Sunday, June 30, 2013

Annotated Interview with Robert Tannenbaum

Q&A with Robert Tannenbaum, of merged Sacramento Philharmonic, Opera

By Edward Ortiz
Published: Sunday, Jun. 30, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 5AANDE Last Modified: Sunday, Jun. 30, 2013 - 7:29 am

The next two years will be crucial ones for the recently merged Sacramento Philharmonic and Sacramento Opera. Steering that merged organization, known as the Sacramento Region Performing Arts Alliance, will be the job of new General Director Robert Tannenbaum. A former director of the cultural division at the Esterhazy Foundation in Austria, Tannenbaum, 56, signed a two-year contract to lead the SRPAA, which will operate on a $1.8 million budget in 2013-14. We asked Tannenbaum about his plans for the new organization and his take on the social contract between the arts and the public.

What kind of programming excites you? 

My personal tastes tend to be pretty eclectic. I like things like (Russian composer Alexander) Scriabin.

What kind of programming should audiences expect? 

My feeling is that the orchestra and the opera are both in a place where they're trying to develop a new, stable base, financially and artistically. It just feels to me that we need to be in a phase of good old-fashioned consolidation – which means sticking to tried-and-true repertoire.

What kind of repertoire? 

We're talking about the great traditional repertoire – Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart and Schubert. I think it's important this coming season to be more conservative in our programming and go for the pieces everyone knows and loves.

How will you capture the interest of new audiences? 

That's the whole idea of separating the mainstage programming and our satellite series. I really want to use the satellite series to go far deeper into uncharted territory than the mainstage season. One of the things I've been talking about with (Music Director) Michael Morgan is looking for cutting edge California contemporary composers. Also, I just did a program in Austria that I loved. We were working with contemporary composers out of the Middle East. There is a wonderful core of young composers coming out of Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.

[I think I agree with this.  I very seldom attend Philharmonic concerts because I am not interested in the programming.  I personally prefer a mix of traditional stuff and American modern.  I don't want to listen to pop music on an orchestra concert.  I won't comment on middle eastern composers.]

What about on the opera side?

It's exactly the same as what I said about the symphonic side. I love what we call the top 15 operas. I'd love to be able to expand beyond that, but at this point I feel the responsibility to do the traditional operas that everyone wants to see – but do them in a way that our traditional audience and a new audience will get something from.

I understand you're keen on a company constructing its own sets. 

A big part of the malaise that American regional opera finds itself in today has to do with the availability of sets. We're saddled by what's out there to rent – and a lot of that material is very dusty. We're talking sets that were designed in the 1970s and '80s.

So you'd like to see a different aesthetic, set-wise? 

I'd like to find a way to do traditional opera with a modern, aesthetic eye. We don't necessarily have to revert to the era of chandeliers and velvet drapes.

So what is that aesthetic grounded in? 

It's what I call the best of an American straight-theater aesthetic. If you go to straight theater, you get to see quite a bit of excellent modern design with aesthetically clean lines, and costumes, and have it all stick to the traditional spaces of the story. That is why I picked "Il Trovatore" for my first opera.

[My problem with Il Trovatore is how hard it is to sing.  If I like the singing, I will like the opera.  I like it very much that he is suggesting modernizing the sets without apologizing for this.]

How does that opera fit in with that aesthetic? 

Unlike operas like a "La Bohème," which is very clearly set architecturally, "Il Trovatore" is not that limiting. It's an opera about internal social structures and societal conflicts. It can be done with simple scenic elements and projections that will evoke traditional staging, without spending that much money.

I understand you're interested in having sets built in Sacramento. 

I'm talking with Sacramento State University to develop an opera production project that will work for us and the university. When I first came here I met with the CSUS dean of arts and letters, Edward Inch, and we started brainstorming. I've sent them a proposal that I call my "opera design for the 20th century" project. They were very interested. This would be interdepartmental and involve opera, music and theater departments.

[I enthusiastically support this.  Get everyone working in the same direction.]

What are you thinking in that realm? 

Young designers are not learning how to design opera. If you go to school and get an MFA in costume or set design, you learn how to design musicals and you learn how to design straight theater but you do not learn how to design opera, because people do not do new operas. So I'd like to work with the educational community to teach them how to dramaturgically analyze and design opera, and have opera productions that we can use at the Sacramento Opera.

Would the sets create a revenue stream for the company? 

That is definitely part of the project – creating these productions of traditional repertoire operas that can be done in multiuse venue community theaters like ours. This should, within five years, create an excellent revenue stream.

What will be your approach to fundraising? 

When organizations are living from hand to mouth, it's very tempting to focus on what I call the "I've fallen and I can't get up" strategy of fundraising. I don't think that message is compelling to anyone. It's not a message that has a future. So what I've started to do is connect my fundraising to specific symphonic, operatic and educational projects that will give my donors value for their dollars.

Did your time in Europe influence your view about the arts? 

One of the things I've really enjoyed about working in Europe is that European society and cities know that cultural offerings are a part of what makes a city strong. Therefore, a city and a region are responsible for helping those things survive and prosper.

Like a social contract between the arts and a community?

There are many things that we pay for as part of a civic contract that we don't give a second thought to, and I feel that the performing arts need to be part of that social contract. In the American performing arts we tend to have this way of looking at entertainment as "if you guys like it and can pay for it, go ahead and do it." That does not work for recreational activities – whether it's a Madonna concert or a basketball game or a symphony orchestra. But for some reason, people tend to focus on the performing arts as "you guys have to pay your own way." No one in modern Western society pays their own way for recreation or culture through ticket sales.

Should the arts be funded the way they are in Europe? 

I'm not lobbying for funding the arts the way the arts are funded in Europe. I'm lobbying for the concept that the arts are a part of what makes a city strong, and therefore it's a civic responsibility. That is the thing I feel most strongly about that I'm bringing back with me from Europe.

[His ideas are interesting.  He has my support.]

Call The Bee'sEdward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz..
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