We celebrate General/Artistic Director Pelham “Pat” Pearce’s 25th anniversary with Central City Opera on May 1, 2021!
Pat was selected in 1996 as Managing Director of Central City Opera and named General/Artistic Director in 1998. During his tenure, Mr. Pearce set forth the company’s current artistic mission of balancing traditional and progressive works. Central City Opera’s national and international reputation has been elevated with American premieres such as Gloriana in 2001 and world premieres including the new Chinese opera, Poet Li Bai, in 2007, garnering press coverage all over the world. Nationally, he has served as Chairman of the Grants Review Panel for the National Endowment for the Arts, as a juror for the Rosa Ponselle International Voice Competition and Regional Met Auditions and as a Board Member for OPERA America. In May of 2013, Mr. Pearce received the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Award for the Arts and Humanities. Get to know more about his life and work in today’s staff Q&A!
Congratulations on 25 years with Central City Opera! Tell us more about what you do as General/Artistic Director at CCO.
Well, the reason that it’s a double title is basically because it’s a double job. I was hired as Managing Director originally, which was how they categorized the person that was over the business side of the company year-round and for the business side of the festival. And then I was passed the artistic baton within a year and a half or two years. In the opera business, the person that is doing both of those jobs traditionally has been called a general director, which was enough. But for those of us who have existing Emeritus Artistic Directors, it becomes confusing, especially in titles and on billboards and the like, so we said the simplest way to make this clear is to say that I’m the General/Artistic Director of this company. What it ultimately means is if you don’t like what we’re doing artistically… you hit me over the head, you’ve hit the bullseye; no matter how many people are under me, you’re still in good form just to hit me.
How does one become the leader of an opera company?
People come to this in all different sorts of ways. My undergraduate degree was in choral conducting and literature and my master’s is in vocal performance; I was a National Opera Institute Intern in Choral Conducting and Administration. Basically, all singers come to a point after they’ve finished graduate school where they have to decide how much time they’re going to devote to trying to make a living solely as a singing artist. Often before they’ve exited their twenties, sometimes into their early thirties, they decide whether they’re going to add something to it or whether they leave singing entirely and try to find something that is related. And that’s what I did.
I basically piggybacked off the National Opera Institute. I was attached to Michael Korn who was the Chorus Master for the Opera Company of Philadelphia. You meet people all along the way. While I was in undergraduate school, I had worked as an assistant stage manager for the local opera company, Mobile Opera. So that was my first entrée into the backstage at an opera company. They paid me $100 for four week’s work. It was 6-7 days a week from 10 in the morning until God knows when, but the only way you actually learn things is by being on the ground or behind the scenes. All of those things eventually led to the fact that when the job for running Mobile Opera became open, I was encouraged to apply for it, which I did. And I did that for 10 years. I left there to come to Denver, and I’ve been here for 25 years.
What skills/traits serve you well in your role?
Well, on the artistic side, I have a really good set of ears. I always have. I can hear things and identify qualities in music and in singing in particular that lend well to what we hope can be greatness. So that’s helpful.
And on the other side—my father was a Methodist minister for the first half of my life—so the idea of working for a nonprofit and dealing closely with people, I was brought up in that kind of world. It’s understanding all of the different personalities involved. And being able to sublimate myself in everything allows the interests and excitements of others to take precedence. You have to learn to swallow your own ego in many cases in order for the whole thing to work. Because when the whole thing works, ultimately that’s when you get the accolades you really deserve as someone running a company. As opposed to leading like a dictator, which I’ve never been comfortable doing. So that’s sort of the way I do it. And I’m still upright, so there you go!
What’s something you want people to know about opera?
The thing that we always work against are preconceptions. Usually it’s the worst part of anything that ends up creating its external narrative, whatever it is. Opera has a whole lot of baggage that it carries around with it. But what we’ve tried to do here is distill it into its purest form, which is telling stories. And the thing with opera is that you add music and singing to tell that story. That’s all it is. Nobody needs to do six months of research into Rigoletto to enjoy it. It’s our responsibility as producers to create something that anybody could come in and be moved by. And that’s a tall order, but that is ultimately what we’re charged with doing. The depth of your experience can be enhanced by doing research and listening to things and reading things, you’ll know more. But still, in the end it’s a story, and if we’re telling the story clearly and correctly and in a way that’s moving, it should have an impact on you. And that’s on us. That’s our responsibility as producers to do that. I take that very seriously.
What is your personal mission statement? Why do you do what you do?
There was a period of time—everybody reaches this, usually somewhere in your 50s—where you look around at where you are, you see what you’ve done and you see what the doors that you’ve opened ended up bringing you, and what you have X amount of time in your life to do. And you know that is the moment that if you want to change course you better figure it out now! And I thought, what else as crazy, as frustrating and as sometimes depressing as making this art form work can be for me at times, what else would I do? What, when it worked and when it was good, would give me so much back? And I could think of nothing else. And so that’s why I have continued to do it and will probably continue to do it in some way shape or form until I keel over because this is what I feel like ultimately I am here to do. And quite frankly, I could think of no other place where I would rather be doing it than here, which also is a big deal too.
What have been the top three opera experiences of your lifetime, Central City Opera or otherwise?
The first Handel ever produced at the Metropolitan Opera in 1984. It was Rinaldo starring Marilyn Horne, Benita Valente and Sam Ramey in his debut at the Metropolitan Opera. I took the train up from Philadelphia to see that production. And in spite of the fact that Marilyn Horne was singing a quarter tone flat—it was one of her under energized days—Benita Valente sang like a goddess. She sang the repeat of the A section in the Lascia ch’io pianga, and you could have literally heard a pin drop in the Metropolitan Opera. She had everybody on the edge of their seat, and that rarely happens in a space that big. I’ve never forgotten that. About the power of the human voice and what it could do. How it could pull the focus of an entire room of thousands of people if you did it right, and she did.
Secondly would have to be Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana, which we did in 2001 (North American Premiere), and it almost killed me. And it was self-imposed really! It was me just deciding that this was what we needed to do and then me worrying that it was the right decision. Until it actually came off, anything could have happened at any moment that would have blown that out of the water. But it did work, and it worked extremely well. It did exactly what we wanted it to do for the company.
And then follow that up the next year with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was Paul Curran’s U.S. debut. It was another Britten piece, but it was on the opposite side of the spectrum. It was written for chamber performance, and it was a really spectacular ensemble cast of people if I do say so myself. Curran knew what he wanted to do from a Shakespearian standpoint, and how to clarify the story for an American audience, for any audience really. And it was magic. Magic as Gloriana had been the year before with all the greatness and the bigness, scaled down to the 25 by 17 foot opening of the Central City Opera House. This piece was perfect for that small stage. Anna Christy—that was her debut with us—David Walker, Sylvia McNair, everybody brought their A game and it was wonderful. And we had to climb over a mountain in order to happen at all because September 11 happened just after the 2001 season, just after Gloriana. We’d already announced the season for 2002, and that was not exactly what we ended up producing. There was a moment that A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because it was a new production, almost disappeared. But Mr. Curran not only directed it, but he also basically created it conceptually and cobbled it together as a designer too. He did a co-production, himself, with Pittsburgh Opera. He made it happen by sheer will, no matter what the obstacles were in front of him, and the fact that it came off so well was amazing to me.
Those three things were probably the most impactful three moments, for me, in a theater. Two of which we produced, and one of which was produced at the Met Opera. Those are the three things I will never forget.
Tell us a little about your plans for the Benjamin Britten canon at Central City Opera. What made you interested in setting out to produce every work by the composer here at CCO?
I think Britten works really well and that’s because it’s a theater-based approach. It’s in English. It’s on English subjects. Usually, things that American audiences are familiar with. It’s kind of like Menotti or Puccini, both of them are also very theater-based. There are some composers that write in tandem with the libretto, who are painting words and painting situations. Some composers write an underscoring for the other things that are going on on top of it, but I feel like Britten is one of those composers that accomplished the intertwining of both music and theater in order to tell a story. And so in our hyper-visible and hyper-audible space, which basically takes a magnifying glass to everything, Britten’s work benefits from that close-up experience. The next one that I would love to see us do is either Albert Herring, which is basically Britten’s only comedy, or we bite off one of the remaining big ones and do Peter Grimes, which would be impactful, really impactful in this theater.
What does Central City Opera mean to you?
Quality. Quality, that’s what it means to me. And that’s what I strive for. I mean, look, you’ve got 200 people behind the scenes—all of them working, we hope, in the same direction and all of them have to be doing what they know how to do absolutely correctly and with at least 80% of their being in any given performance for that magic to happen. Nobody has control over all those people, and things happen in people’s lives. People are happy, they’re unhappy and bad things are happening in their personal life and their family. All those things come into how everybody walks into each day, but what we try to assemble in Central City Opera is a group of people who can produce art at a given level and never go below it. So you’re always guaranteed that it’ll be a really really good show, but some days it’s transcendent and those are the days you pray you’re in the theater. You can guarantee a high bar, but you can never guarantee that transcendence. That’s my job, though, to assemble the people who, together, who are capable of making it happen.
What’s your favorite CCO memory and/or accomplishment?
I think in the end, over the next couple of years, it will have been to double or triple the size of the endowment. That will be an amazing accomplishment for this company that I will be really proud of because of what it represents. Yes it’s great financially, it takes some of the pressure off, but it’s also a reflection of all the work that we’ve done in the past, the impact that we’ve had on people’s lives and that they want to make sure that continues. That is a reflection of everything that we’ve done. What I’ve done, what John Moriarty and every Artistic Director going back to Robert Edmond Jones has done. The culmination will be successfully adding $20-30 million to our endowment to make sure that we can continue to do this and that the people that take over after us can continue to make that sort of impact on people’s lives.
Why should someone come see a show at Central City Opera in particular?
Well because, whether we’re down at Hudson Gardens or on the stage at Central City, we still pay attention to detail. You can be assured of getting your money’s worth in storytelling by coming to see what we do.
Where do you see the company in another 25 years?
The most important thing is that I see Central City Opera still producing magical repertoire inside this unique jewel-box theater, which is the reason we’re still in existence. We’re in the middle of an endowment campaign, and trust me, those people are giving money to this endowment campaign because they believe in what we have done. They have been bitten by the bug of that performance space, and so much as it’s about the quality of the art that we put on stage; it’s also about how you consume it inside that little space. That is the thing that makes this company unique in North America, and it is the reason that people come from far and near to see what we do. I think that’s the reason we’re still here after almost 90 years, and I think that’s the reason we’ll still be here 25 years from now.
Share a little about your world and work outside of CCO. Tell us about your dogs!
Pippa’s dumb as a box of rocks, but beautiful. Fendley is the sweetest dog I’ve ever had. He’s the most cuddly terrier, they’re not usually like that. Terriers are often independent, they’re like cats, they pretend they don’t need you until they do. But Fendley is just right up next to me all the time. Bella, she’s getting into her dotage now. She’s slowed down a lot, but she was always a pistol, a typical Jack Russel in every single way.
You collect unique and vintage recordings in your free time and sometimes even describe it as “collecting voices.” Talk more about that hobby.
Collecting voices, collecting performances of singers, whether it’s choral music, or individual people, individual soloists, groups or opera, is what I spend my money and time on. Some of the special or rare ones I upload on my YouTube channel, so that people have access to them.
I was brought up with the Robert Shaw Chorale because my parents loved it. That’s where I learned good singing, from Robert Shaw Chorale, Florence Kopleff, Russell Oberlin, Adele Addison, the people that sang the solos with that group were some of the best people singing in the 40s, 50s and 60s in this country (Americans, that is) so I learned a lot listening to that and want to help put it back into the world.
Collecting vocalists is what it ends up being. Anything that moves me. This morning, in my Facebook feed some opera group that I follow had posted a film from the 50s. It was a film of Un ballo in maschera, I think, with actors that were lip synching based on the 1940 live performance with Zinka Milanov at the Met Opera. They were doing the big duet at the end, which is a big sing, and I’d never heard Milanov be so expansive; she was only 34 when this performance was done. I’d never heard it before so I immediately went searching for it.
I figured out if you have a CD of something, that is the highest quality of audio you’re going to get. The mp3 takes out all of the overtones and many of the undertones too, and you get kind of this flat performance which is accurate but it’s not exciting. So I’ve gone through this process now of re-uploading all of my CDs, now I’m being very conscious of the amount of information that’s in the recording.
There are things that I’ve collected in LPs over time that I’ve uploaded to my YouTube channel that have never been re-released in any other digital format. I actually bought one of those machines to digitalize the LP so I could burn it from the LP—which I did for the New York Pro Musica Christmas album which Russell Oberlin was singing on. That and the Robert Shaw American Hymns I uploaded are two things I’ve posted that have been listened to 10,000 or 20,000 times. You know it’s not what you’d normally think would be a hit on YouTube, but it’s stuff that a lot of people are interested in especially in that genre that they don’t have access to. So that’s the sort of thing that’s fascinating to me.
But it’s always been about the human voice, all the different ways that it’s used “classically”. The only thing that I haven’t transferred yet that I’m dying to is the Tennessee Ernie Ford and Marilyn Horne singing hymns, if you can imagine. So anyway that’s where I spend my time is playing in that world, trying to make sure that at least the stuff that I value is available for people to listen to.
Do you like to listen to recordings using headphones or without?
I usually listen within the room. I used to be of the age that you did care about having really great speakers. So I’ve got a set of large speakers in the den, they’re really good for the upper partials. But sometimes I just want an old set of Bose speakers that’s really fat at the bottom for just big stuff so that I’m just sort of wallowing in all of that lower sound. It’s kind of like a difference between a Steinway and a Yamaha (piano). Steinway is really great in the lower register, it’s all round and fat, but Steinway can bite your head off in the top of the range. It’s all in what you’re used to or what makes the music that you’re listening to sound the best.
Actually, it used to be the car back in the day. The car was the best place to listen because it trapped all the sound. This was at the very beginning of having speakers in the back in addition to the front. My grandmother had that, so I always wanted to drive her car so that I could listen to music that would fill up the entire car. It was kind of a magical experience, especially in the rain, driving in the rain with the sound turned all the way up inside a car like that, it was fun.
I guess I’m not a purist when it comes to having the right headphones. I like the acoustic of a room. It sort of puts more bloom on the sound and allows it even more expansion. So I like listening in a lot of different ways. But I like it in an opera house the best.
Check out some of Pat’s collected voices and performances at www.youtube.com/user/pelhamp/videos