Visiting professionals bring 'real world' experience to IU opera, ballet productions
A new process for bringing big names from the opera and ballet worlds to Bloomington is a win for all involved, creating practical experiences for IU students while giving those professionals a chance to exercise their creativity in a university environment.
In past years, IU Opera and Ballet Theater -- the production company housed in the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music's Musical Arts Center -- hosted the occasional guest professional but relied mostly on Jacobs' faculty members to provide musical direction, stage design, lighting design and other work for its opera and ballet seasons.
More recently, several veteran faculty members have retired, including scenic design powerhouses David Higgins and Robert O'Hearn, among others. That left a leadership void unlikely to be filled by new faculty members, as the school considered new production models and ceased offering its technical and scenic design programs.
Enter newly appointed executive director of production for the Musical Arts Center Tim Stebbins, who saw a way to offer students a chance to work with big names in the industry while also giving those professionals an outlet for their creativity.
"The timing was right," Stebbins said. "We wanted to create a closer connection to the professional world, so the students who work here and hone their skills here are learning from the professionals they're likely to encounter out in the 'real world.' And for our patron base, I like people seeing the same names they see at the Met and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, for example. These professionals are on the top of their game, so why not take advantage of that?"
Hosting professional staff also brings a fresh eye on productions, he said, which benefits everyone involved.
The behind-the-scenes shift has already begun, as this year's opera season boasts work by Robert Perdziola, who has designed sets and costumes for the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera and Glimmerglass Opera; and Douglas Fitch, who has designed and staged productions for the Santa Fe Opera, Los Angeles Opera and the Royal Stockholm Opera.
Stebbins described the set Perdziola created for "Xerxes" as "painfully beautiful," and said Fitch -- whose resume includes constructing the interior and furniture of a home for famed violinist and Jacobs alum Joshua Bell -- will design the set for Philip Glass' "Akhnaten," which opens Feb. 22. The production will be the first time IU Opera has performed any of Glass' work, and also marks a collaborative effort with Indianapolis Opera to share two performances at Clowes Memorial Hall on the Butler University campus.
In addition, Tom Diamond, who has worked with the Canadian Opera Company and the Pacific Opera Victoria, will direct "Xerxes," while Candace Evans -- who most recently worked with IU Opera on "Candide," and whose resume includes work with Argentina's famed Teatro Colón and the Dallas Opera -- will return for "Akhnaten." Robin Guarino, who spent many years with the Met and is now chair of the opera program at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, will direct "Falstaff" in April.
During IU Ballet Theater's fall show, which featured Martha Graham's iconic choreography in "Appalachian Spring," dancers had the chance to work with Denise Vale, rehearsal director for the New York City-based Martha Graham Dance Company. Members of the Pennsylvania Ballet also recently spent some time in residence at the MAC, teaching students the pas de deux from the second act of "Giselle" as well as an excerpt from a contemporary ballet.
Stebbins said it's not difficult to attract the attention of such industry heavy-hitters, even when he doesn't personally know the person on the other end of the line. He merely has to mention he's with the university, he said, to gain their interest.
"That's a tribute to the quality and caliber of our school and students here," Stebbins said.
Each guest professional is remunerated through an individually negotiated contract. Most are willing to work within the university's fiscal constraints, he said, both to have the chance to contribute to student learning and to exercise more creativity than might be possible at a professional house.
Overall, Stebbins said, he believes the shift will infuse university opera and ballet productions with new life and generate enthusiasm from students and patrons alike.
"If you're comfortable, that doesn't always lead to inspiration," he said. "While this can be difficult with, for example, a director in Toronto and a lighting designer in California, and six full-scale operas and three full-scale ballets, it's all very exciting. And we're creating a legacy for the Jacobs School, continuing to build our reputation in the world of opera and ballet."