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The Life of a Regional Opera Company

January 15th, 2012

Article By IPA Member: Luiz Gazzola

Company: Opera Lively


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I recently interviewed Mr. Eric Mitchko, general director for North Carolina Opera for Opera Livey and IPA.  NCO is a relatively young, but professional opera company in Raleigh, NC that is in its second season of operation. The company is the result of the merger between two older opera companies - Capital Opera Raleigh and The Opera Company of North Carolina.


Mr. Mitchko is a delightful gentleman. He is energetic, articulate, fast speaking, and commands a solid knowledge of opera. Our readers will notice how confident he is when he discusses the relevance and viability of opera today.

OL - How do you get your artists? Is it difficult for a regional opera company to have access to competent artists? Any attempts to develop your own domestic artists, tapping the local university's opera program?

EM - Both Timothy Myers [NC Opera’s artistic director and principal conductor] and I know a lot of singers. I used to be an agent; we go to New York for auditions; we know a lot of people who are out there, and of course good singers come to you; they all want work so they find us. Finding good singers is not really a problem. There are also lots of good singers locally whom we use. We try to use them in our Opera About Town and other programs like that.

OL - Do you tend to use the same musicians as the North Carolina Symphony or do you have your own orchestra?

EM - We have our own orchestra. They are mostly free-lancers. Some of them do play with the North Carolina Symphony but it is a separate organization.

OL - And is it easy to keep them sharp with only three or four operas per year?

EM – Well, they play other things too, we’re not the only thing they do.

OL - We have five opera companies in the state. You’re doing Il Trovatore in April and it was recently done by Opera Carolina [located about 80 miles from NC Opera]. Do you coordinate your efforts in any way with the other companies?

EM – Well, we talk to each other. There are so many different moving parts when putting together a season… We don’t really plan the repertoire like that to make sure we don’t overlap. It’s a two-hour drive, there aren’t that many people who are going to go to both.

OL – How is your relationship with the other companies?

EM – Charlotte [Opera Carolina] is a much bigger company than we are. We have a friendly relationship.

OL - Greensboro Opera [some 50 miles away] has had some difficult times. Do you plan on partnering with them?

EM - We have talked to them. It’s a question of seeing if the numbers can match.

OL – When you did the merger between Capital Opera and NC Opera Company, was it a difficult process?

EM – I wasn’t here when the merger was happening so I can’t really answer the question, but I don’t think so; I hear that it went very smoothly. Now in the board we have new board members, and former Capital board members, former NC board members, and they all get along very well.

OL – The Long Leaf Opera Company [a sixth company in the state] has died; they are ending their operations in June of 2012. Does this worry you in terms of viability of opera in North Carolina?

EM – I’m sad to see them go but it doesn’t worry me, no.

OL – Long Leaf specialized in opera in English. Now that they are gone, are you planning to fill this niche a bit?

EM - We have done The Turn of the Screw last year, and Les Enfants Terribles this year by an American composer with narration in English although it is sung in French. We may continue to do this kind of work.

OL – Today we have a lot of online entertainment. People can see and listen to opera online on their smartphones and YouTube, and there are broadcasts of live opera coming from major opera houses to movie theaters and so forth. Are you planning to use these media as opportunities to diffuse North Carolina Opera, or do you see them as competition?

EM – I would say neither of those. We use a lot of new media to promote our activities. To stream up performances, I don’t think it is worth the tremendous cost involved in that. It’s great, I think all this stuff is great opportunity to showcase what we do and promote it, but there really just isn’t a substitute for a live performance. The distinctive thing about opera is that it is live theater. The experience of live opera in the opera house is unmatched. Even if you watch opera on the large screen with surround sound, what you get from a live opera is still superior.

When the Met Live in HD series started, people basically predicted two possible outcomes. One, that everybody would see opera and love opera and the audience would grow. Two, that nobody would want to attend an opera by a regional company because they would be able to see the Met productions on screen. I think that neither of these two possibilities has materialized. I believe that about the same people who attend Live in HD attend our productions. It’s not really competition; opera goers just attend both.

OL – In terms of fundraising, state sponsorships such as the North Carolina Council for the Arts, are those funds drying up in the current economy? Is it difficult these days to get funded?

EM – Yes, it is pretty difficult now, but we are supported by the city of Raleigh, by the State, and also by the Federal government. I’m very happy to say that we have a broad base of support.

OL – How often does the company operate? Is it a full-time, year-long operation, or do you only meet with itinerant artists in the weeks preceding the productions?

EM – It is a full-time, year-long organization. There are festivals, outreach, the work is all year long.

OL – How do you make decisions about which operas to stage in the season?

EM – We always try to do a mix of things; some traditional works, some non-traditional works, different languages, some stuff is big, some stuff is small… You want to have something like La Bohème or Carmen because that’s what people want to see, and you always want to have something that you will introduce to people, that they don’t yet know that they like. There is always a part of the public that wants Puccini, Verdi, Mozart. But another part craves contemporary operas, something different.

OL – What is coming up in your future seasons? Do you have a definition already, or not yet?

EM – We have some plans. We will announce the next season in March. Certainly we’ll be aiming for two traditional operas, and two newer works.

OL – Any strategies to make opera relevant in today’s world?

EM – I think it already is relevant. I don’t think it needs help. It is great music speaking to situations that will be open to everyone of us, decisions we have to make and fears we all have. We have been doing outreach in middle and high schools. We have done about 40 such events already. Actually opera can interest the young people: 55% of our opera goers here at NC Opera are 45 years old or younger.

OL – Can you tell us about your background and how you got to North Carolina Opera?

EM – I have always loved opera since High School. I was introduced to opera by records of Wagner duets and I was hooked, and have been around it ever since. I was an agent for singers and conductors at Columbia Artists. Then after that I was with Atlanta Opera producing operas, and then I came here a year and a half ago.

OL – Any final statements, Mr. Mitchko?

EM – It’s great to be here in North Carolina. Opera is fantastic and I’m so grateful that people here are as excited about it as I am! And I hope you’ll all come to Philip Glass’ opera, which will be a really cool show. We’re doing Glass in celebration of the fact that this great American composer is turning 75 years old in a few weeks [Jan 31]. We will present his opera Les Enfants Terribles based on the movie and novel of the same name, both by Jean Cocteau. It’s orchestrated for three pianos, with Glass’ signature minimalism which he actually called “music with repetitive structures.” We’ll present it as an opera-dance, with dancers from Carolina Ballet on stage, so that all characters are simultaneously represented by a singer and a dancer.

OL – Like the recent Royal Opera House production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea.

EM – Yes. And this is both new and consistent with other traditional approaches, like in Lully and Rameau, and the masques… Glass’ opera is sung in French with English subtitles projected on scenario structures instead of the traditional supertitles. Our singers are terrific. [January 19, 20, and 22 in Raleigh; see our Local Area for USA -> North Carolina for details or click here for tickets: http://ncopera.org/tickets/].

OL – Yes, I’ll be sure to be there. It seems like a terrific show, with the opera-dance concept. Good luck for your season.

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