Opera Lively has interviewed James Meena, general director and principal conductor of Opera Carolina, the excellent Charlotte company (our official partners) that presented Eugene Onegin in March 2012. We talked about the opera, the production, and the accomplishments and struggles of a regional opera company in today’s environment.
There is a first interview with him focusing on Eugene Onegin and the company, then scroll down for a second one focusing on Tosca.
Image © Opera Carolina, used with permission
First Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Maestro James Meena
OL – What is needed to conduct Eugene Onegin successfully?
JM – [Laughs] That’s a very difficult question… [laughs] I don’t know!!! But I’ll tell you my impression of the piece.
I think that where some conductors make mistakes with the piece is when they treat it like Wagner. Tchaikovsky has more in common with Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms than he has with Berlioz and Schuman and Wagner. It’s very much like conducting a Mozart opera because the effectiveness of the music is based on proportions and correct pacing. The structure of the music, the construction of each section is very symmetrical. It’s a very good work.
You have to respect very much what Tchaikovsky asked for as far as tempi and balances, all these same qualities that you find in conducting Mozart operas. It’s not unlike conducting Don Giovanni, for example. You have the same issues. You know, if the tempo is just a little bit off, then the piece doesn’t feel right. It’s really quite an extraordinary phenomenon, because Tchaikovsky is of course not from the same time period of Mozart by any means; he’s a very Romantic composer; the musical language is very Romantic but the structure of the music is very Classical, and this is why I say that he has more in common with Brahms than with Wagner.
OL – We’d say that you have to let the music breathe, let the romanticism of the score express itself, but you need to avoid any blatant sentimentality. Do you agree?
JM – That is right! The blatant sentimentality will come in if you over-interpret the music. It’s very easy to impose one’s personality on the music. It’s very difficult as a conductor to find the right tempo and the right shaping unless the music is played as Tchaikovsky intended. It’s very difficult in any music, but particularly in music like this. It’s very easy to make it very sentimental and sappy and very… mannered is the right word, I think.
OL – Do you find Eugene Onegin to be more challenging than other operas?
JM – No. What’s been challenging for me is the language, because I only began to study Russian nine months ago. You know, the language is very different than the Romance languages, so for me the challenge was the language, not the music and certainly not conducting it. When you compare conducting Eugene Onegin to conducting Der Fliegende Höllander for example, or even a piece like Tosca which is very difficult to interpret and to conduct, this piece is very organic in that it almost – I don’t want to say – plays itself, but if you simply do what Tchaikovsky is asking it is a very natural-feeling piece; again, like Mozart.
OL – Your singers said you seem to know the score by heart.
JM – Yeah, with the exception of some of the text which I’m still… I know the text, it’s just that I don’t have complete mastery of the language at this point. I memorize all my scores, this is how I was taught. Every score is memorized, and usually – and this is what has been hard for me – I memorize the libretto first. I can sit down and write the entire libretto for Madama Butterfly for example which we just did, from memory. Then I learn the music. I learn the libretto first and then I work on the music, because in opera the music comes from the text, comes from the libretto. It’s very much like song repertory, you know, classical song repertory, not like jazz or popular song of today when someone will write a cute tune and then they’ll put words to it; opera comes from the text. You have to know the text intimately in order to understand what the composer is asking you to do.
OL – Is this your first Russian opera?
JM – It is my first Russian opera, but I conducted a great deal of Russian choral music. I was raised in the Orthodox Church so I grew up with Tchaikovsky and I conducted most of Rachmaninoff’s choral music, so it’s a style I’m very familiar with from my early days.
OL – Why should people go see your production of Eugene Onegin?
JM – Well, people should be willing to try something different. Many people have the misconception that Eugene Onegin and any Russian opera is big and difficult. This has more in common with Italian opera, any great Puccini or Verdi opera. People will be surprised because it has beautiful melodies, a very moving story, and the sing is gorgeous. You know, the language is beautiful. Russian is a beautiful language to sing in. People should not be afraid to come and experience this, because it’s just as moving as any of the popular Italian operas. Or even more so, because it’s something new and exciting.
OL – Let’s shift gears and talk about Opera Carolina. Can you tell us a little about the history of the company and its accomplishments?
JM – The company began in 1949. We are 63, 64 years old. It began as a volunteer company. Volunteers did everything, they sang the principal roles, they sang in the chorus, they built the costumes, they sold the tickets, they performed everything for years and years. Over the decades the company has become a fully professional company, obviously. We are the largest opera company in the Carolinas, certainly, and we’ve accomplished a great deal from the very beginning, even in the seventies.
The company had a mission to perform new operas, and to interpret the classical operas in new and exciting ways. Since I’ve been here in ten years, we’ve performed new repertory like Cold Sassy Tree by Carlisle Floyd, we were part of that consortium to commission it. We performed Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, Robert Ward’s The Crucible… We actually premiered Abelard and Heloise from Ward in the eighties; we just produced Margaret Garner by Richard Danielpour and recorded it for National Public Radio, so you know we have a legacy to perform new works and to do unusual works like Eugene Onegin.
OL – What are the strengths of the company today?
JM – We are very inventive. We are very creative in the way we address our public. Our sales are very good and our donors are very loyal because we are committed to creating an excellent product. And we live here in Charlotte so we give back to the community through our Educational Department, and through everything we do in the community, quite honestly. We’re very active throughout the 12 months of the year. We have a very loyal and growing audience and we renovate it. Those are many of the strengths.
The Board of Directors is one of our strengths, it’s a very committed and enthusiastic group of individuals, business people primarily, who invest their own money and their company money into Opera Carolina. Our Board of Directors gives more than half of the money we raise every year. They are very impressive.
OL – What’s the average age of your public?
JM – The average age is somewhere in the mid forties. We have a very large group from the mid twenties up until the mid forties who attend the opera. Our largest demographic is forty to sixty then the second largest is twenty-five to forty. By opera standards it’s a very young audience. Partly that’s because Charlotte is a very young city.
OL – What kind of outreach initiatives have you sponsored?
JM – We have a number of educational programs. We have our Student Night at the Opera program where we bring in high school students to the theater for dress rehearsals. We have a program that we call Opera Express that is our touring company and they go across North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia performing for elementary schools. Then we have our own academy, which is a number of singing teachers giving lessons to high school students going into music. We do something with the State of North Carolina called Cartwheels, where this year we are touring The Magic Flute and we’ll go to six of the most disadvantaged counties in North Carolina. Plus we have our adult programs that we call Opera Close, where we perform for community centers and business clubs and those sorts of things; so the company is very, very busy.
OL – Are you planning to use new technology such as streaming?
JM – The streaming is difficult. The American Federation of Musicians has executed a new agreement for broadcast and streaming. It will get a little easier when this new agreement is in place but it’s fairly expensive. But we are on National Public Radio, we’re on NPR World of Opera. Twice a year our productions are broadcast over the National Public Radio. We’re currently not streaming on our web site but we hope that at some point the regulations for streaming will get to a point where it’s not so expensive. It’s very, very expensive to do that.
OL – We talked about many strengths, but are there shortcomings, things that you’d like to do but Opera Carolina still can’t do?
OL – There always are. Part of the strength of the company is that we understand our city and we understand our audience base, but you know, we’re limited by funding, primarily. We still pull in only a 2.8 million dollar budget, that’s not enough money to do three great operas, you know? But within that we produce at a very high level.
Certainly our biggest challenge is the same challenge for all classical music organizations in the United States, is continuing to attract the younger demographic, continuing to get the thirty to forty-year-olds interested in coming to the theater. It’s been our challenge for the last 25 years and only opera companies that made a really good success at it will thrive.
But it’s getting harder every year because there are so many obstacles in front of us: the popular media demonizes and makes fun of classical music all the time, particularly opera. I know it’s unconscious, but what they are doing is marginalizing the classical musician and the opera singer. Plus the educational system is simply not educating young people in the Humanities as they used to. We have generations coming out of school who have no understanding or no appreciation… maybe it’s an overstatement, let’s say have little appreciation for classical music and certainly for opera, so our biggest challenge is that we don’t have enough money to combat those elements in our society.
You know, we are doing three performances, they are highly subsidized performances, and if we had unlimited dollars to market them and do educational programs it would be a very different situation for every opera company in the States.
OL – I remember that at one point you were doing four productions per year, then the economic crisis hit and you dropped to three. Are there plans to go back to four?
JM – No. Not for the foreseeable future. Our budget went from $3.8 million down to $2.8, so we cut a million dollars from the opera budget. I don’t see that the money that we lost – which was primarily government money – will be restored at any point in the near future.
OL – What do the Charlotte audiences want? Are they eager to tackle contemporary opera or do you need to give them the usual blockbusters?
JM – We always mix the seasons. At times we’ll do a brand new, contemporary opera, but every season has something that is unusual or different for the public, not the Traviata or the Butterfly or the Bohème, like the Eugene Onegin. Even though it’s not a contemporary American opera, it’s something very new and unusual for our public. Next year we will be producing The Pearl Fishers.
OL – Oh, fabulous! I emailed you about it today making this precise suggestion! It’s one of my favorites and I have never been able to see it live on stage!
JM – Yes, Yeghishe [Editor's note - Mr. Yeghishe Manucharyan, singing Lensky] told me you talked about it during your interview with him. He told me about it in rehearsal. So next season we open with Tosca in October, then in January we do a new production of Die Zauberflöte by Jun Kaneko, the fellow who did the Madama Butterfly production for us, then we close the season with The Pearl Fishers in early April. It’s a beautiful piece, beautiful beautiful opera.
OL – Do you use the Charlotte Symphony as your orchestra?
JM – Yes. We hired the Charlotte Symphony, and it is part of our contract, has been for the past thirty years.
OL – What do you say about the quality of the Charlotte Symphony?
JM – It’s a very good orchestra. Actually the quality of the symphony and the quality of the chorus allow us to be on Public Radio. If we didn’t have such a fine orchestra and chorus we wouldn’t be able to record these operas for NPR, so we are very pleased with them. They are wonderful people, they work hard, I don’t know of a harder working orchestra in the United States than this one.
OL – Back to your upcoming Eugene Onegin production: are you excited with your singers?
JM – They are magnificent! Today we just staged the Letter Scene with Dina Kuznetsova, and she is so magical, so beautiful on stage, endearing… it’s such a joy to work with her. She has a beautiful voice, but more than that, she understands this character and she understands this style so well!
OL – Absolutely, that’s what she conveyed in her interview, yes.
JM – Yes, she is wonderful. No, all the singers are excellent, I think people will be very, very pleased.
OL – How do you manage to get these really high profile singers? You know, she has a fabulous resume, has performed with the greatest houses in the world. Being a regional opera company with a 2.8 million budget, how do you always do so well with your casting?
JM – Well, we made the decision that when we do our budgets, that we will allocate a higher amount of money for our principal guest artists. That was a conscious decision that the company made because we want singers who are from the Metropolitan Opera, from La Scala, from Covent Garden, we want to be able to pay the going rate and attract the best people we possibly can. It was a conscious decision, which means that we don’t spend money in some other areas, you know, we have to cut in some places in order to afford really excellent singers.
OL – So do you cut in places like the production side, by renting productions from other companies?
JM – We rent some productions, but we own this production of Onegin, this is our production, and we own the production of The Pearl Fishers, we own our Tosca for next season, and we are co-owners of the new production of Die Zauberflöte for next year. All four of the next operas that we are doing counting Onegin we own the productions for them.
It’s just a question of priorities. We have a small staff, OK, and that’s one of the areas where we save money because our staff is very creative; they love the company and they work hard; but you know, we’re small, and I do three jobs myself. But this allows us to bring really excellent singers to Charlotte in order to perform with the company, because really, opera is about the singing! If you don’t have excellent singing then it’s not exciting opera.
OL – Right. So, you do three jobs, I suppose, general director, artistic director, and principal conductor.
JM – I haven’t even counted the number of jobs. Let’s see. I’m the principal conductor, I’m the general director, which means I’m also the controller of the finances, I also run the Board of Directors, I work with the Board Chairman organizing and operating the Board meetings… I’m also the Chorus Master, I also write all the supertitles, I’m the librarian, you know, everything! We have to do it that way. That’s the only way we can afford to do wonderful opera. And all of my staff is like that, they all do three or four jobs, all of them. But it works. Fortunately it works.
OL – Are you planning to stay around?
JM – I don’t know. I think that anyone who makes a prediction about the future… you know… that’s a fool’s errand. Who knows what is going to happen? All I know is that we are committed to build a wonderful company and sustain it over the next several decades. That’s my commitment to the company.
OL – I think we have good material for this article already, maestro. Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
JM – Just that people should come to Onegin, it’s going to be magnificent.
OL – We thank you for all that you’ve been doing for opera in North Carolina.
Second Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Maestro James Meena
As part of our coverage of our partners Opera Carolina's upcoming production of Puccini's Tosca, Opera Lively has interviewed maestro James Meena about the piece (we do touch a bit on other subjects at the end of the interview). This is our second talk with Maestro Meena. Navigation help for all our educational articles on Tosca filled with interesting facts can be found [here].
Opera Carollina productions are 90% locally-made and are always first class, so this is not to be missed! Support your local opera company; there is nothing like live opera.
Let's read the maestro's thoughts on this beautiful opera:
Opera Lively - If you had to give advice to a young conductor doing Tosca for the first time, what you say? What is needed to successfully conduct Tosca?
James Meena – I have an assistant conductor for this production. I spent an hour and a half on the telephone with him the other day going through the entire score. Tosca is one of the most difficult operas to conduct, among all of them. Because of Puccini’s demands, you have to be very precise but also very emotional. Puccini is very fastidious about tempo changes, meter changes; there are a number of entrances with strong beats and weak beats; often he writes the same passage in a different meter or a different way with just a little bit of change.
To me it’s his greatest opera from the standpoint of his technical facility, his ability to bring out the dramatic sense of what is happening on stage. The orchestration is absolutely brilliant; as brilliant if not more so than in La Bohème. It’s Puccini at the absolute height of his creative ability and his technical finesse as an opera composer.
For a young conductor it’s a very difficult piece. You have to know everything. You have to have the entire opera so memorized that as you lead it it’s almost second nature so that it doesn’t feel complex. Verdi's Falstaff is the same way for many of the same reasons. So you have to make the difficult look easy (laughs) so that everyone has a sense of security, otherwise a piece like Tosca can absolutely fall apart.
And then there’s always the question in Puccini of musical pace, not unlike Mozart: if it’s a little too fast it doesn’t feel right, if it’s a little too slow it doesn’t feel right. There are gradations of tempi in Tosca particularly that can make or break a performance. It’s not a question of the artists singing it; you have to be musically very careful, observing the metronome markings of the speed of each piece, and his gradations between andante and allegro and presto and vivace and those sorts of things. It’s very well calculated to get a lot of contrast to the music. From that standpoint it’s challenging but it’s a great challenge because the piece is so magnificent that all the hard work pays off whenever it all comes together.
OL - Benjamin Britten deemed the opera cheap and empty. I disagree, but how would you respond to this?
JM - With Britten, he also was not a fan of Verdi operas. The music personality of Benjamin Britten was so different than the musical personality of Verdi and Puccini; I can understand why he was critical and didn’t have an affinity for those works. Britten was an excellent composer for the stage himself but his aesthetic is completely different. There are also famous quotes of Britten’s regarding Verdi operas.
When he hears a Verdi opera that he doesn’t like he assumes it’s his fault, not Verdi’s, so at least he recognizes in these composers the greatness of their works, even though his aesthetic was different.
OL - Let’s talk a bit about Tosca’s musical structure. It’s been said that Tosca has brutal music. It is full of strong dissonances and twisting harmonies, signaling the wild emotions of the "good" characters and the villany of its antagonist. Another notable characteristic of this opera is Puccini's careful and meticulous musical scene-setting. Sometimes it feels like a movie score where he underlines the scenes with the music. Can you please comment on the above?
JM - From that standpoint it is the apex of his use of themes, in a way that is very similar to what Wagner does. He uses leitmotivs, for Scarpia and for Tosca, Cavaradossi, and Angelotti, and those musical themes permeate the entire opera and underscore the drama.
The piece of course is completely through-composed, so we don’t have the standard arias and duets, with segments. It’s a complete music drama; it’s as close to music drama as Puccini ever gets, perhaps with the exception of La Fanciulla del West, which is also very much the same way: a through-composed music drama. You obviously still have the great arias like "Vissi d’Arte," "E Lucevan le Stelle," and Scarpia’s two arias – you obviously still have those traditional musical structures but they are so deeply embedded in the dramatic composition that you don’t feel that the drama ever stops.
That’s why in our production we will be taking just a few stops for applause. There are only a few moments in Tosca where the music and the dramatic flow actually stop and the audience can applaud. Puccini wants you to become engrossed in the dramatic mise-en-scène, that you are completely in the drama that is unfolding.
OL - Yes, I agree. But if there is one criticism that I do agree with, it’s the one saying that the third act is anti-climatic. Do you feel that the third act is a bit deflated when compared to first and second?
JM - You know, Giulio Ricordi was critical of the third act as well. Puccini was adamant that he wanted it to be compact, that he wanted it to move the drama along, didn’t want to delay things. I think the first time I worked with Tosca I thought so as well, that the third act was anti-climatic, that it wasn’t just as powerful anymore. But it’s a different kind of dramatic statement.
Certainly it pales in comparison to the second act which is just tremendously dramatic, but there is an intimacy in the third act, first of all in the soliloquy that Cavaradossi has and then in the duet that Tosca and Cavaradossi have all through the execution. That is why it is intimate, because it is a congress between the two lovers. It’s not big, expansive; it’s a conversation between these two. It’s being able to bring that intimacy out that makes the third act effective.
And then when they finally celebrate, if you will; when they seem triumphal, as an unaccompanied duet, it is a wonderful statement of their optimism and hope that they will actually be together and will live free from the oppression of the Roman government.
Like I said, I used to feel it is anti-climatic but now I don’t, I feel it is magnificent. But it is different; there is no big bombshell, big explosive ending or a lot of big dramatic arias, and I know that’s exactly what Puccini wanted.
OL - Now, regarding Opera Carolina’s Tosca. How is it coming along?
JM - Well, we haven’t started rehearsals yet (laughs), we start a week from yesterday, this coming Saturday. This is a physical production that we acquired from New York City Opera, that we are re-designing, not unlike what we did for Il Trovatore, only not as elaborate with the projections. We actually had to refurbish and repaint many of the backdrops. It’s a very traditional and handsome production. We had some of our patrons who were very unhappy with the Butterfly production that we did with the Kaneko production because it wasn’t very traditional.
OL - Really? It was so beautiful!
JM - You know, some folks are just very traditional in their tastes. This is a very traditional Tosca, and that’s strategic from our standpoint, because we did the Butterfly which is a new production, and of course we’ll do the Magic Flute in January that is another new production by Kaneko and is not traditional, so for Tosca we wanted to be very true to the traditions of the piece and we wanted a cast with really excellent singers, which we have, and give people good traditional grand opera (laughs).
OL - OK. Let me change the topic a bit. I’m curious to know if Opera Carolina is planning something to celebrate the big centennial that are coming up in 2013: Britten’s, and bicentennials for Verdi and Wagner. I know that the coming 12-13 season doesn’t have operas by these three, so are you planning to do something else in your outreach and educational efforts to highlight these three composers?
JM - Yes, we are opening 13-14 with a new production of Aïda, and we have a new production of Der Fliegende Holländer for that calendar year as well. We haven’t settled the rest of the schedule yet so I’m hoping that we can do something to celebrate Benjamin Britten. I know that we cannot afford to do Peter Grimes, which is what I wanted to do, so we are still trying to navigate through the finances of what we can do to celebrate Britten’s centennial as well. We are instituting this year a gala concert at the end of the season, and we may put some of Britten’s music on that gala concert in May of 2013, so yes, we are very aware of it and planning on it.
OL - So Peter Grimes is too expensive?
JM - Yes, it is extremely expensive, there are so many characters, there aren’t any physical productions out, and we’re doing three huge major operas so we just can’t afford it, unfortunately.
OL - There’s the question of the score as well, in terms of affordability. Can you comment a bit on the cost associated with scores, for rent or purchase, and the cost of critical editions and the such?
JM - It depends. If it’s in the public domain we will buy them. Between the Opera Carolina library and my personal library we have just about everything that is in the public domain. The good example is the orchestra and piano parts for Nabucco; I own this one in my personal collection; I bought the critical edition and made all the corrections on our score as per the critical edition. The Aïda which I also personally own is the same way. For Tosca it’s easier because Puccini was very, very clear, and the editions are very faithful to the autograph. This is again my personal property, the orchestral part. When we can buy them, it makes sense to buy and to invest in them, because we can use them again. It’s better to have a library of our own, and we do.
OL - What are the typical costs involved?
JM - Well, to buy just a score for the piano of an opera in the public domain it’s $35, but if you buy the score for all the instruments in the orchestra, it’s more like $800. It’s not cheap but it’s not ridiculously expensive. But when we talk about a piece like Peter Grimes that is not in the public domain you are dealing with royalties and rentals, it will cost $2,000, maybe $3,000; then you have to pay royalties on top of that. The operas of Strauss are also still under copyright. These orchestral scores you have to pay $3,000 just to rent, you cannot buy them. Opera materials for Turandot you also have to rent, because the Puccini Foundation still gets money from the performances of it.
OL - OK, thank you Maestro Meena. I’ll probably not be able to attend the opening night for Tosca but I’ll be there for the Sunday matinee.
JM - Wonderful, and you’ll be able to talk to the singers. It’s a wonderful group of performers. I think you will be very pleased with this production.
OL - I look forward to it because your productions are always world-class.
JM - Thank you. I appreciate it.
Don't forget to explore our other articles on Tosca, which will also feature interviews with the singers, to be published soon. All these articles will be placed under the header of our Tosca In-Depth series, [here].