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San Antonians have supported opera since the late 19th century; in 1945 San Antonio became the first city in Texas to start a resident company. But sustaining an ongoing company in collaboration with the San Antonio Symphony, such as Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin have done with their symphonies, has eluded the city.
During his 26-year tenure starting in 1950, San Antonio Symphony director Victor Alessandro continued the San Antonio Symphony Society’s Grand Opera Festival and brought in world-renowned singers. After his death in 1976, the Symphony continued producing operas until 1983.
Since then, opera patron Margaret King Stanley said, “It’s been here and there, scattershot,” as other companies performed and local opera producer Mark Richter has staged dozens of performances not affiliated with the Symphony. Stanley herself brought opera to the city through an organization she founded, the San Antonio Performing Arts Association, in the 1980s.
With Opera San Antonio, the pursuit of an ongoing opera company associated with the San Antonio Symphony finally may have arrived.
Maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo will begin his first full season as artistic director for the 2017-2018 season, building on a reputation the company developed over its first three years under the vigilant leadership of Chairman Mel Weingart and an active board of directors.
“We have a great number of patrons attending performances,” Carreón-Robledo told the Rivard Report. “It’s very fulfilling to see the enthusiasm with which they walk away after seeing a rehearsal, visiting our offices, or seeing a performance.”
With an eye on responsible finances in an art form that is costly to produce, the company presents just two operas per season. For the coming season, it will offer Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth on Sept. 8 and 10 and Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème on May 17 and 19, 2018. Season and single tickets for the Tobin Center performances can be purchased here.
Producing a Shakespearean opera festival that included Macbeth was a high point in Carreón-Robledo’s tenure at Opera in the Heights in Houston, where he served as artistic director for four seasons. A pivotal difference between that production and Opera San Antonio’s will be the set design, which he said influences costumes, lighting, and style of performance.
In Houston, the set was inspired by the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare’s plays originally were staged; in San Antonio, the sets for Macbeth, La Bohème, and last season’s The Barber of Seville originated at the Glimmerglass Festival, an acclaimed summer opera festival near Cooperstown, N.Y. In that sense, he said, the production will be “adapting rather than creating.”
Carreón-Robledo said that unlike the set for The Barber of Seville, in which set pieces came on and off the stage, “for Macbeth the magic changes will happen right before the audience’s eyes. Saying more will be a spoiler.”
The costumes for Macbeth were designed to go with the set and evoke the early 20th century.
Whether adapting or creating from scratch, Carreón-Robledo adheres to a strict directorial concept: “You have to be true to the spirit of the composer and loyal to the development of performance practices,” he said.
In preserving that truth and loyalty, Carreón-Robledo is on the same page as San Antonio Symphony music director and conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing and stage director Crystal Manich.
“It is their creativity, their muse, that will come to fruition,” Carreón-Robledo said.
“I know it will be a production that will be dramatically intense and stylistically clean and correct. It seems simple, but it’s a challenge to achieve that. You do it by bringing that kind of artist to be in charge and to give them the creative freedom they need to come up with a new concept, a fresh production of Macbeth that is going to hit the target of our San Antonio audience.”
The production of La Bohème, including its sets and lighting, originally was developed at Glimmerglass. The production’s stage director, Loren Meeker, will direct Opera San Antonio’s version; having just directed The Barber of Seville at the Tobin Center, she knows the theater, production team, and local audience, a fact that thoroughly delights the artistic director.
“She has the opportunity to revisit something she created and make it fresh,” Carreón-Robledo said with excitement.
With Opera in the Heights, Carreón-Robledo had the task of differentiating his company from one of the best in the country, the Houston Grand Opera. In San Antonio, the challenges are different, but he believes continuity, demonstrated in working with Glimmerglass, and the similar but powerful marketing images the company’s graphic designer produced for Macbeth and La Bohème, will lead to strong performances, a growing audience, and an enduring opera company.
“It is not so important that the audience know [an opera] was good because of A, B, and C,” he said. “If the magic happened for them, they will come back. It is our responsibility to put all of those creative and technical elements in place to make the magic happen. You succeed with one production and it starts all over, and you confront the exact same challenges and just try to be better and better.”
Beyond his past work in Houston, Carreón-Robledo is a popular guest conductor for opera and ballet worldwide. In San Antonio, the new artistic director’s challenge isn’t being overshadowed by an established opera company but overcoming the competition for arts patrons who can afford tickets ranging from $55 for upper-balcony seats to $190 for box seats. And there is always the challenge of conquering opera’s image as an art form that is less than accessible.
But Carreón-Robledo is confident in his product and its appeal.
“Many times, it is passion that drives people to spend a little more,” he said, citing the example of comparably priced tickets to Spurs games. “As long as we work on exposing those people to the art form, the opera lovers group will grow and the San Antonio lovers [who travel to Houston or New York to see opera] will take ownership of something that is totally theirs.”
Both Weingart and Carreón-Robledo said the company’s subscription base continues to add members.
“The financial aspect of a not-for-profit is always a circle that has to grow,” Carreón-Robledo said. “The more successful you are, the more reliable you are, the more support you’re going to get. And I am confident to say that we are definitely moving in that direction.”