Worrisome staff turnover and deficits at Nashville Opera

Nashville Opera kicks off its 2016-2017 season this weekend with performances of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, but the real story may be playing out behind the scenes. By all appearances the company has experienced significant staff turnover at the top of the organization in recent months. Though no formal announcements have been made, it appears that Noah Spiegel is no longer with the company, after joining the organization as Chief Operating Officer in October 2012 and adding the Executive Director title in 2015. Spiegel is no longer listed on Nashville Opera’s staff page.

Nashville Opera logoIn addition to Spiegel’s apparent departure, the company has also witnessed the departure of its Senior Director of Sales and Marketing, Reed Hummel, and Senior Director of Development, Diane Zandstra. Hummel is currently working in communications for the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County. Zandstra’s departure comes after only a few months in the role, having been appointed in December 2015.

All this comes at a time when Nashville Opera has appeared to be on a run of artistic successes. In June, New York City Opera gave four performances of the company’s original production of Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas. In September, the company released its commercial recording of Michael Nyman’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a project on which Spiegel is listed as an executive producer.

Given the wave of financial difficulties facing opera companies just a few short years ago, it’s worrisome to see this level of staff turnover at the top of a major artistic organization in Nashville. Recent Form 990 filings on the company’s GivingMatters profile indicate a sizable annual shortfall in recent years, though the filing for the most recently completed fiscal year is not yet available.

Too often, the community is called to take notice of an artistic organizations difficulties only once a major crisis occurs. Staff turnover at the upper levels of an organization and persistent operating deficits are exactly the sort of symptoms that should grab our attention to ensure that one of the pillars of Nashville’s artistic life is not in peril.

Soaring Studio Tenn weighed down by Evita

Studio Tenn is a theater company that has been growing in both stature and ambition in recent years. The Franklin-based troupe concluded its past three seasons at Schermerhorn Symphony Center with productions of Les MisérablesThe Wizard of Oz, and West Side Story. To start its 2016/17 season, the company set its eyes on a bigger prize: two weeks performing an original, all-new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita in TPAC‘s Jackson Hall.

evitaposterfinalThis production of Evita puts aside any doubts: with Artistic Director Matt Logan at the helm, Studio Tenn has undoubtedly emerged as Middle Tennessee’s foremost company in terms of theatrical craftsmanship. Evita tells the story of Eva Perón’s meteoric rise rise from impoverished obscurity to become a wildly adored public figure as the first lady of Argentina. A key component to Eva and her husband Juan’s success was their expert care and attention to cultivating a precise and highly effective public image through emergent mass media, which in the 1940s included radio, film, and television. Studio Tenn captures the spirit of this purposeful manipulation of public perception through stunning visual effects and choreography throughout the performance. Even small details like the sheer, red fabric draped across the proscenium at the beginning of performance communicate the mixture of allure, sultriness, and pseudo-elegance that characterizes the Peróns’ rise to power.

Unfortunately, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical is not quite up to the challenge of Studio Tenn’s high-flying ambitions. While Eva Perón is a fascinating, contradictory person whose life story has filled the pages of many compelling books, Lloyd Webber manages to reduce her to a caricature of a gold-digging maneater. While the glitz and glam of Evita’s story certainly makes for stunning spectacle, equally important to her story are the realities of intense oppression of the poor and the ever-lingering specter of military interventionism in Argentine politics. Aside from some sideways references and the song “The Lady’s Got Potential,” which is omitted from most productions as it was in Studio Tenn’s rendering, the musical mostly ignores the political and social reality that made a public persona like Evita not only possible but irresistible.

Luckily, we don’t typically go see a musical for hard-hitting socio-political and historical criticism. The unhappy truth, however, is that Evita just isn’t that great a musical. The collaboration between Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice began as a concept album that was immensely successful because of the smash single “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” The album’s brisk sales led the two to develop the score into a show. Pop quiz: name one other song from Evita. The rest of the score simply doesn’t stand up very well; “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” is a soaring and transcendent song, but a single melody can’t be expected to sustain a two-and-a-half hour performance.

In Studio Tenn’s production, “And the Money Kept Rolling In (And Out)” was the showstopper of the second act, with a rollicking beat and extraordinary dancing. The song is about the Peróns stealing away a fortune to their Swiss bank accounts while in power, which isn’t exactly critical to the plot of a play that has cast its main character as morally and ethically questionable from the very beginning. It’s one of many examples in this production of a strong cast and excellent technical team getting the very most out of a musical that simply doesn’t have that much to offer. Studio Tenn is on an upward trajectory to be a theater company that puts on ambitious, artistically excellent productions on a consist basis. I just hope that their next choice is a musical that deserves their level of talent and energy.



Art links: Belcourt Theatre reopens, controversial art sales, and more

Belcourt Theatre celebrates grand reopening.” The Tennessean describes the newly renovated and remodeled Belcourt Theatre. After nearly being demolished in the 1990s, the theater now offers a mix of modern comforts with its historic theater spaces. Due to these upgrades, the Belcourt is now poised to continue growing its reach and connecting local audiences with high-quality film from around the world.

Florina Stettheimer Asbury Park South

Florina Stettheimer’s “Asbury Park South” (1920), quietly sold by Fisk University in 2010

A Prized Stettheimer Painting, Sold Under the Radar by a University.” The New York Times breaks the story of Fisk University’s sale of Florine Stettheimer’s “Asbury Park South” (1920) and a painting by Rockwell Kent. The sale occurred quietly during the same period when the university was involved in a long legal challenge over its attempt to sell paintings from the Alfred Stieglitz collection several years ago. The move was undoubtedly a loss for Nashville, a city already lacking any permanent collection displayed by a prominent museum.

A World Premiere in Nashville Finds Humor in the Tonya Harding Story.” Nashville Public Radio reviews Nate Eppler’s new The Ice Treatment, which was given its world premiere by the Actors Bridge Ensemble this month. The play sold out multiple times during its two-week run, an encouraging sign of support for new work presented by one of Nashville’s leading playwrights.

Nashville Symphony members help local students.” The Daily News Journal reports on members of the Nashville Symphony working with orchestra students at Thurman Francis Arts Academy over the summer. Violinist Mary Helen Law, violist Shu-Zheng Yang, and cellist Keith Nicholas gave two-hour lessons to students during the schools tuition-free strings camp and a unique view into the life of being a professional orchestra musician.

In June, the Metro Nashville Arts Commission announced $2,195,200 in grants awarded to 48 nonprofit organizations in Nashville. These awards are intended to help make creative exploration central to the lives of all Nashvillians. See the full list of grant awards here [PDF].

Drama highlights for Summer/Fall 2016

Opportunities abound to experience great theater in and around Nashville for the rest of 2016. Here are the four plays I’m most excited to see this summer and fall.

The Ice Treatment,  July 15-24, 2016

Actors Bridge EnsembleThe Ice Treatment Nashville comedy drama teams up with local playwright extraordinaire Nate Eppler to give the world-premiere performances of The Ice Treatment. Just in time to get you ready for the Rio Olympics, this play imagines the story of one of the most infamous Olympic athletes of all time, Tanya Harding, as she attempts to recast her life story with herself as the hero. Eppler developed the play through Nashville Repertory Theatre’s Ingram New Works Project, and I’m almost afraid of what a person with his flair for dark comedy will do with such delicious material. Maybe he can team up with the folks behind the Tanya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan museum on Kickstarter to take this to a whole new level.

Macbeth, August 11-September 9, 2016

Nashville Shakespeare Festival will perform one of the Bard’s best-known tragedies for this year’s edition of Shakespeare in the Park. Chockfull of murder, revenge, assassinations, and political intrigues, Macbeth is essentially rhyming Game of Thrones in five acts. With Nashville Shakespeare Festival performing the play, I’d love to see Nashville Opera to perform Giuseppe Verdi’s operatic Macbeth and hear the Nashville Symphony take on Richard Strauss’ tone poem Macbeth.

A Soldier’s Play, October 7-23, 2016

Lakewood Theatre Company will present Charles Fuller’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama A Soldier’s Play this fall. Set in a segregated military base near the end of World War II, the drama uses the murder of a black sergeant as the starting point to investigate both the crime and the broader context of racial tension between black and white men and within the black community.

Stuff Happens, October 28 – November 13, 2016

Right as the 2016 presidential election comes to a close, Circle Players will perform David Hare’s Stuff Happens, a “history play” that grapples with the Bush administration’s trajectory toward invading Iraq in 2003. Using actual quotes from various political figures, the drama builds toward Donald Rumsfeld’s famous remark alluding to the rampant looting in Baghdad after the American invasion: “Stuff happens and it’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.” Fifteen years later, America again finds itself considering the highest office in the land in the context of widespread chaos in the Middle East

Musical theater will shine in Nashville for remainder of 2016

Musical theater fans in Nashville will have a lot to choose from over the next year. Many of the larger companies have announced their lineups in recent months, and the level of artistic energy, creativity, and daring seems to be reaching a new high point. These are the four musical theater productions in Nashville that I’m most excited about for the rest of the year.

Urinetown, August 12-28, 2016

Street Theater will continue its strong 2016 season with Urinetown. Ironically for a musical that parodies Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, the opening of Urinetown was delayed by a week due to the September 11 terrorist attacks. The play gleefully satirizes the interplay of money and politics in American society and rampant corporate greed and mismanagement. Incredibly, Urinetown was in the first few weeks of its run on Broadway when the Enron scandal broke in October 2001 and was coming up on a year when Worldcom collapsed. Fifteen years, a major financial meltdown, and a “Great Recession” later, Urinetown will have plenty to say to current audiences.

Evita, September 9-18, 2016

200x200-Evita(1)Franklin-based Studio Tenn has produced major productions at Schermerhorn Symphony Center the past few years to ends its season. For 2016/17, the company is flipping the script and opening its season with a revival of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Evita at TPAC. The show is a sort of musical theater “bio-pic” about the life and death of Eva Duarte Perón, wife and political partner of Argentine president Juan Perón. An extraordinary and controversial figure, Evita rose from abject poverty to film and radio actress to first lady in only a few short years. At her husband’s side, she wielded incredible power with Argentina’s labor movement, as well as running multiple government agencies and even declaring her candidacy for Vice President at one point. In the time of House of Cards and Donald Trump, Evita may have more to offer than stunning vocal numbers.

The Last Five Years, September 10-24, 2016

Nashville Repertory Theatre will kick off its 2016/17 season with Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years. The play tells the story of Jamie and Cathy’s relationship from falling in love to the end of their marriage.The novelty of the musical’s storytelling recalls Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along, which tells the story of a Broadway composer beginning at the height of his fame and moving backward in time. In The Last Five Years, Jamie moves through the play chronologically, while Cathy’s story is told in reverse; their storylines intersect on the day of their wedding. A film adaptation was released in 2015 starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, but flashbacks and reverse-order storytelling isn’t nearly as interesting nor technically difficult in film. I’m looking forward to seeing how René Copland and the Nashville Rep team approach staging, costumes, and set design to visually portray the musical’s chronological structure.

The Battle of Franklin, November 3-13, 2016

Battle+of+Franklin+show+posterStudio Tenn will give the world premiere of new musical theater based on the events of the Battle of Franklin during the American Civil War. That conflict took place over a span of eight hours on November 30, 1864, ending around midnight as Union forces withdrew in near-total darkness. Artistic Director Matt Logan has indicated that the play is not a full musical, but that it will include personal accounts and letters of those who participated in the battle as well as both historical and original songs. Bravo to Studio Tenn for seeking to use musical theater as an art form to explore local Tennessee history.

Art links: Cultural equity, primitivism and classical music, more

Americans for the Arts, the largest arts advocacy group in the United States, released an important statement on cultural equity today. The statement includes an overarching goal for Americans for the Arts over the next few years, along with some useful definitions, acknowledgements, affirmations, and thoughts about how they will promote progress in this area throughout the field. The organization is also publishing a series of blog posts on cultural equity over the next few days that will undoubtedly be indispensable reading on the topic. If you’re serious about pursuing cultural equity in the arts in Nashville, all of this needs to be on your reading list this week.

Studio Tenn goes big with ‘West Side Story’ at Schermerhorn.” The Tennessean has a story about the final show of Studio Tenn’s 2015/16 season, a massive production of West Side Story at Schermerhorn Symphony Center on June 3-4, 2016. The article includes an interview with director Matt Logan, who discusses the challenges and opportunities associated with staging such an ambitious musical in a space that was not designed for theatrical productions.

Art, Primitivism & Classical Music.” Roy “Futureman” Wooten is writing a series of blog posts for the National Museum of African American Music about various topics in classical music. The most recent post addresses the topic of European classical music’s longstanding appreciation of and fascination with Black art. He examines this tendency in classical music (Dvorak, Ravel, and Stravinsky are all cites as examples) alongside a similar trend in Western painting (naming artists such as Paul Gaugin and Pablo Picasso). Well in advance of opening the gallery space, the National Museum of African American music is already producing some really excellent educational content that explores the place and role of African American culture in the broader story of music.

Turning Nashville’s Moment into New-Play Momentum.” American Theatre has a story about Nashville Repertory Theatre’s Ingram New Works Project. Nashville Rep is accepting applications for the 2016/17 program now.

Nashville theater loses the great David Compton

The Nashville theater community is grieving the loss of one of its greatest talents. David Compton passed away on May 4, 2016, after a long battle with cancer. Nashville Children’s Theatre hosted a celebration of his extraordinary life yesterday; the full video of that celebration is linked at the end of this post.

It’s difficult to sum up the life of a performer with David Compton’s broad talents and interests. He performed in a dizzying array of roles, from Shakespearean tragic figures with Nashville Shakespeare Festival to highly entertaining comic turns with Nashville Children’s Theatre to complex, conflicted characters in a host of Nashville Repertory Theatre productions.

Although I did not know David Compton personally, he has been a constant presence in my life as an avid theatergoer. I grew up in Smyrna, TN, in the 1990s, and my schools frequently took field trips to see Nashville Children’s Theatre productions. In those days I didn’t take meticulous notes or keep programs, but I remember seeing David Compton in a number of shows during those years when my interest in theater grew into a real passion for musical theater.

The last time I saw David Compton perform was Nashville Repertory Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company in 2014. I first came to know this music as a teenager in high school; the melodies and jittery rhythms throughout the score really struck a chord with me, but I have to admit that the lyrics never landed. David played the role of Harry in this production, and as he sang the opening lines of “Sorry/Grateful,” it was as if I was hearing it all for the first time. He brought rare, precious sincerity and emotional depth to the lyrics: “You’re always sorry / You’re always grateful / You’re always wondering what might have been / Then she walks in.” Whenever I think of this song, I no longer hear the soundtrack from the original cast recording; I hear David Compton imparting deeper meaning and wisdom to these words than I could have known were there.

I should have felt more prepared to cope with David Compton’s death. I’ve probably seen him die on stage at least ten or fifteen times. The most grotesque was in Nate Eppler’s Long Way Down, in which he was unceremoniously beaten to death with a frying pan. I can only imagine the conversation (and probably laughter) that transpired between those two when David read the script. But, in a way, theater is life with guard rails; we can all go back to normal once the curtain goes down and the lights come up. “Normal” no longer includes one of the best performers this city has ever known, and that’s a hard reality to face.

My hope is that the theater community in Nashville will transform this pain and sadness and maybe even despair into something beautiful, something powerful, something so very alive and urgently worth doing. In the meantime, I’ll be thinking of David singing: “Everything’s different / Nothing’s changed / Only maybe slightly rearranged / You’re sorry-grateful / Regretful-happy / Why look for answers / Where none occur?”


Art links: Nashville theater announcements

Big week for Nashville theater

Nashville Repertory Theatre announced its 2016/17 season, which will include performances of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years and Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. The highlight of the Nashville theater season will surely be the company’s production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the first play written by an African American woman to appear on Broadway.

TPAC has announced its 2016/17 Broadway season, which mercifully includes neither mega-hit Wicked nor a Disney movie-turned-musical. Studio Tenn’s performance of Evita should be an awesome way to start the year. My attention will be turned toward A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and MurderThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Something Rotten! TPAC has put together an interesting Broadway Series from front to back for the first time in a few years, so maybe it’s time to consider a subscription.

Other important stories in Nashville arts

Impressive names, themes featured among NaFF’s 2016 black entries.” Ron Wynn wrote an excellent overview of the black voices on display during this year’s edition of the Nashville Film Festival, which wrapped up last weekend.

Blair School Dean sees renewed vitality in classical music.” Writing for Nashville Public Radio’s Arts Voices series, Blair School Dean Mark Wait writes about the changing world of classical music. He astutely notes that young musicians training in conservatories today aren’t looking to orchestras and opera companies for role models but rather to innovative chamber music groups like Intersection and ALIAS.

Speaking of Intersection, their Key of Intensity concert is this Thursday! Check out our preview of the concert, then grab a ticket and head out to The Platform to hear a wide variety of music featuring the Ondes Martenot in Nashville for the first time.

The arts need to support Nashville transit

Transit planning has taken center stage in public policy discussion across the Nashville region in recent months. In January, the Nashville MTA/RTA unveiled a new strategic plan that outlined three scenarios for investing in mobility and transit services across the region, with costs ranging from $800 million to $5.4 billion over the next 25 years. Citizens are participating in planning conversations throughout the region, and lawmakers are passing legislation to enable new funding mechanisms like public/private partnerships. Consensus is growing in Nashville that the time has arrived for a major commitment to transit infrastructure and services.

Nashville arts organizations need to participate in this conversation in a big way. During my time working at the Nashville Symphony from 2012 until February this year, parking difficulties in downtown Nashville went from being a significant source of patrons’ frustration to the hands-down, no-question-about-it, number-one complaint. Based on conversations I’ve had with people from other artistic organizations and the sheer number of references to parking I see in advertising materials, I’m confident that parking and traffic are constant sources of woe for many artistic organizations in Nashville.

One of the biggest hurdles to implementing a more visionary approach to mass transit across the Middle Tennessee region is ridership. Paradoxically, securing federal funding for transit projects requires a local municipality to demonstrate a significant density of riders along the proposed transit corridors. Upgrades to the system cannot be completed until lots of people are riding the current system. But lots of people say they won’t use the transit system until significant upgrades have been made. And so we get caught in a cycle that is very difficult to break.

Organizations like the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville Symphony, and Country Music Hall of Fame, and venues like the Ryman Auditorium, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, and Bridgestone Arena have the name recognition and marketing power to make a real difference in growing ridership and influencing decisions about mobility in Nashville. Let’s face it: being stuck behind a bus in rush hour is probably the greatest level of interaction most people ever have with Nashville MTA, so it’s difficult to imagine that thousands of people across the region are going to respond to calls from Nashville MTA to start taking the bus to work. But arts organizations have thousands of fans who regularly visit downtown Nashville to spend their leisure time. Developing strong partnerships between Nashville MTA and local artistic organizations and venues could drive transit ridership and alleviate patron complaints about parking and traffic.

The obvious first step is for artistic organizations and venues to add information about transit options to their marketing materials. A quick glance at the websites of the Frist Center, Country Music Hall of Fame, Ryman Auditorium, Nashville Symphony, Bridgestone Arena, and TPAC was revealing: none of these organizations include any information about bus routes or the Music City Star on their sites. All of these venues lie within no more than three blocks of multiple bus routes. TPAC is 0.1 mile from Music City Central, yet does not advertise the fact that you could take pretty much any bus heading downtown and end up at their lovely theaters.

TPAC music city central nashville transit

TPAC does not advertise the fact that you could take almost any bus directly to their doorstep.

Nashville MTA can help this process by creating customized maps for their new artistic partners. Why not stick Schermerhorn Symphony Center on a map that highlights major bus routes that run near the concert hall? Or make a map of downtown Nashville showing routes alongside the Frist, Ryman, TPAC, and so on? It’s a chance to create easy marketing opportunities for the venues and connect transit ridership with fun experiences in the city.

This type of partnership could deepen in myriad ways. A major limitation of bus service for organizations like Nashville Opera, Nashville Ballet, and Nashville Repertory Theatre is that their performances often end after 10:30 p.m., when buses do not run nearly as frequently. With new, targeted opportunities to build ridership, perhaps Nashville MTA would be willing to run additional buses on select routes to accommodate their artistic partners’ schedules. Organizations could also explore collaborative ticketing arrangements: show your concert tickets to the Ryman to get a discounted fare, or purchase your bus ticket when you buy your Symphony tickets.

Forward-thinking artistic organizations in Nashville will see the current momentum toward mass transit as a major opportunity to build audiences and ensure ongoing relevance in the community. For the arts, participating deeply in growing mass transit offers an added benefit that is of interest to many leaders in the city: connecting excellent art with a more diverse audience. It will surprise nobody to learn that the heaviest usage of bus service in Nashville is along Charlotte Pike, Nolensville Road, and Murfreesboro Road. These corridors are the most culturally and ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Nashville. Metro Arts and the Nashville Chamber‘s recent Culture Here report (PDF) indicated that these neighborhoods also tend to be the least connected to the city’s rich cultural activities. If arts organizations want to get serious about attracting diverse audiences to their performances, concerts, and exhibitions, building collaborations and partnerships with Nashville MTA can put them on the fast track to success.

Art links – Parnassus Books, Studio Tenn, more

Ann Patchett’s Nashville Bookstore Hits the Road, With Dogs in Tow.” The New York Times really knows how to write a headline. The paper of record writes about Peggy, the mobile bookstore that Parnassus Books launched last week. Thanks to the entrepreneurial ingenuity of Patchett and Karen Hayes, Nashville remains at the forefront of the independent bookstore movement.

The Ballad & The Requiem.” Walter Bitner, Director of Education & Community Engagement for the Nashville Symphony, writes one of the finest blogs on music and music education that you’ll find anywhere. In this post, he writes about how people of all ages can learn to cope with loss and confront death through music. This is absolutely worth your time.

‘Gypsy,’ ‘Glass Menagerie’ anchor Studio Tenn season.” The Tennessean writes about Franklin-based theater company Studio Tenn’s 2016/17, which will feature Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie and Gypsy, the 1959 musical written by Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents.

Nashville Symphony names VU professor interim chorus director.” The Nashville Post reports that the Nashville Symphony has appointed Tucker Biddlecombe as interim Chorus Director for the 2016/17 season. Biddlecombe will direct the 150-member, all-volunteer ensemble for performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection,” Handel’s “Messiah,” and American composer John Harbison’s “Requiem,” which will be recorded for future commercial release.