Patricia Beggs Turns Up the Drama at the Opera

Patricia Beggs
Patricia Beggs

Illustration by Jonathan Barlett

When Patricia K. Beggs first joined Cincinnati Opera as marketing director, she dramatically changed the look and feel of the company’s promotion materials. Overnight, visuals went from stale and predictable to haunting and seductive: ravishing divas, portentous backdrops, and maybe a single artifact—a rose, a glove, a dagger—to suggest . . . love? loss? menace? Opera, in the Beggs incarnation, was about emotion. Something you respond to viscerally. Not just rarified art, but a storytelling medium that spans the gamut of human experience, expressed in glorious melody that, so the beautiful posters implied, anyone could relate to. Almost immediately, audiences swelled—and they have remained robust ever since.

Beggs has continued to put her stamp on the second oldest opera company in the nation, in the last 19 years as general director and CEO, but throughout as an innovative, collaborative, always tasteful and tactful force. Board members and colleagues seem to revere her and she is singled out as a businessperson who can work well with a creative team—a rare gift. Now in its 96th season, Cincinnati Opera has grown into a cultural juggernaut with strategic and producing partners, and surprising venues all over the region. I asked Beggs to talk about the formula to creating a great season, how the renovations of Music Hall—including losing seats—will impact the opera, and how long she might stay with the company.

How did you get into opera in the first place? I read that you came to Cincinnati Opera from PNC Bank. How did that come about? I fell in love with opera when I was quite young. My mother and my grandmother loved it, and I started going with them to the Dayton Opera. I got the bug. I came to Cincinnati and was volunteering at Music Hall when I heard about the marketing job opening up. I threw my hat into the ring. I had done publicity for Party in the Park, Taste of Cincinnati, the Heart Mini-Marathon, and Oktoberfest. My experience working taught me some important business practices, especially from the standpoint of consumer experience. I felt we needed to approach Cincinnati Opera as a festival. It occurs in a very condensed period of time, and this could work to its benefit. We could make other concerts and recitals happen around it.

We were selling 54 percent of the house at the time, so I looked around and wondered: Where is everyone? Opera touches the human chord in everyone. It’s recognition of the human condition. People fall in love, they have family differences, they are ambitious . . . that’s what I tried to communicate: selling the experience.

So how did you sell it? I decided it starts in the street. Music Hall is unique. It’s extraordinary. It’s an occasion! We started having entertainment outside. We put up balloons. We put flowers in the lobby. Sometimes we’d have mimes. The idea was to welcome our audience, to set the stage so that they’d be in a receptive frame of mind for the main event.

We are a visual company. Opera is intelligent. Our materials needed to convey that. We started by using movie titles to focus the season: “Much Ado About Loving,” “Pretty Women”—we wanted to play on the public awareness of contemporary culture. Some people were horrified at the irreverence of it. Yet attendance soared. Sometimes we were selling 98 percent of the house. The [subscriber] retention rate went into the mid-80s.

When [former artistic director] Jim de Blasis retired [in 1995], the board allocated more money for production values. They wanted more sophisticated theatrical presentation. They wanted more diversity in programming. Nick [Muni, the new artistic director] and I raised more money so we could deliver. And as our seasons were successful, more and more people came on board.

When Nick left [in 2004], we decided there were plenty of opportunities to do new works that weren’t offensive or depressing. Evans [Mirageas, who replaced Muni in 2005] loves opera; he loves new works but understands that they must deliver what people expect from opera: a moving experience. We don’t always hit the mark, but that’s the objective.

How popular is opera right now? More or less so than, say, a decade ago? It depends on what you read. What’s going on right now in the arts is a renaissance. There is so much new work being created, and such a regeneration of artists going on, that the possibilities for extending our audience have multiplied greatly. Combine that with the accessibility of opera—for example: the Metropolitan Opera’s high-definition telecasts—and it has made a big difference in people’s ability to partake. But more people overall attending actual operas in a performing venue? The numbers don’t support that.

So how is opera faring in Cincinnati? Our audiences have remained stable over time. Turandot, which concluded our season last year, and which was well-conceived and well-cast, drew about 10,000 viewers. That’s in line with the last 10 or 11 years. There has been some conversion of part-time to full-time subscriptions. Something fewer than 30,000 come to our main stage programs [four operas, for a total of 14 performances per season], and of those, many of the same people see all four. But our reach goes far beyond the main stage.

Many programs, including the annual Back to the Zoo concert, Opera in the Park, Opera Goes to Church, and the Community Open Dress Rehearsal broaden our reach considerably. In some of these, we work with the people we’re performing for; together, we develop the programs organically. We take time. We invest. And by doing that authentically, I think, we will keep opera relevant. Other initiatives, like our partnership with the College-Conservatory of Music, which gives student performers the opportunity to perform with our internationally renowned artists, and Opera Fusion, which fosters the creation of new works in collaboration with CCM, extend that reach even further. Altogether, we appear before more than 120,000 people regionally every year.

So it is a larger audience. And while I’m not sure all of them will buy tickets to the main stage, we think any way we can reach new audiences is relevant to the art form. If I were to gauge our success over 20 years, we are serving more people, and more different kinds of people, with the same amount of staff [24 full-time, another 200 in season, excluding the orchestra] and a budget [$7.8 million] that has grown, but not that much, in the same period.

You seem to have developed a formula for your seasons: three larger productions, at least two of which are warhorses, one that’s still large but less familiar, and one that’s relatively unknown. The latter is generally a smaller production, performed in a smaller venue. This year, for example, the two old favorites are Die Fledermaus and Tosca. The third is Beethoven’s Fidelio—certainly part of the standard repertoire, but not frequently performed. And the last is a world premiere, Fellow Travelers, set in McCarthy-era Washington. Is it a formula? And if so, why does it work? The formula changes every year. Last year, for example, we did Donizetti’s Don Pasquale in addition to Il Trovatore and Turandot. The latter, an acknowledged warhorse, was a blockbuster, the last offering of the season, and it’s good to end on a high note. But in any given year, maybe we do an updated production of an old standby, or maybe we take a new look at something from the standard repertoire.

We set Pasquale in 1950s Hollywood, with Don Pasquale as a silent film star trying to make a comeback by marrying a starlet; it was clever, relevant, and accessible. And being Donizetti, I might add: tuneful. We see a lot of young people at the opera. This is the kind of thing they’re looking for. They show up in tuxedoes, and drink Champagne—there’s more Champagne drunk at the opera at Music Hall than at any other event—and I think our Don Pasquale worked for them.

At the same time, we like to do something new or experimental. We started doing this strategically in 2000. Some of us went to San Francisco to see Dead Man Walking, then a highly anticipated new opera by Jake Heggie about a nun who acts as spiritual adviser to two convicted murderers. It was excellent, with strong critical reception. We did it here two years later.

Then, along with Michigan Opera Theatre and Opera Philadelphia, we commissioned Margaret Garner, loosely based on the true story of an enslaved woman from Richwood, Kentucky, who attempted to escape by walking across the frozen Ohio River to freedom. [In the opera’s fictional version of the story, she was] recaptured by her owner, and she chose to kill two of her children so they wouldn’t have to go into slavery, whereby she was tried for destruction of property and eventually hanged. Cincinnati Opera performed Margaret Garner in 2005.

We have found that regular subscribers really like this opportunity to experience new works. But there are different ways of accomplishing that. Two years ago, we did La Calisto, a 350-year-old opera by Francesco Cavalli. We used the Catacoustic Consort [a local early music chamber ensemble that utilizes such Renaissance instruments as the viola da gamba], thus enabling audiences to experience the work the way audiences would have seen it 350 years ago.

The pending renovation of Music Hall is planned with a reduction of some 800 seats. How will you adjust to that? I’m so excited—thrilled, really. It’s much needed. We have been involved every step of the way, and you can be sure that this is all about the audience experience: parking, accessibility, ticket purchasing, interactive and interchangeable displays, many more restrooms for fewer people. The acoustics will be better, the lighting will be better, we will have much more space for loading and unloading. It will add up to the best in a visual and theatrical experience. We have great artist support; we will be able to put on opera more efficiently and meet expectations. Right now, we have about 800 seats with obstructed views; they’re re-seating those. The change in the configuration of the walls will allow sounds to come back better. Audiences will feel the music more emotionally.

You know, a lot of opera is not appropriate for a 3,000-seat house. [Current Music Hall capacity is 3,417 seats.] We have done some smaller operas in Springer Auditorium, but they’re not as successful as they should be. In Europe, opera houses are never more than 2,000 seats—ours is the fifth largest opera venue in America. I have long felt that if we had a second venue, it would provide a great opportunity for us. And now, thanks to 3CDC, we have a real opera campus right here: the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, the Lutheran Church, Memorial Hall, and Washington Park.

There’s a financial component to all this. With opera, you pay to play. At Music Hall, we pay all of our singers, orchestra members, stage hands, dancers, ushers, and more on a per performance basis. They get a weekly fee. But when we’re at one of those other venues, we can get, say, 18–20 students from SCPA to work with the stagehands, directors, and costumers for free. They get hands-on experience, and the professionals like helping them.

You did Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg several years ago, saying, at the time, that when you survey your audience, they tell you they want “German opera,” a.k.a. Wagner. But that one, as I recall, nearly drove you crazy with last-minute cast defections and the like. What are the prospects for doing a Wagner opera again any time soon? We will definitely do a Wagner again when we return to Music Hall. Lohengrin and Tannhäuser are what we talk about down the road. But I’m not announcing anything.

Within the last couple of years, I have heard many good things about the season . . . and some dissent. For example, the production of Carmen two years ago was a disappointment. And the principals in last year’s Trovatore, while excellent singers, looked older than their roles. Is it unfair to expect that with only four productions, they ought to all be first-rate? Remember, opera is live, and so we deal with everything that comes with that. We have more assets than challenges—an incredible group of singers, an extraordinary orchestra, amazing stagehands, and a very generous city—but even with that, not everything always works out according to plan. When something isn’t right, we conduct a review process, and we strive to do better next time. Heads aren’t going to roll, but we do spend time looking to see what happened and how we can do it differently.

Evans works hard to cast people who look the part, because ours is such a visual society and there’s less tolerance than there used to be for something that doesn’t look right. Still, with the benefit of distance from the stage, you can believe the singers are younger than they are. We had a “Butterfly” recently who matured in front of your eyes from a young teenager in the throes of a first love into a woman recognizing life as unfair and harsh.

With so many performing arts companies, there seems to be almost inherent conflict between the artistic side and the business side. Yet, at least to outward appearances, you and Evans Mirageas are an unusually effective team. Is that so? Why? Evans is very collegial, cooperative, and collaborative. He came to Cincinnati Opera with a strong understanding of the business side through previous jobs at Boston Opera and Decca Records. He also came with recognition of the importance of a close working relationship with the board. Of course there can always be healthy tension between creative and business from time to time, but with Evans there is no drama. Our repertory each year is proposed by the staff. From there it goes to a board committee. If there are strong objections, it will go back. We also do financial projections so that the budget is balanced. It’s a practice that has worked very well for us.

You have a contract through 2018. Do you have plans beyond that? We’re engaging in another long-range plan right now. It will be interesting to see what we develop for the 100th anniversary in 2020, although I don’t anticipate anything nuclear. It’s always good to reassess, and when we do I think my course will be pretty clear. It’s important not to overstay your welcome. I’m very, very aware that the opera needs the best—someone who can guide it into the future.

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