After a relatively short five-month search, Seattle Opera has found its next leader: Christina Scheppelmann, who will become only the fourth general director in the company’s 56-year history and one of only two women to lead a large-budget opera company in the U.S.
Scheppelmann, who’s currently the artistic head of one of the top opera houses in Europe, the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Spain, will become general director of Seattle Opera in August, succeeding Aidan Lang, who announced last fall that he would be leaving at the end of this season to become general director of the Welsh National Opera.
“I’ve always really enjoyed coming to Seattle and seeing performances there,” Scheppelmann said by phone this week. The Seattle Opera audience, she says, has always struck her as being particularly enthusiastic and supportive — “a sort of family feeling. … I think that’s a great asset.”
A dual citizen of the U.S. and Germany, Scheppelmann (who’s fluent in five languages) says she fell in love with opera by singing in the children’s chorus in performances of Wagner’s “Parsifal” and by watching Verdi’s “Don Carlo” as a teenager.
At the 172-year-old Gran Teatre del Liceu, her accomplishments include an “Elektra” co-produced with some of the biggest names in the industry, including Metropolitan Opera and Teatro alla Scala. She’s also brought to the Liceu artists including tenor Jonas Kaufmann, director Terry Gilliam (for Berlioz’s “Benvenuto Cellini”) and composer Luca Francesconi for the Spain premiere of “Quartett,” according to Seattle Opera. Prior to the Liceu, Scheppelmann was the first director general of the Royal Opera House Muscat in Oman, and before that, director of artistic operations at Washington National Opera in Washington, D.C. She also served as an administrator with San Francisco Opera.
Scheppelmann “has been working at the very highest levels of the opera world for a number of years now. What she brings to us is vast experience in knowing the best singers, conductors [and others] working today,” said John Nesholm, Seattle Opera board chairman and co-chair of the search committee.
Throughout, Scheppelmann has championed new works, while balancing those with more traditional operas. “Any opera needs to pursue new things or we’re dead,” she says. As for more specifics on what she hopes to do in Seattle, she says she wants to first arrive and get to know the company and community better, before making such decisions.
“Scheppelmann is the leader Seattle Opera needs to move the company into a new era,” Adam Fountain, a Seattle Opera board vice president and search committee co-chair, said in a news release. “She’s committed to new work, to helping the art form evolve in the future, and telling contemporary stories. She unites both where Seattle Opera has been, and where it’s going.”
Scheppelmann, who follows in the footsteps of former Seattle Opera general directors Glynn Ross, Speight Jenkins and Lang, will be taking the artistic and business reins of a company with much to celebrate and some ongoing challenges.
Ticket sales have held steady over the past five years and its audience has gotten younger, with those under age 50 now making up 40 percent of the audience, compared to 25 percent five years ago.
And it’s garnered buzz for productions of some new works (such as “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” and “An American Dream“) as well as for presenting small chamber operas and for openly discussing problematic social issues in some of the operas it’s presented, including “Madame Butterfly” and “Porgy and Bess.”
But the company, which has a $23 million budget this season, also has a nagging operating deficit. Two years ago, it eliminated six full-time staff positions and closed its scene shop in Renton, saying its operating expenses had exceeded annual revenue by about $2 million-$3 million for more than a decade. That continued, with an operating deficit of $3 million in 2017 and $1.5 million last year, according to Jane Repensek, chief financial officer.
Francesca Zambello, artistic director of Washington National Opera, believes Scheppelmann is the right person to address Seattle Opera’s challenges and aspirations. “I trust her taste and professional acumen. She’s a good producer who knows how to walk the line between artistic and financial.”
Once Scheppelmann steps into her position, she and Zambello will be the only women heading two of the nine opera houses with the largest budgets in the U.S., according to OPERA America, an industry umbrella organization. (Though 44 percent of opera houses in the U.S. are now led by women, most of that is among the small-to-medium companies.)
Zambello said it was meaningful to have another woman at the helm. “The stories that we tell in opera should also be led by, and interpreted by, women,” she said.
For Scheppelmann’s part, she’s eager to move to Seattle with her wife, Beth Krynicki, who has been a stage manager for decades. (Fun fact: They were married by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a subscriber to Washington National Opera.) And she’s eager to share her passion for opera with a new audience.
“I love opera,” she says. “I think it’s a fantastic art form. It appeals to the emotions, to the intellect. And it’s also the craft … of knowing how to put theater on. Opera is the most complex of art forms.”