshops would be part of my vision for a healthier future.

Marc A. Scorca: So venues; a sense of adventure; new work; scenic design. I like that. I like the recipe. Jane: in chatting with you, your spirit just comes right through the zoom. Unsinkable Molly Brown comes to mind; just real leadership energy and commitment to values that really matter a lot to our communities and to our opera companies. So thank you for spending this time and to allow us to capture a few minutes of your day.


[1] The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the G.I. Bill, was a law that provided a range of benefits for some of the returning World War II veterans.