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Interview with Maestro James Meena

March 02, 2012

  • date
    March 02, 2012
  • article type
    Press
  • category
    Opera Carolina News

Interview with Maestro James Meena

Opera Lively has interviewed James Meena, general director and principal conductor of Opera Carolina, the excellent Charlotte company that is giving Eugene Onegin in March. We talked about the opera, the production, and the accomplishments and struggles of a regional opera company in today’s environment

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 Up 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.

By Opera Lively

To read the original article, click here.