Tuesday, January 24, 2017

With new production set, Indianapolis Opera moves closer to resuming current season under new leadership

David Craig Starkey, new general director of the Indianapolis Opera,  got into the habit of thinking big about his opera career
IO CEO David Craig Starkey makes public debut with "Man of La Mancha"
during his student days at Indiana University in the early '90s.

"There was no arts administration training there then," he recalled recently in the company's offices at the Basile Opera Center on North Pennsylvania Street. "If you wanted more than being a singer or conductor, there were different levels of experience you needed to get."

Starkey took advantage of the eminent musicians who came through what is now the Jacobs School of Music to pick up experience and practical wisdom. For a while he was the personal assistant to the music school's retired dean, Wilfred Bain.

After moving to New York, Starkey continued to cultivate mentors, particularly Paul Kellogg, general director of the New York City Opera at the time, and Lesley Koenig, stage director at the San Diego Opera and the director of last year's "Madama Butterfly," an IU production that traveled to Clowes Hall.

The payoff, as Starkey describes it, was to learn what it takes today to set up a new opera company and make a go of it. Through his habit of consulting the experts, Starkey became convinced that operettas and musicals have to be part of a successful company's repertoire. A company also has to have a solid base in the community where it sets up shop, provided the community is not too small.

These hypothetical conversations led to Starkey's search for an American city that might prove propitious. The result? Asheville, N.C., "chose itself." Starkey found people passionate to establish opera there, including those willing to put up the money for a company that was "intimate, realistic, flexible."  While in New York, Starkey had developed experience in banking and working for CAMI, a major arts management group. He was able to set up Asheville Lyric Opera in 1998 and has served as general and artistic director ever since.
Karin Mushegain will fill the role of Aldonza.

With Robert Driver, now retired after leading the Philadelphia Opera, as artistic adviser, Starkey has run Indianapolis Opera since Dec. 6, succeeding Kevin Patterson. Driver directed Indianapolis Opera for 10 years, ending in 1991. "He will work closely with artistic development and education, and undertake significant fund-raising initiatives," Starkey explained.

The team's first production is the Dale Wasserman musical "Man of La Mancha," to be presented March 24-26 at the Schrott Center for the Arts, Butler University. The award-winning Broadway musical replaces "The Jewel Box," a pastiche by Paul Griffiths with an assortment of music by Wolfgang Mozart.

The "La Mancha" cast will be headed by David Malis as Don Quixote, Scott Wichael as Sancho Panza, and Karin Mushegain as Aldonza.  A conductor has yet to be named. (Starkey said he foresees possible re-engagement of James Caraher as conductor of a future production. Caraher's 33-year tenure as the company's artistic director ended with hard feelings in 2014.)

The show substitution was dictated in part by the short time available to market and stage an unfamiliar piece. Starkey did the well-known "Man of La Mancha" in Asheville last year. It would be easier to come up with a production team and cast, given that background, than to get up to speed with "The Jewel Box."

"Everyone wanted to have the right timing for 'Jewel Box,'" Starkey told me. "It could be considered in the future. For now, we needed to look at a product we were more familiar with."  He will direct "Man of La Mancha" here, as he did in Asheville, using the same design and technical team; ensemble members (there is no chorus) will be chosen from regional artists and prepared by John Schmid, longtime IO chorus director.

Looking to the company's future, Starkey said that season subscriptions will be de-emphasized in favor of single-ticket sales, reflecting a national trend. In Asheville, he's eliminated season tickets altogether. "We had many sold-out performances and we were adding some" to the run of individual productions, he said.

He also plans to put less emphasis on the season. Indianapolis Opera will become a year-round operation, and the company will use the Basile Opera Center as a facility for its own activities and those of four resident groups it has welcomed there. The trend toward setting productions in different halls will continue, with a return to Clowes Hall, the Schrott's big, decades-old neighbor, a distant possibility for large-scale shows. Putting "The Barber of Seville" in the Tarkington at Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts worked well for the company last fall, a company spokesman said.

"To dream the impossible dream" is what draws in audiences to "Man of La Mancha," but to dream possible dreams is what keeps a regional opera company in business, and that's what Starkey aims to do here.