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Press Released: 22 Feb 2023

OPERA America Awards Opera Grants for Women Stage Directors and Conductors

Generously supported by the Marineau Family Foundation.

OPERA America is pleased to announce the first-round recipients of the 2023 Opera Grants for Women Stage Directors and Conductors. The program incentivizes professional opera companies of all sizes to engage women in these key artistic roles. These hires enrich the production and performance of new operas and works from the inherited repertoire and inspire future generations of creative artists who identify as women. The initiative is generously supported by the Marineau Family Foundation.

Eight grants were awarded to nine opera companies that are advancing the careers of women artists:

  • Boston Baroque (Boston, MA)
  • Heartbeat Opera (New York, NY)
  • HERE (New York, NY)
  • Houston Grand Opera (Houston, TX)
  • Los Angeles Opera (Los Angeles, CA)
  • Opera Baltimore (Baltimore, MD) and OperaDelaware (Wilmington, DE)
  • Opera Birmingham (Birmingham, AL)
  • Utah Symphony | Utah Opera (Salt Lake City, UT)

Respectively, the grants support company debuts by the following stage directors and conductors:

  • Mo Zhou, who will direct Iphigénie en Tauride (Christoph Willibald Gluck, composer; Nicolas-François Guillard, librettist) at Boston Baroque
  • Shadi G., who will direct Tosca (Giacomo Puccini, composer; Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, librettists) at Heartbeat Opera
  • Tara Ahmadinejad, who will direct mɔɹniŋ (morning//mourning) (Gelsey Bell, composer/librettist) at HERE
  • Emily Wells, who will direct Another City (Jeremy Howard Beck, composer; Stephanie Fleischman, librettist) at Houston Grand Opera
  • Leah Hausman, who will direct Pelléas et Mélisande (Claude Debussy, composer; Debussy and Maurice Maeterlinck, librettists) at Los Angeles Opera
  • Kaley Karis Smith, who will direct La traviata (Giuseppe Verdi, composer; Francesco Maria Piave, librettist) at Opera Baltimore and OperaDelaware
  • Aija Penix, who will direct dwb (driving while black) (Susan Kander, composer; Roberta Gumbel, librettist) at Opera Birmingham
  • Stephanie Rhodes Russell, who will conduct La fille du régiment (Gaetano Donizetti, composer; Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Jean-François Bayard, librettists) at Utah Symphony | Utah Opera 

(See below for additional information about the artists.) 

“The eight directors and conductors supported by this grant enrich the opera landscape with their talent and vision,” remarked Marc A. Scorca, president/CEO of OPERA America. “Opera Grants for Women Stage Directors and Conductors provide the opportunity for new voices to shape productions across the country.”

Opera Grants for Women Stage Directors and Conductors open doors for women artists in an effort to improve gender parity in the field. OPERA America’s Professional Company Members are eligible to apply for grants to subsidize up to 50 percent (up to $10,000) of the fees for women stage directors or conductors who are contracted for the first time by the companies in these positions. Grants are awarded in two semiannual rounds; the second round of awardees will be announced in summer 2023.

The Opera Grants for Women Stage Directors and Conductors program is one of OPERA America’s resources aimed at increasing gender parity across the field. Other initiatives include its Opera Grants for Women Composers, Mentorship Program for Women Administrators, and Women’s Opera Network.

Since the inception of its granting programs in the mid-1980s, OPERA America has awarded over $23 million to the opera field to support the work of opera creators, administrators, and companies.

More information about OPERA America’s grant programs is available at operaamerica.org/Grants.

About the Recipients

Boston Baroque

Mo Zhou, stage director
Iphigénie en Tauride (Gluck/Guillard)

Boston Baroque will conclude its 2022–2023 season on April 20, 21, and 23, 2023 with a new production of Iphigénie en Tauride. The opera will come to life in the hands of conductor Martin Pearlman, award-winning stage director Mo Zhou, and an outstanding cast, including Metropolitan Opera stars soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer in her role debut as Iphigénie, tenor William Burden as Pylade, baritone Jesse Blumberg as Oreste, and baritone David McFerrin as Thoas.

Mo Zhou’s career spans opera, theater, dance, and film. On faculty at the University of Michigan, she is committed to invigorating the classical canon and spearheading new works. Companies producing her work include Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin), National Centre for the Performing Arts (China), The Santa Fe Opera, and Florida Grand Opera. She worked on the directing staff at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and others. Zhou has held directing fellowship at Juilliard, Wolf Trap Opera, WP Theater, Merola Opera Program, and The Glimmerglass Festival. A winner of the OPERA America Robert L.B. Tobin Director-Designer Prize, she has taught at Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, and NYU. Zhou has a B.A. in English and theater from Bowdoin College, an M.F.A. in stage directing from Columbia University, and a certificate in diversity/inclusion from Cornell University.

Heartbeat Opera

Shadi G., stage director
Tosca (Puccini/Illica/Giacosa)

Heartbeat Opera's new production of Tosca translates Puccini's masterpiece of love and revolution from Rome's 1800 police state to an unnamed modern religious regime. This brand-new co-adaptation by director Shadi G. and Heartbeat Artistic Director Jacob Ashworth focuses on a troupe of singer activists who have clandestinely decided that tonight they will risk everything to perform the uncensored Tosca — in which corrupt officials are murdered, revolutionaries are executed, and, most importantly, a female heroine interrupts the cycle of violence. The production features a newly arranged score by Daniel Schlosberg.

Shadi G. is a theater and film director, choreographer, and writer from Iran based in New York City. She has directed Conduct of Life (SUNY Purchase), Threshold of Brightness (Beth Morrison Projects), Memorial (NYU Tisch), Banned (Broadway Bound), Glimpse (Rattlestick Theater), Mother Courage (Hunter College), Fen (Columbia University), Untitled (Rattlestick Theater), Lucretia (HERE), Death of Yazdgerd and Titus Andronicus (Yale School of Drama), and The Slow Sound of Snow (Yale Cabaret). She co-curated the Yale Summer Cabaret season, directing Trojan Women and Lear. She also co-founded and co-curated Emruz Festival and Peydah Theatre Company. Shadi G. was a 2016 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow, the 2018 directing fellow at Rattlestick Theater, and a winner of OPERA America’s Robert L.B. Tobin Director-Designer Prize in 2019. She is looking forward to her future productions Selling Kabul (Signature Theatre) and Tosca (Heartbeat Opera) in 2023.


Tara Ahmadinejad, stage director
mɔɹniŋ (morning//mourning) (Gelsey Bell)


Tara Ahmadinejad will direct the world premiere of mɔɹniŋ (morning//mourning), an experimental opera by composer/librettist/performer Gelsey Bell. mɔɹniŋ debuted at PROTOTYPE: OPERA | THEATRE | NOW, a festival of new opera-theater and music-theater work on HERE's mainstage in Manhattan. More information about this project may be found at prototypefestival.org.

Tara Ahmadinejad is a director and co-founder of the live arts collective Piehole (Jerome finalist, 2021). She has directed and co-authored boundary-pushing live art for theaters, galleries, and digital spaces, including collaborations with the LA-based Tender Claws in AR and VR: Tendar (Sundance 2018) and The Under Presents (Oculus, Sundance 2019, Emmy Finalist). Piehole’s latest work, Disclaimer (Drama League Award Nominee, NYC Women’s Fund), also written and performed by Ahmadinejad, premiered at The Public's Under the Radar 2021. Other recent theater directing includes Daaimah Mubashshir’s Emily Black is a Total Gift (Fisher Center at Bard College), Sarah Einspanier’s Lunch Bunch (Clubbed Thumb), and digital collaborations with Satoko Ichihara (Japan Society), Eliza Bent (New Georges), Rinne Groff (Clubbed Thumb), and Scarlett Kim (Oregon Shakespeare Festival). Ahmadinejad is an NYTW Usual Suspect and a New Georges Affiliated Artist. She holds an M.F.A. in directing from Columbia University.

Houston Grand Opera

Emily Wells, stage director
Another City (Jeremy Howard Beck/Stephanie Fleischman)

Houston Grand Opera (HGO) will present its company-commissioned world premiere Another City, by Jeremy Howard Beck and Stephanie Fleischmann, on March 9, 10, and 11, 2023. Bearing witness to the unheard and misunderstood experiences of unhoused Houstonians, the opera presents the collective voices of a city in search of the meaning of home. The production will be directed by Emily N. Wells and conducted by HGO’s resident conductor, Alex Amsel, with lighting design by Michael James Clark, costumes by Clair Hummel, and sound design by Andrew Harper. Another City will be presented at Ecclesia Houston, which engages issues related to poverty and social justice and assists unhoused Houstonians through services including haircuts, showers, hot meals, and employment. The site-specific performance will utilize Ecclesia’s immersive space, which allows artists to move in and around a central platform.

Emily Wells is an award-winning theater director, creative producer, and educator with over 25-years of experience, including a significant emphasis on new works. She is the artistic director of The Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton, Ohio. Before moving to Dayton, she curated new works at Houston Grand Opera, including Some Light Emerges, the Telly Award-winning Star-Cross’d web series, the off-site Das Barbecü and Glory Denied, and community programming. She will direct HGO’s 74th world premiere, Another City. Her credits include The Human Race Theatre Company, Rice University, Gulfshore Playhouse, Circuit Playhouse, and TheatreWorksUSA, among others. She holds an M.F.A. in directing from the University of Memphis and a B.A. in theater from Washington University in St. Louis, and is an AEA and SDC member. She is a proud parent, an advocate for adults living with congenital heart disease, and a co-founder of tech start-up ForeStage Labs Inc.

Los Angeles Opera

Leah Hausman, stage director
Pelléas et Mélisande (Debussy/Maeterlinck)

Leah Hausman directs this original production by Sir David McVicar, with LA Opera Music Director James Conlon at the podium. This fascinating lyric masterpiece stars two riveting young performers, soprano Sydney Mancasola and baritone Will Liverman as the doomed lovers, and Kyle Ketelsen as the jealous prince. The magnificent Susan Graham makes her role debut as Geneviève, and the legendary bass Ferruccio Furlanetto returns as King Arkel

Leah Hausman has worked as a director/associate director, choreographer, and movement director. She trained in dance and drama in New York City and at Paris’s École Jacques Lecoq. She previously collaborated with the creation of this production of Pelléas et Mélisande as movement director at the Scottish Opera. She has collaborated with some of the world’s most prominent theaters, such as English National Opera (La damnation de Faust), Vienna State Opera (Falstaff), La Scala (Giovanna d’Arco, Les Troyens), Royal Opera House (Rigoletto and others), Glyndebourne Festival (L’elisir d’amore, La bohème, Gianni Schicchi), Metropolitan Opera (Madama Butterfly, Norma, and others), Lyric Opera of Chicago (Billy Budd, Rusalka, Il trovatore), and San Francisco Opera (Don Giovanni, Il trovatore, Lohengrin, Les Troyens), among others.

Opera Baltimore and OperaDelaware

Kaley Karis Smith, stage director
La traviata (Verdi/Piave)

Opera Baltimore and OperaDelaware are proud to co-produce La traviata in March 2023 with director Kaley Karis Smith at the helm, building on their established decade-long artistic partnership. La traviata cements the companies’ commitment to collaboration on fully-staged productions, following more than a dozen unique smaller co-productions. Both Opera Baltimore and OperaDelaware are deeply committed to building the future of opera in their own communities and beyond through artistic excellence, innovation, and most importantly, collaborative spirit.

Kaley Karis Smith works as a stage director and assistant director across the country, most recently serving as assistant director for Werther and El Milagro del Recuerdo at Houston Grand Opera. As the resident artist stage director with Pittsburgh Opera, she directed Soldier Songs and The Rose Elf, and was the assistant stage director for the world premiere of Cerrone and Fleischmann’s In a Grove, directed by Mary Birnbaum. Other directing credits include The Telephone (Pittsburgh Festival Opera), Le nozze di Figaro (Augusta University), The Crucible and Turn of the Screw (Chicago Summer Opera), Goldie B. and The Three Singing Bears, and Opera for the Young: The Elixir of Love (Virginia Opera). Smith returns to Houston Grand Opera to direct La traviata at the Miller Outdoor Theatre and makes her debut with Opera Idaho directing Rusalka later this spring.

Opera Birmingham

Aija Penix, stage director
dwb (driving while black) (Susan Kander/Roberta Gumbel)

Opera Birmingham continues its successful chamber opera series with dwb (driving while black) by composer Susan Kander and librettist Roberta Gumbel. This new one-act opera explores issues of racial injustice, juxtaposing the story of an African American parent (as her son reaches driving age) with contemporary news bulletins highlighting the dangerous world beyond a parent’s control.

Aija Penix is an accomplished multidisciplinary artist and creative engineer. As a professional vocalist, actress, producer, and director, Penix intersects her experience as a performing artist with her expertise as a producer/director to tell stories that are heart-forward, often dealing with the uncomfortable realities of the human experience across the African Diaspora. She has been recognized for both Best Play (producer) and Best Musical Director by the regional Broadway World Awards.

Utah Symphony | Utah Opera

Stephanie Rhodes Russell, conductor
La fille du régiment (Donizetti/Vernoy de Saint-Georges/Bayard)

Utah Opera opened its first-ever production of La fille du régiment in January at the Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City.. Leading the Utah Symphony will be Salt Lake native Stephanie Rhodes Russell in her Utah Opera debut as mainstage conductor, and Michael Shell returns to the company as stage director. Principal guest artists include Madison Leonard as Marie, Jack Swanson as Tonio, Matthew Burns as Sergeant Sulpice, and Elise Quagliata as the Marquise of Berkenfield. Costume designs are by Linda Pisano. The set, rented from Pittsburgh Opera, is designed by James Schuette.

Stephanie Rhodes Russell’s 2022–2023 season includes company debuts with Austin Opera (Il barbiere di Siviglia) and Utah Opera (La fille du régiment), as well as a return to Madison Opera (Le nozze di Figaro). This summer she leads performances with Cincinnati Opera (The Knock) and Wolf Trap Opera (Don Giovanni), where she recently conducted Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. Her 2021–2022 projects included La traviata with Opera Orlando, “Concert in the Park” with Madison Opera, and a workshop of PROXIMITY: A Trio of New American Operas with Lyric Opera of Chicago. She is an alum of the Dallas Opera’s Institute for Women Conductors, the Houston Grand Opera Studio, and San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program, and the recipient of a 2019 Solti Foundation U.S. Career Assistance Award. She served as conducting fellow with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra from 2019–2021, regularly leading education and community concerts and covering symphonic subscription series.


For more information on OPERA America, visit About Us.

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