In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at thecounterpoints[@]gmail.com. A complete list of our interviews can be found here.
Jean Kellogg is the First Executive Director of the Merola Opera Program in San Francisco. Previously, she was the Executive Director of the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas, Virginia, Director of Education for Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Dean of the Levine School of Music in Washington, D.C. Below is the transcript of our August 1, 2012 conversation with Jean Kellogg.
EH: What is your musical background ?
Kellogg: I came to music administration by chance, actually. I have a master’s degree in opera coaching and accompaniment with Martin Katz, who’s been a master coach at Merola for numerous years. I actually fell into arts administration in order to make ends meet. For many years I did both, but administration took over when the jobs got bigger and more complicated. But I still play and sing occasionally, though.
At the time when I was beginning my administrative career and thinking of going into arts administration, the degree programs in arts admin were very new and not really vetted as to whether they would be successful or not. I decided to go in a different direction. My education in arts administration was very hands-on learning, and I later found out that these programs were terrific. I’ve hired many staff members through these programs and they’ve remained some of the best people that I’ve worked with.
EH: We’re nearly a century removed from the heyday of opera. With waning interest and opera companies closing every year, is the future of the art form secure ?
Kellogg: Yes, I believe it is. Over the course of the last century, we’ve had dozens of regional opera companies crop up around the country. Of course, some of these have closed because of the recent economic downfall, but the ones that have been financially secure - with leadership that consistently watches the bottom line – I believe that these will go on indefinitely. It’s obvious with the Merola Opera Program that there is great interest in being part of the opera field. We had over 900 applicants (approximately 450 auditioned) and we then chose 29 to be in the program. I don’t believe it’s waning as far as interesting young people being involved in the arts. Of course, there will always be the challenge of building new audiences, but that’s our job (laughs).
EH: Is there a common misconception about opera ? Are there steps in place to somehow turn the attention back to the finest vocal talents in the world ?
Kellogg: I believe that it all starts with the lack of arts education in the schools. If you are not introduced to it as a child, you probably won’t want to go as an adult. This is why there are education programs in almost every major opera company, including the San Francisco Opera - which has a strong education department - and the Opera Guild, who provide excellent programs in the community. They do a lot of outreach to young people. Once you get them through the door, even if they only go once, if somebody were to then suggest ‘let’s go to the opera’, there would at least be the memory of having gone as a child, and they might like to go again.
I will tell you that many, if not most of the volunteers we have here, are the people who had those experiences when they were younger. Not necessarily musicians themselves, but these people had the opportunity to hear and be attracted to the art form. So it really is a matter of getting arts education back in the schools. If it’s not going to happen within the public school system, there must be a major effort on the part of the arts organizations to make sure that young people are given opportunities to experience the arts.
People also say that opera is elitist, but have you read those stories ? What is elitist about incest, the fornication, the violence, the corruption ? That’s what opera is about (laughs) !
EH: In your opinion, does the symphonic world have a better chance of survival in the future?
Kellogg: Even though opera is very expensive to produce, it continues to be beloved and supported because it involves so many elements: music, art and dance. Opera is so much more visual than symphony. I believe that opera companies are now doing a great job mixing the elements of the tried-and-true with the new. Just look at the San Francisco Opera season. Look at what Merola is doing this season; we’re presenting Mozart’s La finta giardiniera, one of the first operas he ever wrote, and Dominick Argento’s Postcard from Morocco, which was premiered in 1971.
I’ve been in opera a long time and I’m much more interested in what’s new and different out there, what hasn’t been done over and over again. I’m interested in new productions, new directors’ choices, how they interpret the operas, etc. Not all of them are to my liking, but I always find them fascinating and I learn something new. There's always something for the novice, but there’s also something for the people who are really engaged in opera, who have been attending for many years.
EH: You began work at Merola in October 2011. What is your personal vision for the program ? What are some of the immediate or long-term items you’re looking to improve ?
Kellogg: My long-term vision is emerging and evolving at this point, since I’m so new. Of course, I want the Merola Program to be viable for centuries to come. It is such an important part of the opera world, and so long term stability is number one. My immediate goal has been to make good connections with everyone involved - from the Board, to donors, to the Merola artists, the San Francisco Opera staff, etc., to have a great working relationship with everyone on the team.
Long-term, I would like to see the artistic program supported in such a way that we can provide the best possible experience for the artists, being able to do larger-scale operas with an expanded orchestra and a full chorus. Operas with little or no chorus are actually quite limited - especially those suitable for young artists - and it’d be great to be able to expand the repertoire. We would also like to collaborate with other institutions, if possible.
Another thing that we are able to provide our artists with next year is the means to have immersed language studies overseas through our career grants. The Merola Career Grant program offers an extended life-cycle of learning - up to five years after each artist finishes at Merola - providing support for their individual career opportunities. I don’t believe there is any other program that offers this extended service, and it’s really about extending the quality of the program, providing the financial support to make things happen for them.
EH: The selection process at Merola must be enjoyable and rather stressful. Is vocal talent, above all, the major criterion involved at Merola ?
Kellogg: That is actually a question for Sheri Greenawald, who’s the artistic director. She is the one who actually chooses the artists. But on her behalf, it’s a number of different things. It’s the quality of the sound, the quality of the talent, the personality, and also what she sees in her interviews with them on-site, determining their capability of having a major operatic career. It takes emotional strength and great determination to handle a career in opera.
EH: Without a doubt, Merola is a world-class institution and some of the great singers in the world have been trained here. We know what it can do for a career -- what can it not do ?
Kellogg It’s not just about having a great voice. You must have a lot of drive, a lot of chutzpah to go out there and promote yourself. What Merola does is it gives you every single one of those tools, right down to ‘don’t wear that tie with that shirt when you go to an audition’. We have a two-day program where directors of young artist programs come from all over the world to attend a conference at the Merola program. The Merolini have the opportunity to sing for them and present themselves and their repertoire. The directors evaluate their singing, their physical performance, they look at their repertoire list and advise them whether they should be singing these arias in their auditions. We are giving them every possible tool in order to succeed, and that’s where the Merolini have to take over. They must have the strength and passion for this career, for this life as a singer. You cannot just rely on an agent to get you jobs in the field. You really have to work, to get out there and promote yourself. This is one thing we can only advise them to do – they must do the rest.
EH: In your opinion, are music students adequately prepared or even realistic about making a living in the arts ?
Kellogg: I would say that these kids have a lot of the tools that they need. There are some things that universities and conservatories could better provide, but that’s really why these young artist programs exist, e.g. Merola, Santa Fe, Chautauqua, the Adler fellowship, etc. We are all here to give them the tools to take the next step, to be guided by professionals who are still active in the field. At Merola, we have thirty master-teachers, coaches, conductors, and directors working with 29 artists.
EH: What are some of the hurdles that you foresee in the coming years ?
Kellogg: One of the biggest issues here in San Francisco is the lack of appropriate performance venues for opera. With Herbst Theater closing next year, as well as the Cowell, it's been a challenge to find places to perform. San Francisco doesn’t seem to have the kind of performance space that we need, venues that include an orchestra pit, dressing rooms, adequate loading areas, and the proper theater for our patrons who are expecting a certain quality of theater. It needs to be affordable as well. Many of the places we’ve seen have potential, but they’re lacking certain elements necessary for a good experience - for both our artists and the audience. So this really is the biggest challenge.
EH: You’ve now worked with some of the most outstanding vocal talents in the world. Aside from the talent, what in particular about this year might remain with you ?
Kellogg: The opportunity to meet these extraordinary singers - some of whom will have major careers - being able to advise them and getting to know them. It’s been the most exciting part of my career. I’ve been a part of many arts education programs, both with kids and young artist, and for me, the young artist is the most fascinating - the one who is emerging upon a career, eager to learn, who is not yet jaded. Watching them progress in what they are doing is the most satisfying thing. I like to imagine where their careers will be going and watch it all unfold.
EH: I’m curious to know, what other art forms have influenced you over the years ?
Kellogg: Certainly the visual arts. I grew up in a small town in Florida and didn’t have exposure to a lot of great art. As a pianist, of course I have studied Debussy and Ravel. But I’ll never forget the first time I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and saw the works of Monet, Manet and all the Impressionist artists. My jaw dropped. I said, ‘there’s my music!’. It was right there in front of my face, and that was such a revelation to me! I was also involved as a pianist for dance and I really got to know and enjoy ballet. But really, it was the connection of various forms of art that made an impression on me. I sometimes joke that the only Shakespeare plays I know are opera-related (laughs).
EH: In your opinion, what is the utmost purpose of performance art?
Kellogg: I think it’s a matter of quality of life. A world without music would be dull, uninteresting and less worth living in many ways. But that’s my opinion. I also believe that engaging in the arts opens you up to many other aspects of the world, knowledge that other disciplines will not give you. As with languages learned as a young child, your mind is much more pliable and open to other things; if you lose that, part of your mind shuts off. As you learn and experience music, it touches areas of your brain that improve focus, give you discipline, and allow you to experience the world in different ways.
EH: Ms. Kellogg, thank you very much for taking the time today.
Kellogg: Thank you, it was a pleasure speaking with you.