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Finding the right opera director is no easy task (just ask Ian Campbell)

February 12, 2011 |  7:00 am

One of the hardest tasks for those who run today’s opera houses is picking the right mix of new directors to stage operas that are decades (if not centuries) old.  The subject comes up now on the eve of L.A. Opera's production of Rossini's "The Turk in Italy," premiering next Saturday.

It’s even harder when you run an opera company and you hire yourself as the director.  This is the speical situation that Ian Campbell, general director of San Diego Opera, finds himself in.  He’s planning to direct the 1958 opera “Murder in the Cathedral” in 2013 but is struggling with his designs. 

“West Coast audiences are relatively conservative,” he says, “and this is the question I’m dealing with: Do I make the set look like a real cathedral or do I abstract it?”  The opera by Ildebrando Pizzetti (based on T.S. Eliot’s verse drama) is set in Canterbury Cathedral.  “I think to some extent, I can take a few liberties. It’s a work they haven’t seen before, so going slightly abstract may not upset the audience’s enjoyment.”  

But he hasn’t decided yet.  “Ultimately it will be a test of how conservative I’ve become,” he says with a laugh, “but then risk taking is inherent in programming the operatic repertoire.”

This feature in Sunday’s Arts & Books includes  leaders at some of the world’s top opera houses speaking about the perils of commissioning productions that skew too modern or avant-garde as well as the pitfalls of letting old stagings get musty.

-- James C. Taylor

A scene from Hamburg State Opera's "The Turk in Italy." Credit: Hamburg State Opera