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Start Of A New Act: The British-Trained Jonathan Eaton Takes Charge Of UNT's Opera Program

He's directed at Lincoln Center and the English National Opera. Now he's singing the praises of Denton.

by Jerome Weeks 2 Nov 2017
Jonathan Eaton

The new chair of opera studies at the UNT, Jonathan Eaton has directed operas from San Francisco to New York to London. He's known for re-imagining classics and developing new works, including an opera based on environmentalist Rachel Carson. He staged operas at Lincoln Center for 15 years straight. He continues to be the artistic director of the Pittsburgh Festival Opera, and among the more than 40 productions he's staged there over 16 years are a complete Ring Cycle (in a reduced version) and a revival of Duke Ellington's 'Beggar's Holiday.'

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Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we’ll explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.

Jonathan Eaton directing 'The Magic Flute' at UNT

How does your garden grow? Jonathan Eaton directs the troupe of young performers in UNT’s ‘The Magic Flute’ – while assistant director Amanda Jacobsen looks on. Photo: Jerome Weeks

Jonathan Eaton’s an opera pro.

The 62-year-old director has worked with big name companies like the English National Opera, Royal Opera Covent Garden, the New York City Opera and at both the Santa Fe and Spoleto Festivals. Now, he’s at UNT as chair of its its opera program and, this week, he’s making his directing debut in Denton.

In fact, you may have even seen an opera staged by Eaton. He was celebrated in the 1990s for taking two classic Italian operas – Mascagni’s ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ and Leoncavallo’s ‘Pagliacci’ — and setting them in Little Italy, the turn-of-the-century, immigrant tenement in lower Manhattan. Both ‘revisionist’ productions were televised nationwide on the PBS program, ‘Great Performances Live from Lincoln Center.’

But this afternoon, Eaton’s onstage in UNT’s Murchison Performing Arts Center, in the smaller house, the Lyric Theater. He’s laughing, telling his performers, “You need to put it on the table, good, good! OK, put them back down!”

In this case, his performers are seven, cute but easily distracted kids – kids from four years old up to eight, most of them children of UNT employees, a number of whom are in audience seats watching their progeny on stage. And the “it” are placards, painted like brightly-colored flowers. Eaton is trying to get the children to stand up, one after another, on cue and hold up their flowers. Together, they all should look like a giant bouquet or a garden for the second act of ‘The Magic Flute.’ The Mozart opera is Eaton’s directing debut at UNT.

Jonathan Eaton in his UNT office.

On the phone to Pittsburgh in his UNT office. Photo: Jerome Weeks

“Turn ‘round the other way,” he tells them. “That’s it. So I’m going to shout out 1-2-3-4-5-6-7. Here we go!” And the piano music begins. Eaton counts and claps each number in sequence and each flower child wrestles his pole into position.

At times, all this could seem . . .  well, like it’s a long way from Lincoln Center.

“Funnily enough,” Eaton says, “being creatively satisfied doesn’t depend on the glamor of the opera house or the fame of the singers. It depends on that strange magic that happens when you get a performer who’s so connected to the moment and its musical expression that there’s a sort of perfect beauty. It’s a moment of truth.”

Besides, teaching seven months a year at UNT? Eaton has been both managing and directing the Pittsburgh Festival Opera for 16 years. Now he’s been able to quit the business side but remain artistic director. This way, he says, he has all the fun and none of the fundraising hassles.

“Then I can go and moonlight in big houses every now and again. And teach a bit, too, pass on the torch. I’m a lucky guy! And here I am in Texas! Who could be more lucky?”

He even likes the size of the 300-seat Lyric Theater — he prefers intimate halls, pointing out most of the classic operas we continue to perform these days were born in houses of 800 seats or less, not the behemoths we struggle to fill today. It just so happens the Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s home is the 315-seat Falk Auditorium. Little wonder he already feels at home in Denton: “This is the friendliest place I’ve ever worked. Honestly.”

Speaking of home, Eaton spent his childhood in Tanzania and Uganda in East Africa. Through the early ‘60s, the area was still part of the British Empire. And Eaton’s father was in the British Colonial Service. The Service would pay half the fees of a child’s education back in England. So at eight years old, Eaton was shipped off to one of those classic British boarding schools – which could be lonely, cold-hearted, regimented places.

It was not, he says, “exactly the best emotional education for life. But it was certainly the best musical education you could get.”

That’s because Eaton was admitted to King’s College School in Cambridge – with its famous boys’ choir. The school was established by King Henry VI in 1441 to provide daily singing in his chapel – with the proviso that sixteen choristers should be “poor and needy boys, of sound condition and honest conversation” who knew how to sing. That was Eaton.

 

UNT's 'The Magic Flute'

UNT’s ‘The Magic Flute’ with Jocelyn Hansen (center) as Pamina. Photo: Karen Almond

While still in Cambridge – at Trinity College, at the age of eighteen – Eaton caught the opera bug. For a summer job, he guided American fans on a crash visit to eighteen European opera festivals – in 21 days. It was, he quips, a kind of “kill or cure approach” to opera. You might never want to see another opera festival for the rest of your life. But he was so impressed by a Munich production of Kurt Weill’s ‘Mahogonny Songspiel’ that he wanted to stage the opera back in Cambridge. He not only directed it, he designed it and conducted it. And he’s been a devoted fan of Weill ever since — he’s programmed Weill’s rarely performed Broadway musical, ‘Street Scene’ for later in the UNT school year.

“And I think that was the first time I thought, ‘Huh, opera directing is a – it’s a gift, actually.'”

Back in the Lyric for the rehearsal for ‘The Magic Flute,’ Eaton coaches a soprano who’s singing ‘Der Holle Rache’ or ‘Hell’s Revenge,’ a famous and famously difficult aria. Eaton repeatedly stops her before she gets going. She’s starting late because she’s taking her first breath too late, he says, so she’s off the beat.

“In tempo,” Eaton insists. “Strict, precise rhythmical structure. You can’t let your long notes drag on.”

Eaton is not like many theater directors who sometimes move into the bigger houses and start staging operas – with little knowledge of the music. With his education and experience, Eaton knows the scores. He’s even translated some operas (including ‘Tales of Hoffmann’). So programming ‘The Magic Flute’ for his debut in Denton – it’s possibly the world’s most favorite opera — seems a safe choice.

But safety doesn’t reflect Eaton’s career or his inclinations. As he observes with a chuckle, “I seem to specialize in radical life changes” – referring to his moves from Africa to England, from England to America, into teaching and freelancing, then managing an opera company and now to Texas to run an entire opera program.  He says over the past 20 years, he’s seen two waves of change in American opera and is proud to have been involved in both. In the ’90s, he was in the forefront of re-imagining classics – to emphasize their human drama, he says. The most famous examples were the popular twin bill of ‘Rusticana’ and ‘Pagliacci.’

And these days in Pittsburgh, he’s all about innovative opera with new topics, new audiences, new forms.

“I like to have the excitement of commissioning and creating works,” he says. “So I’ve been able to do jazz operas, gospel operas, American operas, operas by women composers and also site-specific works” – specifically, a production that was staged at Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, Fallingwater, some 70 miles outside of Pittsburgh. He’s even done a micro-tonal opera. Currently, Eaton is devising his own revue of songs from the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon, while the Pittsburgh Festival Opera is holding an open, online competition called Fight for the Right for a composer-and-librettist team to create a new opera about women’s right to education. The winner will get a full mainstage production in 2019.

And these days in Denton? Eaton is all about new opera artists.

Even when they’re four.

 

How did you become an opera director – specifically, how did you come to see yourself doing this as a profession?

From my childhood on, I was one of those British choirboys. But then, when I was eighteen and actually doing Languages at university, I got a summer job taking a group of American opera fans from the Bay Area of San Francisco around Europe to opera festivals. And this was a cool, summer job. There were twenty-five American opera fans, and we had our own bus and our own driver.

We saw eighteen operas in twenty-one days – which is a sort of “kill or cure” approach. Three evenings out of eighteen knocked me out. One of them was a Kurt Weill opera, ‘Mahagonny Songspiel,’ which we saw in Munich.

Then I went back to university, and I thought, “I like that. That’s cool music.” And I said, “Well, I’m going to stage it and conduct it and design it. I’ll see if the university amateur dramatic club will make it one of their productions.” And they did.

This was Trinity College, Cambridge?

This was Trinity College, Cambridge.

So I did direct it and design it and conduct it. I had a wonderful time, and I’ve been a huge fan of Kurt Weill’s music ever since. I think that was a first time that I thought, “Huh, opera directing is a wonderful opportunity. A gift, actually.” I’m privileged. I’m a lucky guy.

UNT's 'The Magic Flute'

Photo: Karen Almond

What have you given up to pursue directing operas?

Well, to come here, I’ve given up a lot of administration. Which I’m delighted to give up.

For the last 16 years, I’ve been artistic and general director of Pittsburgh Festival Opera. The ‘general’ bit of that means you’re involved in all of the administrative aspects: the fundraising, the budgeting, the marketing. I’m glad to have done it, and I’m now glad not to have to do it anymore. I’m just the artistic director, so I’ve given up the general directorship, so I’ve traded administration for teaching.

But what, in particular, drew you to directing operas?

I’d been a singer –

Baritone?

Baritone, yes! And I’d also conducted a bit, too. But I’ve always been taken by music drama. The human story. And it’s the director that really creates the dramatic side of an opera. Mounts it, puts it on a stage. It’s also the director that interprets the opera. The conductor comes in and is a major artistic force, but the principal interpreter of what goes on on stage and how the work is presented to the public, that’s the director’s job.

[Laughing.] And I probably just have this awful ego that encourages me to want to interpret the work as well as stage it.

So after establishing yourself as an opera director, why come to America thirty years ago?

Oh, the usual things. Love, broken hearts, opportunities, excitements of youth. America’s been really wonderful to me. I love the culture. And Denton! Here I am in Denton, and I have found this the friendliest place I’ve ever worked, honestly. My colleagues are lovely, super-friendly. My students are just delightful, young people. Very talented.

Before you emigrated, had you freelanced as a director in America – or did you simply pick up roots?

I hadn’t actually. I picked up my bag and marched. A bit like coming here. [Laughs.] I seem to specialize in radical life changes. And soon after [coming to America], I was offered a professorship at a very enlightened school, CCM in Cincinnati [the University of Cincinnati College – Conservatory of Music]. And I worked for them about six months in a year, for a full-time salary. And I thought, ‘Hey, this can’t be bad!’ It gave me my base for freelance in America. At New York City Opera, they ran my shows for fifteen years. At one point, I was privileged to direct about a quarter of their season offerings. And I’ve directed for Dallas Opera.

During your tenure in Pittsburgh, you changed the Opera Theater into the Pittsburgh Festival Opera. Why a festival?

That was partly, I think, for the same reasons that Fort Worth Opera decided to become a summer festival. Being the smaller of two companies in the same conurbation, we were constantly competing with our sister company, Pittsburgh Opera, for time slots, dates in the calendar –

 

Jonathan Eaton exhorting the gods

Jonathan Eaton exhorts the gods for help in rehearsal. Photo: Elizabeth Smith.

Did you play the same venue?

No, but we play downtown in a medium-sized theater in the same cultural district. I felt there was no point running directly against the other opera company in town. Pittsburgh’s not that big of a city. And Pittsburgh is different from all the other big orchestra cities in that it doesn’t have a summer festival. Cleveland has Blossom, Boston has Tanglewood and so on.

But Pittsburgh didn’t, so I thought there was an opportunity to serve our audiences and our community better by taking one of the two, professional opera companies in town and performing in the summer season.

So we gulped, and made the transition. It’s been very successful, actually. In summers, there’s not much going on in the opera world, so singers are more available, fees don’t need to be so high. And that transition also allows me to be away from Pittsburgh for great chunks of the year. So it was something both I and the board were happy to do, otherwise, when I felt ready to move on, they would have lost me.

So why come to UNT?

I was ready for a move, as I say. I did feel that while I’ve still got lots of energy in me, I want to do some teaching again. I love teaching. I love passing on the torch. I think I’ve been very privileged in my life to have been able to do what I do. And I’ve learned a lot. I’m so happy to be able to have the opportunity to pass it on.

So I looked about and there are not many good jobs with good schools in opera open at the same time. There were several secondary positions available. Of the various schools that were interested in me, this one was by far the most exciting because the kids are good. My primary colleague here, Stephen Dubberly, is terrific and the dean is full of energy and enthusiasm and ready for new ideas.

So I felt I could make a contribution here that I couldn’t at perhaps less, ah, enthusiastically-minded schools. I was going to say ‘fossilized’ but thought better of it. I thought that there’s real opportunity at this school for both consolidation and growth. There’s a really terrific future to be made, and opera at UNT has a proud and noble past. I think it’s ready to take the next step, and I’m happy to be able to chart that direction.

Did you choose ‘The Magic Flute’ for your debut in Denton?

I did, I did. It’s because it’s one of the most charming operas ever written. It involves large numbers of singers. It’s a big cast. We double-cast everything, and we can involve singers at different stages in their development, in their careers at UNT. There’s room for less experienced singers. There’s room for more experienced singers. All in the same piece.

I’ve tried to balance the program for the year – all of which I’ve chosen with Stephen Dubberly – so that we have a German piece starting it off. We have an Italian opera with a concert presentation of Handel’s ‘Alcina’ – well, Italian and German and English, but it’s in Italian! A great American Broadway opera to take us back to Kurt Weill. I now get the chance to direct his ‘Street Scene,’ which I’ve always wanted to do. He called it his Broadway opera. Then, we’re doing a French opera – a somewhat, reduced version of Gounod’s ‘Faust.’

So I think we’ve got a fabulous spread. That’s three mainstage productions. We’re presenting all of Tom Cipullo, which is very exciting. I think he’s one of the great voices in opera composition in America. We’re doing those at the end of the year. So we’ve tried to spread the repertoire in a way that will benefit the students, so that they can learn from more fields and disciplines but with a real focus on American material as well.

You’ve directed operas in Europe and all across America. And now you’re back teaching future opera artists. What do you see in that future?

There’s a business and an artistic model of grand opera, which I believe is ultimately going to be unsustainable other than in a very few areas of excellence. Nothing against grand opera, I love it. But the model is you have a very large theater of 3,000 seats or more. And, word to the wise, ninety percent of the operas we perform these days were not written for 3,000 seat-theaters. They were written for theaters of 5,6, 7 or 800 seats.

So as soon as you’re in such a huge theater and you’re seated anywhere near the back, the characters on the stage are no longer human beings. They’re just figures making a lot of noise. And if you’re in a theater that size, you’ve got to hire singers with big voices. And they’re expensive. The stages are big, and you’ve got to put lots of scenery on the stage, with big effects and a big orchestra in the pit and a huge chorus. Oh, and by the way, you’re in a union house as well. Costs go up.

Pretty soon, you get this process of elephantiasis. Everything has to get bigger in order to pay its way. And in order to pay its way, it then has to increase yet again in size. It starts to leave behind the human experience of sitting in an audience and seeing another human being onstage and getting caught up in the drama of what goes on in that human being’s life.

That’s what draws me to opera. The personal side of it. I like it up close and personal. So I’m perfectly happy to work in small stages and indeed, prefer them over bigger ones.

But! If anyone offers me an opportunity to direct Wagner’s ‘Ring’ – I’ve directed it before in a marvelous, condensed-orchestra version by Jonathan Dove but not the full ‘Ring’ – so as I say, if anyone offers me an opportunity to direct the ‘Ring,’ I’m available.

Interview questions and answers edited for brevity and clarity.

 

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