Learning Library Segments
Joe McLain, General DirectorPrimary Use of Medium: Musical Theater
Interviewer: Donna Wetegrove
Interview Location This interview takes place in Joe's office on the third floor of the still new Austin Lyric Opera Headquarters Building.
Interview Date: 2.1.02
Writer: Ellen Fox
What Type Of Arts’ Organization Do You See Austin Lyric Opera As?
“I see Austin Lyric Opera as an organization that is totally dedicated to everything it does. It utilizes the great form of music theater, which is what opera is really about, to change lives … to bring substance and meaning to our lives in a time when we live very easily on a trivial surface level. Everything, all levels of Austin Lyric Opera, need to contribute towards this goal of changing lives, supporting, and nurturing our city, whether it’s fundraising or trying to find a vision for the company that really encompasses the dynamics of this great growing city.” Through achieving this goal, Joe continues, the opera company becomes a metaphor for this very special unique place of Austin.
How Did You Personally, Get Here, as Director of the Austin Lyric Opera?
“I got here by thinking of the idea of doing this, which is a very unique moment. Then, realizing how big of an idea it was and actually then deciding that there is no way I would do that; I tried to talk myself out of it. I remember thinking, ‘wait a minute this is nuts!’ However, someplace deep inside me that knew it would happen and be a big, big responsibility for all to carry for the city and that remains daunting. But that’s how I got here, and that came because of my great love of this art form, and it’s capacity to bring substance to change lives. If I didn’t believe that, I would not be in this. It would not be nearly worth it … you couldn’t pay me enough. That’s at the core.”
Where Would You Describe The Source For The Inspiration For Austin Lyric Opera, And How Is ALO’s Season Decided?
“It’s very complex. It’s best summed up by stepping in the shoes of the hopeful audience and asking ‘How do we reach them?’ … ‘How do we talk to them?’ Whether they come back, don’t come back, are occasional attendees, or always attendees, when they are sitting in this performance, can we bring them an experience that will really mean something?” Joe continues, “We also must decide how we sell it to them. It’s an ongoing battle. Sometimes we are real successful with it, and sometimes we are not successful at all. But we keep working on it even though it’s something that defies a formula.” “As soon as we think we have a formula for it”, he continues, “we’ve just missed”. Whether reading an ad or sitting in a theater, Joe acknowledges that there are different messages to send out to the audience. It always returns to the point of zero, how do you talk so that people not only get the message but understand. “This process is about constantly reinventing.”
How Would You Describe The Work That Austin Lyric Opera Does?
“Opera is a HUGE collaborative development; no piece of it can stand on its own, at all. So, while I want to boil it down to a singer on stage and an orchestra, which is what it looks like sometimes, the fact is that those people are being supported by hundreds of people without which it could not happen. The key word is collaboration … artists collaborating with artists other on stage.” Joe continues, “If I go on stage and I really don’t care what anybody else is doing, the audience will know, and some part of their receptive capacity will go dead.” The artists on the stage are supported by carpenters, electricians, sound people, lights, makeup, wigs, costumes, musical assistance, and dressers. “It is a huge, huge collaborative process.” That makes it a very powerful process as well as a very difficult process, he says. “It’s a huge logistical thing to get all that collaboration to happen exactly at 8:00 on a specific evening, and for it to be repeatable. A film scene can happen once in a miraculous fashion and you’ve got it in the can. In this art form, you’ve got to be able to do it again, because there are a whole bunch of new people in the audience and we can take nothing for granted, we are at zero again.”
How Do You Decide Whether To Reach Back To The Past Of Opera VS Doing Some Newer Productions?
“You have to find balance. Balance means both things, finding what you can balance financially with the desires and the needs of the audience, even if it might be an unspoken need to experience new things.” He clarifies, “they might tell you, ‘I just want to do the stuff that’s familiar’ but in reality, the need to be vibrant means new things too, new approaches to old things and keeping all of the above alive and vibrant.” It’s no small task … a real balancing act according to Joe. “When you are walking a tight wire, you make a lot of adjustments.”
I Would Imagine You Spend Conscious Time As You Are Planning The Other Seasons, Deciding How Much You Push The Envelope With New Productions Or When It Is Time To Revisit The Familiar. Does A Lot Of That Come From You As The Director?
“Yeah, sure.” As Joe points to his desk, “Here are company budgets out through 2004. We look at these and say, ‘oh my, we need to make some adjustments, we can’t afford this’. Or we have to do this, but find a different way to do it.” As an example, he uses Madame Butterfly, ”although we planned this opera far in advance, our feel of what we need right now can be changed. So we made a last minute shift, which is the last thing you want to do,” he admits, “but in order to keep that tight-wire going we do that kind of thing. Sometimes, the world changes and we can’t be in a set thing.”
Being A Performance Theater, As Austin Lyric Opera Is, Would You Say that The Materials Of The Stage Set, The Costumes, And Design Of It All, Dictate The Idea; The Message That You Are Trying To Get Across?
“Just the opposite, the idea dictates what it looks like.”
Joe points out that building the visual experience from scratch “allows us to put our ideas into it and let it totally look like what the idea is”. That opportunity allows Austin Lyric Opera to “go with the inner-content” of the production. Each area can create something new and alive with each production. “… we hope that the audience comes away seeing that. When it is a rented set and costumes, that art was already created.”
What Would You Say Brings The Medium Of Opera To Life?
“Well, I guess a real commitment on the part of the artist. You can always sleepwalk through anything, and that’s deadly. It takes commitment to walk out there every night as a performer and be vulnerable.” He is careful to acknowledge the financial commitment of the company to afford the kind of people who are those kind of artists, “when we produce our own production from scratch, that’s what it’s all about. It’s about doing something that’s very, very alive, full of life, reeling with ideas and substance. It’s also very expensive to do that.” He admits that it would be a lot easier to say “oh, we’ll just forget all this stuff, they will never know’. The audience per se would not have a check off the list of requisites, but down deep something is missing and over time it would not be alive”. This lack of ongoing collaboration is a lack of commitment for the art form, and Joe points out that artists who live their lives like that are pretty well down the path to somebody’s artistic graveyard, “we’re not interested in that”.
Say A Little About The Key Tools, In Your Mind, That Allow Any Austin Lyric Opera Production To Be Successful.
“The tools are human beings.” There are a multitude of layers and the tools include the souls of the performers; how each expresses themselves, how they use their voices, how they use their instruments. “Without that it simply does not work.” He describes another level of material things; they are all tools of how this message is communicated clearly to the audience. This includes, for example, hundreds of lighting instruments that are used on the stage, none of which are looked at as decoration. Clarifying, Joe says, “we don’t like in this business ‘decoration’, we like, ‘What is this light saying about this character?’ ‘Oh, it’s that they are very alone, it’s a very cold light, it isolates them”. This is the perspective Joe sees, at each snapshot of the production. He’s not concerned with “making it pretty … unless pretty is what we are talking about”. Each aspect of the set, even down to the detail of the makeup is critical, “we don’t just make pretty eyes. It’s all very calculated.”
When It Comes To The Process For The Productions, Is There A Way To Summarize Where It Starts?
Joe defines the process they take, once the work or opera production has been identified ...
A brainstorming session, led by the stage director of the production, convenes to try to define the scope. “So what do we want to say with that?”. Illustrating an example, Joe continues, “If it’s a really good creative team then the costume designer might say ‘but why did she do that in the story?’ and then these ideas start turning into ‘Okay, I am the costume designer, so how would I express that in clothes, color, shapes, forms, textures?’ ‘How do I do that with the structures that are on stage’ i.e. The set. So that’s really where it starts … working together, making adjustments, and getting it onstage and then collaborating adjustments then. We sit out there in the theatre during the dress rehearsals, talking constantly and making notes and writing back and forth, fixing things, the costume people working all night so that by the next day, something is totally transformed that just didn’t work. You always want to know that stuff before you go into the theatre for the final phase, but sometimes you don’t. You just have to calm down and try to do it.”
How Many Seasons In Advance Do You Have Manned?
“About four years, otherwise, it’s way too leveraged.”
Do You Recommend What You Do As A Career Choice? … Why?
“Yes. Unless you are terribly fortunate, however, it is something that you will probably not make huge amounts of money on. There are people who do. So you’ve got to find another reason to be doing it, and that has to do with love of the art form, it’s possibilities to affect life. But yeah, I would recommend it. The range of jobs that are available in the field of opera are huge - from onstage, to the office. Okay, so you want to go into business? We employ master’s degree level people in business. Advertising, we do that. All this stuff, Information Technologies, we have two people who are solely here to take care of computer networks.”
How Best Would You Recommend Our Audience To Develop Their Interest In Austin Lyric Opera, Whatever It May Be?
“Look for job openings. Volunteer, you get familiar with the company that way. Go after it, it’s an expanding field, there are lots of jobs, lots of opportunities, especially in the administrative side: marketing, financial management, public relations, fundraising, all of that. And they are among the best paying jobs in the business. If you want to be an artist in this field, then you have to want it really bad, bad enough that nothing will keep you from trying. The competition is ferocious, … it’s depressing. There is so much talent, that it is not enough to just be pretty good; pretty good doesn’t make it at all, you have to be really good. That means working really hard at it, not taking anything for granted, getting all the experience, exposure - exposure. If you’re interested in a job in the arts as a young person, go to one of the performing arts; come to the opera, go to the symphony, ballet, theater companies, and say, ‘I want an internship. I’ll do anything around here, for a couple of months to see how this works.’ There also are professional internship programs where you get paid and you get sent around to different companies. There are various ways that you can do this. There is a national, professional level fellowship program, where people in various levels are picked nationally. They will then be sent to 3 to 5 companies for a 2 to 3 month stint working in the areas they have chosen. These positions are highly competitive, and these people get pretty good jobs when they get out of this.”
How Does Somebody Land In The Austin Lyric Opera Young Artist’s Program?
“They audition. It’s generally something you do, post-graduate. So, we say young artist and that sounds like 16 … no they are 26, 30, which is young for a singer. And they’ve gone through a real education and an audition process. For this years upcoming auditions in January, there are already 400 applicants for 4 positions. And so, it is very, very competitive. All these people will be required to submit a tape which we will then filter out probably 75% of it. They will then be called in for personal auditions and interviews, the expense of which they will pay. Having a career in this business is a big investment and you have to want it so badly that you can’t imagine life without it. Even then, that doesn’t mean you are going to get it, but it does mean that you give it a try and it may lead you someplace else, maybe the management side.”
“We’re a very clean business, just a lot of people running around all doing stuff.”
“In the construction of this building,” Joe refers to their new facility on Barton Springs Road that they moved into in May of 2000, “ the ‘poster child’ for the green movement in Austin. It really corresponds to our culture here in Austin and the company itself. And great music causes no pollution - it is a totally renewable source, it has been renewing itself forever.”
“The more the merrier for us. You never go into another performance after opening night feeling like, ‘Lets go do this again’, you always go ‘Here we go, new’ and ‘What have I learned? What can I bring new to this?’. And so the more chances you have for that, the more the artists can take a deep breath, settle in to it, and really start opening themselves up, speak more strongly to the audience. From a marketing aspect, it gives us the possibility of word of mouth to grow our audience, which we know is the strongest marketing instrument. Right now we benefit very little from word of mouth because we have 4 performances one day after another, there is no time.”
Can you do too many?
“No”. “In Europe, they have much smaller houses, and seat fewer people. So a normal run could be ten or fifteen performances. And they are spread over a longer period. That’s great!”
Joe continues, “It does challenge the artist not to get stale with it. In 4 or 5 (performances), there is no danger of getting routine. But you must be committed to it. That’s what real art is about, the commitment each time, not reproduction. In the opera world, reproduction is when you walk on the stage without making the commitment to make new regardless of what you’re performing.”
What Is The Target (Number Of Performances) For ALO When Performing In The Long Center Once It Is Up And Running?
“Probably 7 or 8. At 6, we are at the capacity we had at Bass Concert Hall. Our audience wants to grow, so 7 gives us a little breathing room, but it could be more like 8. That’s a real different world.”
Do You Foresee Austin Lyric Opera Doing Some Of The Gyrations That Santa Fe Does, For Instance, Like Being A Summer Opera. Having Multiple Productions Occurring Within The Same Week?
“Not in the foreseeable future. That’s a whole, HUGE, different level of challenges. I see that happing in some companies of the size of San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Houston.” There are 2 ways to schedule a season – first, you open an opera and you finish it … and then you open another one and you finish that. The second is to have multiple productions occurring during the same time. That is a tremendously expensive and difficult way to run a company.”
Where Do You See Austin Lyric Opera’s Creativity Evolving?
“I would like for us to be a leader in American Opera. Being a vital, dynamic part of the whole mix. We create a very unique niche for Austin Lyric Opera. We don’t want to be New York City Opera, or St. Louis Opera, or Chicago Opera. We want to be Austin. We want that to be very excellent and very unique; on par, as far as quality goes, with anything. The uniqueness comes from Austin and the perspective of this company. We will always be based on the mating up of Theater and Music. As long as I’m around, we will not become a company thought of as boring through doing only great theater or great music. Opera dies when either of these fall short.”
901 Barton Springs Road
Austin, TX 78704
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