Seattle Opera General Director Aidan Lang is leaving at the end of the 2018-19 season — his fifth year here — to become general director of the Welsh National Opera.
Long before he became general director of the Seattle Opera, Aidan Lang spent five years as staff director of the Welsh National Opera.
“Being British, I grew up with that company, and it really formed who I am as an opera professional,” he said Wednesday.
Now, Lang will have the chance to shape the company that formed him. He is leaving the Seattle Opera at the end of the 2018-19 season — his fifth year here — to become general director of the Welsh National Opera.
“I was there in the glory days, when it was, with Frankfurt, one of the absolute world leaders in music and theater,” Lang, 60, said. “And everything I’ve done since has been colored by that view of opera.
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“I wasn’t looking to go anywhere,” Lang added. “I love it here. But it’s absolutely the one company in the world which made me stop. It has such a strong place in who I am that if I didn’t take it, my career would be over before it came up again.”
Lang’s departure is part of a larger turnover at the top of Seattle’s classical-music landscape.
Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot is also leaving at the end of the 2018-19 season, to be succeeded by Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard, who has been the symphony’s principal guest conductor since 2014. And, at the beginning of this month, Krishna Thiagarajan succeeded Simon Woods as president and CEO of the Seattle Symphony.
Lang’s five-year tenure here is seemingly brief, when you consider that he was only the third general director of Seattle Opera. He arrived here from Auckland, New Zealand, in March 2015 to succeed Speight Jenkins, who was retiring after serving the company for 31 years. (Jenkins succeeded Glynn Ross, Seattle Opera’s first general director, who presented the company’s first operas in 1964, a year after Seattle Opera was founded.)
And yet, five years is enough time for Lang to make his mark. Under his tenure, attendance has grown considerably: The company’s mainstage audience has increased from 67,000 during the 2014-15 season to 85,000 for the just-completed 2017-18 season; last season saw the highest membership numbers for the BRAVO! club for young professionals 40 and under.
He credits a companywide effort to change the audience’s view of what opera is about.
“They are beginning to not just go to the opera for a great night out,” he said, “but to understand that the great works of art have messages. And we are moving the audiences to expect to reflect on the piece.”
Lang has also focused Seattle Opera more on racial and social equity, most notably in its chamber productions, which included last June’s “O+E,” which cast two women in a same-sex marriage to tell the story of Orpheus and Eurydice (led by an all-female creative team) and 2016’s “As One,” which told the story of a transgender woman, and was performed in Washington Hall in Seattle’s Central District. Seattle Opera has also held community forums centered on the topic of racial inequity in the arts, spurred by its productions of “Porgy and Bess” and “Aida.”
He also oversaw the 2015 world premiere and 2017 performances of “An American Dream,” a Seattle Opera commission that included a partnership with the Japanese-American community and post-show audience “talk-backs” led by members of the Japanese American Citizens League.
“The city is ripe for those kinds of dialogues,” Lang said. “If not, I might not have taken the job here. I could have gladly stayed in New Zealand. It was the potential of Seattle that made me come here.
He continued: “Our mission was to have an arts organization that reflects the city. And I think we’re in a good place where whoever takes over will find that the work’s been done. We set the company on what I believe is a really good path to carry on that work. We’ve made a lot of subtle changes without annoying too many people, not gotten in a lot of people’s faces and the audiences have come along with it.”
Lang has also overseen the development and fundraising for the company’s new civic home at Seattle Center, adjacent to McCaw Hall —a $60 million project, 16 years in the making. A public open house is scheduled for Dec. 15.
The Seattle Opera’s board of trustees will soon appoint a search committee to find Lang’s successor.
Lang will relocate to Cardiff to join the Welsh National Opera in July 2019 — and enjoy being closer to his family, which includes his mother, now 93.
“We have been away from the U.K. since 2006,” he said. “And I think there are certain elements of feeling it is time to move back.”
Lang and his wife, the soprano Linda Kitchen, had settled in North Bend, where they spent their evenings eating dinner by the Snoqualmie River with a view of Mount Si. They will miss that, along with time spent at Bar Cantinetta in Seattle’s Madison Valley.
Amid this decision, this change, this looking back and forward, Lang has Seattle Opera’s next five seasons mapped out on a whiteboard in his office. He wouldn’t share the names of his choices, only the philosophy behind them.
“I am perfectly happy to put on pieces that aren’t on my taste list,” he said. “They have a purpose. It’s not my whim and wish. It’s ‘Does the piece help us propel a mission or not?’ And that mission is to have an arts organization that reflects the city.”
This article has been corrected to reflect that Seattle Opera was founded in 1963 and that Glynn Ross, Seattle Opera’s first general director, did not found the company.