Opera’s new chief, 36, on where it’s all going

Opera’s new chief, 36, on where it’s all going


norman lebrecht

March 02, 2021

James Darrah was named artistic director of Long Beach Opera last week. He has views.

‘If opera is going to stop being a niche art form and treated as an exotic thing…we have to start reimagining how opera is consumed. We all know what it means to go watch a streaming program…opera needs to harness that that’s a reality of our world.

If you’re an artist, last year was pretty awful and devastating, for all of us, [but] especially if you’re working in opera, which is one of the professions in the U.S. that isn’t really happening right now. Let’s be part of the solution, generate projects, jobs and work with people who have really interesting things to say and interesting viewpoints.

‘I think the future of that looks like we embrace the cinematic, and digital media side of opera to an even greater degree. And when we come back to live performances, those have to be a compelling reason to attend something live.’

More here.



  • A.L. says:

    “A compelling reason to attend something live.“
    That train has left the station, for reasons totally unrelated to the public health crisis. And we all know it. Let’s see: long before the public health crisis, the other little-discussed pandemic (aka the elephant in the room) related to the unprecedented disappearance of, well, compelling voices and artists/singers to match them; the increasingly destructive hegemony of directors’ theatre, inflicting all manner of nonsense and abuse in the desperate search for attention and relevance. And so on.

    • John Borstlap says:


      The only future for opera is the opposite of all of that: going inward, towards the essentials – both psychogically and musically, and do away with all the nonsensical wrapping paper. Opera is not about fun versions of modernity, but about universal human concerns, which operate entirely independently from any wrapping paper. That is why we can still be moved by old horses like this – if produced well:


  • Anon says:

    I would prefer that both opera and classical music institutions, in general, STOP making statements about reimagining, reinventing, redefining, the 21st century, thinking outside the box, we must change, and so on.
    There are several hundred great works, probably more, that they can program as they normally would. Perform them, perform them well, stop making silly public statements, and don’t waste money.
    Also, is it me, or do almost all of these music administrators have a certain pretentious “look” about them?

    • John Borstlap says:

      No, it’s not just you. I have noticed this already years ago. The reason is that they have studied something, possibly some university course on music history, but are mainly manager types with their gifts for organising things in the most effective, efficient, practical an safest way. This greatly helps orchestras, opera houses, chamber music halls, etc. because running such things is something like an obstacle course. Unfortunately the content and the reason of all of this activity often goes lost. It sometimes looks like a greengrocer with so much attention to the presentation of his tomatoes and oranges, and being client friendly, and having the shop beautifully polished, that he forgets about the quality of his products which may go smelly unnoticed – by himself, that is.

  • Tristan says:

    James Darrah has, as far as I can tell, produced some of the most interesting digital content in the US over the course of the pandemic. He is on the right track, and other institutions should look to the work done by the LA Chamber Orchestra as examples of what this all might look like.

  • Adrienne says:

    At least he’s reeeeeeeally handsome.

  • Brian says:

    Opera outside of an opera house or an acoustical space ceases to be opera and becomes a new art form. Producing a voice for a microphone is completely different than producing is for a large space. If COVID has taught us anything, it is how dreary “opera singers” are when you put them in a room with a piano and a microphone and stream their performance across the internet. And NO ONE is watching.

  • caranome says:

    I pity today’s opera director stuck in an impossible situation. On one hand, cultural gravity is pulling towards the Andre Rieu-fication of classical music/opera: “more accessible productions for a more inclusive/diverse world, yada yada.” Yuuuckk! on the other, out of hundreds of operas, there are only 50-75 that’s listenable for which a core audience will pay for; the others only academics/ critics will yearn for. And forget the new commissions. So the key question is whether the new core audience of comfortable/wealthy 50+ yr. olds from wealthy countries is entering the market faster or slower than the current ones passing on. So the strategy here is to do the best to maintain/grow your core customers, and not try to dilute your offering and go after the muzak crowd. Most business cases show trying to be everything to everybody tends to fail as you please neither market segment. Currently this approach is ascendant. No opera director or board has the courage to say “we are Tiffany and we are not going to chase the Costco crowd.” Alas in this oppressive woke world, that means ” we are wealthy middle-age whites (and some Asians) and we are not going to virtue signal and say we are hiring chief diversity officers to do vigorous outreach of underrepresented communities and produce more accessible productions for a more inclusive/diverse world because that doesn’t work. Instead we maximize our efforts to maintain our traditional excellence and recruit people like us so they can replace us when we are gone.”

    • Millennials are not amused. says:

      It must be pretty frightening being repressed by all these “woke” Gen X/Millennial/Gen Zers. And to think there’s even more to come once the Gen Alphas come of age.

  • A.L. says:

    A suggestion. Have the institution renamed Long Bitch Opera for, you know, that extra edge. It’s instagrammable and will ensure some 15 minutes of notoriety.

  • Charlie says:

    James is inheriting artistic directorship of one of the most go ahead and inspirational of US companies, one which molded the early careers of David and Christopher Alden, two of the most gifted and brilliant operatic director talents and who did a broad range of interesting and provocative rep in Long Beach during the 80s and 90s. The rep was eclectic, the musical standards high, and Michael Milenski’s leadership was lively and alive. Good luck to James in today’s ridiculous climate where we operatic practitioners are being daily required to apologise for our art form, it’s ‘elitism’, ‘irrelevance’, et al. Just do it, stop talking about the image and do good work, because these pieces, well known and new commissions and re-discoveries are what we are here to put before the public in a truthful, theatrically vital and engaging way. It ain’t rocket science. Spend less money on feasibility studies, marketing, outreach and watery apologetic messaging and let’s do the damn opera.

    • justsaying says:

      A good question to ponder, though, is what path the careers of David and Christopher Alden points to for the future. Their own work started with some shock value and has continued with a steady curve of diminishing returns. Same with Peter Sellars, a spent force for many years now. The whole idea of opera performance being dominated by its visual aspects – without denying that it has produced some stimulating work at best – is now threadbare and tired. The future belongs to whoever can discover what is the next phase after the age of Regie.

  • SMH says:

    Everyone in opera prefers LIVE performance, real audiences and not digital content. It has been vital during the pandemic for keeping donors and audiences engaged, but it can never supplant the live experience. We need to get back to placing importance on the chorus, orchestra, crew and soloists, not administrator, directors or conductors.

  • Missy says:

    Nice looking fellow.

  • Laird says:

    He is serious, smart, witty, and visionary. See my recent interview: https://youtu.be/r4Fml_sI4lo

  • Anonymous says:

    I feel a number of these folks do not really know Long Beach Opera. The talk of spending a lot of money is not real. Most of the money there is spent upon making the best performances possible. If it looks like a tone of money was spent on marketing, GREAT. A ton of extra time was spent on trying to make great art that surrounded the productions. Why is it just the stage-work that has to speak? In fact that kind of thought that the only art is on the stage is anti-opera.

    People convince themselves that diversity and making a work accessible is bad, very baaad, but WHY is it bad to try and bring more people to the theater?

    If you look at the numbers, when different stories are told, it invites more people to the show. Just because a work doesn’t trip one’s established idea of taste, there are other people who have special experiences.

    And this isn’t to denigrate the traditional factions. People do NOT realize how deeply invested a company’s patronage are in their local company. It’s quite astounding. That volunteer who ushe’s a person to a seat. A critic who attends the second performance and has their own coveted seat, if they have to pay for it themselves. That’s not talking about the boards, that’s just people coming to the show, year in and year out.

    I feel folks fail to realize that these seminal warhorses were at one point world premieres too.

    I’m sorry that things have to change. But the people who have a NEED to produce and make their mark, as composers, directors, performers, artisans, accountants in an opera company have striven every day to make the best show possible and share a thought, an expression, a story through their unique experiences and convictions.

    There are some that are only interested in running a company to fill its coffers and enrich their own pockets, but even as an outsider I know noone is getting rich and the larger part of its endeavors are to make shows that resonate in the community.

    Yes, it would be nice to Tiffany the lobby and make it so that the company is able to more fully realize it’s vision.

    Nationwide, How wasteful though, to throw hundreds of thousands of dollars in hundreds of companies for now, two performances. Prepandemic, the slowly sinking ship of the artform was soon enough going to reach a critical mass of ticket slumps and non-attendance. Change was inevitable. The idea that filmed opera will be more widely available is actually a boon to our culture.

    Increased viewership, more productions, more customized repertoire for people’s tastes means that traditional opera/regietheater/new opera will make the art form so much richer. This means, also life and recorded will be able to mesh. The new classical singing actors will have more work as will the more traditional BIG voices.

    Just because we aren’t fully there yet with the production values doesn’t mean we aren’t getting better as an industry. It is getting better. The stage will return. But just wait. An exponential growth in quality will birth an explosion of works, both great and also… quite frothily bad.

    And contrary to the prevailing belief, people ARE watching.

  • FrauGeigerin says:

    Young and handsome, is how they want their conductors these days.

    Surely there were older candidates for the job with more experience and more to say, but still they went for the young good looking one.

    I have played with under all the great conductors of the last 30 years and all the “young super Stars” of the time. I have not had a single performance with a conductor under 45 where I have said “that guy/gal made us play even better”. But still, these days these young inexperienced conductors (sometimes very handsome music mediocrities) get major artistic and musical directorships: they just have the right age and looks.

  • justsaying says:

    For a good forty years, the recommendation has been: get opera in tune with the Zeitgeist – more like a movie – modernize the stories – add shock value – get over the love of voices, that’s antique.

    For the same forty years, subscriptions and single-ticket sales have steadily fallen and the number of people who want opera more than three or four times a year has shrunk.

    The new recommendation? even more of the same!

    Give him credit for faith.