After Houston Grand Opera general director Anthony Freud announced he was leaving for the head job at Lyric Opera of Chicago last spring, the HGO board turned to an in-house team to take his place, with Patrick Summers as artistic and music director and Perryn Leech as managing director, overseeing the business end.
Instead of one person at the top of the organization, the duo are jointly determining the opera company's future, with Gregory Robertson as chief development officer.
With a packed HGO season about to get underway, CultureMap caught up with Leech at his Wortham Center office in late August and by phone with Summers, who was in San Francisco preparing to conduct the world premiere of the San Francisco Opera production of Heart of a Soldier, to gauge how the new relationship is working out.
Here are some excerpts from the conversation:
CultureMap: This professional arrangement seems to be different from most opera organizations. How is it working now and how do you envision it in the future?
Patrick Summers: It's actually a much more normal setup for arts organizations. European opera companies by and large function with an artistic director and a managing director. Nearly every ballet company in the world functions that way. It's actually not such an uncommon structure, although it is an uncommon structure for the Houston Grand Opera, which has only ever had a single general director.
"No one in any era, especially in 2011, can pretend that every artistic decision isn't also a financial one and vice versa. So when I look out into the future about what repertoire I'm going to do, my main objective is artistic but I also must also look at it from a practical standpoint as well."
Perryn Leech: There's an argument that it makes a lot more sense to spread that workload between two people who have different skill sets and therefore as a team can cover more of the bases. It's a very rare thing to find somebody who's both a brilliant artist and a brilliant businessman rolled into the same person.
Therefore the success of this hopefully will be the fact that I also have a strong artistic side and Patrick also has a very keen interest in the business side of running things. The two dovetail very nicely if you have the right skill sets within the people.
PS: No one in any era, especially in 2011, can pretend that every artistic decision isn't also a financial one and vice versa. So when I look out into the future about what repertoire I'm going to do, my main objective is artistic but I also must also look at it from a practical standpoint as well. You balance what you know will be difficult financially with something artistically that will be more friendly at the box office. It's about balance.
CM: What happens if you disagree? Who is the ultimate decider?
PS: In this structure Perryn and I occupy one office, the general director's office, that is split in two. It simply means that if there is a disagreement, we close the door and we don't come out until there is an agreement. And that of course is very invigorating. It's very good for an artist to have to justify every decision. I think that's fantastic. A lot of artists hate that. The conversation is, 'I'm an artist and you just go raise money for this.' Those times are long, long gone.
PL: When it comes to decision making it has to be based on trust. I know there is a trust between us. There's no crying wolf.
PS: What's important for me is that those decisions happen elegantly and privately. We will present a united front always. Some of our sister organizations that air all of these disagreements in public, I don't see where that benefits the art in any way.
CM: Patrick, in the past you have traveled a lot. Will that change?
PS: I am away this fall, because at the time this conversation happened with the Houston Grand Opera Board, there were things that I could not give up. But going out into the future, I certainly will not be traveling to the extent I did when I was only music director. But I will still continue my relationships with several organizations. like the San Francisco Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, where I have worked for many years because that work is very important to make me the type of artist that will be really vibrant in Houston.
PL: It's fantastic for us because Patrick gets to see those young singers that are coming through, artists programs in other cities and other countries. He represents HGO fantastically on the world stage. It's a win-win.
"It's fantastic for us because Patrick gets to see those young singers that are coming through, artists programs in other cities and other countries. He represents HGO fantastically on the world stage. It's a real win-win."
CM: What are the priorities of HGO under your leadership?
PS: I think inevitably as the years of The Ring approach (2014-17), really delivering a Wagner Ring Cycle in a way that is unique to the Houston Grand Opera is a real priority. And for me, regular commissioning of American works is a priority.
PL: My priority has to be to continue to refine our business model to make us as sustainable as possible, to allow us the platform to do this quality of work. Because ultimately all of Patrick's ambitions fall by the wayside if the company is a bust company. You can have the loftiest artistic ideals you want, if there is not business there to support it and no proper business structure, it all becomes a moot point.
PS: If you don't have the money you can't put on the artistic work, but likewise, if you don't put on the artistic work that is really vibrant, you can't raise the money. So it's a constant balancing act. But it's a perfect democracy in that way, because people vote with their donations.
CM: At what point will you put your stamp on HGO both artistically and financially?
PS: Even as soon as the season after next will bear quite a lot of imprint of the new administration, although Anthony and I planned very closely together the next five years, which includes part of the Ring Cycle. But certainly three seasons from now you'll be seeing the new administration's vision, and that's pretty much the normal planning cycle. Seasons in American opera houses are planned about five to six years in advance and really solidified three years in advance.
PL: You don't go through an economic downturn without picking up most of the stones in the company and looking under them. To stay as a major international world-class company you have to be as busy as you possibly can be, because it allows you to grow and to have a bigger audience. It's about us getting back to a busier company rather than hunker down because the hurricane's coming. We want to grow the company. We want people around the world talking about Houston Grand Opera as one of the great American companies. It has that reputation.
"To stay as a major international world-class company you have to be as busy as you possibly can be, because it allows you to grow and to have a bigger audience. It's about us getting back to a busier company rather than hunker down because the hurricane's coming. We want to grow the company."
CM: What are you most excited about in the upcoming season?
PL: The production I'm most excited about is The Rape of Lucretia (Feb. 3-11, 2012). It's the conclusion of our Britten series. Arin Arbus, the director, is a fantastically talented young lady who just brings a freshness and a new look at the piece, which is a fantastic piece of theater with music.
We open with a new production of Barber of Seville. It will be fun. In opera, there's a lot of laughing behind your program, but this will be genuine laughing. The team that is doing it is immensely talented. For me it's always the new productions that really gets a company going.
And Don Carlos (April 13-28, 2012). I actually did this production in Wales when it was new. There's something about that sheer force of human numbers that blows you away.
PS: Certainly Traviata in Houston carries a special place for me. It was the opera of my own debut at the company in 1998. And then I conducted Traviata again the next time we did it, which was Renée Fleming's first Violetta. So coming back to Traviata again, in Houston, with a soprano (Albina Shagimuratova) singing Violetta for the first time is extraordinarily exciting to me (Jan 27-Feb. 12, 2012). To usher a new Violetta into that part again is something I'm really looking forward to.
The two Schiller operas in the spring— Mary Stuart (April 21-May 4, 2012) and Don Carlos — for me that is such a dream pairing of operas. I've been looking forward to that repertoire for five years. And we have Fidelio back in this company after so many years and with such an extraordinary star, Karita Mattila — she's the sole reason we're doing it (Oct. 28-Nov. 13). I think that's going to be a really really riveting event for Houston audiences.