In a transcribed conversation, Mark and Jonathan sit down together for a few minutes in The Oakland Scottish Rite lobby, before the summer festival opens this Saturday night, July 23rd.
General Director to Music Director, Mark and Jonathan consider over 10 years of West Edge Opera productions, why Lulu was the turning point that made West Edge Opera never look back, the power of ‘immediate’ opera, and why The Oakland Scottish Rite Center may finally be… ‘home’.
Mark: Our shared West Edge history goes back more than ten years...
Jonathan: to way back when...
Mark: I came in in the fall of 2009.
Jonathan: We both came with our outside experiences and tried to make a vision of what the company could be. We wanted it to be unique. But that view - of what uniqueness was - came from our experiences, what other companies we wanted to emulate or not.
Jonathan: So what positive examples from your experience did you take for company models, in regards to the structure or the outlook of an opera company? And… how did the name change from Berkeley Opera to West Edge Opera fit into that plan?
Mark: Well, when we started, you had already put into place this idea of doing something old, Mozarty, something contemporary, and something early 20th century or late 19th century. And that made sense to me immediately, because focusing the pieces from the end of the 18th
century and most of the 19th century would mean big choruses and
convoluted plots that I wasn't interested in -
Jonathan: - And the pieces everybody hears all the time -
Mark: - That's right. My experience, like yours, was working in big houses on standard repertoire. When we started, you and I did four shows together before I came on as a staff member. You hired me as a director four times.
Jonathan: And two of those were newer shows, right?
Mark: Well, the first one was Eugene Onegin, not quite standard rep. The next one was The Legend of the Ring, which was an outrageous, unique project. I remember very well you telling me about it; I got really excited because I had been traveling the world with Marie [Plette], watching her singing in The Ring and really getting to know it well. For the third piece, loving Handel so much, I did Acis and Galatea, but you were away for that one.
Jonathan: I was back in time to catch one performance.
Mark: You came back, saw one performance and I remember very clearly that you said “Boy, you've really upped the professionalism and the slickness of our productions.” And that was a lot of fun. Then the fourth piece was Chrysalis, which was a world premiere, hard to turn down. That was a really great experience. It became clear that this was a company that people really wanted to come to see when we produced weird things. If we did standard rep, I mean, I watched you and Jillian do Tosca and it was like...
Mark: Why are we going to do that? But when I became general director, we started with a pretty safe season. We revived The Ring, which we knew would sell really well. It sold out. We did Don Giovanni, which I’d worked on in a couple of productions. But I had never directed it before and I wanted to do it. That was the Mozart-early piece. We were both still traveling and gigging a lot.
Jonathan: We also did Tender Land that season.
Mark: We picked The Tender Land because I could ask Elkhanah Pulitzer to direct it. And there was Philip Kuttner, on staff at San Francisco Opera, who came in to conduct it. We wanted something safe, so it was a pretty tame season. The weirdest piece was The Ring, which we knew everyone already knew and loved, so it was a good piece to revive.
Jonathan: Well, The Tender Land is an outlier.
Mark: The Tender Land is like Oklahoma: The Opera.
Jonathan: Yes, but it's not performed much.
Mark: It's not done much, so it was a bit of an oddity. But then I started thinking: if we’re going to do standard rep pieces, I want to mess them up. So we did that weird Carmen because I had done Peter Brook’s Carmen and hated it. I said, “well, it is a good idea, but we could do our own version that would be much better,” so pretty quickly we got away from the standard rep.
Jonathan: The question in my mind is whether we already had the vision to go that direction from the start, and just had to wait until we were in a position to do it.
Mark: Yes, I think it started when I joined as general director. I was very clear to the board that I wanted to do interesting projects. It was clear to me that this company excelled with interesting projects and sold better with interesting projects. There had always been people on the board of directors that mainly wanted pretty music. (They've slowly gone away.) But they couldn't tell me I was wrong, because I wasn't wrong - we got most noticed when we did something a little strange. That gave me, to use a political phrase, a mandate to do the projects that you and I had been wanting to do, like the year when I asked, “What's your dream project?” You said, “Lulu”. And I said, “Hah, we can't do Lulu!” Then I slept on it and realized “We have to do Lulu; of course we're doing Lulu!” And we did. Those are the moments I'm most proud of.
Jonathan: But my question was: what did our previous history give us that made us want to do something so uniquely different with this company?
Mark: One thing was working in standard repertoire productions and dreaming about what we could do if we had control. So, within about three years our most mainstream operas were The Turn of the Screw and Vanessa, which really are not so mainstream.
Jonathan: My focus was on not doing not doing operas that big companies can do better than anybody else.
Jonathan: Instead, I wanted to do works, even if they're originally large, where the heart of the piece isn't nourished by a big production but can be nourished by a small production.
Mark: Conversely, at Opera America people would say “Oh, so you do chamber opera?” I immediately pushed against that because I didn't think we were doing chamber opera. I always wanted it to be big, but focused, with smaller forces that we can afford and that we can excel at and make an impact with. So I don't really love the idea of chamber opera. It's not chamber opera, it's opera!
Jonathan: I like some facets of “chamber”: direct contact with the audience and between all the performers, crew, and staff. We're all living in the same room, rather than suffering the distance between the people far backstage and the people way in the balcony. Like a family, with everyone aware of the other person's experience within the collective group.
Mark: Making the experience more immediate. Very quickly, I started doing things like having the singers come in through the audience. I always got great comments about that. People loved it; they felt very connected to the singers.
Jonathan: Like that Bohème we did.
Mark: That was an interactive Bohème. One of my favorite of our productions was that Ariadne auf Naxos that was completely reimagined and reconfigured. It turned into something that really surprised people and got them excited. I really like that idea of involving the audience within the performance. But that actually did not come from my experience working in big opera companies. It came from my experience exploring the theatre world and getting interested in some of the things that I was seeing when I went to New York. Also, a work Joe and
I were just talking about, the project that he and I did at The Crucible.
Jonathan: The Fire Opera.
Mark: It made me think in different terms about what this art form could be, how it could excite people and fill them with wonder, move them and entertain them. I do love entertaining.
Jonathan: But that can be done in a small space. You can integrate different elements more easily when they don't have to cover 5,000 square feet of space…Ok, so: what has it been like developing this vision, putting it into practice in a small company?
Mark: I'm constantly accused of being too ambitious for the size of our company. I'm even feeling it right now as we approach our Festival openings with the limited amount of money we have for personnel. In this COVID age, it’s hard to get people to come work with us. Somehow, I manage to inspire others to do productions that are way more than you would expect for this budget level. Then people get excited, go along with us, and hopefully don't get mad at us. But my dream is that we get more sophisticated and more focused so we can be more sustainable. That means people getting paid what they deserve, and not having to work three days without sleep. Well, we may not be at that point yet, but there have been some years when I and the team went above and beyond what any human should have to do. I continually try to create our projects in a very happy, friendly place where people are free to be creative. That means they need to sleep and not kill themselves with work.
(L-R) 16th Street station, home of the WEO Festival from 20 -2016 and Pacific Pipe, site of WEO's 2017 Festival season.
(photos: Cory Weaver
Jonathan: I feel that we have a style of doing the impossible, but not the impossible dream. Rather the currently impossible thing that you can almost reach, just a step beyond what you thought was possible, and that turns out to be possible. Of course it puts a strain on everybody, but the exhilaration when we actually achieve it gives us a unique feeling. Not “this is impossible and we never should have tried it” but “this seems impossible because growing into it is such a huge challenge.”
Mark: Yes. There was a colleague of mine that I had worked with at Opera Theater of St. Louis. The year West Edge was performing at the Old Train Station, she pulled me aside and said “I know what you're doing. You want this to be like Opera Theatre of St Louis.” I said, “Yeah, that's my happiest times ever working. That's what I want this to be like.” She said “But the budget of OTSL is 20 times what you have!” Yet somehow we're doing it. We're having picnicking and this like festive atmosphere, without the infrastructure of a larger company like OTSL has for providing that. It’s my dream to achieve this festive atmosphere with the proper number of people with us.
Jonathan: But don't think we could have begun to do this without you and the other people who know how to manage budgets, and know what technical requirements are, so that things are never projected too far beyond the horizon.
Mark: That’s right.
Jonathan: And that's one reason why I brought you on in the very beginning, because I saw right away that you knew the technical aspects and budget aspects of opera production, and you could control that. That’s why I told the board “Mark is the person who can run this company.” It also takes having a creative vision, not just technical chops. You’ve put technical awareness into the service of new and vital art.
Mark: I suppose that comes from my background as stage manager. When we started, we were doing stagione format, presenting three operas throughout the year. Then you and I decided to switch to a festival format. That had a lot to do with the fact that you and I both have experience in festivals - organizing them and making them happen. We couldn't do this if we didn't have some of those experiences, including Opera Theatre of Saint Louis or wherever, working in a company that does a different opera every night, which makes a huge difference.
Jonathan: What about our name change, from Berkeley Opera to West Edge Opera?
Mark: I really felt like we were much more regional than just Berkeley. “Berkeley” felt very small to me. Berkeley Symphony has made a name for itself, but I think you said to me, even before I expressed it, that it didn't feel right for our company to be called “Berkeley” Opera. We felt “Bay Area”, hence the name change. I think “Edge” might be a little bit on the nose, though.
Jonathan: I think people responded to Berkeley-style opera, but Berkeley itself never bought into it as “this is our opera company”, because Berkeley stands for something that opera seems to stand against. And so it never was consonant.
Mark: Of course, we’re trying to fight all the stereotypes of opera and constantly breaking down the barriers to bringing people in. Witness our selling $10 tickets for this season, which thrills all of our donors and our people who pay a high ticket price, because they want more people to know about opera and to love opera. But I felt that even though our company does more interesting work to break down barriers and welcome all kinds of people into the opera world, we also needed a name to identify us as a regional company rather than a specific City of Berkeley company.
Jonathan: Do you think we can get to a place where we're actually a company that people imitate?
Mark: I’m not sure that's possible. But I love being at the Oakland Scottish Rite Center, and I feel like it grounds us solidly to have a place that we will come back to next year. I feel that we can build more of an audience that way. There are a lot of people who are frustrated with the fact that we've been so nomadic. We have our great fans and our supporters and our family, but I think we can really build something more at OSRC.