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Video Published: 20 Jul 2022

An Oral History with Patricia Mitchell

On December 13th, 2021, arts administrator Patricia Mitchell 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 December 13th, 2021. 
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. 

Patricia Mitchell, arts administrator

Patricia Mitchell began her career as Director of Community Services for The Guthrie Theater, and then joined Minneapolis-based Arts Development Associates, a national consulting firm serving arts organizations and cultural agencies. From 2007 to 2015, Ms. Mitchell was president of the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, home to Minnesota Opera. She previously served as chief operating officer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (2000–2004), executive director of LA Opera (1988–1999), and administrator and later executive director of San Francisco Opera (1979–1987).

Oral History Project

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Marc A. Scorca: Patricia Mitchell: welcome. I'm so happy to speak with you and thanks for giving us some time today. I always start my interviews with the question: who brought you to your first opera?

Patricia Mitchell: The public school system in Los Angeles, because there was an organization called The Opera Guild, which funded performances for students at the intimate Shrine Auditorium, which was filled with fifth and sixth graders. And in rotating years, you saw The Bartered Bride, The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel.

Marc A. Scorca: What company was performing?

Patricia Mitchell: They put it together. Marilyn Horne was in those performances. A lot of students of opera at that time took part in these productions. I don't know where they got the rags from, but those are my first experiences and some people would say, it's amazing you ever had another one, but I remember thinking it was extraordinary,

Marc A. Scorca: I like to ask that too: was your first experience one that made you think, "Wow, this is pretty neat?" 'cause a lot of people report that their first opera experience was not a positive experience and it took them several times before they began to get it.

Patricia Mitchell: The first one I saw was The Magic Flute. It still is one of my favorite pieces. And so it got me off to a good start, and I saw subsequently a lot of performances in the Shrine Auditorium of the San Francisco Opera, which toured to LA annually after they closed in San Francisco on Thanksgiving weekend.

Marc A. Scorca: You know, when we did our virtual road trip last year during COVID, that's when I really focused on the fact that San Francisco Opera did regularly, every year, go down to Los Angeles. So that before New York City Opera was going out to LA, San Francisco Opera was kind of the opera provider of Los Angeles. So you knew their performances in LA.

Patricia Mitchell: Right. I can still see Joan Sutherland in the Traviata, because all the artists from the San Francisco season did it, and they rolled up the scenery and Eddie Powell, the head of the stagehands union when I was there in San Francisco, said we could load the whole of the season in one train car. Now of course it takes six containers for one show, which is part of the reason touring's not so viable anymore, but it was sure viable then.

Marc A. Scorca: Yeah. Michael Bronson told us that at The Met, they used to have a special train car that opened at the rear. So that way they could slide all the rolled backdrops into the back of the train.

Patricia Mitchell: When I got to San Francisco Opera, which was in '78, they were still using the ground row that they used in the Tosca in 1932 when the War Memorial Opera House opened.

Marc A. Scorca: That's remarkable. I know that you ended your wonderful career in Minnesota and that you have had a house in Minnesota for many years, and I sort of thought of you as Minnesotan, but in hearing you now, and in doing some research, you are actually from California. So tell me about the California/Minnesota connection.

Patricia Mitchell: It's a family story, because my mother's family had a cabin on this lake in Northern Minnesota, because as my grandfather always said, "If you're a Swede from Nebraska, you have to go to a place that looks like Sweden," which means you have to have pine trees and birch trees by water. So we always spent our family vacations at the cabin, which became my favorite place. Still is.

Marc A. Scorca: I know how much you love it and it always made me think that you are actually Minnesotan, but I guess you get a 50% credit for being Minnesotan, given the family home.

Patricia Mitchell: I think so.

Marc A. Scorca: So I know that your first job in the arts was at the Guthrie. I'm kind of curious to know what got you to opera as a job path, as a career?

Patricia Mitchell: I got the job at the Guthrie - total serendipity - because I had sort of put out to the face that I wanted to move to Minnesota, because why live 2000 miles away from my favorite place, if I could live 200? And I got the job at the Guthrie and I left the Guthrie and joined a consulting firm, led by a guy named Brad Morrison. It was called Arts Development Associates. Famously he wrote a book In Search of an Audience about the development of the audience for the Guthrie. And in the beginning, there were four of us: three in Minneapolis, and one based in New York. And all the clients were arts organizations, and we did a lot of work in marketing and audience development. And then in that way that happens when you're in the consulting business: you go how the work goes, so it sort-of morphed into long range planning for arts organizations and for state arts agencies. And then it got into feasibility studies for cities and facilities. And the last project I did was the feasibility study for Johnson and Johnson in New Brunswick, New Jersey, about the feasibility of a science and technology center in New Brunswick, New Jersey. And I thought to myself, after we made the final presentation to the head dogs at Johnson and Johnson, I don't actually give a rip whether there is a science and technology center in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I mean, it was a good project, but feasibility studies just didn't float my boat. So I turned to what is the least feasible enterprise in human affairs, which is opera; put that out to the cosmos and there you go.

Marc A. Scorca: Now, in those early years, when you were working at the Guthrie, what was the place of Minnesota Opera on its trajectory? Was it still at the Walker Art Center or had it separated from the Walker and become its own company?

Patricia Mitchell: When I got there, it was still called Center Opera. I believe. I can't remember when they made the name change, but when I went into the consulting business, they were a client. I mean, I have known Philip Brunelle, since he was the music director of Center Opera, which is a really long time. Somewhere there's a portrait of him, 'cause he looks the same. I can't remember when they made the name shift. They performed at the Guthrie and they performed at the O'Shaughnessy, I think, and then they settled on what was then called the Cedar Village Theater in Cedar, Riverside, which was close to the university. And by then, they were Minnesota Opera and they did crazy things like The Mother of Us All and Faust Counter Faust. And they had this wonderful opera: an improvised opera called The Newest Opera in the World. And they had wheels that you spun. So you would spin and it would set on a period for style; and then there was a wheel that they spun for the plot. And then they made one up. They weren't very long, but they were very funny.

Marc A. Scorca: That's just fabulous, because, of course, Minnesota Opera began at the Walker Art Center as the Center Opera, but always committed to new work and that DNA has stayed with the company for all of these decades.

Patricia Mitchell: And now they're very strong and powerful in new work. It's very exciting to see.

Marc A. Scorca: We'll come back to Minnesota in a minute. So there you go to San Francisco. What was your position when you started there in 1978?

Patricia Mitchell: The title was Company Administrator, which was sort of a general management position, but I also did the labor negotiations. Kurt Herbert Adler was an excellent teacher, 'cause I didn't know anything about labor negotiations, but I sure learned, and I did that (until) Terry McEwen came, which was in '82, (and) he made me the Executive Director, but it was still a nag-and-worry-usually-about-money job, like I've always had.

Marc A. Scorca: So Kurt Adler: legendary; notorious. What was it like working for Kurt Adler?

Patricia Mitchell: He was an amazing, amazing man. And although he was not always nice, you couldn't help but adore the guy, partly because he was so passionate about opera. He used to say, "That is impossible. That is impossible." Then his highest compliment was: "That is not impossible." Somebody posted on good old Facebook, a documentary that was made in his last season, and there are lots of wonderful interviews from Birgit Nilsson and Leontyne Price and Luciano (Pavarotti) and Placido (Domingo) talking about what it was like working with him, and how much they loved and admired and feared him. I don't think anybody ever called him anything but Mr. Adler.

Marc A. Scorca: And I know stories of people being fired at midnight, but then hired back again at eight in the morning and just some of those challenging times with Mr. Adler.

Patricia Mitchell: Or he would send out a memo saying, "No bill will be paid until I have personally approved it." And that would last about 36 hours, at which point the Controller would convince him that really either he had to do nothing but look at bills, or he really had to let the finance department take care of that. And that would be the end of that.

Marc A. Scorca: And how about Terry McEwen? What was it like working for Terry?

Patricia Mitchell: Much different. You know, the interesting thing that each of them said about the other was: Adler would say, "Terry McEwen knows more about singers than anyone." And McEwen said the same thing about Adler. It was fascinating to work for him. He was much different; came from a much different background: - the record company EMI, and he used to say - there was some production that we did and it was wildly well received and the cast was brilliant, and he said, "All my casts are brilliant the first time. If you could just get those people, they'd all be brilliant." He had a lot of trouble with the frustrations of productions and how it has a life of its own. You can't control it. Even Kurt Adler couldn't control it, but it was fun working for him.

Marc A. Scorca: When did you make it then to Los Angeles?

Patricia Mitchell: 1988. The first season was 88/89.

Marc A. Scorca: So you went from a very established opera company, with a legendary track record, to a brand new opera company. That must have been just a totally different experience to start something from the ground up.

Patricia Mitchell: That was the appeal of it, frankly. And the fun. You'll notice that fun comes up quite a bit. But it was fun because San Francisco Opera...when I first got there, I would say to Bob Walker, who was the business manager, "Why do we do it this way?" And he would say, "Well, we've always done it that way." In Los Angeles, there wasn't any "always." I mean, we were making up the ways, and the time when I got there was actually the third season of LA opera as a producing company, and Peter Hemmings had repeatedly asked me to come there. And finally I waited til LA Opera was really, really, really in financial trouble. And then I said, "Sure, why not?"

Marc A. Scorca: I thought you were gonna say "Until you knew that LA Opera was really a strong and going concern," but you finished the sentence a little differently.

Patricia Mitchell: Oh no. We owed so much money when I got there. I mean, I used my own typewriter. Right. Sparkletts wouldn't even wouldn't come and take the empty water bottles away, never mind bring us any bottles with water in them. We bought pencils one at a time for cash. We had meetings every day about what to pay. I learned a lot.

Marc A. Scorca: Tell us about working with Peter Hemmings.

Patricia Mitchell: It was fascinating. He knew so much. He maybe would be in the chain of people who know as much about singers as anyone. And he had a wonderful flair for the theatrical, dramatic part of opera. So those early productions: who does The Fiery Angel, right? Who committed David Hockney to design Tristan and Isolde? You know, he took brave chances, which did not always pay off, but there was a very familial feeling around that company, because the whole time I was there, the entire senior staff fitted around the round table in his office. You know, it just was not a behemoth organization.

Marc A. Scorca: I remember that feeling vividly, because I began at OPERA America, as you know, 1990 and early on was engaged with Peter Hemmings and would visit from time to time, and you just felt the family feeling both from the LA Opera League and the enthusiasm after the Olympics to start an opera company in LA. And that feeling continues even today to a certain extent, even as the company has grown and has grown more mature. I always felt that Peter produced with an identifiable intention and, as you say, it didn't always work, but you had a sense that it wasn't at all generic. It was all very intentional, and by design. Peter was quite remarkable that way.

Patricia Mitchell: He was remarkable that way, and that, I think, furthered the sense of family loyalty. I mean, we would have these milestones in the early years, like finally paying off a bank loan and we'd have a little mortgage burning party. And people had put their personal CD's up. I mean, there's no bank (that) was gonna give us any credit. And one of our board members, whose husband was a physician: a lawsuit was settled in his favor. And instead of doing the new kitchen that he had promised she could do, she gave the money to us. Probably kept us open. There was one time, at a board meeting I remember, we couldn't make the Workers' Comp payment: a board member contributed that. I think it was such a long fight to establish an opera company, and one of the early board members, Dorothy Forman had been on the board of seven failed opera companies in Los Angeles. Seven. And people were just determined this one was gonna work.

Marc A. Scorca: Was it determination that made this one work? Probably some of the excitement over the Olympics and the cultural program there. What was the alchemy that made this one work?

Patricia Mitchell: I think it was the Music Center, as a venue. The role of Placido who was called the Artistic Advisor, I think. But Los Angeles is a star-driven town, and worthy as the other efforts were like Los Angeles Opera Theater (Johanna Dordick's company). (It) was a wonderful company. (It was) never gonna take off because they didn't have any perceived star power. And Peter was not blind to that. So I think that was a big part of why. And when City Opera came in the void after San Francisco Opera stopped coming...we were in San Francisco then, and every year we would have a meeting with Tom Wachtell and do a budget about touring back to Los Angeles, to the Music Center (3000 seats), not to the Shrine (6,000 seats). The economics were dreadful and also the megastars weren't gonna be doing that. So, I think it's the star power and the fact that the Music Center, even in that hugely geographically and otherwise diverse community, is still the center of something.

Marc A. Scorca: Now, as I grow older, into the zone of Peter when he was a successful General Director, he was indefatigable. He would travel and just get off a plane flying from LA to a European city, go to a performance, always with his little small note card and a small little handwriting to himself: really an incredible energy. I don't know how he did it.

Patricia Mitchell: I don't know how he did it either, but both he and I went to all the performances literally. And in a given year, there were more fundraising events and occasions than performances in the beginning. And he went to all those too, and he just never didn't do whatever it was. And at the same time, he's got a family and five children and they're going back and forth between the UK and Australia and every other place. He was a remarkable man and you know, that little card that he carried, that he wrote with his mechanical pencil: (on) one of the cards in that little folder, he rated every performance he had anything to do with on a scale of one to ten for his whole life: Sadlers Wells, Scottish Opera, LA Opera. He was not kind to himself. He did not give himself a bunch of tens.

Marc A. Scorca: So Patricia, (you) then went off to the LA Phil and were at the Philharmonic for a number of years, and we'll talk about some of the building projects, but I'm kind of curious now, after having spent a full 20 years in opera, was going to a symphony very different, somewhat different? How did it feel to go to a symphony after opera?

Patricia Mitchell: It's very different. That was now 20 years ago, so it's probably different again, but at that time, the hierarchical nature of a symphony was so contrasted to the collaborative nature of an opera. That was a huge shock to my system. But otherwise, and a lot of the problems are the same, and a lot of the challenges are the same. The music was fantastic.

Marc A. Scorca: It's interesting to hear it described as hierarchical versus collaborative, because I'm always very happy that opera feels like the most collaborative of the art forms, related of course, to the fact that opera itself is a collaboration between words and music. And then you've got stage director and conductor and just the complexity of it...

Patricia Mitchell:...and dressers and dancers and chorus and make-up artists. And you can't do it without all of them.

Marc A. Scorca: You are credited with completing Disney Hall, with the renovation of the Hollywood Bowl. Then of course, you went back to Minneapolis-St. Paul and superintended the construction/reconstruction of the Ordway. And when I think about it, you built an opera company; built a symphony hall, built a Hollywood Bowl or restored the Hollywood Bowl; built a concert hall within the Ordway. What is it about projects that you like so much?

Patricia Mitchell: They're fun. I should say Disney Hall: 15 years. It took as long as it took to build the model for St. Peter's in Rome. And a lot of people made that possible, not the least of whom, of course, is Deborah Borda. So let's just be clear about that. I helped, but one of the reasons Deborah asked me to come was: here's the Disney Concert Hall project, and here's the Hollywood Bowl renovation project - in parallel. Well, so I mainly concentrated on the Bowl.

Marc A. Scorca: But again, this question about projects. It is rare that one of our colleagues essentially built an opera company from the ground up and handled multiple capital projects like the Hollywood Bowl and like the expansion/rebuilding of the Ordway. Clearly, you have an affinity and a skillset with these massive projects. What makes you go in for more?

Patricia Mitchell: Well, you'll observe that after the concert hall was built at the Ordway in St. Paul, I said, "That's it; I'm done now. Buildings R Us, but I'm done now," partly because those are long trajectory projects always, and you get to be older and you think, "Do I have the next 10 years trajectory?" No, let somebody else do that, because they are all, without exception, they take way longer than you think they're going to; cost more than anybody thinks they're going to, but I sure did love it. And the concert hall - I have to say - is a huge, huge addition to the arts life of the cities. It's a beautiful space for music. Beautiful.

Marc A. Scorca: I've not yet been in the concert hall, in the Ordway. And of course, when we're doing our annual conference in May of 2022, I'll look forward to being inside it. But clearly, they built this wonderful opera theater that was used by the St Paul Chamber Orchestra, but now the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra has its own home within that footprint of the Ordway, a remarkable reconstruction. I wanted to ask you to compare and contrast the impact of leadership in a smaller city, like Minneapolis-St. Paul (Ordway being in St. Paul), versus working in LA, just a huge international city. Did you find a different kind of reward being back in a smaller city?

Patricia Mitchell: I would say yes, because it is much more possible to really be in community and in various communities, than it is in a huge sprawling megalopolis like LA, which is fascinating in its way. But yeah, I did. St. Paul is a place where you like as not to run into the mayor at the hardware store, and you never pass up an opportunity to discuss things with the mayor. So yes, I would say that being able to have that level of engagement and involvement is satisfying on a level that wasn't possible for me in Los Angeles. Now, if you ask Deborah Borda that question, she'd probably say Los Angeles is exactly her right size, or New York. People are different.

Marc A. Scorca: As I read some interviews with you, some profiles preparing for today's conversation, I read a lot about how collaborative you are; how you're able to build alliances, and achieve things through partnership. I also know you as a really strong leader; clear; to the point; no nonsense. And I'm wondering: how do you blend really strong decisive leadership with a collaborative approach to the projects that you manage? How do you blend those two?

Patricia Mitchell: I don't think they're mutually exclusive. I think just because one is maybe perceived as a strong leader, it doesn't mean you don't need partners. As Peter Pastreich famously used to say, "Real leadership is not the power to compel; it's the power to inspire." So, I think being able to have strong partners is an important part of strong leadership, 'cause otherwise you're a dictator and we don't need any more of those.

Marc A. Scorca: In your career, were there role models? Either role models you knew and talked to, or role models you just thought about, imagining what they would do in a particular situation? What about role models?

Patricia Mitchell: I've been lucky. I've had a lot of really strong mentors. Kurt Adler was one, certainly. Brad Morrison was one. I follow - I did not know her very well - I really, really, really admired Ardis Krainik as a woman in the business. And so I would find myself thinking, "I wonder what Ardis would do." So she was a role model for me as a woman in opera. Absolutely.

Marc A. Scorca: And did you feel disadvantaged through your career by being a woman in opera? What did opera put up (as) barriers (intentionally or blindly) to your progress as a professional?

Patricia Mitchell: You know, I think barriers were mainly unintentional and they didn't notably stop me. Doesn't mean they don't exist. But you figure out: either go over it or around it or under it or something. It's one reason, I think, that my language was quite colorful, because that's not ladylike, and sometimes that's helpful, and when I was working in those years with Brad Morrison and we would work on various projects and you'd be the main person or the secondary person, and (for) one project, in Sioux City, Iowa, somebody in this meeting I was leading said, "What does Brad think?" Brad's not in the room. I said, "You know, you'll have to ask him, but he's not on this project." You know, people then - hopefully more so than now - but still now, have a tendency to defer to the male over the female. Pisses me off. But it's the truth. And I think it's still the truth.

Marc A. Scorca: Ardis was Board Chair at OPERA America when I first started here in 1990. And although she passed away at the end of 1996, I still think of her as a role model because of the number of times I think "What would Ardis do?" She had such clarity about the principles of honest leadership. I wanna take out my Ouija board sometimes and say, "What would Ardis do?"

Patricia Mitchell: And such determination and honesty and integrity. I really, really admired her.

Marc A. Scorca: Have you been a mentor? You talked about being mentored. Do you play the role of mentor either when you were working at various companies or now that you are in the age of retirement?

Patricia Mitchell: Not officially, but unofficially, sure. And some people will say that that relationship has been important to them in their careers. It's not anything that's intentional. It's not: "I'm gonna be a mentor three days a week," but if someone, particularly someone young in the profession wants to know what I think or wants my advice about something, I'm happy to give it.

Marc A. Scorca: What is the most common advice you give to people seeking leadership in the arts today?

Patricia Mitchell: I think that it's very important to figure out the core of the enterprise that you're looking at, and whether it matches up with your own core; whether you can be really singularly devoted to it, because that is what it takes. So I urge people to be clear about their own motive and about whatever the gig is, and not necessarily take the one that pays the most money; not necessarily take the one that is the more famous, but to really dig into the opportunity and see if it matches your requirements. I think it's really important. I think not to just be swayed by what other people think of a given opportunity. "Gee, you should take that job, 'cause it's classy; you'll be famous." Will you like it? Will you be good at it? Can you bring something to the table? I think those are really important questions.

Marc A. Scorca: Along those lines, I will frequently say to someone thinking about a job, "If you're thinking about this as a four or five year step to something else, I don't think it's the right job for you.” You have to take the job if you think you would be happy being there for the rest of your career, because then you'll really dig in and do it right, as opposed to just looking at it as a stepping stone.

Patricia Mitchell: A stepping stone to something else. And I think that there's a lot of cynicism in job choice based on that like, "Well, I'll do that, 'cause it'll look good on the resume," and I just don't think that's good for the person or the institution.

Marc A. Scorca: As you look over a number of decades in arts leadership, are there trends today that you watch that please you; that distress you? What are your thoughts about some of the trends, either artistically in the emergence of new work or the challenges of the subscription audience, less and less willing to commit to performances in advance? What are the trends that most capture your attention these days?

Patricia Mitchell: I think one is, the extreme creativity that arose in the pandemic shows me that there's life in the old girl yet! The number of times when a reporter would call doing the annual study about "Is classical music dead?” Well, no, it's not. And the fact that the subscription model has had to change: so it has to change. Things have to change. The thing that I think is most interesting to explore changing is the basic governance structure of arts organizations and really the whole board structure. Does that really work anywhere? The 501(c)(3) is only the delivery system. It's not the art form, and sometimes I think we don't question ourselves enough about our delivery system and whether it could do with a refresher. I think perhaps it could. But I can't figure out what that should be, because I'm so mired in the old one that I can't imagine it not being the way it's always been. I think the increasing (not enough), diversity of artists and composers, and hearing more women's music played on the radio; The Met doing Fire Shut up in my Bones. Okay. The Met is how many years old? Hundred and something. That's their first opera by an African American. Okay. Took a while, but it's not gonna be the last. Hopefully it's not gonna be the last from Terence Blanchard.

Marc A. Scorca: No, they've announced they're doing Champion next. So that's great.

Patricia Mitchell (52:10):

Which they did in St. Louis a couple of years ago. So I think the thing about opera, the emotive power of opera is eternal and the stories. The impact of the stories can still be felt; the old stories, even though some of them arguably need to be rethought, and the new stories, but the power of opera is the emotional resonance from the music and the story. And I don't think there's an art form that can touch it for power. And so I don't fret about the repertoire. I think the repertoire is continually being refreshed, and a lot of new pieces don't live to see a second performance, nor should they, and some will be dug up 20 years from now as undiscovered treasures, which they might have been, or there might be a reason they've been buried for 20 years. But I think that the creative process, on the part of the composers and librettists, I think is undamaged by all this other stuff, like whether the subscription model has gone to hell or whether the board structure is crazy. Yeah, maybe, but that's just the delivery system; it's not the art form.

Marc A. Scorca: Oh, Patricia. It is so good to speak to you, and this conversation makes me realize how much I miss more regular contact with you and how much we miss you in the field. I'm so happy that you are well and in a place you love, but I must say we miss you.

Patricia Mitchell (54:03):

Well, I miss you too and all my colleagues and I had a wonderful life in opera. I did. And in the arts generally, and I'm just lucky. I'm just one lucky dame. I'll tell you.