Searching, interviewing and hiring nonprofit arts leadership can be compared to dating for marriage. Sure, lots of candidates are great — some even good looking — but at the end, one will emerge the winner of multiple approvals from all familial viewpoints.
Opera in the Heights hired Enrique Carreón-Robledo as the company's new maestro last spring. He follows William Weibel as artistic director, who waved his baton on the podium for 11 years. Carreón-Robledo earned the trust of musicians, administrators, singers and governing board, with a vision that matched the organization's long term strategic goals.
Over the summer, he and his wife Audrey moved from London to Houston in hopes of beginning a new life with Oh! in the Bayou City. CultureMap had the opportunity to chat with Carreón-Robledo prior to his first official performance as artistic director in the company's season opener Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment (which opens Thursday night and runs through Oct. 2).
CultureMap: Having worked in both in the United States and Europe, how do you feel Americans support and value classical arts? Are we a lost cause? Or is there hope?
Enrique Carreón-Robledo: There are lots of people in the United States who value art. In Europe, the government pays for most of it. In the U.S., it comes out of people's own wallets. In Europe, it's part of your commitment, like taxes, a part of life not unlike having the best highways, affordable health care, education, in that spirit.
That poses a challenge — and an opportunity. You have to share your budgets with social functions, community outreach, education and philanthropic activity. Houston has a flourishing art scene, with lots of potential, and it is our job as artists to nurture it. There's a lot of history to be made.
CM: During philanthropic activities, it is easy to lose ground and shift paradigms. It is perhaps why nonprofit management burn-out rate is quite high. What do you think about taking on a public role where fundraising becomes a major part of your daily activities?
EC: I was very fortunate to work closely with Antonio Pappano. He was instrumental in helping me get a version of La Fille du Regiment that I could use for Opera in the Heights. He always said, work hard for your company. You will have to fight for funds and network, but through it all, at the end, don't forget what's in your heart. Opera.
CM: You've uprooted from family from London and decided to settle in Houston. That (uprooting) is no easy task — I know, I've done it. You must have seen something that piqued your interest about Opera in the Heights. What was it?
EC: There are two aspects of Opera in the Heights that caught my attention. Though I cannot deny the immense satisfaction I feel when I work with opera stars — someone who's performed on the world's most discerning stages — having a forum to give upcoming singers a chance to shine is very special and rewarding.
The proximity, the intimacy with which we can present opera has great potential. It is tempting to ponder building a large theater with the best state-of-the-art equipment, anything money can buy. But the performer-to-audience connection is the reason why opera lovers love the art form.
Post mid-20th century, after Strauss, Puccini and the golden age of Italian opera, everything performance-wise got out of proportion. Bigger isn't always necessarily better. We are seeing the pendulum swing the other way. I can't say we will perform opera in its "original" form. I believe if Mozart materialized today, he'd be thrilled to hear his works modernized.
(You have to expose yourself to the best — and worse. You learn from everything).
There's another aspect of Opera in the Heights that attracted me to the company: The potential. In general, the age bracket for the arts tends to be on the higher side. Organizations are getting better at reaching younger audiences little by little. Seeing emerging artists on the stage is something I feel these patrons are interested in.
CM: Though the nonprofit scene in Houston is more stable than other cities, I'd imagine there are things in Opera in the Heights you'd like to work on. What changes can we expect?
EC: Opera in the Heights is undergoing a transition. The first thing when going through changes is to avoid placing judgments on anything that came before. Then, you analyze what you have and what you can do with it and maximize resources you have today. This came up numerous times during my interviews, and I think that's one of the reasons I am here now.
Little things like having one extra rehearsal means having one more chance to get more comfortable with the music and the flow of the production. It can be the difference between a good opening night and a great one.
We are also in the process of finding a managing director — we should have one within a month. That person will manage the company from the administrative end so I can do my job from the artistic perspective. Little by little, I'd like to find a way to pay the artists more.
CM: Can you gives us a little preview on future pieces, programs and what we will see grazing the stage at Opera in the Heights?
EC: Verdi's anniversary is coming up in 2013 and I feel that's a composer that needs to be honored. We can't really tackle composers like Wagner, it's not part of our style. But you'll see more compositions by Donizetti — like Anna Bolena (Jan. 1 to Feb. 25), his first opera to be a major hit.
I'd like to program Mozart, at least one every season, but that may not be possible every year. If I had my wish, we most definitely would, but as you know there are several aspects to consider when it comes to programming, and many are not artistic.
Opera in the Heights opens its 2011-12 season with Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment from Sept. 22 - Oct. 2. Tickets start at $10 and can be purchased online at operaintheheights.org.