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Interview with ALAN MANN

  1. Mr. Mann, Mississippi Opera is celebrating its 65th anniversary this season - congratulations! Could you tell us more about the achievements and the tough times Mississippi Opera has been through during the years.

Like all great Southern ladies of a certain age, Mississippi Opera has had her highs and lows. There have been years of feast and years of famine, but throughout all the good times and bad times, our audience and community have always been incredibly supportive.

But probably the most important change to affect Mississippi Opera, and really all opera companies 40 years old or older, is the way the major companies in the States hire their lead singers. You see years ago, big companies like The Met[ropolitan Opera,] Chicago Lyric, San Francisco, and the like hired a major singer for a full season and that singer stayed in that one city for months at a time. This led to 3 marvelous side affects:

Singers getting bored—which is why there are all sorts of wonderful stories of the trouble artists got into on and off the stage;

Singers trying not to get bored—which is why world class artists performed small roles in different operas, much to the delight of local audience;

Singers touring around for something to do—which is why older, but relatively small, companies like Mississippi Opera, Connecticut Opera, Detroit Opera, and so on were able to hire such amazing singers. Usually, the local singers would rehearse for a week or 2 before the “big name” singers would pop in for a week, adjust the staging to suit themselves, perform, and then get back to their main contract.

This is why we can boast the appearances of singers like John Alexander, Beverly Sills, Phyllis Curtin, Roberta Peters, Jan Peerce, Richard Tucker, Montserrat Caballé, Robert Merrill, James McCracken, Cornell McNeil, and Jerome Hines. 

Nowadays, with a full week to spare, this level of singer jets to another country for a concert or performance and companies like ours, and our audiences, lose out.

But, celebrating our Champagne Anniversary and being the country’s 10th oldest opera company, is truly a great achievement for everyone ever involved with Mississippi Opera.


  1. The accent this season will obviously be Renée Fleming’s performance on Mississippi’s stage. Tell us more about her visit and engagement. What else will the opera fans see during the anniversary season?

Actually the accent will be on the anniversary itself. Ms. Fleming’s performance is a wonderful part of what we believe to be a very special season, but our other two presentations, as well all the other celebratory events we have planned, are all as important to us as that one concert.

We started the season off with a phenomenal concert celebrating the backbone of all operas and opera companies, the chorus. The Mississippi Opera Chorus was joined by members of the Jackson Choral Society and the Mississippi Chorus, all in all over 140 voices, singing 11 of the greatest opera choruses ever written, well at least in my opinion anyway. Over 300 years of opera, in 3 languages, with one actually in no language at all [Puccini’s Humming Chorus] and with added sound effects like anvils and trumpets…it was great!

Then in January, in a collaboration with the University of Southern Mississippi, which is celebrating their Centennial Anniversary, we’re so exciting to be presenting one of the greatest singers ever, and not just in my opinion, Renée Fleming. She’s an amazing person and we’ve been working together to develop a great program, which will also include students from USM as well as over a dozen Jackson singers singing back-up vocals for pieces that need a chorus.

Thalia Mara Hall is close to sold out and there are people coming from 11 states for this unique opportunity.

And to close our Champagne Season, what better choice could there be than Die Fledermaus. We’ll present it in English so everyone gets all the jokes and we’ve hired a truly national cast to come to Jackson. It’s a great story with great music and it’s a real crowd pleaser. It’s a great way to wrap up the season.


  1. Baltimore Opera folded a year ago, Pacific Opera went through this as well. It seems that it is not easy to survive in the turbulence of the financial situation now? How is Mississippi Opera doing?

It’s been a tough year for all sorts of arts groups. Opera companies, symphony orchestras, theater companies, museums…I could go on…have all hit hard times. Connecticut Opera also closed, and it was in its 67th year, can you imagine?

We’re going to do OK this year. Some of our financial projections will come in short, but we’ve trimmed back our expenses without really affecting our shows.

Actually, the real reason I think we’re surviving this, what did you call it, turbulence, is that the company went through a rough patch some years back, even having to postpone a performance. It’s at that point when I joined Mississippi Opera. Working with the Board and our supporters, we refocused and restructured and I think we did a good enough job that we’ll weather this storm. Like we were talking about earlier, years of famine and years of feast; the trick is saving in the fat years for the lean ones.


  1. Some of the biggest opera theaters are trying new tactics for attracting the audience. Jackson Music Forum published an article for new strategy of La Scala What do you think about this and what is Mississippi Opera doing to bring more audiences to the theater.

Well I don’t think I’d go quite as far as La Scala’s PR blitz, but I have to say they’re not off the mark. When I meet people who say they don’t like opera, I ask them which ones they’ve seen. Mostly they say they’ve never been to one and that’s when I do my pitch about coming to one. When I get to follow up on getting them to attend one, especially now with supertitles, they change their tune, as it were. It probably doesn’t make them, you know, die hard fans, but they’re more like to go to another one and they’re certainly less likely to put opera down.

Here in Jackson we have open rehearsals for students; it’s really amazing to see some 2,000 kids, ages 7 to 17, some of whom have ridden in a bus for about 2 hours to get here, watch their first opera. I have to say, they’re often a more honest audience; if the scene works, they respond appropriately and if it doesn’t, well they respond appropriately. Getting introduced to opera now means some will become audience and, we hope, supporters in the future

We also present a pretty diverse repertoire. Some people only come to Mozart, some never go to a Mozart, some people will travel hours for operetta…when we do Gilbert & Sullivan, you can’t imagine the distance people will drive. We’ve introduced supertitles, which really keep the audience involved, and we advertise in what would have been consider years ago rather non-traditional media.

I think we have a pretty strong audience development program that seems to be working quite effectively.


  1. What is it like to run an opera company like Mississippi Opera? How is it different comparing to the big institutions like the Met, Chicago Lyric Opera the European Opera Houses with 120-150 performances per season or a travel opera troupes with 25 shows per month?

You know, years ago, decades ago actually, I used to be a manager and did several “bus and truck” tours of Shakespeare plays and, believe it or not, ice shows. Those opera companies that tour like that run into the inevitable problem of just sheer exhaustion. And you can see that in the performances. That’s why very few American companies do them; I think the most prolific one is based in Bulgaria. I like to go to them when I get a chance, though; at times the range of skills is amazing.

As for the others, you know, it’s really just a question of scale. Mississippi Opera typically produces 3 productions a season, one performance each. Well, getting the show rehearsed and up on stage is 90% of it; once the show’s running it matters little, well except to the PR and box office people, if you do one performance or four of fourteen..

The same for the number of productions. Each production has a certain number of staff associated with it, so if you add more productions, and they start to overlap each other, you just add more staff…of course you also have to add fundraisers and other administrative staff as well, so you can easily get into the type of cycle that makes you vulnerable to turbulent times.

I also think a huge difference is the relationship with the community. You have to remember Mississippi Opera was started by the people of Jackson for the people of Jackson’s enjoyment. I can tell you, having worked in many companies all over, that being Director here means being connected to the people of Jackson like nowhere else.


  1. Tell us more about the casting process of a production. People are probably interested to find out more about “behind the scenes”.

Casting is the most important part of my job; second is probably choosing the repertoire we present and the two of them are so intertwined that it’s hard to separate them.

There are two basic paths for casting an opera. The first is wanting to present specific singers to the audience because they’re so wonderful and they’re going to be world-famous in a few years, so you work with that singer to figure out what vehicle would be the best one to do. Because of my style of work, singers like to work with me on “firsts”, a role they’ve never done before. Some good examples of this are when Sarah Jane McMahon debuted Gilda here in Jackson and just last season Stephanie Gregory did sang her first Suor Angelica with us.

Then there’s the “We have to do this opera!” path. Early on in my time as Director I saw that it had been a while since we had done La Bohème. So we scheduled it and we were able to bring in a young Italian tenor named Raffaele Sepe to sing Rodolfo.

But casting the central roles is actually the easy part. Once you have them set, you need to assemble a group of singers whose voices will blend in the right way. Two wonderful singers may each have amazing voices, but if they don’t fit together—say the timbre or color of their voices don’t compliment each other—you can’t put them together.

And so then you cast the next voice, say the lead’s lover, and then your options are cut down a bit more, and so on.

It’s important to hear and to be aware of as many singers as possible. So I go to as many operas and concerts as I can to hear as many voices as possible. Aside from that, Mississippi Opera and Opera Theater of Connecticut (where I’m also the Artistic Director) each holds at least two sets of auditions each year; especially once each has announced its upcoming season. In one round of auditions I likely hear 25-30 singers.

I love auditioning. Singers now send you CDs of their work or direct you to youtube for you to listen to, which is OK, but there’s nothing like hearing them, live and right there in front of you to get a real sense of what they sound like.

Not to mention you have to blend their personalities and working styles as well…but that’s another story.


  1. Tell us more about the other staff of MOA?

There are two other office staff that work with me.

Elizabeth Buyan is the Executive Director and Sherry Harfst is the Marketing Director. Elizabeth is from Jackson, went off to study and get her degrees elsewhere, and came back when we were looking for someone to take over the day to day operations of the company from me. Sherry has a full background in PR and recently relocated to Jackson.

What’s great about working with both of them is that they’re both singers, Elizabeth is quite the soprano in her own right and both sing in local choruses. They have a wide variety of experience and, since when I started with Mississippi Opera I ran the office and did the PR as well, we can bounce a range of ideas off one another, refining and honing them.

And then we also have a whole raft of volunteers who support us in the most outstanding ways and we have a very devoted Board of Directors.


  1. What do you think about the Metropolitan’s idea to broadcast their productions in the movie theaters?

I love it! I think it’s introduced so many more people to opera than anything else since the Met started its radio broadcasts. And the step from watching opera live on the big screen to live on the stage is relatively short. There’s been a real revival in interest in opera since they started.


  1.  Could you lift up the curtain a little about the person Alan Mann. When did your interest in the art of opera appear?

I came to opera rather late in life; most people who work in opera I know fell in love with opera rather early in life, like in their early teens but, although I had been to opera growing up, I was on the path to be a director of Classical Theater—Shakespeare, Molière, Greek tragedies, Roman comedies, that sort of thing. I was doing my post-grad studies in London, at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, when they discovered I could read music.

Well, Dame Joan Sutherland was on the school’s Board of Directors so they arranged for me to meet her and, well the rest is what led me here to Jackson and the country’s 10th oldest opera company.

I think that coming to opera from a rather sideways path has given me a different perspective when I approach the works I do. I have deep respect for the composers, I’m amazed at the work conductors do, and I’m in awe of the singers, but deep down inside I’m just a little tickled by the entire concept of opera as an art form. I mean, when you break it down and all, opera is probably the silliest of all the performing arts and yet it’s the most successful in terms of audience appeal.

Before LAMDA though, was my mother’s insistence that I learn to play the piano. I have to say I just hated it at the time but, every time I open I new score, I thank her.


  1. New plans, ideas and dreams for the future?

For the past several seasons I’ve produced or directed only operas that I’ve done before. In one way that’s great, since you know all of the pitfalls and highlights of the work you’re producing, and there’s enough excitement and novelty every time you do an opera, no matter how well you know it, with a different cast and different conductor, but suddenly I’m working on a whole new series of operas, ones that I’ve never done before.

Last season I got to do two productions of Puccini’s Suor Angelica and upcoming I have both a Magic Flute and a Turandot, neither of which I’ve staged. That last one would also the fourth collaboration we’ve done with the University of Southern Mississippi Orchestra and Opera Department.

Also upcoming is a joint production of The Barber of Seville with Memphis Opera. We’ll start the opera here in Jackson, possibly tour it to other sites, and then finish the run in the Memphis, and the year after that we’ll reverse the process by starting in Memphis and working our way down to Jackson.

And then there are other partnerships I’d like to continue, especially a much closer relationship with Mississippi Ballet and to continue the great work we did partnering with the other choral groups here in Jackson.

You know, opera is often referred to as the gesamtkunstwerk which translates as Universal Artwork or the Ultimate Artwork. In its highest form, it’s the synthesis and melding of all the performing arts, including symphonic music and theater and dance, as well as the visual arts like sculpture and painting. I’d like to see the arts organizations here throughout not just Jackson but all Mississippi and beyond work a lot more collaboratively. I know it’s not easy…putting personalities aside, just simple logistics can be a nightmare…but I’d like to have the time and resources to work on that a lot more.


  1. What does Alan Mann love to do in his spare time?

Well one of three things: I listen to music, mostly opera or chamber music; I read a lot, mostly murder mysteries; or, I cook, mostly barbeque or crock pot. On a good break I can do all 3 simultaneously.


  1.  Is it true that opera people also love the art of culinary?

Most of the singers I know appreciate a good meal, especially after an performance. You have to remember that most singers can’t really eat for hours before a performance…the diaphragm pressing so hard on the stomach and all that…so considering a show isn’t over until 11 at night and then the adrenaline has to drop to the point where one can eat, it can be 9 or 10 hours since they’ve eaten. And maybe it’s because it’s takes so much preparation to be a singer that chefs like to make special preparations for them.

Nellie Melba had both a dessert (Peach Melba) and an appetizer (Melba Toast) named for her; Adelina Patti had an entrée named for her, as did Enrico Caruso, Georges Bizet, Pelle Janzon, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Niccolò Paganini, and Luisa Tetrazzini. Mary Garden and Renée Fleming join Nellie Melba for honorary desserts, but my favorite is Rossini and Tournedos Rossini, a dish so rich and extravagant that when the chef was preparing it at Rossini’s table, he would turn his back—tourner le dos—on the other diners so they couldn’t see what he was doing.


  1. Do you agree with George Bernard Shaw’s definition about opera: “Opera is when a tenor and soprano want to make love, but are prevented from doing so by a baritone.”?

There are tons of quotes like that, all based in certain amount of reality. I mean opera is essentially a pretty absurd art form.

Fyodor Chaliapin, the Russian bass, said opera “pleases the eyes and ears at the expense of understanding”; (Claude-Achille) Debussy defined opera as “A form of entertainment where there is always too much singing.”; there’s also Ed Gardner’s (Music Director of English National Opera) comment “Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and instead of bleeding, he sings.” and so on…but my favorite quote is (Anglo-American poet) (W.H.) Auden’s “No good opera plot can be sensible, people don’t sing when they’re feeling sensible.”

You know, opera, as an art form, is over 400 years old and going strong. It has to be doing something right.