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Article Published: 04 Jan 2020

Oral History Project II

Key figures in OPERA America's history offer their reminiscences.

John Conklin

I started my designing career in theater and in opera at the same time, and I’ve always tried to balance the two. You learn that opera and theater are the same. I was lucky to hit the track at the point when design was becoming more and more part of dramaturgy. You are not a designer; you’re an aid to the performer. Even in an abstract space, you completely need moment-to-moment psychological and musical understanding. If the performers can see where you’re going and pick up on that, you can do almost anything.

I treat every opera as a new work to explore, as if it had never been performed. The premise that a production should reflect “what the composer intended” is false. What does that mean? It muddles any real thought about what the job is, asking opera designers and directors to create a thing that doesn’t really exist. There is no ideal production of Tosca. The idea that opera is a museum in which masterpieces are preserved for generations to come just confuses the issue. Yes, Rembrandt’s self-portrait is a thing. It has a definite size; it’s made from certain pieces of material and oil mixed with chemicals. It exists. Where does Tosca exist?

John Conklin has designed productions for opera and theater companies across North America and Europe, and served as the Glimmerglass Festival’s associate artistic director from TK to TK. He served on OPERA America’s board from 1999 to 2004.

Speight Jenkins

When I arrived at Seattle Opera, my ambition was to make it into a major American company. And I knew that the best way to do that was one, to spend money, and two, to get great singers. I told my team: “We’re sitting up in a corner of the world here. We’re far away from anything. If we make sure singers have a good time here, they’re going to want to come back.”

To do the best kind of opera, you have to believe what you’re doing is important. In the 1990s, when we did Tristan und Isolde with Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner, I went to a donor and asked her, “Do you know anything about Tristan?” So I talked to her about Tristan; I talked about its importance; I talked about what we were going to do with it. I said, “If we can pull this off, the whole world will come here. I know that.” She said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” That was it. You’ve really got to care about these things.

When students ask me about opera transmissions in the cinema, I say, “This is very good. I’m glad they’re doing it. It’s a great thing for people.” But don’t get confused: It’s not opera. Because opera is an energy interchange between the public and the singers in the room.”

Speight Jenkins, general director of Seattle Opera from 1983 and 2014, served on OPERA America’s board from 1986 to 1990 and again from 2001 to 2006.

The Oral History Project, an initiative launched during OPERA America's 50th anniversary, is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation.

This article was published in the Winter 2020 issue of Opera America Magazine.