Video Published: 01 Jan 2022

An Oral History with Susan Feder

On March 30th, 2022, arts administrator Susan Feder 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 March 30th, 2022. 
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. 

Susan Feder, arts administrator

Susan Feder is a Program Officer in the Arts and Culture program at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where since 2007 she has responsibility for grantmaking in the performing arts and related organizations. Among the initiatives she has launched are the Comprehensive Organizational Health Initiative, National Playwright Residency Program, Pathways for Musicians from Underrepresented Communities, Regional Arts Resilience Fund, and The Black Seed, a national program of, by, and for Black theaters. She was formerly the vice president of the music publishing firm G. Schirmer, Inc., editorial coordinator of The New Grove Dictionary of American Music and program editor at the San Francisco Symphony.

Oral History Project

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

Transcript

Marc A. Scorca: Susan Feder, hello, and thank you so much for being with us today. You know our 50th anniversary was interrupted pretty powerfully by COVID, but we were setting out to create an oral history and to talk to 50 people who’ve made an indelible impression on American opera over the last half century, and you are clearly one of those people, so thanks for joining me today.

Susan Feder: Well, that's an honor Marc and quite a compliment. So I hope I can try to live up to it in this hour.

Marc A. Scorca: You already have. As I always do, I start out by asking everyone, who brought you to your first opera?

Susan Feder: My first opera was (thanks to) my middle school music teacher, Donald Hoople. We had a wonderful public music program in the White Plains public schools, and it's where I started violin and I played in my first orchestra and the eighth grade class trip was to The Metropolitan Opera. So we spent weeks, if not months preparing for that trip, and it was Carmen. I looked it up this morning, just wondering who might have been in that cast. And it was Grace Bumbry, Mirella Freni, Richard Tucker and Justino Díaz, none of whom would've meant anything to me at the time. But that was the season, with a new production of Carmen.

Marc A. Scorca: Was your first impression one of "I like this," (or) was it not a convincing first experience?

Susan Feder: Oh, no. It was a wonderful first experience and honestly one of the greatest parts of it was not only seeing the lights ascend in The Metropolitan Opera, but that they left the curtains up in between acts, to see the magic behind the making of the opera, which of course we can do on HDTV now, but that was really something in 1968.

Marc A. Scorca: And we hear it anecdotally across our industry that when audiences get to actually see, because a curtain gets stuck, something happens: they love seeing what goes on backstage.

Susan Feder: And I was, at that point, a violinist. I was an active instrumentalist. I was playing in summer camps and All County orchestras, but my parents also had gotten an subscription to the new Met, which had been (opened) a year or two earlier. And my father had been a supernumerary at The Met in his youth, but they didn't take me to opera, oddly; they took me to Broadway musicals at that stage of my life.

Marc A. Scorca: Isn't that interesting. And even though you were a young violinist, did you go to Symphony performances?

Susan Feder: Occasionally. My grandfather had a subscription for the New York Philharmonic, so we would go once a year, but my first time at Carnegie Hall, I was backstage with the New York Youth Symphony, and I saw it from that vantage point, rather than the audience.

Marc A. Scorca: Not a bad view. So I wanna just talk about your entry into the music business. Of course, when you went to college, you had a double major - music was one of those, and then you went on for graduate work and was focused on music. So what was the journey from youthful violinist into music as your area of study?

Susan Feder: I thought I wanted to be a violinist and my parents told me that I could study music in college as long as it was at an Ivy League school, and back in those days mere mortals were able to get into Ivy League schools. Princeton had gone co-ed a couple years before, so this was plausible, but my Princeton education was entirely in musicology; performance was extracurricular, and somewhere along the way, I realized I wasn't going to be a good enough musician, but I had gotten very interested in the history of music; the context in which music was made; the power of music to change hearts and minds, and to contribute to our cultural wellbeing. At Princeton, it was extracurricular, but new music at Princeton was very much the Milton Babbitt school, and I would occasionally play for graduate student compositions, which is probably where I first encountered Daniel Catán. I don't remember that in any detail. I'm quite sure I would've played for something for him.

Marc A. Scorca: Now that you mention it, I remember that connection when we saluted him. What struck me too, is that, like one of my brothers, you went from an east coast school to a west coast school for your graduate program: from Princeton, (a rather measured environment) to Berkeley, a very different environment. What brought you cross-country?

Susan Feder: Well, very intentional that I wanted to see New York as not being the center of the universe. I had a gap year in between when I went to Rome with a friend and had just a year on my own. I did play in orchestras there. I taught elementary school music, but I had that Berkeley acceptance in my back pocket, and Berkeley had a great program and it was in the Bay Area.

Marc A. Scorca: And once again, a musicological focus?

Susan Feder: Very definitely.

Marc A. Scorca: Did you continue playing violin even while you were in graduate school?

Susan Feder: Yeah.

Marc A. Scorca: And then, I noticed that your first professional work was at the San Francisco Symphony, at least what I understand from your bio. And there you were writing program notes and doing other musicalogically related work for the Symphony, and it seems like that's a natural outgrowth from your life as a violinist to work in Symphony...

Susan Feder: That was very much a part of it, Marc, and serendipitously I had met Michael Steinberg, a Berkeley graduate student, at a party. He was in fact dating a Berkeley graduate student at the moment. And I walked into that party and he looked terribly bored, and I knew he had spent a lot of time in Italy. So I went over to him and started talking about Italy. And some months later - he was at that point the artistic advisor at the Boston Symphony - he was invited to take on the same position at San Francisco, and he asked me if I wanted to join him. And that was a very quick and easy 'yes'. But I waited until after my graduate exams were passed, and I asked for a leave of absence and caused all sorts of disruption.

Marc A. Scorca: And then I learned in the lobby of a Philharmonic performance over at Alice Tully Hall, just this fall, that Deborah Borda was at the San Francisco Symphony when you were.

Susan Feder: Yes. Peter Pastreich was the executive director; John Gidwitz was the orchestra manager; Deborah was the artistic administrator. It was an incredible brain trust. I was actually editing the program book rather than writing program notes, Michael did that, but along the way, we realized that there were some he just never got around to, and sometimes that was new music related. And so I started picking up the pieces on that, and that's how I got my start as program note writer.

Marc A. Scorca: Where was your opera interest at this moment in your burgeoning career?

Susan Feder: Well, that's a good question. San Francisco Opera was across the street from the Symphony. In fact, it was the year that the opera orchestra and the symphony orchestra split, because of the opening of Davies Symphony Hall and the expansion (in) those seasons. And so I started going to more opera at that point. I heard some of my first Ring (but not entirely while there) and the interest in opera grew more, later in my career, I would say.

Marc A. Scorca: Was your interest in new work present all along? There you were at the Milton Babbitt School at Princeton, playing perhaps for some Daniel Catán work. So new music was a part of what you had studied. You are so clearly identified today with new work. Was that always an interest that was part of your outlook?

Susan Feder: It was a burgeoning interest, but I think it came when I returned to New York after two years at the Symphony to coordinate the American Grove Dictionary, and two things happened. One was, how were we gonna populate that dictionary? What were the contents in it? And Wiley Hitchcock, the co-editor of the Dictionary had been writing the program notes for a young orchestra called the American Composers Orchestra and founded in 1977. And he said, would you like to take this on? It's just too much for me at this point. So that was my major introduction to living composers and new music, and I interviewed every composer before writing the notes, and just became fascinated with their journey, what their processes were; tried to create for the audience reading this ('cause this was the last point of contact before they would be hearing things) some points of entry for listening, and what was it in the composer's career trajectory that caused them to write that particular piece at that particular time. And that varied if I was dealing with a dead composer, it obviously was taken from secondary sources, but more often I got to interview. The other thing was at San Francisco Symphony, there was a young composer who started a program called New and Unusual Music and that young composer was John Adams. We became friends at that time and I actually played in a couple of those concerts. I don't know how they got around the union rules, but that was equally developing interest in new music. So it was organic. It didn't come outta school. It came out of lived experiences, and I'm very grateful for that.

Marc A. Scorca: And when you were in school, were your score reading skills, was your ear training really good? Because so much of being able to really get into new music, and to assess it, is to look at a score that is difficult or to hear something that is not within the normal diatonic framework. Did you have good score reading skills and listening skills?

Susan Feder: Marc, I was a violinist and not a pianist and my piano skills are awful, and I had to use them more when I was doing the ACO notes and try to pick things out. And I remember trying to do a program note on Roger Sessions' Fourth Symphony, and I just wasn't making any headway and thinking, "Nobody else ever has either, why should I do this?" And I just kept on digging into it. And so I had that 'aha' moment of, "I see how this fantastic piece is put together." That happened a couple of times along the way.

Marc A. Scorca: That's very funny. So, Groves, which is just such an incredible resource. I live by that Groves...to Schirmer, to publishing, 'cause you were at Schirmer for 20 years. How did that career transition come about for you?

Susan Feder: I'd had this wonderful experience editing one book for four years. And so I was finding that I was not competitive in publishing. I was not competitive in arts administration in the ways that I might have had ambitions to be. I was, by then, married and not wanting to relocate from New York. And it was [Paul Eccles?], who was the VP at Schirmer at the time, and also a Grove contributor who said "Come and let's talk." So we started having conversations and along the way that spring, Schirmer, which had been owned by McMillan Publishers, was sold to an organization called Music Sales Corporation, and I remember being at Grove and the PR director at Schirmer, Eric Gordon calling up and saying, "Stop the presses; Schirmer has just died and they've been taken over by this pop organization and it's gonna be awful." So I met the new folks and liked them immediately. And it was the job that was available at that time. A fantastic introduction to living composers and the opportunity to shape their careers, and it was not only American composers. Schirmer represented at that time Ricordi and Sikorski and the Russian catalog and Faber. So it was real international introduction to contemporary music.

Marc A. Scorca: What was your first position there?

Susan Feder: My position was director of promotion. And within six months, unfortunately, Paul had left the organization and they made me vice president shortly thereafter.

Marc A. Scorca: A young vice president.

Susan Feder: Young and green. I remember Rose Mary Harbison saying, "Oh my God, you are so young." That's all they could think of.

Marc A. Scorca: I'm always surprised at how much publishers do, and how little people actually understand the role of the publisher. So when, when you say, "For 20 years, I was a music publisher." How do you explain what your role was?

Susan Feder: My role was to support composers in whatever way we felt they needed to help them write the works that they wanted to do, and then to try to get them into the repertory. And that took several different facets, not all of which I did obviously, but there is the intellectual property piece of negotiating a commission; negotiating the terms; getting to know organizations and matchmaking - another phrase I used. Then there was the production aspect: you needed score and parts and materials. You needed to support the composer in their revisions. You needed to promote the piece and then - certainly in the 1980's, less so than now - but you tried to get it published commercially available, for printer sale, and with larger pieces for rental. My work fell largely in the matchmaking part, but my colleagues at Schirmer were dealing with all four of those aspects.

Marc A. Scorca: Will music publishers enter into a discussion about the work itself, the way you sometimes hear that book publishers will say to a novelist, "I'm not getting this character," or "I think you need to reshape this part of how these story threads intersect." Do publishers actually get into discussing how the work is going, how it's shaping up with the composers?

Susan Feder: That's a great question, Marc. The answer is yes, but it's difficult, because if you're not spending a great deal of time with the score, if you're looking at it superficially as most of us do, even as interested listeners, you can't always know what the intention of the composer was, or what the shape was. Ironically, it was easier in opera because you're starting with words and librettos, and the interventions we were able to make on pacing and timing were very different, because you had that dramatic aspect on top of the intrinsic musical one.

Marc A. Scorca: You get right to a question that I had, whether being the publisher, the composer partner, Symphony, chamber music, Opera: how similar or different was it? And I hear you suggesting that with opera, the dramatic arc makes it more tangible in a way to talk about whether the work is proceeding on pace.

Susan Feder: It absolutely does. It's also far more challenging to do anything about that. With chamber music, you probably have as much rehearsal time as the performers wanna put in it, and you can listen and you can shape and they can argue among themselves and they can make this kind of shape. With Symphonies, you've got two and a half services before your world premiere. There's not a lot you can do. And you've got a hundred players dependent on materials. So you can make the odd cut; you can make the odd addition; you can make, obviously, the odd correction. With opera it's that much to scale harder, 'cause you've got not only the soloists, you've got the chorus and you've got the orchestra in most cases. So moving those mountains on a dime is very hard to do in a limited rehearsal period, which is why I felt so strongly about improving developmental processes for new opera.

Marc A. Scorca: I know how much composers, librettists will adjust a work after its premiere; fix some things. I've never imagined that a symphony composer might do the same thing; might have heard three performances (with) the New York Philharmonic and say, "Oh, I really wanna change the way that second movement goes."

Susan Feder: It's usually not that radical, but sometimes there will be a little shaping, little cutting. It does happen; it's more about balance, orchestral balances or doublings or just making sure things come out that were intended to come out.

Marc A. Scorca: I just never thought about that. It's funny. So, how is opera in this young publisher? How is opera taking shape in you? Did you jump into it and do a crash course in opera? Was it just a growing expertise that developed for you?

Susan Feder: I would say it was a growing expertise. And remember, I didn't have to think about the repertoire of opera though. I had certainly studied Verdi and Wagner and Mozart, particularly in college and graduate school, but it really was understanding new opera, and it was very lucky that I arrived at Schirmer and John Corigliano was in the middle of a Metropolitan Opera commission for The Ghosts of Versailles. And some years after that John Harbison received the commission that resulted in The Great Gatsby. So I was really in on that one from the ground floor, and our composers felt that opera writing was a right of passage for many of them. So a lot of discussion about topics and getting the rights. When André Previn wanted to do Streetcar Named Desire, there were all sorts of negotiations with the estate and permissions that would have to be involved. So it was learning by doing.

Marc A. Scorca: But of course when you joined Schirmer: was it 1987?

Susan Feder: '86.

Marc A. Scorca: It was a very different world for American opera. I mean, 1987 is the year of Nixon in China, which represents a kind of titanic shift in American opera...

Susan Feder: Though, I have to say that that Anthony Davis's X, which premiered in 1986 represented the subject matter shift (to) the so-called CNN opera that John got much more credit for.

Marc A. Scorca: Very true. I'm glad we sort of have escaped from that 'CNN Opera' label, but it was so popular in the day (regarding) those operas about contemporary people or events. In 1987, there was a cosmic dearth of American opera on American opera companies' stages.

Susan Feder: Except in Houston

Marc A. Scorca: Right. At that point, maybe Ardis Krainik at Lyric Opera of Chicago had done Satyagraha. It was just beginning to move forward. And yet you say that composers were thinking about opera as an important rite of passage, even then?

Susan Feder: Oh yes. And I think all credit to Paul Kellogg at New York City Opera, who I think was encouraging, not only in productions, but with the Vox series (for) new opera, and San Francisco Opera would have the occasional new piece, but it was a very different landscape, led by composers who wanted to expand their own palettes in this fantastic art form.

Marc A. Scorca: It's a big canvas. You were very involved in the Music Publishers Association, and every industry has an association: OPERA America is an association. What are the sorts of things that the Music Publishers Association deals with? What are some of the subjects that come up?

Susan Feder: I haven't given that much thought in 15 years, but it was a combination of rights and commercial issues. Recordings were a major source of income to composers and publishers when I first entered Schirmer, and so, as you started having streaming services and Napster: how were those rights being collected? How could that income be retained on behalf of our clients, our composers. That had an enormous question. How were performing rights being collected accurately by our performing rights organizations, ASCAP and BMI and their counterparts around the world. And what were the competitive issues? Copyright extension came up in the '90's, as we joined the Berne Accord, and understanding this was not just about Mickey Mouse and Disney, but this was about John Corigliano and Gian Carlo Menotti and John Adams and John Harbison - that was a big one. What the printing industry was in process of changing...Schirmer had licensed its printing to Hal Leonard Publishing Company, which gradually assumed that responsibility for other major classical publishers, because they had a pop catalog that could support some of that activity. So dealing with the changing landscape and trying not to despair too much about it. Self-publishing became more and more possible as computer-generated score and parts were available to composers and composer collectives. And the internet. The internet, the self-promotion changed very differently. A completely different landscape; it was paper-based in 1986. We didn't have email; we didn't have internet. Boy, I'm dating myself!

Marc A. Scorca: No, you're not. I'm nostalgic about those days. I was able to dig up your letter to the editor from September of 1999 and the article you responded to 'The Opera is New, but is it Good?' And in your letter response, you enumerated the upcoming performances of a couple of the operas that you had helped develop, just indicating that after a premier, there is life of a work - maybe not as much life as we'd like - but there is life after the work, but it was a very interesting title. 'The Opera is New, but is it Good,' and working with your opera composers, you had to have developed a kind of internal sense of what made something good. For Susan Feder, what makes good opera?

Susan Feder: Well, before I answer that very good question, Marc, I just have to issue a little corrective, because the article on which my letter to the editor was based was not called 'The Opera is Good.' The article was called 'The Premiere is Sometimes the Easy Part: New Operas Face Hurdles in Joining the Repertory.' So there wasn't even (a) question about 'good.' The 'good' came in in that copy editor's titling of the letter to the editor.

Marc A. Scorca: Oh, isn't that interesting? Fair enough.

Susan Feder: But I think it's a great question nonetheless, and I think good is in the eye of the creator and in the beholder, and as a publisher, what I looked for in signing composers was music I hadn't heard before. And we would have listening sessions and would say, "Oh, that's the Stravinsky wannabe. And that's the Schoenberg wannabe. And that's the Samuel Barber wannabe. And that's the Corigliano wannabe. And that's the Steve Reich wannabe.” And they could be very, very competent composers, but when we would hear something new, we would light up and we'd get so excited, and those were the people we wanted to talk to. And whether that was good or whether that was different, this was what got our juices going, and even the finest composers are gonna have works that are better and worse and good years and bad years and good days and bad days, and writing a piece when their mother-in-law had died or when they didn't know where the next rental check was coming from. All these external influences can affect what happens in a piece of music, where they were late in delivering - so all sorts of factors. Something can be magnificent, but needing a lot of revision for one reason or another, or it could be not so magnificent and designed to be an experiment. You know, we don't allow our artists time to experiment the way science allows their scientists to experiment, and so-called failure is on the road to the next great discovery, and I think we have to look at music the same way.

Marc A. Scorca: That's a perfect bridge, because as I was thinking about our conversation, as a publisher, you were an ally, a partner in the development of work, and in a way, as a funder, you are a partner and a co-developer of work, a different lens, but did you see when you went from Schirmer to Mellon this bridge of continuing to help give birth to new work, but in a different fashion?

Susan Feder: Yeah, I think that what appealed to me about moving to Mellon was the opportunity to be able to look from the 60,000 foot point of view, as well as the on the ground point of view, and to do so in multiple disciplines. So as my background was in music, but I've learned so much about theater, as a result of funding theater and dance, and finding the points of connection between those disciplines and finding the points of difference. So to take an example: theater commissions a lot of work, and when I arrived, they commissioned at very low commission rates and there would be no commitment to production. And if you've ever looked at an opera contract, the day that contract is signed, you've got the premier date looming on your calendar three, five years out. Theater is very practiced at workshopping and readings and less so to committing to production, and opera at the time I entered Mellon had very little in the way of development: the occasional workshops, but John Harbison had to fund his own reading of Gatsby along the way. And The Metropolitan Opera only got interested when they realized the stage hands needed to know the timing between the scenes, so they could arrange the stage changes, and bringing those two together, learning the best, encouraging theater to make more of a commitment to production, and encouraging opera to find ways to expand that internal period between the conception of an idea and execution is something I felt very strongly about.

Marc A. Scorca: So beautifully explained. In 2014, Musical America had a nice picture of you 'Profiles in Courage,' and you were appropriately singled out.

Susan Feder: One of about 30 that year, and one of a multi-year packaging of 'Profiles in Courage.' So let's be clear...

Marc A. Scorca: Let me just say that in a country with 330 million people, being one of 30 is a good thing.

Susan Feder: Okay. Thank you.

Marc A. Scorca: What does it take to be a courageous funder?

Susan Feder: The risk in the arts comes not from the funding community, it comes from the practitioners. And I think my role as funder is to identify those courageous practitioners and find ways to support them. And sometimes I call it 'catalyzing their work'; sometimes I call it 'midwifeing their work'; sometimes I call it 'sustaining their work', but the risk to us as funders is really minimal. Is there gonna be some bad press if something happens: a company folds or falls apart? Yeah, but it's not gonna affect my paycheck or my colleagues' paychecks in the way that a mistake in the nonprofit world can affect lives differently. So, I like to think about risk and courage more in terms of the practitioners.

Marc A. Scorca: And yet, I imagine that even within a foundation that is as large and profoundly committed to the good work that the Mellon Foundation is, that still probably you are having to convince board members who may be more interested in education, or more interested in other issues of why the arts matter or what's going on in the arts. Do you have to do internal advocacy for the arts portfolio?

Susan Feder: No is the short answer. The Mellon Foundation was founded on the interests of Andrew Mellon's children, Paul and Elsa, and the arts and humanities were those interests. And that is what our mission is: to support that. We believe in it fervently. The convincing has to come of: are you gonna support organization A or B and for how long and at what level? But the overall argument about the necessity of arts and humanities is just part of our DNA and that's a wonderful place to be. And that's fantastic.

Marc A. Scorca: What's the hardest part of being a funder?

Susan Feder: Saying no and ending relationships, because the Mellon I entered had longstanding relationships with the core group of what we now think of as legacy organizations - some of the largest institutions, and (the Foundation) was very comfortable in that space, and we did certain things and we didn't do other things and over the past decade or so, opening up our portfolio in ways that weren't envisioned by the founders is extremely exciting and gratifying and necessary and predates the acceleration into social justice that one can date to 2020, but was happening already. But that means ending relationships and making room. Elizabeth Alexander, our president, calls it 'The Changing Spotlight of Philanthropy,' and it's overdue and it's giving agency and empowerment to very, very deserving organizations that have been around for decades, but have not benefited from philanthropy. Obviously many of those are what we now call BIPOC organizations, and it's been one of the most gratifying aspects of the job to open up our lenses wider, be less of a gatekeeper and more of a gate opener.

Marc A. Scorca: And yet that does mean ending some relationships; it does mean saying no to some people who might have thought that they were a perfect fit, as they came to understand the Foundation.

Susan Feder: I mean, we regularly send out letters rejecting inquiries, just saying that there are far more worthy organizations that are coming to us than we have capacity to fund, even with expanded capacity. And it's true. When people ask for feedback and we say, "It's a fantastic program, it's just not as compelling for us in this moment, as some other things that we are trying to do with our resources."

Marc A. Scorca: I know in our own funding programs, assuming we can give out five grants and we have 20 applications, it is not difficult to say no to application number 15, 16, 17,18, 19 or 20. What is really hard is saying no to number six, because it's so good, or number seven...

Susan Feder: And then you're faced with, would you make smaller grants to more organizations, which is one way of looking at it, and then can you have the impact you need if you are doing that? And those are what lead to the tough decisions and having to be rigorous about that. And we go back and forth about that.

Marc A. Scorca: People dream about what it would be like to be a funder, but they don't realize that you do say 'no' a lot more than you say 'yes'. So interesting. The American opera repertoire, as we were talking in 1987, when you started at G. Schirmer, Anthony Davis' Malcolm X was very important (with a) New York City Opera premiere. David Gockley in Houston had been doing some work, but suddenly John Adams' Nixon in China just burst forth. And what has followed? The fact now that, instead of it being the rare opera company that performed American opera in 1987, it is today the rare opera company that doesn't perform American opera. And there's a role for companies that are premiering new works, and there's a role for companies that do second or subsequent productions of new works. There are some co-production collaborations, which we try to support...how do you feel about what you have helped give birth to?

Susan Feder: I'm so proud of the artists that have made this work and have been supported by so many of the major opera companies. I think that there was a feeling in the '80's that new work wasn't good, getting back to a question you asked earlier, and I would say that new work was under rehearsed and under developed. The first run through of The Great Gatsby was the world premiere, not even the dress rehearsal and that affects pacing and that affects stamina and all sorts of things, and I didn't wanna see that again. So I brought that history with me to Mellon and have tried to support that. I think that the collaborative work, when an opera has a chance to have more than one outing, and credit to The Met and the Chicago Lyric Opera for the partnerships that they've had over the years, to many other consortiums that are developing now, and the tough part about that is if there's one slot in the season, the artistic director wants to control what that slot is, and maybe not share particularly for the deuxième or the troisième production, but there is a generosity right now. I haven't mentioned Santa Fe. I think we need to give Santa Fe a lot of credit also for being in the forefront of this quietly over the years...Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Minnesota Opera: companies that realized that this was not a liability, but an asset in their season planning. Success breeds success.

Marc A. Scorca: I interviewed Patrick Smith on Monday for this series.

Susan Feder: How is he?

Marc A. Scorca: He's great. He's gonna be 90 this year, and he singled out John Crosby as being so important early on in bringing not only the concept of the summer festival forward, but bringing new work forward as part of any good summer festival: really, really important. And to your point, it's also the case, how many great composers do we know whose first operas weren't very good, and as we've developed an army of American opera composers, what about their second, their third, their fourth, their fifth operas?

Susan Feder: Many of them don't get that chance.

Marc A. Scorca: We've lived so long with a diet of people's first operas, and if you took the first opera...

Susan Feder: Lucio Sillo...

Marc A. Scorca: Exactly..of Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Wagner, it would be a pretty thin gruel season.

Susan Feder: Yes. Die Feen...

Marc A. Scorca: You have been working to extend the developmental process, and to provide support so people can discover the work as it's developing. Are there other weak spots, if you will, within the new works development process that you would wish to bolster?

Susan Feder: I would love to see a further flexibility in the timeline for the creation of work. And I understand all the reasons why that's difficult, but it's also why it's exciting to work with organizations that are not tied to opera houses and seasons, as we are seeing with The Industry and AMOC and other kinds of companies that are taking the time they need to develop work. We've had a composer in residence program with Opera Philadelphia for a number of years. I expected more companies to get excited by that model, as it has been for years with symphony orchestras, but I think that speaks again to the fewer number of slots available for new work development. But the composers that went through that Opera Philadelphia process have become opera composers. They understand what it takes to make an opera. They understand Fach; they understand balance; they understand repertoire that they might not have heard otherwise, and making those opportunities more available. Opera composition is not taught in colleges in that way. And libretto writing absolutely is not. And I think this is another issue of finding librettists that understood the balance between the poetry and the drama, and the need to have fewer words, not more, in order to leave space for the music. And I think this is another area we have tried to help out with various of our grants.

Marc A. Scorca: And I did speak to Patrick of course, 'cause he wrote such a wonderful book about the opera libretto in 1970. And since he wrote that book, the way the American opera libretto has taken on new prominence in the balance of words and music, to return opera in a way to a more theatrical rootedness, rather than just an auditory musical experience. So it's been a very interesting development as you've watched this work.

Susan Feder: John Corigliano was absolutely adamant that (William) Bill Hoffman get equal billing with him and this was, "Oh my God, I can't get that into the brochure." But I think you're absolutely right about the prominence of the librettist and the librettist as a dramaturg, as well as a co-creator.

Marc A. Scorca: Role models. As you have progressed in your career and sometimes role models don't know they're role models, but you think about them, and what would they do? They may be role models through a Ouija board. Have you had role models in your career?

Susan Feder: I have to start with Michael Steinberg because he was my first boss, and he was one of the most brilliant musical minds I'd ever met, and one of the most beautiful writers about the musical experience. Learning at his knee by proofreading his program notes was a fantastic education. I'd say ditto for Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, the co-editors of the American Grove, people I had immense respect for and gave me agency to grow as a young professional. It was really wonderful and there's so many others, but they tend to be artists now, and not all of them are older than I am, but I had some wonderful, wonderful relationships with the Schirmer composers. I think about the Johns, particularly Harbison and Corigliano. Gabby Frank (Gabriela Lena Frank) and Tan Dun, mentors in terms of what the possibility of the creative spirit could be.

Marc A. Scorca: Role models in that way, for sure. You must be asked for advice all the time: either those wishing to be funders, those wishing to be composers, perhaps those wishing to be publishers. Is there different advice for different avenues, or is there a universal advice that you give as people ask you?

Susan Feder: Well, the advice I give most often is to young parents and I say, "Do what you believe you think is right, 'cause your kid is gonna end up in therapy anyway, and (that) kinda works about everything else.” But for artists and composers, it's similar. It's follow your muse, follow your inner muse; believe in it, stick by it, and not second guessing yourself. And I would say for funders: it's so difficult 'cause there's so few jobs that open up in philanthropy and then those of us that are in them have to be pried away from our desks, and that's something I think a lot about these days. But it's being open-minded, it's listening. It's not thinking you have all the answers and being open to new experiences.

Marc A. Scorca: I'm so grateful for this time. I just feel you've been such an agent for progress in the opera world, frankly, for 40 years, and it really mattered to me that we capture some of who you are, and what journey you've been on.

Susan Feder: I do have to answer for mentors. We were peers, but I have to bring Anne Parsons into this discussion, as well, because I learned so much from her over the years, and how to manage gracefully; how to be a participatory leader; how to lead from both the front and from the rear at various times and how to do so with grace and modesty and compassionate brilliance. Her passing this week has hit hard for many of us, but I include her for as a mentor, as well as a dear friend.