Opera’s new artistic director plans big changes
By Lou Fancher
If you live in the Tri-Valley and its environs and aren’t aware the area has a fully professional opera company, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
But expect awareness to change, because the Livermore Valley Opera’s newly appointed artistic director, Erie Mills, plans to amplify and make known the organization’s presence. The former Metropolitan Opera soprano joins Music Director and Conductor Alexander Katsman with a mission to bring the 25-year-old company into greater prominence.
“I would love to see more sold-out shows in the next year. I would love for more people to know that we even exist,” Mills says, responding to a question about her first priorities. “I want the element of surprise to go away.”
Mills brings stage experience to LVO from her career performing in major opera houses worldwide: the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, San Francisco Opera, Santa Fe Opera, New York City Opera and others. While on the voice faculty at San Jose State University from 1998 to 2008, she worked and continues to work as an English diction specialist for professional opera companies throughout the United States. Mills has been an artistic adviser with LVO since 2009. She became artistic director Oct. 12.
“It’s a collaborative effort. I’ve been involved in everything but the mechanics; the day-to-day meetings with executive committees about budgets. Alex isn’t as interested in the nuts-and-bolts part, but I am. I want the board and the people of the Tri-Valley to understand what they’re paying for when they contribute. We’ve created a beautiful monster, with larger productions creeping up all the time. We have to hone it in or expand it.”
Mills favors “honing” only when it comes to focused productions that ensure the music is always foremost. Her otherwise expansive, ambitious artistic plans are undergirded by standard, but still savvy, financing initiatives that include renting already existing costumes and sets or presenting co-productions, like LVO’s upcoming opera, “The Marriage of Figaro.”
The opera’s Stage Director Brian Luedloff is the Director of Opera Theatre at University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colorado.
“Brian was developing this version that he’s set in 1940s Hollywood, an era when there were movie stars who are like updated versions of kings and queens. Luckily for us, he’s taking the set back to the university, so our part is to raise $147,000 dollars.”
The shared production lessens not only the budgetary challenges but a space crunch.
“We lose some of our storage space at the end of April,” says Mils. “This way, we won’t have to build and destroy a set.”
In regards to everything but toeing the bottom line, Mills is an expander. Encouraged by the success this fall of “Flying Dutchman,” a production that stretched the company’s capacity with a chorus double its usual size, a rigorous score and state-of-the-art video production elements, Mills no longer hesitates to sing the company’s praises.
“It was incredibly successful. You know, there’s a cloud over Livermore that says ‘we’re not as good.’ But I’ll go on record saying we do the best work, and people need to come see us.”
Katsman says that LVO was ready for Mills to step up to the plate and is grateful she accepted the new position.
“I think Erie brings experience, energy and star power to LVO. It is my pleasure to have a colleague like her and to work together on taking this company forward — hopefully to the next 25 years.”
Of course, it will take more than hope to achieve the recognition and support they envision. The hiring process will continue to follow core principles: the music comes first; seek the best singer for each role; look local but never at the expense of the music; and choose a repertoire that appeals to core and new audiences.
“We dance on a fine line because young people want certain things; older audiences want something else,” Mills says. “I think the solution is to do known operas in an interesting way.”
She mentions presenting more productions in English, perhaps Carlisle Floyd’s version of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” or “Albert Herring,” a comic chamber opera in three acts by Benjamin Britten.
“We’re not thinking about putting things on the moon. We know people still want to see “Madame Butterfly,” but once they’ve seen it, they want new things.”
At the Jan. 28 Silver Jubilee gala at The Club at Ruby Hill in Pleasanton, four of LVO’s most popular singers will perform selections from upcoming productions. In addition to Figaro in March, the Fall 2017 season will feature “Don Pasquale.” Mills is cloak-and-dagger about the production but says that it will be set in the Wild West.
Looking to subsequent seasons, she drops hints: “a big chorus opera,” “maybe Verdi” and mentions again that Steinbeck’s novella would be perfect for the Tri-Valley.
Regardless of the road ahead, people can be certain of one thing: Mills, Katsman and LVO are on the move and angling to be heard.