The Evolution of Hartford Opera Theater - Interview with Lisabeth Miller
Artistic & Executive Director, Lisabeth Miller was kind enough to sit down with me and answer some questions on where Hartford Opera Theater began and how we have arrived where we are today.
R: Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with me to let our fans know more about the history of the company. Please tell us about the history of Hartford Opera Theater!
L: I was not involved in Hartford Opera Theater from the very beginning so some of this is anecdotal. I know the people who founded it, and from what I understand, the idea for the company was hatched in 2006 by two graduate students at the Hartt School at the University of Hartford: Emily Sternfeld-Dunn and Bridget Scarlato. They were completing their master’s degrees at Hartt and were frustrated by the lack of performance opportunities in the area for graduate students, and that there really was no stepping stone in between the completion of a master’s degree and high level, professional opera companies like Connecticut. The idea was to form a company that would provide opportunities for emerging artists, particularly those who had graduated from collegiate opera programs in Connecticut. Emily and Bridget recruited Michelle Hendrick who was the acting teacher for the opera program at Hartt. She was my teacher as well when I got my master’s degree there. Michelle loved the idea and Hartford Opera Theater was born. They first performed in the gallery in the arts space building at 555 Asylum Avenue. Among their first productions were Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne, The Impresario, and Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.
In April of 2010, Hartford Opera Theater joined forces with the Mark Twain House and held a contest for composers to write an opera based on the novel Tom Sawyer, in honor of the novel’s 150th anniversary of publication. After the show closed, several of the cast members, including Joe Hodge and myself committed to working on the staff as volunteers, and over the years the staff has evolved to its present composition. We became officially incorporated with the state and were awarded 501c3 status in the fall of 2010, and trying each year to reach more audience members through innovative and culturally relevant programming. I’m so proud of Hartford Opera Theater’s growth, and I know that Bridget, Emily and Michelle are amazed at what we have accomplished in the past 7 years.
R: Absolutely! They must be so proud. You partially answered my next question. I was hoping to ask when you came to Hartford Opera Theater and how you got involved. Now I want to know how you became the Executive Director/Artistic Director?
L: I became the Artistic Director in 2012 after being associate artistic director. Michelle Hendrick gave birth to her third child and moved to Northampton, Mass. It was so amazing to get to work so closely with her, and I know that a lot of my instincts for programming are influenced by Michelle’s mentoring of me.
R: Did that come as a shock to you or was this something you always envisioned yourself doing?
L: It was both! I’ve always been interested in arts administration. I chose to do an arts administration internship during my senior year of college at Brandeis University. I worked with the Development Director at Emmanuel Music in Boston; a company that does Bach Cantatas and a concert series. It was always in the back of my mind and the opportunity to become involved seemed like the right fit.
R: My next question is when was Hartford Opera Theater’s first performance with orchestra? If you were in charge at that time, how did this play into the structure you already had?
L: Every mainstage performance including Tom Sawyer has been with orchestra, and I believe that the early productions at 555 Asylum used at least chamber orchestras. It’s always been part of our mission to present our mainstage operas with orchestra, as they were originally conceived by the composer.
R:I know you mentioned 555 Asylum (Arts Space) but where are all the places in Hartford you have performed?
L: Great question! I was never involved in a performance at 555 Asylum, but since then we have performed twice at the Mark Twain House, Billings Forge, Trinity Episcopal Church in Hartford, the Charter Oak Cultural Center and the Wadsworth Atheneum’s Aetna Theater.
R: I know Hartford Opera Theater has evolved from humble beginnings from one-act operas like Bastien und Bastienne and The Impresario to presenting complete productions with a full orchestra every season. When did you know that opera in English was going to be the company’s niche?
L: I think when the leadership changed to Michelle and Joe. Michelle’s training is in the theater so she gravitated towards opera in English. The first production we performed as an official 510c3 was a triple bill of works by American composers: Samuel Barber’s A Hand of Bridge, Menotti’s The Telephone and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. We also launched our first New in November festival that year.
It became clear by the response from singers and audience members that presenting short pieces in English created productions that were approachable and accessible. Since Connecticut Opera only closed the previous year, their specter and influence was still in the environment. Trying to do core repertoire would lead to inevitable comparisons and the prospect of being compared to a company that had a multi-million dollar budget was not in our favor. Furthermore we found that we had a passion for presenting new works. After our triple bill in 2010, we presented an absolutely stunning production of The Rape of Lucretia at Charter Oak (which I still think about to this day) and we another NIN after that. It fit us really well! Rather than venturing out to find our own musical identity in the landscape of Hartford, our musical identity found us!
R: That’s great! Otherwise, you would have been compared to CT Opera and it would have made it more difficult to start a new company.
L: Especially now with Opera Connecticut, Opera Theater of Connecticut, Connecticut Lyric Opera, all of whom are producing excellent works. We are all small companies that are audiences in a small state. The other companies deal more in the standard repertoire cannon of operas. Since our home base, Hartford, is close to both OC and CTLYO, it is wonderful to have a repertoire difference to distinguish ourselves. It makes me feel like we are not “competing” with these companies but happily co-existing with other companies in the area that are producing really quality pieces that should be seen by everyone!
R: I know that Hartford Opera Theater artists have been featured with other companies in the area and there has perhaps been collaboration. Can you elaborate on these partnerships? I know with HICO, I can remember a partnership as far as I can remember.
L: HICO (The Hartford Independent Chamber Orchestra) has been an awesome collaboration. If HICO programs a piece requiring, they give us the first right of refusal and we use HICO players in our orchestra for the main stage. We were already using HICO players in our orchestra so it seemed like a good fit for us to liaise with them in that way. We’ve provided singers for several of their projects: Berio’s Folk Songs, Martin Bresnick’s Yiddish puppet opera Der Signal, and Charity Clark’s projects (Iseutlt Speaks by Jessica Rudman, Walton’s Façade). We have partnered with the Women Composer’s Festival of Hartford. They plan to present on of this past New in November’s operas, Samurai, in their festival, which is great! Two years ago, we were approached by the Farmington Valley Symphony Orchestra to provide singers for their winter pops concert. It’s nice when we can get some visibility by putting the Hartford Opera Theater name in front of another audience.
R: My last question is a complicated one! Why do you think Hartford needs Hartford Opera Theater?
L: Hartford needs Hartford Opera Theater because it currently doesn’t have an opera company that makes Hartford it’s focus. There are certainly other opera companies in the state, but we are currently the only company that makes its performance focus, its outreach focus in Hartford! Hartford used to be known for excellent opera when Connecticut Opera was still running. After CT Opera folded the prospect of living in a city that didn’t have an opera company was untenable. That was the focus of my early years of volunteering here. Opera is the coming together of all art forms: singing, dance, visual art, and orchestral instruments. To put on all the works of all these wonderful artists is incredibly gratifying. Opera has a long history of being at the center of political movements and some of the most influential composers throughout history have been composers of opera: Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Verdi etc. The torch of being able to carry on that tradition is almost a sacred responsibility. Living in an era where there are so many possibilities for entertainment: television, movies, personal screens, computers etc., it is paramount that we find a way to appeal to audiences in the digital age. I am so proud of Hartford Opera Theater for moving into the 21st century and continuing to look for creative ways that opera can continue to be appealing.
Back in the early part of the 20th century before TV, movies, and screens of all kinds were so ubiquitous, opera was a prevalent form of entertainment! Believe it or not, the hottest tickets at the old MET were on Monday nights! Now, it seems inconceivable that so many people would go out on a Monday night to see operas, however, opera can still be just as relevant and thought provoking as it was back then. Now it has to compete with so many other types of entertainment and media but the stories, music, and the level of artistry that goes into these productions is just as culturally significant, and better than ever. We need to continue putting it out there and making it available in the capital city. Even though it’s a difficult job, I am so proud of us for doing it.
R: This is great! Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with me.
L: You’re so welcome!