Marc A. Scorca: I think of you as someone whose knowledge of, and expertise reaches back beyond the years of just your work; that you bring with you a history that reaches beyond your own chronology. And that's why it just mattered so much that we capture some time with you.
Peter Russell: Thank you and bless their hearts, my colleagues over at Concert Opera continue to have me annotate their programs and do the talks before their presentations, which keeps my mind fresh, and I'm always learning something new. I'll be perfectly honest with you. I was pretty much entirely unfamiliar with Maometto II when I needed to do the preparation for those particular program notes.
Marc A. Scorca: I lecture at the Brooklyn Academy of Music before half of The Met HD transmissions. They sell an extra ticket. You come an hour before; you get a lecture. And I do half of them every year, and I've done it since the very beginning; it really just keeps me in the books, and inevitably there is an opera I really haven't studied or I really don't know, but I'm giving a lecture on it, so it's really good for me. I did not know about the life of Mussorgsky and had to prepare a lecture on the Boris transmission and got to read about and learn about Mussorgsky and all. So yes, sometimes these little activities just keep us in the books in a healthy way.
Peter Russell: Absolutely.
Marc A. Scorca: Well, let's get started: Peter, who brought you to your first opera?
Peter Russell: My Mom and Dad, and I remember that chronology so vividly, because there were still Texaco Metropolitan Opera Saturday broadcasts back then. (The thing) I recall so strongly was about 10 days before the first 'grown-up' opera I saw. ('Grown-up' in quotation marks). And to prep me for it, since they knew that I'd been bitten by the opera bug, when my older sister had gone to a student matinée performance at Connecticut Opera in Hartford of Verdi's Trovatore, she was not bitten by the opera bug, but they did the same prep to try to get her ready and into the idea of the art form, and I just thought it was wonderful. I just couldn't get enough of Trovatore. It was the recording with Leontyne Price and Richard Tucker and Rosalind Elias and Leonard Warren. And they thought, "Well, we'll take Peter to the opera." So it was La Bohème with Mirella Freni and to prep me for it, they bought the complete EMI recording of it with Freni and Nicolai Gedda and Thomas Schippers conducting. And as I said, about 10 days before that particular live performance in December of 1966, The Met broadcast Turandot with Zubin Mehta conducting; their first season in their Lincoln Center digs, with Birgit Nilsson, Franco Corelli and Bonaldo Giaiotti in the other lead parts. Now I'm at a stage in life (nearly 65 years old) where I have less than zero use for Turandot most of the time, but in a strange way, although my parents were a little bit concerned that it was really gory for a child, I thought it was just the best thing ever. And the sounds coming through the radio intoxicated me. So I was listening to that one with my Mom and my maternal grandfather, Luigi Marianella, who like a lot of people from the old country loved opera, had 78rpm records of Judy and Caruso and this one and that one, and I was just bitten hard by the opera bug, including that performance of Bohème and I never got over it. So for Christmas and birthdays, I got complete LP recordings of operas, and checked them nonstop out of our public library, along with piano vocal scores, and that's how it all got started for me.
Marc A. Scorca: I did not realize that you came to opera as a legitimate son of Italian heritage here. So this was a familial art form when it was passed along to you.
Peter Russell: Absolutely. My Dad got into it through my Mom, but it was basically her parents kind of inculcating her. There's a story about when I was a wee, small lad. She had a recording that she loved of Ferruccio Tagliavini singing the aria, "Je crois entendre encore," and she would play it nonstop while she was ironing in our basement. And one of the whooping’s of a lifetime I ever received was when she took a phone call, and I put that recording on the ironing board and ironed it, and I found that it became pliable, so I started twisting it into a sculpture. Oh boy, was I in trouble that day? So I think that there was a kind of guilt of: if you can't beat 'em join 'em, that basically led me to say, "If she feels that strongly about it, there must be something to this."
Marc A. Scorca: That is a wonderful story. When did you decide that opera was going to become a part of your professional life? You know, okay: I have to grow up; I have to have a job and opera is going to be what I do. When did that occur?
Peter Russell: I think that that started when I was in college. I'd begun in the elementary school with the FLES program: Foreign Language in the Elementary School, taking French, and I took Latin in high school, which meant that Italian came very easily to me, on top of which as Grandpa Marianella got older, he tended less and less to speak in English to my Mom. He would just talk to her in Italian and she would answer him in English or a combination of half-Italian, half-English. So that came very easily to me. And I took German and I began working first as an assistant stage manager and then a stage manager for the productions that were done every winter and every spring in collaboration between the opera department at the Yale School of Music and the Yale School of Drama making use of the students who were in the design department at the School of Drama and the music staff like John Mauceri as conductor or Otto-Werner Mueller as conductor, and Phyllis Curtin's (and the other voice faculty's) voice students, and I enjoyed it. I thought, "Well, this is nice. I basically am spending time doing what is my hobby, except that I'm working at it." And someone said, "Well, you know, there's always a demand for that in the field." I had much higher ambitions originally and thought that I wanted to be a stage director for opera and bless their hearts, Yale gave me two fellowships: one was in between my junior and senior year, and I spent part of that in Milan transcribing parts of Verdi's ultimate flop opera, King for a Day (Un giorno di regno) that were alternate pieces: a duet and a trio that never made it into the final autograph score. I believe they're still at the American Institute for Verdi studies at NYU; at least I believe them to be. And the rest of the time I spent in Fiesole, a town outside Florence, watching the great baritone, Tito Gobbi, do masterclasses of Italian repertoire. Actually a couple of people did pretty well for themselves among those there that summer: an English soprano named Janice Cairns, who had a wonderful career at English National Opera and an American soprano named Karen Huffstodt, who was from Illinois. She was a real standout that summer. So there was that fellowship, and for a full year after I graduated, I'd written to opera companies in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy and the Glyndebourne Festival to gain permission to watch new productions of operas in rehearsal. So I started in Florence watching Riccaro Muti conduct a production (that was televised) of Nozze di Figaro. I saw Giulio Chazalettes directing a production of Werther with Alfredo Kraus at La Scala, and I went to Hamburg to see (Marilyn) Horne and Sonia Frisell in the (Jean-Pierre) Ponnelle Italiana in Algeri; Goetz Friedrich in Tristan at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin with Barenboim conducting. And while I was abroad, I couldn't get people back in the States to answer the question, "Do I need a graduate degree in theater administration, or should I just start working in the field?" And everyone was evenly divided. I did get into the MFA program at the Yale School of Drama, but the idea of a couple more years in New Haven, Connecticut and paying more tuition paled in comparison to applying for real jobs. So from overseas, I applied to what I thought was every opera company in the US where I wanted to work, and I got invited to do two, as assistant stage managers: Houston Grand Opera, who were still performing in Jones Hall at that point, and what is now Washington National Opera, but I interviewed within a week in August of 1980 for both jobs and Washington's role at that point was to make Houston seem that much more hellish in terms of climate and a place to live than Washington DC. Plus, my sister was already living here. So I chose Washington and that's where I've ended up, off and on, spending the better part of my adult life, as you know.
Marc A. Scorca: So Peter, what was the first opera job here in the US?
Peter Russell: It was as assistant stage manager at Washington National Opera, and the very first production I worked on was a new production of Un ballo in maschera, conducted by Cal Stewart Kellogg; directed by Frank Rizzo; designed by Zack Brown. It was a pretty good cast with the exception of the Bulgarian tenor, Michail Svetlev, who did Riccardo. It was supposed to be set in this kind of generic Northern Europe, but the rest of the cast was very good. It was Teresa Żylis-Gara in her role debut as Amelia; Leo Nucci as Renato; Janice Hall was Oscar. In part I was hired because Svetlev and Żylis-Gara communicated with one another in German, but Frank Rizzo didn't speak German, and I did. And Leo Nucci didn't really speak English, and Frank kind of spoke Italian, but it was because of the language skills that I was initially brought on board, I think.
Marc A. Scorca: Now, in just what you recited, you've mentioned so many names, and this is part of our effort here in creating an oral history. Frank Rizzo: really an important presence in American opera at the time that you entered the field, and for years after. Tell us a little bit about Frank.
Peter Russell: Frank was a 'thing' as a stage director, but he also served as dramaturg for Washington National Opera. An amazing person in terms of both his writing ability and the ability to think like a dramaturg in terms of attaching history, literature, as it applies to the art form and the history of the art form. He came into the field as an assistant to Gian Carlo Menotti, and in a kind of interesting twist, he went from being a total Menotti acolyte to - by the time he parted ways with Menotti - being sort of disillusioned with the overall oeuvre and the overall aesthetic of Menotti as a composer. But that's what got him in. And it was the theatricality of someone about the same age when I first got bitten hard by the opera bug. He was a lad when he saw the original productions on Broadway of The Saint of Bleecker Street and The Medium and got hooked.
Marc A. Scorca: And Cal Kellogg?
Peter Russell: He and John Mauceri, who was music director of the Kennedy Center, Opera House Orchestra did most of the conducting duties back then. We occasionally had a Gerard Schwarz or someone else as a guest, but the two of them had the lion's share of the conducting duties.
Marc A. Scorca: And in those years was Martin Feinstein, the head of the opera company?
Peter Russell: He was the entire time that I worked there. And, of course, he had been a protégé of the legendary impresario, Sol Hurok. That was his early training.
Marc A. Scorca: And did you have much contact with Martin at that time? What was he like?
Peter Russell: Martin was a character, who had character. I also adored his wife, Bernice. Little case in point: Martin invited a group of us to his home in McQuain for dinner one night. And with the rash stupidity of youth; with Mstislav Rostropovich as conductor of the NSO in those years, and Galina Vishnevskaya still singing: I made some disparaging remark about Vishnevskaya's singing and Bernice quietly, but firmly said, "Well, if you only know Galina from the singing that she's done since she defected here, then you really don't know Galina at all.” And she got up; got a Melodia LP; put it on their living room turntable and started playing a recording of Vishnevskaya in the 1950's with Rostropovich as her piano accompanist, singing the Mussorgsky Songs and Dances of Death. Breathtaking. So that sent me on a voyage of searching for all the young Vishnevskaya, which (she was absolutely right) was a revelation. I also remember when the Deutsche Oper came here on tour with their Ring Cycle and the Sieglinde was someone who had a lovely lyric soprano that she beefed up to sing hochdramatische roles. The Siegmund was a very handsome German tenor - you would know the name, but I'm not gonna say it to protect the innocent - and both of them were in very poor form the afternoon of the Walkuere. Matti Salminen, on the other hand, the Finish bass who was doing Hunding was absolutely amazing. So act one is over and forget about your memories of Lotte Lehmann and Lauritz Melchior or Leonie Rysanek and Jon Vickers. Pick your poison; forget about them. They weren't doing their thing that afternoon, and it was a beautiful spring day, and I went out to the Plaza that overlooks the river and Bernice and I both lit up cigarettes because that's what we did back in the 1980's. And she rolled her eyes and she said, "I don't know about you, but I'm rooting for Hunding; he's the only one on that stage that can sing."
Marc A. Scorca: That is so funny. I never knew Bernice well, but (met) a couple of times, and certainly what I experienced is similar to that. You know, it occurs to me and I had not planned on asking you about them, but here we are talking about a Ring Cycle and Wotan: because you are resident in Washington, I remember well that Tom Stewart and Evelyn Lear were there in Washington, and you had an extended friendship-relationship with both of them. Some recollections of Tom and Evelyn?
Peter Russell: Tom made peace with having had an illustrious, storied career that was then in the past, by the time I got to know them quite well. I don't think Evelyn really ever gave up on the idea of there somehow being a comeback. I remember a dinner at their country club in Rockville, right after all of us had seen the Broadway tryout in the Eisenhower Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center of Masterclass with Zoe Caldwell and notably Audra McDonald singing Lady Macbeth's entrance aria sounding as good as Shirley Verrett in her prime and come to find out she had coached it with her Carousel co-star, Shirley Verrett. And Evelyn had two idées fixes over dinner that night: one was that someone needed to mount a production of Masterclass for Evelyn playing the role of Maria Callas; and the other was that Audra McDonald needed immediately to stop this nonsense of being the star of Broadway and screen and television and pop music and study classical vocal music with Evelyn, so that she could take her rightful place as the next Evelyn Lear. Tom in his gentle sort of way said, "Oh honey, you could never remember all those lines." "Well, we could get a prompter." So it was interesting.
Marc A. Scorca: It was so wonderful, when I'd go to their home for dinner and just taking out old recordings, private recordings and sitting, listening to Tom and Evelyn with Tom and Evelyn. It was just a remarkable set of dinners. So when you entered the field, there you were working at Washington National Opera. Did you have a role model? You had keenly learned the repertoire and probably observed the industry, just with your great intelligence. Did you have a role model? Was there someone you wanted to be like?
Peter Russell: Absolutely and here's the interesting thing. What does this say? That all of my role models, but one perhaps, were female: Ardis Krainik and my supervisor at Wolf Trap: Ann McPherson McKee, from whom I learned so much. When I took that job in August of '84, it was the proverbial job that nobody in his or her right mind would want, because it had switched hands about three times in five years. And Frank Rizzo's advice was "Look: at your age" - because I wasn't yet 28 - "no one is gonna give you a general manager job. So just go in there, get two years worth of experience and then get the hell out, like I did." And I thought, "Well, that makes perfect sense," except that thanks to Anne McKee, who always had my back, and from whom I learned so much, I just felt I was always learning something and I was always growing. But in terms of just looking at the top of the field, Ardis Krainik as general manager of the Lyric Opera of Chicago was just an absolutely remarkable individual.
Marc A. Scorca: And how did you come to know Ardis or be introduced to her work?
Peter Russell: Thanks to you, I became one of the cub members of the OPERA America board of directors when she was heavily involved. In fact, she may have been whatever the title is: president of the board?
Marc A. Scorca: At the time she was president of the board; we changed the title later.
Peter Russell: But (she) just always had a knack for knowing what the right thing to do was; how to think strategically; how to never waste time; how to cut to the chase. She was just so admirable.
Marc A. Scorca: And just that energy, that presence, the incredible charisma that she had.
Peter Russell: Actually, David Gockley too. David Gockley in terms of what he achieved in Houston was thoroughly admirable. What he was able to do there was... Just hats off to him.
Marc A. Scorca: Yeah. A real trail trailblazer, for sure. When I think of your early career or the early part of your career, young artist development was clearly a through line. And here you were taking a job with Frank Rizzo's advice at Wolf Trap, thus aligning yourself with the trajectory of young artists, but did it start out as a job and then become a passion? Was it really a passion you got to realize when you took the job at Wolf Trap? How did you become so closely aligned with young artists?
Peter Russell: I don't know. It's a 'was it the chicken or the egg type of thing?" Because it was also in the fall of 1984 that I served for the first time as an adjudicator for what's now The Metropolitan Opera Laffont Competition, and it was for the district auditions here in DC, with a very interesting pair of co adjudicators, both of whom had just retired from DC institutions: Audrey Snapp, who had been tenured faculty for years at University of Maryland's Maryland Opera Studio, and Mattiwilda Dobbs who, of course, after Marion Anderson broke the color barrier in 1955 at The Met, was one of those people that just had a great international career, mostly in Europe, but also at The Met and also a recording career. And I sort of felt it was more my duty to listen and learn from them, which I did. And a person who actually won in the districts was the regional winner that spring of '85, and then won as one of the top prize winners in New York, and did well for a while. But I was also really fortunate because our first year of Filene young artists, (my first full season of staging opera at Wolf Trap in 1985), we had some really good people who lasted a long time. And it was strange because Allan Glassman, who had just made the switch from lyric baritone to tenor and Richard Croft were both several years older than me and had been in the field for a while. And I always sort of felt they, quite understandably, were sort of raising an eyebrow, like "Who is this punk?" But we also had Dawn Upshaw that summer; a coloratura, who did quite well for herself for a number of years (and in fact did a couple of roles at The Met that she did for us) Barbara Kilduff. We had Luretta Bybee, Victoria Livengood, Gordon Hawkins, Eugene Perry...it was a good lineup that year.
Marc A. Scorca: Wolf Trap has had a number of incredible years. I remember the year when Stephanie Blythe, Emily Pulley, Michelle DeYoung and Christine Goerke were all in one class; it was an amazing class.
Peter Russell: And all singing Handel. That's the thing. And everyone says they can't sing florid music, except that back then, they all did, including Eric Owens, who was Achilla in that same production of Julius Caesar that all the aforementioned were in, and they all could really move their voices. And I think for them, it was good. No two are created exactly alike, but I think it was good experience for them in 1995.
Marc A. Scorca: And then of course you followed the young artist track getting to The Met and working on the Lindemann Program. So you continue to have this connection to young artists, even as your career progressed.
Peter Russell: And also some of the singers that we present as part of our recital series are emerging people. When our founder turned 90, the board wanted to do something to honor him and his request, because he really missed the annual collaboration that Vocal Arts used to do with the foundation that Marilyn Horne created, which existed for the express purpose of seeing to it, that recital repertoire continued to thrive in the hands of the best of America's classical singers. We would, with the Horne Foundation, present the DC recital debut of one of her up-and-coming young singers every year. And a lot of people for years and years said that they remembered the first Kennedy Center recital by: - let's name three of those names: Christine Goerke, Stephanie Blythe, Michelle DeYoung, through the combined auspices of Vocal Arts and the Horne Foundation. So, we presented a wonderful young Canadian mezzo-soprano, virtually, as our Gerald Perman Emerging Artist this past year, Emily D’Angelo. And this year, it will be a soprano who's finishing up with Houston Opera Studio, Elena Villalón. But some of the people who have done that since 2015, when we created it are already doing very well for themselves. And that's exciting to watch.
Marc A. Scorca: You've taken us right down this path; I wanted to talk to you about the song recital. You and I are chronologically the same age. And I remember when I was in college, that to get tickets to a Janet Baker recital, Christa Ludwig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: that these recitals were just packed with audiences. Carnegie Hall; at the time it was Avery Fisher Hall. And then, when I lived in Chicago, whether it was Kathleen Battle or Jessye Norman: sold out recitals. And these days, the song recital is not as popular as a form; does not bring out audiences the way it used to. And yet my sense is that a song recital is a very important part of an opera artist's development. So what is your view here? Here you are leading Vocal Arts DC. What's your view about the place of the song recital in our opera world?
Peter Russell: I think that it behooves us to take a stance, similar to what the artistic administration at The Met has been doing since the pandemic and since Black Lives Matter, which is to say: aspects of the canon in the right hands, or in this case the right brains and throats will always have a place. And we found this, whether it's Christian Gerhaher with Gerold Huber or Anna Caterina Antonacci and Rosa Feola doing music of their homelands: those are rare bird sightings that will draw crowds, but we also need to take a good hard look at what we have in our own backyards and give everybody a place at the table. So this year's recitalists include David Portillo doing a program that includes Copland and Britten, which as an openly gay man (and that's a change from when you and I were there). There were singers that were quietly out, but that was about the extent of it. People like John Reardon, for instance, or Donald Gramm and also people that are composers of Latinx extraction like Guastavino and Chapí. So we have that, we have Will Liverman doing songs by black composers as well as by Ravel and Richard Strauss, and we've commissioned a new cycle for him based on poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay and music by Michael Ippolito. Elena Villalón is gonna be singing another commission by a Latinx composer based in Minneapolis, Reinaldo Moya as well as songs from all over the map, including by María Grever. So we're talking female and Latinx. More Ginastera, Shostakovitch, Hugo Wolf, so it's a very, very mixed and very diverse program. And then, Jamie Barton with Jake Heggie at the keyboard. Some of Heggie's stuff, which is popular with our audience. When Susan Graham gave a recital to open our 25th anniversary, we commissioned the song cycle, Iconic Legacies from Jake and Gene Scheer, which Jamie and Jake have now recorded, and our audience will hear it for the first time since we gave its premiere. So that's fun and it's exciting. And I think it's a viable season, but it does mean that we're taking a slightly different look at what it means to be a vocal recital and what it means to be a presenter in the year 2022.
Marc A. Scorca: And I think that direction, both in terms of repertoire and the performance is just fantastic. But I wanted to think about the trajectory of a young artist - a singer - and whether you feel that some opera singers/all opera singers should experiment with and experience the song recital as a facet of their artistry?
Peter Russell: I'm going to paraphrase Stephanie Blythe and I'm not gonna get this exactly right. But she said in a couple of different interviews that you can ask a singer any number of questions. Is it difficult to sing in the Czech language? Is it difficult to sing a role that has such a wide vocal range of over two octaves? All of that, if the singer answers truthfully can tell you something. And yet, nothing gives you a window into the soul of a singer as an artist, so much as what it is that they choose to program on a recital and how it is that they react to the music through the words to communicate the emotions therein to a public. Yes, it means that you have to be naked, figuratively speaking. You don't have scenery, costumes, an orchestra, lighting, props, any of the comforts to shield you. It really is just you and the music communicating: you as the vessel telling a story. But boy, does that tell us a lot of who you are, and if you can succeed in doing that without being scared, then I think it does absolutely make you a better artist. That said, is it for everybody? Maybe, maybe not. I will say that sometimes you might be surprised by someone who you'd think, "Oh, but that's just a classic opera singer," who then turns out to be a surprisingly vital recitalist. Case in point: Michael Fabiano, who opened our 2013/14 season, which was the first one that I booked. And it was in a sense, an old fashioned recital in a sense that it was bookended by arias and then had songs in the middle. But boy, talk about total commitment in terms of communication to the music and the words, and at the end of that season, Larry Brownlee, who is for us just a golden charm. He can come and sing anything, including a recital that you would think half the audience (when he did it in the spring of 2018) would say, "Well, I'm not sure that I want to hear half of this," because it included the Schumann Dichterliebe and then the second half was the Tyshawn Sorey Cycles of My Being. And yet, because he's Larry Brownlee, Washingtonians have basically come to trust that anything that he does is going to be moving and beautiful. So, whether you bought the ticket, because you knew you wanted to hear him sing Dichterliebe, or you were curious about the Tyshawn Sorey, people came and they stayed and they applauded like mad.
Marc A. Scorca: That's wonderful. I invoke something that Stephanie said with me in an interview some years ago: "When you're doing a song recital, you also don't have a costumer; you have to choose your dress. You have to choose your hand gestures, your body movement; you don't have a stage director. And that to become an artist who can stand on their own, you need to do a song recital where you are alone with the choice of repertoire, the clothes, the movement on stage." I think she used the phrase, 'an autonomous artist'; that the song recital was really essential in creating that sense of artistic autonomy.
Peter Russell: Absolutely. I won't name this particular artist, but there was a recital presented, not by us, in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, and the press release, which I received, had a quote from the artist saying that she wanted to underscore for the audience that each selection on the program had been handpicked by her. And I thought, "What an odd statement to make," if you, yourself, as the artist presenting this program didn't select the music: who, pray tell did? Certainly the accompanist, didn't say, "Hey you there, soprano, I'd like to hire you to come to a recital with me, which I'm going to select; I'm going to program." That's not how this works. You're absolutely right, and so is Stephanie. It has to be something where you basically say the narrative arc is going to be thus, and hopefully there will be a narrative arc in terms of you go beyond just what we call the prix fixe, where you start with the standard Purcell or Handel, and then you do some German and some French, and then you end with some Copland. Hopefully there will be something a little bit more original than that.
Marc A. Scorca: In the year when you joined the Washington National Opera, was there an American opera performed that season?
Peter Russell: Yes. Argento's Postcard from Morocco.
Marc A. Scorca: And at Wolf Trap, did you do American opera?
Peter Russell: We sure did. We did not only Postcard from Morocco, but we did Conrad Susa's Transformations. We focused very heavily on Mozart 'cause that was kind of Frank's thing: if you could learn how to sing Mozart, you could learn how to do everything.
Marc A. Scorca: That continues to be pretty true, but I'm leading in this direction. You talked about some of the wonderful composers you've commissioned at Vocal Arts, DC; a smattering of American opera of Conrad Susa of others at Washington National Opera. Are you pleased to see the volume, by which I mean quantity, of American creativity these days? The burgeoning, bursting American repertoire: does it please you in terms of quantity?
Peter Russell: Totally.
Marc A. Scorca: Does it please you in terms of quality?
Peter Russell: In terms of quality, I think that that's always going to be a situation in which the number of operas that actually last for a certain period of time and then truly stay the course: it will always be a really small percentage. I'm thrilled by the quantity of American creativity and the diversity of it. The fact that we now have more female composers; the fact that we now have more diversity in terms of races, because the only way we're gonna last, and it it's a heck of a thing that since 9/11, the great recession, Black Lives Matters and now the pandemic have forced us or have accelerated and exacerbated what we'd all been whispering to ourselves for a very long time, which is that the old formulas were really not working any longer. So when you see the tremendous success of Fire Shut Up in My Bones; when you see that The Met has pivoted on a dime and decided that they're gonna do Champion next year with a wonderful cast, it's tremendously exciting. And here in DC, I give Francesca Zambello huge props from the time she took over of making a commitment to American works in a way that no administration prior to her own, except for maybe back when the company was still the Opera Society of Washington and performing at Lisner Auditorium and basically trying to model themselves on Santa Fe Opera, according to people like John Moriarty, who were integrally involved at that point. She has actually done choices, in terms of American works, that make the 'National', that a former administration added to the company's moniker, legitimate. And she's done it with both color conscious and color blind casting. So I think that that's really good stuff.
Marc A. Scorca: You mentioned Lisner Auditorium and it makes me think of Washington Concert Opera, which was started by your recently passed husband, Steven Crout. Where does concert opera fit in this spectrum?
Peter Russell: You know, at the time that we founded it, and I have to give Martin Feinstein, then general director of Washington National Opera full credit, because far from resisting the founding of Concert Opera, he was completely supportive. He basically said "The more, the merrier; the more of us there are, the better off people will be." But at the time that we did it, it was during the time when WNO was not performing; to give a little dose of opera in the spring and in the early fall, and to do it with operas that weren't generally going to be performed by WNO and perhaps also showcase artists that either weren't singing here, or rarely sang here. So, it's great that they're now celebrating their 35th season. Good for them.
Marc A. Scorca: And it's a wonderful organization. The opera audience tends to be visual. The opera audience likes to see sets and costumes, and yet there is a fervent following for Washington Concert Opera. What about concert opera speaks to you?
Peter Russell: In terms of the last Concert Opera performance that I attended, I will tell you that Rossini's Zelmira, another rarity that I had never heard: it was worth the price of admission, just so that when the character of Ilo, the tenor part being sung again by Lawrence Brownlee, made his entrance about half an hour into the first act and launched into the most astonishing entrance aria: sweet cantilena, bravura, up and down the yin yang, more notes above high C than you could ever imagine anyone could sing. The audience just went nuts. And the whole time that he was singing it, there was almost this church-like silence in the hall. No coughing, no fidgeting, no nothing. And it was just the power of the music and the beauty and virtuoso technique of the human voice bewitching all of us together as a community, as he told that story. And that for me is something that we should all cherish. That's why we're there.
Marc A. Scorca: And again, an opera that would not be staged. There's no company that I can imagine is going to spend a lot of money staging and building sets and costumes for Zelmira and how wonderful that you then got to be completely inspired and lifted up by Larry's performance.
Peter Russell: Absolutely. And, you know, except for the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, you're absolutely right. Here in the States, especially as we're coming out of pandemia, I think that there are certain things that we shouldn't expect to return to the rep anytime too terribly soon. And again, a wholesale shift in the rep may be in the offing. We just don't know.
Marc A. Scorca: Are there any other trends in opera in this country that captivate you, either because you're really delighted to see them, because they upset you a little bit. Are there other trends you think about in American opera today?
Peter Russell: I'll tell you what pleases me greatly is that when you and I first entered the field, there were African American female singers, but the number of African American male singers were few and far between. It was easier to find them on the roster of New York City Opera than it was on the roster of The Met. And there's the famous quote that Simon Estes shares of Leontyne Price, telling him, "Go to Europe. You're gonna be so much better off if you hitch your wagon to the German system and build your repertoire and your career there, because otherwise it's gonna take you a very long time, if forever to build a reputation like you will over there." And of course she was completely right. We've made some progress in that regard, in terms of there now being many more men of color. And also in terms of Asian singers. It used to be that if there were singers from Asia, they were sopranos and they were pigeonholed as Cio-Cio-San and Liu. We have presented as our permanent emerging artist recitalists, both the Chinese soprano, Ying Fang and the Korean, Hera Hyesang Park. And when Ms. Park was here, she said that the joke is that when she sees Ying, with whom she's friends, passing one another in the corridors at The Met, she says, "Oh, hello Hyesang," and Ying says, "Hello, Ying." And then they just laugh because that happens to them all the time. As Hyesang said, "They only see Asian." And I said, "Okay, that's bad, but let's look on a bright side. Two of you are at The Met and you're rehearsing operas, and neither one of you is cast as Madam Butterfly or Liu, so it's better than we were 25 and 30 years ago when basically the Korean emigre Hei-Kyung Hong was the only fixture on The Met roster singing all kinds of roles that were not Madam Butterfly. So we're getting there; it's not fast enough, but it's running in the right direction.
Marc A. Scorca: It's headed in the right direction. Progress is being made, but I share your wish that we could just get there a little bit faster. But you know, as the Italians say, 'A beautiful day starts in the morning'. So luckily we've gotten a start on it. Peter Russell, it is such a pleasure to hear your voice.