The Kennedy Center

Christina Scheppelmann


Ever pondered what it takes to bring a production to the stage? Before you take your seat in the Opera House, thousands upon thousands of pieces must fall into place, and it starts years before you even walk in the door, with planning the season.

We grabbed a moment with WNO Director of Artistic Operations Christina Scheppelmann, who shed light on the months and years of thinking, coordinating, discussing and negotiating that went in to planning the 2010-11 season. (Ironically and appropriately, we spoke to her from London, where she's already scoping artists and productions for future seasons!)

How do you start planning? What's your first thought?

A season is an evolution of ideas, circumstance and realities, so no two seasons ever quite come together in the same way. I work with [WNO General Director] Plácido Domingo and others to plan a mix of good artists and interesting productions.

Sometimes a singer determines a choice, sometimes it's a certain production, or a title that has never been done. Or I see something or someone that is so fantastic that I say "I have to bring this to Washington."

We also must consider factors like budget, schedules, and cast-ability– certain operas require a certain voice, and if a particular talent can't be found for whatever reason, it is better not to do that opera.

We start with these elements, and then build out the season from there, always balancing and refining.

What are some the elements that you balance?

I want to find the right artists for each title, and match up not only periods and styles, but voices and artists and productions and conductors and designers within each title and each cast. It's like a giant puzzle, and there is flipping and shifting within and across productions, and even across seasons, to find the right solution.

There are so many wonderful operas and I have to balance the ever-popular with deserving and wonderful pieces that are not part of the "Top 10" most performed operas. Sometimes that means taking artistic or box office risks, but those risks do tend to pay off. We had such great response to Tamerlano, Jenůfa, and A View from the Bridge. Doing these less familiar but equally valuable masterpieces-and doing them well-is part of who we are as a company and part of what our audience expects from us.

Of course personal tastes always play in, and Plácido, myself and other colleagues, we all have different experiences and perspectives. But we have a responsibility towards the company's season, our audience, and our budget, so it would be professionally irresponsible for us to put on mainly the operas or singers that we favor. It is not about me, but the company and especially our patrons, because ultimately I have to put together a season with enough variety to appeal to many different interests and to stimulate different listeners.

Is there an example of when things come together perfectly?

Every season has moments like that – we had been in touch with Renée [Fleming] for almost five years before Lucrezia Borgia [November 2008]. It happened because that's when Renée was available and it was a fantastic success for her, and a great experience for our audience. We were fortunate that other excellent artists, including [director and designer] John Pascoe, Maestro Domingo, Sondra Radvanovsky and Vittorio Grigolo, were also free during that period. It all added up to an electric production.

Are there elements of the upcoming season you are particularly proud of, or looking forward to?

Debbie Voigt as Salome, beginning the season with Ballo-these are elements I'm personally proud of and think our audiences will really respond to. I'm excited that we're presenting Plácido in a different Iphégiene production, not the one he sang at the Met. That was a beautiful production, but it will be fascinating to see him interpret the same role in a different production with different artists.

What are the really frustrating parts of the planning process?

Frustrations happen in this business all the time. You think you have somebody, but then they get another offer, or a change in the schedule means losing a singer I've had on hold.

By the time we start a season, we will have done about 45 versions of the schedule, and it stays a work in progress during the entire season. Any event on the schedule is relevant to many people. Chorus, soloists, orchestra, stage hands, production staff, music staff... everything and everybody need to be coordinated. Shifting the schedule around can have a huge domino effect.

But really frustrating? Nothing, because the big picture is just too much fun. You have to find a solution to every challenge, every frustration, every obstacle. There's no way around it - the show is scheduled and must go on. The pay off when a show goes up is always worth the effort we've put in.

Is the planning all done within WNO staff, or do you take patron opinions into consideration?

That is difficult question, because our patrons' interests are so diverse. If 100 patrons say what they want, you'll have 101 differing opinions.

It is important to listen to the audience - that's why I do the Artists Q&A's, to learn what our audience thinks. But some people want to see Bohème every other year. And then other people come to me wanting to see more 20th-century pieces like Elektra, Peter Grimes, Jen?fa and the like. I love listening, and I respect all those opinions, but I can't act on all of them.

We have so many amazing artists coming this year. Was it a difficult to get them all on the schedule at once?

Here at WNO, we've developed unusually positive working relationships with our artists, and artists enjoy being here because they feel supported in the process of rehearsals and in performances. That works to our advantage when an artist considers whether she would like to accept an offer to sing here.

Ultimately though, artists make choices as to what they consider best or most interesting. I cannot force a singer to come here. If they have other contracts, they have contracts.

As with so many things in life, relationships are important. Some of these singers are Plácido's colleagues, and have been for a long time, and over the past 16 years, those relationships have been an important asset for WNO. Plácido works very hard to put together not only the season, but to arrange for singers to be with us, and to set a positive work environment when they arrive.
Christina Scheppelmann