As we’re all well aware, 2021 at Central City Opera has been special for many reasons. Today we highlight an incredibly important item on that list! This summer, we celebrated the 20th and final season of our truly singular Director of Production, Karen Federing. Karen has been taking charge and making that unforgettable Central City Opera magic happen from behind the scenes to front of house for two decades. We’re thankful for all the years making great work together, and we can’t be happier for her as she steps into her next chapter back on the east coast.
Learn more about Karen right here, and help us send her off absolutely teeming with Central City Opera spirit!
Tell us more about what you do in your role at CCO.
As Director of Production, I work year-round to prepare for the summer festival. That begins in the late fall with getting designers decided, contracted and prepared to design our productions. In the fall I’m also working to finalize the Festival budget and what our particular needs and challenges may be that need budgetary attention. Some years we’re also completing negotiations for our three union contracts—AGMA, IATSE and AFM—which happens in 3-year cycles.
By Thanksgiving I’m in hiring mode, starting the process of getting all seasonal production staff and interns hired—that process often lasts into early March. As designs come in for approval in late January, I begin to work with our Technical Director on assessing their cost and feasibility. Once approved, we bid out the designs and by late spring move forward to contract our scene shop for the builds. Once the production staff is hired, I integrate them into the process, keeping them informed about the progress, so they can become knowledgeable about the productions. I’ll get piano vocal scores and other related materials out to our staging team so they can do early prep, if desired. By late spring I’ll request preliminary rehearsal schedules from directors (our rotating repertoire structure requires a great deal of complicated scheduling to achieve all that we do each summer), and I’ll request preliminary props lists as well. By the middle of February, I’ll begin to send onboarding materials to the festival company, and by March, I start working on housing needs and travel plans, which often doesn’t conclude until early May. As we get closer to the season I’m in touch with everyone prior to their arrival so we’re prepared for that 3-4 week process as arrivals are staggered and relate to when technical departments open for work and when rehearsals begin.
During the season, I manage the intern team (with the daily supervision by our House/Festival Services Manager), work with our Technical Director and IATSE stagehands for the ebb and flow of getting shows to stage and through opening, and manage the day to day scheduling within AGMA rules with the daily assistance of our Production Scheduler, who handles that for all the festival’s daily activities. Throughout the season I’m managing our festival budget, tracking expenses for all departments like props, costumes, wigs, tech and signing off on payroll matters. I’m proud to say that my staff and I have come in at or under budget for every season since I began in 2002; a major feat, given the challenges that a festival presents and the vagaries of arts funding. Towards season’s end, it’s all about closing down our Central City facilities and closing down our productions, getting artists and staff home, and looking forward to the next season, which is typically in the planning phase during the summer season.
What’s your personal mission statement? Why do you do what you do?
I’ve been very lucky, having grown up in New York City and having been exposed to the arts from a very early age. So while my initial career plans were focused elsewhere, I did find a home in the arts and feel very strongly about the value the arts bring to us as a country, as a vibrant variety of cultures, and for what they can provide as a communal experience to a community, both on a micro and macro level. My degree was in Anthropology, so I bring a lot of that sensibility to my management style and to my belief in storytelling.
Share a little about your professional path. What steps led you here? Why opera?
My initial career plans were in Anthropology (specifically Primatology), but I did grow up with music in my home and the Metropolitan Opera on the radio every Saturday afternoon. My family were big opera, musical theatre, ballet fans, and my parents had very eclectic musical tastes, which I’ve continued to have to this day. So opera was something “normal” in my home life. After college, when I shifted my attentions to theatre, I started in Equity theatre and then eventually moved into opera. My personality and skills made stage management the right direction for me and so that’s what I pursued. I enjoyed the organizational aspects, the chance to engage with the “bigger picture” to facilitate productions, and the ability to work with all kinds of professionals from performers to stagehands to designers to all areas of production and technical matters. Once I had enough skill, I enjoyed calling shows most. The move into opera was pretty seamless, and I’m grateful for all of my mentors along the way who encouraged me and gave me new opportunities to grow. Within four years I was already at NY City Opera and stayed with them for 12 years, stage managing over 45 productions and seven “Live From Lincoln Center” telecasts. I also got involved with union negotiations and learned a ton about that part of the business as well. Eventually, I wanted the chance to impact the productions on a broader scale and in other areas of my skill set and so branched out into development/institutional giving/grant-writing/arts advocacy as well as in artistic administration, which honed my skills in contracting, artist and company management, budget and strategic planning. All of which helped me move into production management, which I’ve done for Gotham Chamber Opera and Central City Opera, all the while continuing to stage manage as often as I can.
Opera is sort of the “kitchen sink” of art forms, involving all kinds of artistic and technical participation, great musical values, intense storytelling, and often big or universal stories. It has the power to move people.
What advice would you share with young people looking to build a career in the arts and/or production?
My first piece of advice is to find mentors who you can trust and who can provide relevant modeling for how the arts are now. The arts have changed a lot in the years since I joined the industry and one has to be prepared to be flexible and versatile. One needs to be prepared to be challenged, to step outside of one’s comfort zone and experience, and work hard while learning more about one’s craft. It’s important to be honest about what you know and what you don’t and have realistic expectations about your skills, what you’re qualified to do, knowing that every job you do well leads (hopefully) to the next one and the chance to grow and build responsibility along the way.
What does Central City Opera mean to you?
I’ve been lucky to have worked for several companies with lengthy histories and legacies, including Central City Opera. Being part of that continuum is a very special opportunity to become part of something larger than yourself. I’ve also had the chance to build and expand the company’s internship program, something I’m most proud of and that has an impact on the industry and well beyond CCO’s footlights. We’ve been able to offer valuable and tangible professional experience for college-age interns alongside some of the best pros in this business—which has led to employment and advancement for many, which only enhances CCO’s reputation as well.
Why should someone come see a show at CCO in particular?
The Central City Opera House is our greatest asset and a unique, intimate experience for opera-goers. It was built by miners who simply built a music hall that was familiar to them—with public dollars only!—and without all the consultants and “experts” we use nowadays. And we’re still using it for the same purpose to this day. I think that’s something to cherish along with the intimate dramatic and musically powerful experiences we can offer.
In 2021 we were in a very different setting, but I still think the essential quality of what we do best—our “brand”—remained intact. I think it was simply important to re-engage with live performance and that essential communal experience that is theatre, that is opera. Maybe simply to reaffirm the value that the arts have and why having those experiences is important and why it’s important to support access for as many people as possible.
Talk a bit about the 2021 Festival—What did it take to reimagine the way we produce? What should audience members know about this season?
It’s a very long story to tell, which I’ve recounted in other interview settings. In short, it was at least an 18-month-long process of assessing venue options and challenges, working with the creative teams to reimagine designs and concepts originally planned for the opera house, rehiring staff who in many cases weren’t confident we’d even have a season, and on top of that, creating a valid and flexible COVID-19 reopening plan to keep everyone as safe as possible while here this summer. I’m so proud of all of my colleagues and partners—production staff, performers, orchestra, stagehands, interns—who came together to create something special and yet quintessentially CCO.
What do you want people to know about opera?
It’s a great art form, and don’t be afraid of it! I would encourage newcomers or those who are doubtful to put aside any preconceived notions and assumptions and attend something, even a short program. Opera isn’t just some ancient art form. American opera and composers have been flourishing and creating new works for decades in the US—there are always new stories to tell from all different walks of life, historical events, even present-day issues and topics of interest. Much like during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, I’m confident and looking forward to the new work that will come out of this pandemic period, trying to understand people’s struggles and perspectives. The work continues; that’s what makes the arts special.
Tell us about your world and work outside your position at CCO!
My world outside of my work revolves around my family and friends, most of whom are back on the east coast. I love to cook, to bake, to garden and will happily talk your ear off about old movies, which is a passion of mine. I’m also a politics junkie and strongly believe in the need for more engagement in civic life and a re-establishment of a better understanding of what it means to be a citizen. I also enjoy just relaxing and wandering around museums and national parks.