• Exclusive interview with James Allbritten, conductor, Piedmont Opera

    [Opera Lively interview # 6]

    Originally from Louisville, KY, Maestro James Allbritten - also a professional tenor - began his operatic career with Kentucky Opera. While a student in Louisville, he was invited to participate as one of the youngest artists in the San Antonio Arts Festival, where he was apprenticed to Boris Goldovsky. His conducting studies began at Indiana University under Jan Harrington, Robert Porco, and Thomas Dunn. While there he also worked with Glyndebourne Festival Opera conductor Bryan Balkwill, and MET stage directors, Fritz Busch and James Lucas.

    He came to North Carolina in 1993 to join the faculty of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts where his duties now include Artistic Director of the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute in Winston-Salem, and Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of Piedmont Opera, the professional opera company headquartered in the same city.

    At the Fletcher he has conducted many performances including Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Donizetti’s Belisario. Composer Kirke Mechem was so pleased with Allbritten’s reading of his Tartuffe, that he asked him to lead the first act of his new opera Pride and Prejudice in a workshop premiere.

    He has also led performances for Opera Theater of the Rockies, Opera Carolina, and the Winston-Salem Symphony. Allbritten spent four seasons as Music Director for NCSA’s illuminations festival on the Outer Banks, and led the school's Festival Orchestra at Côte Vermeille and for the Flâneries Musicales d’Ete de Reims in France. Recent projects include the Southeastern premiere of Ned Rorem’s Our Town, which was co-commissioned by the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute. Future projects include Don Giovanni and Robert Ward’s The Crucible for Piedmont Opera and A Little Night Music for Opera Theatre of the Rockies.

    As the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor for Piedmont Opera, he has led Verdi’s Aida and Un ballo in maschera, Rossini’s La Cenerentola, Il trovatore and Turandot. Of Piedmont Opera’s Un ballo in maschera, Opera News said, “The musical excellence for the entire evening was the work of the conductor, James Allbritten…His tempos were well chosen, attacks were precise, and coordination and balance with the singers was exemplary.”

    Maestro Allbritten is now preparing his troupes for the upcoming joint production of Piedmont Opera and the Fletcher, Robert Ward's The Crucible, on March 16, 18, and 20, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. For information and tickets, visit Piedmont Opera's website by clicking here.


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    OL – Maestro Allbritten, please tell us about the history of Piedmont Opera.


    JA - Piedmont Opera was founded in the mid-seventies by Norman Johnson, who held the position that is the one I hold now, running the Opera program at the UNC School of the Arts. In those days there were satellite organizations at the School of the Arts, the professional wing if you will, and they became Piedmont Opera, which is 33, 34 years old. Norman ran it until his very sudden death, I believe in 1996. By then I was already involved in the company; I’m a singer myself and had already sung several productions with the company. Both my wife and I sang a production the year he passed away.

    There were several other directors of the company between him and myself. I came to North Carolina in 1993 and almost immediately got involved with the company. I am proud of the fact that I knew the founder and his company, and I try to run it today very much like he ran it.

    It was a good place for young singers to come and work. A lot of people liked to come here and sing their first time out in a particular role because you had a conductor who knew the book, you had a place that was safe, and yet you knew that the productions were of good quality.

    The company is very fortunate to be able to rely on the services of many faculty members at the School of the Arts, and it achieves a level of production much higher than its budget would suggest due to the fact that there are so many talented theatrical people here in Winston-Salem because of the School of the Arts.

    Our Costume Coordinator and occasionally Costume Designer is a part of the Costume Shop with the Dance School; our house Lighting Designer Norman Coates teaches Lighting Design at the school, and it’s unbelievable what he does. Our Production Manager Bill Voles teaches on the School of Design and Production on the technical side of things.

    No other city this size would have a team like the team that we have, and that’s what makes us such an extraordinary company with this richness of resources. And luckily for me they all love opera (laughs), so they keep coming back!

    OL – What are your best memories with the company?

    JA – One of the first shows that I conducted here was A Ballo in Maschera. We were going to rent a production from Cincinnati but when we called them, they said ‘oh, we don’t have it anymore.’ (laughs) So we put our heads together with Howard Jones who teaches design at the School of Design and Production and he designed really a quite beautiful production, I think. The cast was very strong. I remember the last night of that show. The singers gave an extraordinary performance that night. That performance sticks out in my head, maybe because it was one of the first ones I lead here with the company. It was really extraordinary.

    I remember also, under Norman’s baton, a couple of years before he left us, he really went out on a limb and did Otello. It was the largest orchestra he had used in a while, and I was lucky enough to sing Casio in that performance. The Otello he had was a very strong tenor, an extraordinary fellow. Amy Johnson who has gone on to have a wonderful career, was making the change from mezzo-soprano to soprano at that time, and that was her first soprano role. It was really an outstanding cast, and for a company this size to undertake a title like Otello and then do it so well… I was very proud to be a part of that show.

    OL – What is the role of regional opera companies, in this age of international broadcasts reaching everywhere, coming from the major repertory houses?

    JA – I like to think of the Met broadcasts – see, Piedmont Opera actually sponsors them here in Winston-Salem, we show them over at the Hanesbrands Theatre. We have a pretty loyal following and a lot of the people who come to the Met in HD broadcasts are also people who come to see the live opera. To my mind it is very exciting to think that the people who patronize my opera company are also getting to see Satyagraha, and Ernani, you know, titles like these that we’d never produce, but it opens their minds to the possibilities.

    I don’t see any of the HD broadcasts as competition at all; I think it enriches the palate for opera in the region. It also gives people an opportunity to try it out in a sort of fear-free environment. The price to go see the HD transmissions is not a lot more than the price to go see a movie. People think you have to dress up to the opera – well, you don’t, but people think they do. But if you go to an afternoon in a movie theater, you think, “I’ll show up in my jeans, I’ll put down twenty bucks, after lunch, comfortable, and see if I like opera.” And frequently they do! I think it’s a win-win all the way around.

    OL – Is Piedmont Opera financially healthy and set to survive?

    JA – I think we have a strong base of support and it seems to be gaining strength all the time. We have a very strong board with a wide variety of experiences. Opera, as you well know, she is a very expensive gal. It can be challenging for a regional opera company to try and be out there raising funds six, nine, twelve months a year, when you only perform six nights a year. I think this is a never-ending challenge for regional opera companies, because when you do it six times a year instead of a 106 times a year, it doesn’t make it any cheaper.

    It’s a difficulty, and only 25 to 35% of your expenses are covered by ticket sales. That’s a fact that American audiences don’t always know. They’re used to commercial theater like a New York Broadway musical where you pay your $125 and that with a full house sort of covers the costs. It’s not the case with opera. We don’t play eight times a week, and we are not geared up that way. Its patronage goes back to the roots of music for that matter, and certainly to the roots of opera; we’re still very much dependent on the generosity of our patrons.

    OL – What about governmental funds?

    JA – As well, we are very lucky with Piedmont Opera. We are supported by both the State Arts Council and the local Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County. They are very generous to us annually. We are trying to help them to meet their mission as much as they are trying to help us to meet our mission. We have many blessings, but as I say, she’s an expensive gal. When I came on to the company we were not doing as well as we are now, and I am very proud of that. I have my partners at the opera company, particularly Frank Dickerson, our executive director to thank for that, he works very hard to make sure that we are always in touch with our donors, and we try to recruit new people to the opera to help us meet our mission.

    OL – How do you maintain your orchestra?

    JA – I’m very lucky because I can rely upon the services of the Winston-Salem Symphony, like Mr. Meena [Opera Carolina’s principal conductor] has the Charlotte Symphony. The Winston-Salem Symphony is not a full time orchestra but they play as well as a full time orchestra, so I’m really very blessed. I never have any concerns about the quality of the musicians I work with.

    OL – And the singers?

    JA – We are very fortunate because of the company’s reputation. We cannot afford the greatest singers on the planet, but we get a lot of rising up and comers, and they understand that the productions here are worth the financial risk, and they come and sing for us for maybe less than they might in other places because they know it’s going to be a worthwhile experience, artistically.

    OL – Do you need to travel elsewhere for auditions to recruit singers?

    JA – I should, more often than I do. But my schedule is so cram-packed, that during the audition season I can rarely go away. What I prefer to do is to go see other opera companies. An audition can show you a lot but it is not going to show you everything. I prefer to go see the artists in other productions. It’s the best audition of all.

    Our company used to be called Piedmont Opera Theater – so it’s not just the voice. It’s the voice, it’s the face, it’s the experience, all of these things come together to make a really great cast. Sometimes I drive people nuts because I’m always ready to cast. If you have a big tenor, you can’t just hire him because you may also need a big soprano to balance him. It’s always a balance, and trying to achieve that balance is a real challenge. That’s what I always try to do, and my audience usually says – ‘wow, they are really good singers!’ I’m proud of that. We always have a balanced cast, and they are tricky to come by.

    OL – You’re doing next The Crucible, an American contemporary opera. Most regional companies do seat-fillers like Aida, Carmen… how do you plan your season?

    JA – I have to balance the scales. I’m very proud of Piedmont Opera for taking on The Crucible. It’s the first time we have produced a contemporary opera. Many people cautioned me. You can’t say 20th Century because you’ve done Puccini (laughs), but other than Amahl and the Night Visitors that we’ve done off-season, this is the first one. It was a big challenge. People were concerned about it, but people saw the value in it, particularly because it’s Robert Ward, and that’s a name that this community knows [Mr. Ward lived for many years in Winston-Salem and directed the School of the Arts], a name that this community can stand behind.

    I sort of make a concerted effort to try and introduce our community to contemporary things. Several years ago – it’s not technically an opera – but we did a new production, and it was the opera house premiere, of Adam Gettel’s The Light in the Piazza – I jumped on it because the leading lady and her daughter – the characters – are from Winston-Salem, North Carolina! And I thought to myself – everybody says it’s a Broadway show. Well, it’s much more sophisticated than a Broadway show, and in my mind it’s tantamount to opera with a dialogue, it’s really a very high-minded piece. And I jumped on it for a lot of reasons. First of all, they sing the name Winston-Salem in the middle of the show. When is that ever going to happen again?

    Beyond that, if I could convince the audiences through this piece that contemporary music theater was approachable, and people would come, then we could open up the repertory a little bit. Then that was step one. Step two is The Crucible, because it’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, so its value is inherent. And it’s by a man that this community has already embraced and loved, and has done so much for this community, Robert Ward. So I’m hopeful now, I’m very hopeful that with the success of The Crucible our audience will realize that we don’t need to fear these titles. And yes, we want to hear Carmen, we want to hear Bohème, we want to hear all these titles that we love, but we can also begin to open our minds a little bit to some other thoughts.

    [OL’s Editor note – Adam Gettel’s musical A Light in the Piazza like Maestro Allbritten said does break from Broadway traditions by approaching Neoromantic classical music and opera, with heavy orchestration, melodic shifts, and a structure that is very operatic. Piedmont Opera was the first opera company to produce it in an opera house, in 2008, with Jill Gardner as Margaret, Sarah Jane McMahon as Clara, stage direction by Dorothy Danner, and conducting by James Allbritten.]

    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      I'm sure The Crucible will be succesful, and the effort will finally paid off.

      Would love to have hear that Beatrice di Tenda....


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