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Creative Force

General director Ian Derrer makes his mark on Kentucky Opera.
By F. Paul Driscoll 

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© Bill Brymer
“The Kentucky Opera audience is incredibly well-read, adventurous and curious about the arts in general.”
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Derrer onstage in 2017 at Kentucky Opera’s inaugural presentation of Sidecar, a cabaret-style performance at Louisville’s Mercury Ballroom
© Bill Brymer

ON SEPTEMBER 15, Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos kicks off Kentucky Opera’s sixty-sixth season—the first planned in its entirety by the company’s new general director, Ian Derrer, who took up the job just one year ago. Derrer, now forty-two, had his first exposure to opera as a child, in Charlotte, North Carolina, where his parents sang in the chorus of Charlotte Opera (now Opera Carolina). “My dad had a wonderful opera collection, so opera was always in the house,” he says. “Both my parents would take me on occasion to rehearsals when they were singing, and I’d sit in the corner and become completely absorbed by it. That was my misspent youth! I fell in love with language, I fell in love with various singers, I fell in love with the voice. It is still my passion.”

Derrer earned degrees in voice (from Southern Methodist University) and opera production (from Northwestern and Brooklyn College) and worked professionally as a singer, assistant stage manager, stage manager and director with a number of regional companies in the U.S. before joining the administration at New York City Opera in 2004. “The company needed somebody to do the daily rehearsal schedule. It was the first time I experienced the administrative side of opera, hands-on, and learning the nitty-gritty of how an opera company functions by creating the daily schedule and dealing with the unions, all that sort of thing, was incredibly useful.”

In 2006, Derrer moved to Lyric Opera of Chicago as rehearsal administrator. He spent eight seasons with that company, rising to be director of production and head of the rehearsal department. He then spent two years at Dallas Opera as artistic administrator before coming to Kentucky Opera, where he is the fifth general director in the company’s history, succeeding David Roth, who died unexpectedly in July 2015. 

“When I arrived in Louisville, in August 2016, the 16–17 season was in place, but none of 17–18 had been planned, so I had carte blanche to create a season that was all mine. I wanted to program works that meant a lot to me, but I also wanted to study what the company had done in recent seasons, what was due for revival, and so on.

“We do a three-opera season, two performances of each opera, in the Brown Theatre here, which seats roughly 1,400. It is important to give one piece that is unquestionably popular—and Barber of Seville, which we will perform in February, fits that description. I wanted one piece that would be relatively new and challenge expectations, so that will be Dead Man Walking in October. And Ariadne auf Naxos, which opens the season, splits the difference—it is a classic, but it hasn’t been done here in forty years. And Ariadne is an opera about opera—it gives the audience such a wonderful glimpse into backstage life.”

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Kentucky Opera board president William A. Blodgett, Jr., Derrer, Libba Blodgett, and Derrer’s partner, Daniel James
Courtesy Kentucky Opera

In May, Derrer offered Kentucky Opera audiences Sidecar, a joint cabaret concert by Stephanie Blythe and Christine Brewer, two world-class artists whom Derrer “adores.” “I’m learning that the opera audience here is incredibly well-read, adventurous and curious about the arts in general—museums, symphony concerts, ballet. There is such a collaborative spirit here in the city of Louisville. Audiences here enjoy seeing local arts organizations coexisting and mingling—that’s the sweet spot in the Louisville arts community. We are smaller, so it is imperative for us to engage with other constituents of the arts world, such as the Louisville Orchestra, which plays all of our shows.

“Our theater is an old vaudeville house, so there is not much room. We are physically limited by the physical productions that will actually fit in the building, and the pit can’t hold the orchestra needed for certain pieces—I would love to do Pelléas here, but it ain’t going to fit in that pit. But if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that physical restrictions are often just another way to force creativity—a spur for us to find creative solutions. 

“Even though the current season was put together on a pretty tight timeline, we made sure to get the best singers we possibly could. And an advantage to not planning very far ahead is that we have more flexibility. We can respond quickly to those terrific singers—whether they are veterans or newcomers—who are available and ripe right now. And that’s incredibly important. For me, the voice has to be the main ingredient in an opera performance—the voice is what we have that no other art form has in such a pure form. That’s the thrill of listening to opera live—that’s what gives it the rush!” spacer

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