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Video Published: 20 Jul 2022

An Oral History with Nancy Rhodes

On October 14th, 2021, arts administrator, director, writer, and educator Nancy Rhodes 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 October 14th, 2021. 
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. 

Nancy Rhodes, arts administrator, director, writer, educator

Nancy Rhodes (Artistic Director, international stage director, writer, and educator) stages a wide range of musicals, operas and plays in the U.S.A, Europe, and Asia. She directed The Astronaut’s Tale at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, staged the world premiere of Tartuffe for San Francisco Opera, and Virgil Thomson’s opera Lord Byron at Alice Tully Hall. As Artistic Director and co-founder of Encompass New Opera Theatre, specializing in new music drama & American opera, she staged over 65 works. Rhodes has additionally been Vice President/U.S. Delegate to the International Theatre Institute, has taught Acting for Singers at Manhattan School of Music for 12 years, and is the commissioned librettist of The Theory of Everything, inspired by physics’ string theory of multiple dimensions and alternate universes.

Oral History Project

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


Marc A. Scorca: Nancy Rhodes. Thank you so much for being with us this morning. You are such an important addition to our oral history project celebrating the last 50 years of American opera, because you have been such a pioneer. So welcome; we're really delighted to have you here today.

Nancy Rhodes: Thank you, Marc. I'm honored and very happy to be here this morning.

Marc A. Scorca: As I always do. I have to ask you: who brought you to your first opera?

Nancy Rhodes: Well, I'm glad you ask. It was my aunt who was a concert pianist and organist, and she was teaching piano in the cathedral school in Washington. And so I was 16 and she took me to two musical events: my first opera, The Barber of Seville, and then a day later, we went to see the national touring company of The Sound of Music. So in one-two days I had a very important model: opera and musical theater.

Marc A. Scorca: Well, we'll get to that later in our discussion today, but isn't it amazing that that seamless combination was, in a way, the portal you walked through into your life as a producer. That's really fascinating. Now, I guess in Washington: was it Lisner auditorium that Barber took place?

Nancy Rhodes: I don't remember. It's going back a few years.

Marc A. Scorca: Was your first experience a really positive one? Did you say, "Well, I love this thing called opera."

Nancy Rhodes: It was definitely a positive. I still have experience; I still have images. And when we also went to see The Sound of Music, the terrifying fleeing through the mountain side from the Nazis was so brilliantly produced on the stage; that also lives with me to this day: the power of what the theater can bring to a topic.

Marc A. Scorca: There you are: a young person who has seen an opera and a musical. As happens, the bug bites. But when did you begin to think that that world of opera, music theater, musical theater would become your life's work? When did that dawn on you?

Nancy Rhodes: Well, that's a very good question because I was trained formally in theater and fine arts and English speech, and my first job in New York was at the Roundabout Theater and I was the assistant director there and worked with wonderful artists like Victor Garber and Beatrice Straight, and many others. But one of those cosmic turning points that come into your life, was when I was hired to direct The Mother of Us All. And initially, it was for a summer arts program with actors. And so I told my friend at the Roundabout that I was going to be doing this work. And they just called and said, "It's not a play; it's an opera by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson." And he said, "You must call up Virgil and talk to him, if you're going to make an adaptation. And he only lives right down the street at the Chelsea Hotel." And so I did that and I will never forget that first meeting with Virgil. I was sort of in my Bohemian days, so I sort of dressed a little bit a la Alice B. Toklas, perhaps, and he swung open the door and we just took a look at each other and broke into laughter. I don't know why exactly. Anyway, he ushered me in and I got right down to the point and I said, "Mr. Thomson, I'm going to be directing your opera, and I have to make an adaptation and here are my ideas." So I told him my ideas and the magical part of this is he said, "Yes, yes. I like that idea. Yes." And then he suddenly leaped up. He ran over to the grand piano and began to play and sing, "Angel More and more and more, Angel More, do you hear me?" And then he started in on the duet (and I knew every note of the music at this point). And I began to sing with him and away we went. And so from that point on, he came to see the production, and then later on my co-producer and the co-founder of Encompass, Roger Cunningham said, "Why don't we do the entire opera with young American opera singers? And that will be our first production for Encompass New Opera Theater." And so we did that.

Marc A. Scorca: Every time I walk past the Chelsea Hotel, I think of Virgil Thomson. He was, of course, just one of the famous people who lived there. How remarkable, as a young person, to walk into that historic building and to have such a day with a dean of American musical criticism and such a pioneer. It's really just a great story. Do you remember what year the first production of Mother of Us All was?

Nancy Rhodes: The first one was '75 and then our fully produced was 1976.

Marc A. Scorca: Okay. So it was really quite close to one another; back to back. Nearly 50 years ago, when you started Encompass and you must have had a sense that there was a place for it in the spectrum of American opera; that American opera, as you perhaps had experienced it, wasn't engaging with new work or theatrical work in quite the way that you wanted. What was the impetus for the establishment of Encompass? What did you see as the need?

Nancy Rhodes: Well, that's a good question. And my friendship and relationship with Virgil continued, and he would even invite me to the El Quijote restaurant, and we would talk and he would tell me a great deal about the position and place of American composers, who were writing in the genre of opera. And he expressed that it was very difficult for them to get their works performed in major opera houses in the United States, because most of the productions were from the traditional European classic opera repertoire. And so therefore Virgil and others like Aaron Copland, George Antheil: many others went to Europe in between the wars. And so they experienced another opening of the lens. And so when the war broke out and they came back, it was a challenge. And so Virgil talked to me about that and I felt that we could fill a niche, a need. We could begin to gather together composers of this ilk and now 45, 50 years later, we have a body of work, and I would say that Encompass has always been composer/artist driven. And that really came from that early connection with Virgil, because as a mentor to me, and to Encompass, you have a master of the experience of Virgil Thomson to say, "Yes, yes. That is a good idea. Yes." That opens up the portal to the world of possibility. And so ever since as an artistic director, as a director, that is what I have tried to always work, whether it's a singer, whether it's a composer, lyricist, a librettist, set designer to open up the possibility and collaborate.

Marc A. Scorca: What he said at the time was so true about the difficulty of getting American operas produced by American companies. And it's interesting, you mentioned Copland, you mentioned George Antheil: that's reaching back another generation and he wasn't talking about the young Carlisle Floyd, or he wasn't talking about Robert Ward, but he was talking about an earlier generation of American composers whose works were just not getting performed in the United States. So true. And The Mother of Us All: of course, a landmark piece for your company, but The Mother of Us All, I think, dates to 1947, and it is a landmark for American opera beyond just being a landmark for Encompass. What about The Mother of Us All as a piece, is so important to the American opera repertoire?

Nancy Rhodes: Well, first of all, it's Gertrude Stein and Virgil looking at America, through their lens and American history. It's about America. It's about men and women and their relationships. It's about politics. It's about who has the power. It's about husbands and wives. It's about personal struggle and Susan B. Anthony never lived to see the vote for women, (which she worked her entire life), and Gertrude Stein herself wasn't published 'til she was well into her fifties. And Virgil certainly knew what it was as well, to struggle as a composer. So all of that put together gives a kind of picture of what it is to search for something, to have a vision and try to fulfill it.

Marc A. Scorca: Really well put. At Encompass, the track record of working with American composers is tremendous. It just is an amazing record. And you've spoken about Virgil Thomson and his point of view and his affirming contribution to your work, which is so important. Of other composers you've worked with, are there standouts? People who either really, in your view, shaped your view of American opera or shaped American opera itself? Are there other composers you've worked with at Encompass that were just indelible for the organization and for you?

Nancy Rhodes: That is such a tough question because we have worked with so many and each composer taught me something and opened up a world. We worked with Aaron Copland when we did The Tender Land and he came and his librettist came. We worked with Robert Ward, (who) was a wonderful person. We did his opera, He Who Gets Slapped, based on a Russian play about a politician that enters the circus, so that he can be more descriptive about what's going on politically, and we stayed in close touch with Robert all through the years. Ned Rorem, coming back to Gertrude Stein, wrote Three Sisters Who Were not Sisters, which we did several productions of, and had the opportunity to also present him at one of our New Composers Programs with scenes from Our Town. John Harbison, a wonderful composer, and we did Full Moon in March, based on a Yeats play. And we had incredible visuals and projections with that. And John came and he had a prepared piano and he came and he manipulated and did certain things to prepare the piano. And he was on our panel of speakers afterwards. Then if you go to contemporary times, certainly one of the most outstanding composers that we've worked with, early on in the '90's, was Ricky Ian Gordon. And Ricky was writing songs on Langston Hughes. And so he would call me up and he'd say, "Nancy, I just wrote this song this morning. Do you want to hear it?" And he'd lay the phone down, by the piano and then he would start to play. And after this went on for (a while), I said, "Ricky, why don't we get together?" And so I went over and sat with him at the piano, and I said, "Why don't we make a show out of these songs?" And he said, "Okay." And so we came up with the title, Only Heaven, which was the title of a Langston Hughes poem, who by the way, is one of my all time favorite poets, bar none. And so we put that together and it was really successful. And we did a second production a few years later, and then some other folks have picked it up and made a CD. So we got it started and it has rippled on. And Ricky, of course, is now doing extremely well, having a show coming up at Lincoln Center, Intimate Apparel.

Marc A. Scorca: Nancy: just the roster (and apologies to everyone who was left off, because I know how long your roster is), but when you are trying to decide - because Encompass wasn't able to do 20 operas a year - you had to pick and choose, and there you have Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Ned Rorem, John Harbison. What would draw you, as a producer, to say that work or that composer is someone I want to put the spotlight on.

Nancy Rhodes: Thank you for that question. I have always been drawn to the great writers of the American theater: Eugene O'Neill; Lillian Hellman: many, many. So I would say...I would use the example of Regina by Mark Blitzstein, which is one of my favorite works, because Mark Blitzstein himself believed that it was his job as a composer to illuminate social justice and political issues: that that was his job. And so he took Regina, a great play by Lillian Hellman, and musicalized it, and it's played on Broadway, but it's also played in the opera house. And I was drawn to it by a beautiful quartet called the 'Rain Quartet.' And it starts out, 'Consider the rain, The falling of friendly rain - That nourishes the earth, and then Moves on again. Some people eat all the earth, Some people sit around and watch while they eat the earth. Now rain - consider the rain.' That drew me in passionately because I felt through the words and what he was saying, how important the ideas and themes of the piece were, both environmentally and how the country changed from industrial into a more rural image, to an industrial image, and how that played out in a family; how they were cruel to each other; money, greedy. A lot of the things that we are dealing with in American society: consumerism; disassociation from the land, from mother nature: from the water, the air, the wildlife; sacred lands. These are all themes that many of these composers were working with in one form or another. And so that is what fuels my interest.

Marc A. Scorca: How interesting that you approach it first, not only from that point of view, but that is a door you look through in order to figure out what work you want to produce. I think it's really, really interesting. You spoke about it when you talked about the back-to-back Barber of Seville and The Sound of Music: opera; music theater; musical theater/Broadway: you have really crisscrossed the line (that in your book may not be a line at all). And I think a lot of people create an artificial line between the various facets of singing theater. So how do you see the line, (if there's a line at all), or how do you navigate between the worlds of say opera and musical theater?

Nancy Rhodes: Well, it's an ongoing, evolving process, but first of all, as you said, it's singing theater. So whether it's this form or that form, it's still a musical and singing approach to telling a story. So that animates it first and foremost. I made a couple notes because John Kander, who wrote Chicago, Cabaret, Kiss of the Spider Woman; he went to Columbia University and he studied with Douglas Moore and Jack Beeson. And I know for a fact that Jack Beeson was sitting in the audience every time John Kander did a musical theater production; took notes and gave him input. Leonard Bernstein, certainly classically trained, great conductor wrote West Side Story, On the Town, Wonderful Town. And these works are done around the world. I, myself, directed West Side Story for the State opera of Turkey, and also for the Albanian National Opera. So, these great works: Charles Strouse, composer of Annie (and many others) studied with Aaron Copland and with Nadia Boulanger, and by the way, Virgil and Aaron Copland and most of those American composers (when they went to France between the wars), studied composition with Nadia Boulanger, who was a very strong force in American composition. So I think we just haven't been around long enough yet, but that bridge is starting to close. I mean, Hal Prince certainly was saying that there really isn't that much of a difference; there is difference in form. So there's song; acted scene; song; acted scene, which many musicals have, and most opera is through-composed, but now we have many musicals that are through-composed and we have opera (such as Carmen) that has dialogue. So, then it comes down to musical styles and we've had these discussions when I was working for the International Theatre Institute, and sitting on an international board for music theater and opera in different countries. And we would have these lengthy discussions about what the microphone has done to music theater and to opera. So now you go to Broadway and everything is, mic'd, mic'd, mic'd. I went to see Kiss me, Kate at the Roundabout and half of the orchestra was on one side and the other half was on the other side, and then some technicians were manipulating so that the orchestra would sound together. So there's a lot to think about. What I always wanted and still want for Encompass is to just have our 500 seat theater, maybe 750, and just do morning, noon and night American opera, new music theater; have workshops, and just as we've always had, but in one place.

Marc A. Scorca: I've not spoken to anybody about it, but you certainly bring it up that Douglas Moore (who composed The Ballad of Baby Doe) was a real pillar of the American opera scene from his position at Columbia University and Jack Beeson as well: just a wonderful American composer, an important teacher there. That whole Columbia connection, which I guess dates to the 1950's is a very important moment in the burgeoning American opera scene. Did you have much contact with Jack to learn more about that? What's your understanding of what that program was like?

Nancy Rhodes: Well, we knew Jack very well. In fact, Jack actually worked on The Mother of Us All, the first production, which was done at Columbia, and we also produced one of Jack's pieces and, you know, Jack wrote music with Sheldon Harnick. So Sheldon Harnick, the great lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me and many other works: he teamed up with Jack. So there's, again, that Broadway/opera connection, and they wrote a number of operas together. So, we knew Jack; he was on our advisory board. He came to many of our events and he always wore the red bow tie.

Marc A. Scorca: Such a completely charming curmudgeon. And of course, I think Lizzie Borden of Jack Beeson is really a wonderful piece, and I wish that would get performed more often.

Nancy Rhodes: Yes, that could enter the repertoire. I mean, many of these pieces...my hope would be that more and more of the pieces enter the repertoire. And I understand it's not that easy to take a new work that is perhaps unknown and maybe a beautiful and worthy work, but then how do you get the audience? So there's where Broadway does come in, because once you have a show on Broadway, whether it's a big success or not, it's branded. And so from that point on, there is an imprimatur of what that work is, and we don't quite have that in the same way that the Broadway community has.

Marc A. Scorca: Right. Nancy, as we talk about some of these works, that are older pieces now; there are so many new works today, but we're talking about works, whether it's Jack Beeson or Douglas Moore, Ned Rorem, Robert Ward: do you think these pieces are dated? And I don't mean that in a terribly negative sense, but are they rooted in a particular time and won't translate forward, or do you think these pieces absolutely can translate forward to audiences in the 2020's?

Nancy Rhodes: I do. I absolutely do believe that. And here's the other sort of challenge: the education and knowledge of the American opera tradition or even classical American music is not taught in the schools. I've had many young people work at Encompass that have degrees and masters degrees in opera. And I ask them, "What did you learn about American opera?" And they went, "Mmm." They don't really know. And the young composers and librettists today, many of them don't know the forerunners: the great masters of American opera that they can walk in their footsteps. I just want to bring up one thing about Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein. They wrote two landmark operas. They wrote Four Saints in Three Acts before The Mother of Us All. And, what a landmark opera. It's the first American opera that played on Broadway. It predated Porgy and Bess. It had an all African-American cast. It had a female set designer, and it had John Houseman as the director. And if you just reproduced that production today, I stand by that it would be even avant-garde, even for 2021/2022,

Marc A. Scorca: Almost a hundred years later.

Nancy Rhodes: Yes, that's right. So I do think that we have some catching-up to do in this country to really acknowledge, embrace, give a forum to the masters, to the forerunners, as well as the new people. And by the way, I have a big list here of composers that we're working with now, so it goes on and on.

Marc A. Scorca: 45 years ago, almost 50 years ago when Virgil Thomson planted this seed in your head that American composers were having a really hard time getting any of their works produced, and it inspired you, with Roger, to found Encompass and with the encouragement of Virgil to create a platform for the production of American opera. So that's 1975, '76,' 77. Fast forward 2021/2022: are you pleased with the progress that's been made?

Nancy Rhodes: Well, I'm not an expert because I can't see everything that's going on. So first of all, I'm just happy that there are more companies; that there are more new works and new works being supported. Many thanks to OPERA America and the companies that fund. And I'm happy to see the second stages coming up in the larger opera houses. I'm happy to see that there's some more opera in alternative spaces. I'm happy as a lark about all of this. I do see still a void though in the breadth and depth of the American canon, if you will. And I think there's more to fare it out. I am writing a book on that topic.

Marc A. Scorca: I'm glad to know that. Help me understand what you mean by that: that you still see a void in the breadth and depth. What does that mean for you?

Nancy Rhodes: All right, I'll give you an example: because I explained (that) Encompass specializes in new music theater and American opera. And many times the response I get is, "American opera. Name couple of them." So I don't think it's on the lips of everyday people that go to opera. They know Carmen, La Traviata; they know the 19th century European Canon, but if you ask them, what are the great masters and the trajectory of American opera, I don't think it's that known and, and it's not really taught in the universities; it's touched upon, and Philip Glass and some of the more recent, but it's not strung together in a way, so you see what one influence; who studied with who and how that person added into the mix. A lot of aspects that I think could be much more...

Marc A. Scorca: And I think you are correct that, given how recent this burgeoning American repertoire is, it hasn't really been analyzed, assessed, cross connected in a way that would enable us to really understand the threads that are shaping American opera today. It really is an area for further study. I'm glad you're writing a book about it.

Nancy Rhodes: I just want to also bring out some of the composers that we're working with now. Evan Mack: we did a world premiere of his called Angel of the Amazon, a true story about the rain forest and a courageous woman, Dorothy Stang, who gave her life to protect it and help indigenous people get land rights. So we're doing a five borough tour of a shorter version of the premiere that we did years ago at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. We're in discussions with a new work by William Banfield. I got a phone call the other day from José Luis Greco, who had been in our composer workshop. He's living in Madrid, but he has a piece based on a film by Ingmar Bergman, and John David Earnest: The Theory of Everything. We are doing a co-production with Trinity Music with Julian Wachner, which got set aside because of COVID, and we're coming back to that and OPERA America, by the way, helped to pay for the commission of The Theory of Everything. Richard Pearson Thomas is someone that we continue to work with, an amazing composer. And, of course, we worked with Charles Fussell, who was the President of the Virgil Thomson Foundation, and we did a wonderful production of his called The Astronaut's Tale at BAM Fisher in 2016. We were almost completely sold out and it was really a great opportunity to work with him and Jack Larson, who wrote that. And by the way, we're still looking for a larger company, maybe to co-produce with us Virgil Thomson's third opera, which has not yet been produced in a major opera company. And that is Lord Byron, with a libretto by Jack Larson and music by Virgil Thomson. Now, Encompass and another company, (for Virgil's 89th birthday), we did a semi-stage with the orchestra on stage of Lord Byron at Alice Tully Hall, and the critics came; everyone came, and said, "Oh my goodness, where has this opera been? It's outstanding. It shows Virgil's music, with quartets, arias, trios and duets. It's time to see it done." And now we're in 2021, and it still hasn't been done. It's a bigger work. Lord Byron was a revolutionary. He died young because he fought the Greek independence. He left his home and hearth; went to Greece and believed in helping support a country that needed help for independence. And he gave his life. So it's an interesting topic, even if it's sort of Euro, but all of these things, oh my goodness. We worked with Edward Thomas on Anna Christie; Joe Masteroff, the great librettist for Cabaret wrote the libretto for Anna Christie. It's a great work: it's five characters, a 14 piece orchestra, and it's dramatic and exciting and has great singing and opera companies around the country ought to be doing it.

Marc A. Scorca: It's incredible. You are just such a scholar about this American opera repertoire, and I hope that's what your book is going to delve into.

Nancy Rhodes: Absolutely. And stories and what it is to work with other artists. I can say that all of the people, (and there's so many). I just hate leaving out these names, but artists, composers, designers, they love to make the theater to reach inside our consciousness or spirit to examine the conflicts. Who are we? What are we doing? Why are we here? And we do that through the lens of music and theater. And that's what it's all about. That's what fires me up. And by the way, I just have to say eight years ago, I started another program that I'm very happy about and it's called Paradigm Shifts, Music and Film Festival, and that grew out of a real concern with how we could take the arts and help with bridging indigenous cultures, women's wisdom and social justice and environmental issues. How could we look at these through the lens of music and theater, and then with a focus on preserving our planet, our oceans, our wildlife, our sacred lands, each other, so that festival has gone on and on. We've connected it with Union Theological Seminary, where we did performances with film. And we were invited and did this program in 2017 in Seoul, Korea and worked with Korean singers and artists. So that is an ongoing program and Angel of the Amazon that I mentioned is part of that. And also Theory of Everything,

Marc A. Scorca: You know, Nancy Rhodes, it is inspiring to hear that, after a whole lot of years working as a pioneer in the creation of American opera, that you continue to have vision and passion and new commitments that intersect with the important issues of our world today. You have only intensified your work as you have gone on at Encompass. And as I say, it's inspiring. I just want to say thank you for taking this wonderful time with us and for sharing the facts and the inspiration, and we just look forward to continuing to follow your work and to read your book when it comes out. Nancy Rhodes, thanks for being such an important part of American opera.

Nancy Rhodes: Marc, thank you so much. And thank you for everything that you do and your staff does here at OPERA America. And just one last plug for Roger Cunningham, the co-founder of Encompass. You could do a whole interview with him. He would have a lot of stories and things that I've left out, but we thank you from our hearts.