MATTHEW SIGMAN catches up with Beth Morrison, who brings a highly personal style to the distinctive brand of new music-theater her company is developing for stages large and small all over the U.S.
Photo: Noah Stern Weber
© Michael Fattal 2015
This Spring, from Beth Morrison Projects:
by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek
Based on the short story by Judy Budnitz
Fort Worth Opera: April 24, 26, 28, 29, May 1, 2
Los Angeles Opera: June 11–15
by David Lang, with stories by Lydia Davis
De Doelen (Rotterdam): May 26–27
Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ (Amsterdam): May 28
In the 1990s, opera entered a crisis. Corporate and public funding declined, requiring a sizable shift to individual giving, and the subscription model began breaking down. The explosion of personal-entertainment technology and implosion of arts education were imminent. Innovation was primarily limited to interpretation rather than invention.
Then along came a generation of passionate artists and producers who began to create new opera–music-theater hybrids. These were development programs, workshops, residencies, readings and “indie” productions in intimate venues that diversified the genre in form and function, with chamber operas, immersive experiences and an embrace of contemporary narratives.
Of these creators, only one — Beth Morrison — is breaking out as a national brand poised to place cutting-edge opera center stage.
“She was the first in this new world,” says conductor Julian Wachner, who has known Morrison since her formative years at the Tanglewood Institute’s vocal program. In her teens she immersed herself in community theater; in her twenties she pursued degrees in vocal performance, pedagogy and theater management. In her thirties she moved to New York, where she curated New York City Opera’s Vox new works showcase, launched her eponymous company, Beth Morrison Projects, and fostered Prototype, an annual festival of new opera and music-theater presented in New York in collaboration with HERE Arts Center.
Now in her early forties, she retains the punk mien she adopted in her youth. In a room full of button-down opera professionals, she is the one with blunt-cut bangs, a diamond in her nose, spike heels and fishnet stockings. Yet there is nothing punk about her approach to business. A self-described “creative producer,” she is now expanding the BMP brand via myriad partnerships — twenty-nine at last count, she says — through copresenting, coproducing and co-commissioning with professional opera companies in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and San Francisco.
She is not averse to the branding label. “To have a successful business, you have to have a successful brand,” she says. “What our logo looks like, our tag line — those are branding decisions. But what I feel is actually the truth is that the work I have relentlessly done is the brand — the artists I choose to work with, the composers I choose to work with, the aesthetic I choose that is manifested in the artists I bring to projects. That is our brand.”
The frequent conflation of “I” and “we” in an interview with Morrison at her Brooklyn home/office raises the question: Where does the person end and the company begin? Ask longtime friends and colleagues, and you can hear them smiling over the phone. “It’s not a cult of personality,” says Joseph Melillo, executive producer of BAM, who has known Morrison since her graduate-student days at Yale and is now a frequent presenter of her work. “Beth Morrison is a woman who gives Beth Morrison Projects its electricity, its life force. They are inseparable. But one exists outside of the other.”
That integration of personal and professional is evident in how she chooses what she produces. She was so moved by a recording of David T. Little’s Soldier Songs that she immediately brought him into her fold. “She said, ‘You’re an opera composer,’ as if it was an understood and clear thing,” says Little. She then nurtured Little’s Dog Days, which will tour to Fort Worth and Los Angeles this year. (Little has subsequently ascended to collaborations with the Metropolitan Opera and Opera Philadelphia. His JFK, with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, will have its premiere at Fort Worth Opera in 2016, with a cast led by Matthew Worth and Daniela Mack.)
Little’s trajectory is a common narrative arc in the careers of the artists Morrison embraces. Over the decade she has expanded her circle to forge a stock company of modern opera/musical-theater invention, with composers such as Nico Muhly, Missy Mazzoli, Paola Prestini, Mohammed Fairouz and David Lang, as well as librettist Vavrek. “In Beth’s stable of artists I really see the future of the art form,” says L.A. Opera president and CEO Christopher Koelsch, whose company has formed an alliance with BMP that will serve as a West Coast outpost. “She is a tastemaker,” says Prestini, “but with a wide palette.”
The lift that opera and music-theater bring to Morrison’s heart is buoyed by her taut business model. Unlike large professional companies, with costly facilities or union contracts or the expectations of a legacy audience, Morrison has been free to unleash imagination while controlling cost. She is fond of small black-box venues, which allow her to change the opera experience from observation to immersion. “You are in it,” she says. “You are surrounded by it. The sound is immediate. You can see every expression on the face of the singers. You are having a much deeper visceral experience than you will have in a big house.”
She does not view the alternative aesthetic as simply a gateway drug to the classics: “I don’t think it’s a means to an end. It’s an end itself. The product is no less viable than what is on the main stage.” Nor does she see a considerable divide in the audience: “The people that tend to seek out new work are people who have an adventurous spirit, whether they are in their twenties or their seventies.”
With her artistic credentials established, Morrison’s challenges remain financial and logistical. Her board, replete with boldface members of New York’s circle of progressive opera philanthropists, is strengthening, she says, but the fees of her copresenters remain a dominant source of revenue, and they are often limited by the seating capacity of their venues. A show’s fixed costs remain the same whether it’s presented in a 200-seat or 500-seat house. Even when a BMP show sells out, as they often do, the contribution of ticket sales to the bottom line is fickle.
There are those who, off the record, raise an eyebrow at the nail-biting financial and artistic risk she can bring to partners, but Wachner disputes any such criticism. “That’s her job,” he says. “She’s a businesswoman, and she is going to make that budget as small as possible and still get the quality — and you will never see a cheap or tacky Beth Morrison production. She demands the same sacrifices of others that she puts in. And she gets almost nothing out of it as a financial reward. She would live in a shoebox.”
In fact, until recently she did live in something resembling a shoebox, a tiny Manhattan studio that doubled as BMP headquarters. Her recent move to a light-filled two-bedroom in Brooklyn was, in true Beth Morrison style, a matter of cost control: the old landlord raised the rent to the point that the new place is actually cheaper, while allowing for a separate room for her office, which now includes two full-time staffers and an intern.
The logistical challenge is more complicated. Where to workshop? Where to build? Where to rehearse? Where to tech? New York rehearsal spaces and theaters are prohibitively expensive and notoriously lack the room for long-term load-ins. Massachusetts’s Museum of Contemporary Art is among her favorite places to build a show, despite the schlep, but in New York City she scrounges. Topping her wish list is not a theater with her name in lights but a rehearsal space where she can grow new work.
Of course, Morrison is not alone in the movement. Incubators and artist-driven companies have sprouted in cities of all sizes, even as major companies — Houston, Minnesota, Philadelphia, the Met — have committed themselves to process as much as product. Collectively these entities are forging a golden age for new opera, but Morrison is a singular force completely identified with the entire value-delivery chain of the art form — sourcing, processing and distributing an enticing array of products.
With the rewards of swimming into the mainstream comes the risk of diluting the brand. “That’s the conversation the board and staff are having right now,” she admits. “Do we want to be doing grand opera? Is this what Beth Morrison Projects does? I don’t know. This is where the artists are taking us right now. So we’re going to try to figure out and see if that’s a fit.” But she is not shy about her anxiety. “I’m releasing a lot of control,” she says. “It’s not a comfortable model for me to not have that control.”
Morrison trusts her “internal compass” to take her in the right direction (as for what’s ahead in her career, she says running BAM would be “a dream come true”), but she is confident that the expansion of the BMP product line and diversification of channels will not inhibit her spirit of innovation.
“I hope I’m never old-fashioned,” she says. “I imagine I’ll be seventy-five and have pink hair. But of course there are companies coming up, and there are young artists coming up who are doing their own things.” She advises them not to expect instant recognition or reward. “People come to me and ask, ‘How did you do it?’ I tell them, ‘Ask every single person you know for five dollars or fifty dollars. Pull $20,000 together and put on a show. Then do it again. Then do it again. Then do it again. And maybe by your fifth show someone is going to pay attention.”
MATTHEW SIGMAN is editor of Opera America magazine. A three-time winner of the ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism, he has written for American Theatre, The Voice and Symphony.
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