March 2013 LB Leader of the Month: Cecelia Schieve, Opera on the James
Name: Cecelia Schieve
Occupation: General Director, Opera on the James
Hometown: Grand Island, NY
How did you come into your role as the General Director for Opera on the James in Lynchburg?
I’ve been an opera professional for more than 30 years, as a professional singer, educator, director of conservatory opera and young artist programs, stage director and administrator. I was thrilled in late 2009 to be chosen from three finalists after a very rigorous application and review process led by the current Board President, Gail Morrison. I was very impressed by the artistic product, the passion and hard work of the board members, the dedicated opera patrons and the active cultural life in Central Virginia. It was very hard not to yell ”YES” when David Neumeyer, founding and then Board President, called to offer me the position.
I have the dream job of helping provide opportunities for others to participate in, enjoy as audience members, support financially and in other ways and learn more about this incredibly diverse form of musical story-telling.
Opera on the James was created by a group of local leaders and opera lovers when they saw a lack of this kind of performance in our area. Now in its 8th season, how has Opera on the James grown since its inception?
Just eight years from conversations to nearly 900 guests at recent performances of Die Fledermaus and Madame Butterfly—amazing!
An initial Three Tenors Concert was followed soon after by staged performances. We now offer two fully produced operas each season and an additional concert, gala or other operatic event. We have added a Young Artist Program, the five members of which performed free concerts and family operas for nearly 5,000 of our neighbors last season. We have also added a bi-annual voice contest, Opera Guild, Advisory Council and Legacy Society. Two years ago, the company bought a building in downtown Lynchburg (the “diva red” building on the corner of Marin and 7th Street). It is so exciting to be part of the downtown activity and to welcome people to community performances in our rehearsal space.
Opera on the James is an OPERA AMERICA Level Four Professional Company. What does this mean?
OPERA AMERICA is the national organization which serves opera professionals and companies that produce and/or present opera and maintain the standards of the organization. The levels are structured by budget size and the corresponding programs and staff the budgets represent. Opera on the James is a Level Four Professional Company because our budget is under $1 million.
Where do you find opera talent in Central Virginia?
We engage opera singers who are working on the national and international level and weave them together with the strong regional talent available, striving to create casts who not only work together but learn from each other.
We hold regional auditions and I attend many performances to hear both experienced professionals who live in Central Virginia and emerging talents. Board members and opera patrons will often flag me about someone who may of interest. We have strong relationships with music, choral and dance programs at regional colleges and in the community. Our orchestra managers, Mary Ann Archer and Francoise Moquin, gather a wonderful orchestral team. My colleagues in regional music and theater groups are generous with their recommendations and support.
Opera on the James recently hosted a Paris-themed night, complete with cocktails, cuisine, live and silent auctions, and performances of opera, torch songs, and high kicking dancing girls. How in the world did you come up with this idea? And how was it received?
Who would not want to go to Paris to be indulged and entertained? We were thrilled to be sold-out two weeks before the event, and Jane Massie and her committee certainly upheld our reputation of throwing a great party. I love having a theme to build experiences around. I can’t wait to start working on the next Cabaret in January 2015—the theme’s still a secret but it will be exciting!
The season’s next show is called The Magic Flute and will be performed in March. Tell us more about it.
I love The Magic Flute. It is one of the operas from the tradition called “singspiel” which has both music and dialogue. Mozart’s score has incredibly beautiful and poignant melodies, the highest notes written for soprano (F above high C!), and two parallel love stories. Good triumphs over evil as the Prince saves the daughter of the Queen of the Night and passes trials to prove his good heart and strength of character.
The hapless bird-catcher, Papageno, who resembles the birds he catches, eventually finds his own true love after many comic misadventures. The Magic Flute is an ideal mix of themes and music that adults have cherished for more than 200 years, and an accessible plot and characters that make it a charming introduction to the opera for families.
What is your greatest challenge on the job?
The greatest challenge is reaching the thousands in this area who have not been consciously exposed to opera and think it is not for them, and if the first experience isn’t a match, to explore further. There are so many different kinds of opera that have developed over the past 400 years, and as a living art form, it continues to develop as new musical concepts, harmonies and rhythmic diversity are incorporated.
To me, saying you don’t like opera just means you haven’t found the “right” genre of it yet! If someone goes to an exhibit and doesn’t enjoy the paintings from Picasso’s blue period, they don’t say they don’t like art, just not that specific art. The “right” kind of opera is out there for everyone but it may take a little while to find the perfect match. But once you do, you’ll be hooked…
What is your greatest opportunity?
Opera, a composite art form of music, drama, dance and design, is the ideal portal to so many other exciting opportunities for pleasure and personal growth. If you like history, myths, great works of literature, psychological drama, ballet, physical comedy, orchestral suites or chamber music, it’s all there and more. We all know and like some of it without recognizing what it is. Opera is used in movies, television and commercials because it is so successful in engaging our emotions. The opportunity is to strengthen the understanding of the power of opera to entertain and affect us.
Do you believe the arts culture is changing in Lynchburg?
I have just completed my third year in Lynchburg, so my experience is limited and I am learning all the time. However, my sense is that the arts culture here is moving to a more inclusive and supportive model. The combined power of the small and larger arts groups is huge. Sharing resources, marketing opportunities, creative talents and other connection points is exciting, facilitated in part by the Arts Council, Lynch’s Landing and the City of Lynchburg. Although providing exceptional art within a limited budget is always a challenge, it is a great time to be an arts provider and consumer in Central Virginia.
What show would you love to see Opera on the James perform in the future?
Turandot in the restored historic theater!