New Tri-Cities Opera director outlines plans for company’s future

By George Basler

Tri-Cities Opera has a proud history, and it’s a wonderful achievement that the company offers three classic operas each season, Susan Ashbaker said. But the new general director of the Binghamton-based opera company wants to do more.

As TCO prepares open its 66th season this weekend with a production of the Verdi standard Rigoletto, one of Ashbaker’s goals is expanding the company’s repertoire to include newer works as well as the timeless classics. Balancing the new with the old can be tricky, she acknowledged. However, she thinks “the community is brave enough to give us the opportunity to try new things.”

Susan AshbakerAshbaker came here in August with a lengthy resume. A vocal coach and collaborative pianist, she was affiliated with the Opera Company of Philadelphia for 16 years, leading the casting practices and offerings for young singers. She also has been an assistant conductor and vocal coach with the New York City Opera, New Israeli Vocal Arts Institute, the Academy of Vocal Arts and European Center for Opera and Vocal Arts in Belgium.

Her appointment represents a changing of the guard. While Ashbaker is familiar with TCO’s history, her arrival marks the first time that both the artistic and administrative leaders have come from outside the company’s ranks. (The production stage manager and marketing manager are new as well.) She thinks the board of directors is looking to her for new leadership.

Ashbaker applied for the position out of a desire to run her own opera company. She said she chose TCO over another job offer because of the company’s rich history of collaboration, including a cooperative effort with Binghamton University‘s music program.

“The tradition here is stellar. I’d like to build on that and maybe re-energize,
re-invigorate and re-envision,” she added.

The new administrator’s presence has already been felt. Following her hiring, Steven Crawford, who had been appointed musical director and conductor in June, resigned his TCO post. The departure stemmed from “artistic and control differences,” said Dr. Michael Bogdasarian, president of TCO board, adding that such occurrences are not uncommon in an arts organization.

Ashbaker has a strong vision and new ideas and is “definitely here for the long haul,” Bogdasarian said. The opera board chose her for her management and artistic skills, as well as her ability to network with other opera companies to both bring talent here and promote young singers being trained at Tri-Cities, he said.

Moreover, Ashbaker has experience in bringing in financial resources, and the opera board sees her using that experience here, Bogdasarian added.

Askbaker recognizes that TCO has deep roots in the community. One thing she has found since her arrival is that people in the community have deep pride in having an opera company here, even if they rarely attend or don’t go at all, she said. She wants to maintain that pride while putting more people into the seats.

That means marketing efforts. In the planning stage is the start of a new organization to target 20-somethings as potential opera goers, Ashbaker said. While the details are still being developed, this organization will fit with the company’s new slogan, “Opera is the New Black.” The slogan means opera is a timeless art form that embraces all age brackets.

Another new marketing effort is making the operalogues free. Done in a cabaret setting, normally a week before opening night, operalogues provide a preview of the upcoming production. The Rigoletto event, the first in recent memory to be held without charge, attracted a full house last Saturday (Oct. 18).

“I want opera in the Tri-Cities area to be a comfortable place to come to,” Ashbaker said.

During an interview at TCO’s Opera Center, 315 Clinton St., Binghamton, the new director outlined some of her other priorities:

Finances
Being “fiscally responsible” is high on the list of her concerns, Ashbaker said. She wants to create a reserve fund for the company through strategic budgeting.

Still, finances are always a challenge for arts organizations, and Tri-Cities Opera is no exception, she acknowledged. “I think the arts are as essential as breathing, but we can be looked on as superfluous. Because of that attitude, we’re all vulnerable all the time,” Ashbaker said, but she calls herself “a cockeyed optimist.”

Broome County has been able to support a vibrant arts scene for a community this size, and she’s confident it can continue to do so.

Collaboration
Maintaining a strong relationship with Binghamton University’s music department is essential, Askbaker said. Twelve members of the company this season are BU master’s students. These young artists will perform with TCO’s four resident artists.

Tri-Cities Opera created the prototype for young artists’ programs, and that’s something to be proud of, Asbaker said. She compared TCO’s mission to that of a minor league baseball team, such as the Binghamton Mets. Just as the B-Mets develop players for the major leagues, TCO develops singers for major opera companies.

“BU students can get to sing in a professional setting. That doesn’t happen in a lot of places. It’s important to me, and it’s important to the university that we keep this wonderful relationship.”

New productions
Ashbaker wants to make better use of of the Clinton Street opera center, including staging smaller and more modern operas in the building.

As a first step, TCO will stage two newer operas there this season in addition to the three main productions at The Forum:

La Voix Humaine (“The Human Voice”), a 40-minute opera for solo soprano will run Nov. 13-16 and feature Rebecca Heath. Composed by Francis Poulenc in 1958 and based on a play of the same name by Jean Cocteau, the opera focuses on a final telephone call from a woman to the lover who has abandoned her.

The second production will be Speed Dating Tonight, a one-act opera by American composer Michael Ching that consists of 22 vignettes on speed dating. One plus is that the opera can feature all the resident artists and master’s students, Ashbaker said. It will run the first weekend in March.

She said she hopes community residents will “be bold enough to go to new things.”

“There is a lot more music out there in the American repertoire that people don’t know or have misconceptions about,” she said. “When they hear the words ‘new music,’ they think it means weird music or wacky music. But you can say that for any generation. Mozart was considered radical in his day.”

The opera board supports Ashbaker’s vision, Bogdasarian said. “Her approach is that she wants to do something both new and challenging, and she wants the board involved,“ he said.

Like Bogdasarian, James Burns, chairman of Binghamton University’s music department, expressed support for Ashbaker. While it might take a couple of years for the new director to achieve her goals, people are looking forward to Ashbaker putting her stamp on Tri-Cities Opera, Burns said.

While she is thinking about the future, Ashbaker’s attention is currently focused on the season’s first main-stage production, Rigoletto, which will be performed Friday (Oct. 24) and Sunday (Oct. 26) at The Forum, 236 Washington St., Binghamton. (Tickets: Call the box office at 772-0400, or visit www.tricitiesopera.com.)

The cast is a strong one, headlined by Grammy-nominated singer Guido LeBrón, a TCO alumnus. While LeBrón has sung this role before, artists grow musically with age, Ashbaker said. She thinks LeBrón will bring a different perspective and deeper life experience to the role than at his previous TCO performances. The production will be staged by David Lefkowich and conducted by Andrew Bisantz.

One thing is clearly evident: Ashbaker is passionate about opera. She calls it the most comprehensive art form, because it combines beautiful music with live theater to create an experience that can transport an audience to “wherever they want to go.”

She also is in awe of singers. “They are the most amazing people. They can open their mouths and create heaven, something the rest of us just wish we could do,” she said.

The Ashbaker file

  • Family: Daughter, 19, now in college.
  • Previous job: Head of casting practices and offerings for young singers at the Opera Company of Philadelphia.
  • Hobbies: Reading; nature walks; bicycle riding; going to the theater, museums and restaurants.
  • Favorite opera: “The one I’m working on. But if I was on a desert island and had to pick one, it would be The Marriage of Figaro.

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