Meet Minnesota Opera’s new General Director Nina Archabal

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Nina Archabal is the General Director of Minnesota Opera, a position that she assumed just before Thanksgiving in 2014. Although she holds three degrees in music and has long been involved in the Schubert Club’s leadership, her appointment to head Minnesota’s largest opera company surprised many residents more familiar with her work at the Minnesota Historical Society. This confusion is in some ways natural, as Dr. Archabal worked at the Society from 1977-2011, spending more than three decades as its Director. Her accomplishments in that post include leading the organization through a transformative period of expansion, organizing the funding and building of the iconic History Center in St. Paul, the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post, and the Mill City Museum.

This article is Part 3 of the Daily Planet’s Opera Week coverage, a series of articles about opera in Minnesota leading up to the opening night of The Elixir of Love. Over the course of seven days, our coverage will examine some of the individuals and organizations that write opera, produce it, and perform in it in the North Star State. You can read Part 1 and Part 2 online.

Although arguably one of the most influential persons who shaped the teaching and presentation of Minnesota history today, Dr. Archabal is actually a native of another “M” state – Massachusetts. She moved to the North Star State with her husband in 1965 after completing bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music at Harvard University, expecting to only stay in the Twin Cities for three years. Before long, she was working at the University of Minnesota and enrolled in doctoral studies, eventually completing a PhD in Music History. Well before becoming President of the Schubert Club and the General Director of Minnesota Opera, she was immersed in multiple facets of music performance, having also studied piano at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, MA and completed a doctoral dissertation on the American opera composer Carl Ruggles. The Daily Planet sat down with Nina Archabal in December to discuss her new position.

Most of the news coverage about your taking the helm at Minnesota Opera has made no mention of your musical background, which is actually quite substantial. You were at the Schubert Club for a long while, in several high leadership roles, and you have three degrees in music.

Exactly right. My passion lies [with music]. I went to my first concert [in Minnesota] very shortly after we first arrived here. [It was] deep in the winter and we drove a little Volkswagen that had no heater in it to a Schubert Club concert to hear [Canadian contralto] Maureen Forrester – so my love and my connection to these institutions is long and deep. My connection to Minnesota Opera goes back to the time when they performed in the former space that the Guthrie Theater had. These organizations have been my avocation…

Music has been a huge part of my life, always, whether I was performing – I sang in the Memorial Church Choir [at Harvard] and was paid to do it, so it’s always been there – it’s just that my work life has gone somewhere else.

What was it like making the transition from relative retirement?

I had plenty to do [after stepping down from the Minnesota Historical Society], but one day I got a call. I’d had several other opportunities to go back to work, but nothing really suited me…but when I was contacted by Jim Johnson [Chair of the MN Opera Board of Directors] asking if I could come over here, and think of taking this on, I think my brain went into overdrive. Instead of being sensible, I said, “Of course, I’d love to,” and what has happened is that I find myself in an environment that deals with my passion, which is making music.

[At the Opera Center] I can literally encounter vocalizing singers on the elevator – it’s just a place that’s full of music. Sure, it’s got budgets and it’s got a marketing department; it’s got a finance department and it’s got all the things that nonprofit organizations have, but it also has as its root this incredible art form that brings together the visual arts, theater, [and] the music itself. [It is,] I think, an organization that aesthetically [and] from an artistic standpoint is the equal of any organization in this town. I’ve been a long-time subscriber and I’ve watched the quality of the productions just really rise constantly and I would say the quality of the singing [as well]. The sets are quite grand, and I would say that the singing has improved…I remember the days when you dreaded the moment when the tenor sang, but now I don’t have white-knuckle moments at the opera any more. I just go to my seat and take it all in.

Were you approached out of the blue?

I’ve known Jim [since] both of us serve on the Carleton [College] board. He called me, and asked me to have coffee with him. I asked him what it was about, and he said, “I want to talk with you about the Opera.” I got really excited, since I thought he was going to ask me to come on the board of the Opera – I thought, “That’s really hot stuff, and I’d really like that” – and we get to the coffee shop and he tells me that what he’d like instead is for me to come and be an interim general manager for the opera. I think he sold me a bill of goods, because he’s said “It could be as short as you want it to be” – but from what I’m hearing, the board’s going to take a big breath and run a search, and I could be here for a year and a half. For a second career, that sounds pretty good to me! That’s a time in which you can make something of a difference, I think.

I feel like I’ve been welcomed here; it seems like no one wants to doubt my creds yet, [or] at least they haven’t shown it to me. It’s a fantastic place; on the 4th floor, we have the costume shop where you can see things being built, and I know we send shows [to other opera companies across the country]. We talk about 1-truck shows and 2-truck shows that we send to other opera houses. In fact, our production of Anna Bolena is now at the Lyric in Chicago and has done really well.

Because productions have to travel and fit people of all sizes, you’ve never seen such large inseams as go into these costumes, because they have to fit people with waists of 24 inches and waists of God knows what…

Made in Minnesota is a big branding thing right now. How do you see a local element factoring into Minnesota Opera?

I don’t think Made in Minnesota is exclusive – the productions we bring these [internationally known] singers in for are made here. I don’t see it as a kind of isolationist notion at all; I think we’re trying to take Minnesota to other places. There are two things that we do are very important: one of these is that we travel our works and our productions. I would like to see us building a consortium with, say, 5 other companies that would make a commitment to work together, and we would decide together what the 5 operas would be, and we would ask and trust the other opera company to produce that work. I think that could work really well.

[The other is that] we’re also talking about building a national council of support for Minnesota Opera, because there are a lot of people with Minnesota connections who live around the country, and there are a lot of people who live around the country who know about Minnesota and know about the quality of the work. I see those ways as Made in Minnesota but reaching at the same time. I think our organizations are here and largely created out of wealth made here, [but] reach out with national reputations. Certainly the Walker Art Center, the Guthrie Theater – they have national reputations.

What about using local composers?

I’ve got a luncheon coming up where someone has an idea about a composer who we might use. So you never know – the arts grow in organic and unpredictable ways.

There are a lot of opera companies in the United States that are experiencing significant financial problems, including many that have gone through high-profile closures since the Great Recession began in 2006. What are some of the long-term financial concerns facing opera?

Budgets are a problem for any of these organizations. I think if you dig deep enough into any of these cultural artistic organizations, you’ll find that they struggle. On the other hand, there are very few communities in the United States that have anything like the public and private support for the arts that we have in Minnesota. It’s pretty damned amazing… When you think about it, the History Center alone…that’s a 420,000-something square foot building.

We have [in Minnesota] this bedrock of support that has really enabled arts and culture to flourish in this space. I think we come to an interesting place at this moment, though, because I think [that for] a lot of the families that owned businesses and accumulated great wealth in the Twin Cities, the younger generation is living around the country. Minnesota retains more of its population than any other state, [but the former magnates’] children are moving around the country, so there’s a question about this support continuing, and [whether or not] young people coming here will make the same investment [in culture].

[As for Minnesota Opera,] We have our problems, but we’re going to stay upright. When you look at what opera companies around the country have had, [you can see] it’s not an easy time. You’ve seen what’s happened with the symphony orchestras [in the last two years].

Something I’ve noticed about the opera is that the audience may not be ethnically diverse, but it’s certainly age-diverse. There are much younger people at the opera [now], and I think it has everything to do with the [supertitles]. I think people found it impenetrable, with people singing in this foreign language where they couldn’t figure out what was going on, and you put those [supertitles] up so that they can follow the plot, you give them a synopsis, then you add really good acting…

I remember the first opera I went to was in Boston. I can’t remember what the opera was about, but what I mostly remember was 4 singers sort of facing the audience and singing. If you think about what singers do today, they’re gymnasts [in comparison]…if you look at singers like Anna Netrebko, they can be singing Mimi and dying and still singing.

What role, if any, do you believe the Metropolitan Opera’s simulcasts have played in shaking up opera? Are they a rival experience?

I don’t think they replace live opera, I think they enhance your experience of live opera [as] another way to enjoy it. If Anna Netrebko has a blemish on her face, you see it, it’s so intimate. I don’t care where you sit in the theatre, you’re closer to those people [in the broadcasts] than we as human beings require for psychological space.

Do you think the broadcasts have made opera more accessible?

I think opera’s combination of the broadcasts and the [supertitle] texts that you can read have made all the difference. Add to that the costuming, and I think it’s an art form that has a potential to appeal to even more people than it attracts today.

One of the Saturday morning rituals in my house was listening to opera broadcasts. I’d sit – my father, my brother, and me – in the living room, and there’d be no talking except during intermissions. That stuff just gets into your bones when you’re hearing it every Saturday, Saturday after Saturday.

How does growth factor into decisions? A successful capital campaign is a great thing, but if you succeed in building a larger space (like the Guthrie), it often changes the size and type of repertoire that you can do as well. Many companies that start out on the more experimental, avant-garde edge end up becoming more traditional in their repertoire choices over time. If you look at the age of Minnesota Opera’s repertoire – and they’re very unusual in committing to do as many new works as they do – it has gone up significantly over time. These productions, because they’re taking place at the Ordway, have a certain built-in size from the space. Doing, say, Baroque chamber opera would be a little bit out of scale.

Right, though we have done [several Baroque operas]. I think it has to do with how the set is designed. I think we’re very lucky to have the Ordway.

With the new recital hall [about to open], the SPCO will go to the new hall, the Schubert Club can go to some daytime performances – it won’t be Bryn Terfel and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, but it will be lesser-known, emerging artists, for which the Schubert Club was know – [and] this will relieve some of the financial pressure to move [opera] productions quickly from the Music Theater and allow new performance opportunities.

What are some examples of these new opportunities?

We have a great program for young people. We have kids, for example, who sang in Magic Flute… I would like us to do more with them.

I’m also very proud of what we might do with our Resident Artist program – I don’t think anyone else in the country has anything quite like it. It’s a training program, providing opportunities for Minnesotan artists to actually get experience with stage roles… This is a jumping off point for people to have careers. You know that James Valenti came out of this program here and sang at La Scala. That’s quite a jump! He’s Dale’s wonder child.

Minnesotans, even though they have something wonderful, are disinclined to brag about it. I think that’s to our peril to a certain extent, because I know that there are many Minnesotans who have no idea what riches they have within reach with the Opera and the Guthrie.

As the General Director, what would you say the strategic priorities are under your watch?

They will be to stabilize funding for this organization and to continue what I will call the ever-ascending path that we’ve been on to support it. I also think that my job is not to set the artistic priorities – that’s Dale Johnson’s job – but I have to work [with them]. The first day that we met, we agreed that we’d be joined at the hip. Not getting along with Dale is simply out of the question: it has to be a really good marriage. I usually stop in his office the first thing in the morning. Whether it’s the marketing department that I’m worrying about or the development department, whatever it is, what happens behind the scenes has to be as good as what happens on-stage or what happens on-stage will inevitably decline. The two have to absolutely work together…

I am certainly committed to the second phase of the New Works [Initiative], I think that’s a trademark of this organization, its devotion to new works, and I think we need to continue to do that.

I’m interested in doing more with our program for young people…and think that we need to build future audiences and really widen our efforts there. My real priority is to make sure that things run behind the scenes as it does out front. As an audience member, I think it runs pretty damn well from where I sit, and I want to make sure that what happens in this office is as good as that.

What would you say the general financial health of Minnesota Opera is?

I think it has incredibly generous donors. I’ve been bowled over by the generosity of people who have deep commitments to this organization. What I see, however, is that the base of support should be broader. I received my annual report from the Minnesota Historical Society, and it has pages of donors; I know that it takes a lot of $10,000 gifts to get to a million dollars, but I think we need to broaden that base of support and would say that we are as healthy as we are from the generosity from some very wealthy and deeply committed donors who love the art form and love Dale and love this organization. I would call it an absolute passion for this.

Some of them were in the room at the workshop [with orchestra] for The Manchurian Candidate and one of them said to me, ‘You know, I still like Puccini and Bellini better, but I think it’s great that we do the new works.’ …I would say that the general health, we have had deficits for two years running; I am committed to not having a deficit this year, and that next year we’ll go forward. We have to do things to make that happen, and it will not come at the price of the artistic product because it cannot. What it will mean is a greater effort out of our development program, and certainly a more aggressive marketing program than we have.”

Production costs have increased substantially from year to year, and this is something not unique to Minnesota Opera. New York City Opera’s per-production cost over its last ten years increased several times over, which is something that conflicts with balancing the budget. Do you see things as leading to close that gap by bringing up donations, are there costs that need to be controlled…

I think you have to control your appetite on the production side, and I’ve seen that happening. We have a fantastic woman here who’s in charge of production, Karen Quisenberry, who [worked] at Yale…she’s an incredibly smart woman. When the going gets tough, the production people are not exempted from this conversation, and there are some things that we can do and we’re looking at doing that. I think we’re coming from all quarters to find a stable period. I think we have the same challenges that other opera companies have, and we’re certainly not going to have our eyes closed – the board wouldn’t let us do that. There are too many people who love this organization to let it go down, but I think they’re going to ask of me and ask of Dale that we somehow right-size what we do to our ability to support it. As we put it in the vernacular, [this means] butts in seats, but also our development program.

Once you’re settled in and you’ve met all your goals, if the board came asking for you to stay on longer, would staying longer be appealing?

It’s hard to imagine. I have longevity in my family and I have a lot of energy and a bit of brainpower left, but…at the time that they’re projecting having a new person [in this job], I’ll be 76 years old, or on the verge… That’s pretty old to be doing the kind of thing that I’m doing here, but I discovered from being retired that I am driven to work. That’s all there is to it – you hear those stories, “I wish that I’d spent more time working…no one says that on their death bed” – but when you’ve had the privilege of doing the work that I’ve done – it’s creative work, getting people interested in the thing that you value, why wouldn’t you want to do that?

Golf interests me not at all, I was not smart enough to learn to play tennis, I’m not a skier (but I do cross-country ski on a Sunday afternoon), and I’m not a shopper. I am a reader, but why wouldn’t you work as long as you can? I consider this job a gift, and feel like I have a little guardian angel on my shoulder who took care of me that morning and gave me this opportunity to work in music, to use the skills that I’d learned from running an organization for all those years, to use those skills here. It doesn’t get any better than that, does it?

Do you plan on scaling back your involvement at the Schubert Club at all?

My presidency of the Board concludes in June. I’ll continue on the Board, but [my problem] is that I love the Schubert Club. That’s my problem, that I have too many passions. My work on this federal program that I work on, this cultural property advisory committee, it’s demanding in its way. Would I give this up? It’s an Obama appointment, probably not. I’m cycling off the Carleton board soon; I’m on another foundation board, but it doesn’t demand that much of me.

I’m a person who thinks that they can add and add and add and add to what I do, and I have to say that this month is demanding on everyone. When I rule the world, I will say that December will have 36 hours in it, and we will not get any more tired than we do right now. I was up very early doing some baking [of] stuff that has to go off to someone who doesn’t live in this town. The word “no” isn’t really common in my vocabulary.

If I print that, they may find themselves asking you to stay on for something at the end of your term.

Oh, God – I got to get this one under way first.

Let me have you sign this disclaimer saying that I’m not responsible for any additional work that this may cause you.

Okay. Thanks a lot!

This interview has been edited for publication.

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