Arizona Artbeat: New Arizona Opera Director

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Arizona Opera recently announced it has a new general director. Joseph Specter, who was the general director of the Austin Opera, takes over for Ryan Taylor and will discuss his new role and vision for Arizona Opera.

Ted Simons: Tonight's edition of "Arizona Art Beat" focuses on the Arizona opera and its new general director. Joining us now is the new leader of Arizona opera, Joseph Specter. Welcome to "Arizona Horizon." Welcome to Arizona!

Joe Specter: Thank you so much it's great to be here.

Ted Simons: Arizona opera general director. What does that mean?

Joe Specter: Well, opera is probably the teamiest of team sports. You know, from the staff that are working year round to get the productions up, to the artists that work with our chorus, a board of directors, I'm here to empower, enable and facilitate the orchestration of all those elements together and help everyone do the best job that they possibly can and make this incredible art form happen.

Ted Simons: Kind of like a head coach?

Joe Specter: It's a lot like that. And you're counting on the individual performances of your players like you would a head coach and thankful I'm coming into a good organization.

Ted Simons: You're leaving the Austin, Texas, opera.

Joe Specter: That's right.

Ted Simons: Why leave there for Arizona?

Joe Specter: Well, you know, I will say that I loved my time in Austin opera intensely, it's a fantastic company. I'm excited about a lot of the initiatives that have been undertaken by Arizona in the past few hours. My predecessor Ryan Taylor who was and is a friend of mine back from the days we were both young singing artists and both baritones has really done a lot of great work with the Arizona bullet program, which is about revitalizing the repertoire and engaging our community with the broader community.

Ted Simons: You mentioned your background is as a singer. How does a singer, a baritone, if you will, get into administration?

Joe Specter: Retired baritone.

Ted Simons: But the administrative end, how does that happen?

Joe Specter: Well, so my training originally was as a singer, I always had interests beyond just the stage. I was a political science major, concurrent with the time I was studying opera. And after I moved out of the opera world I moved into finance, I worked in financial services for a number of years and, you know, combining the skills and interests that I developed in that space and my passion for opera led me into the administrative side.

Ted Simons: I still got to go back, you say when you get out of opera, you got into this. Most people would die to be anything on a stage as a major operatic singer. Why did you stop doing it?

Joe Specter: I will say I loved every minute that I got to sing and in addition to my regional opera performances I got to train at the academy of vocal arts in Philadelphia, which is one of the top academies of the world, I got to study with the friends of mine that are at the top of the field and are performing internationally and, you know, the life of a performing artist is a tough one. I wanted to settle down, start a family and began a process of, you know, thinking how can I contribute to most of the field in a way that also honors some of my other passions including my wonderful wife and my two beautiful girls.

Ted Simons: So basically reason took hold?

Joe Specter: My priorities just changed.

Ted Simons: Do you miss singing?

Joe Specter: You know, I don't miss the career. I don't miss the aspect of picking up a check for that work. I will say I have opportunities now and again to sing for people that are close to the opera family and just that little taste now and again, is plenty enough to satisfy that urge.

Ted Simons: Here you are, Arizona opera, you're Mr. Big now. What's your vision?

Joe Specter: For four days. I've got it all figured out.

Ted Simons: Yes. What do you do -- when you do have it all figured out, what are we going to see? What's your vision?

Joe Specter: Okay. So you know, the conversation for opera nationally, internationally right now is intensely interesting. And there are huge challenges. What I see is in Arizona opera, a chance to have a company that's a leader in the field, in terms of its artistic vitality, which is a direction that the company has already come quite a ways on, expanding audiences, finding out how we can connect the repertoire, the stories we tell, the places we tell them on the main stage and off in a way that engages folks where they are and finding the most exciting and sustainable financial model, and it's reconciling those three elements that I think we're going to do here with this company that's really exciting for me.

Ted Simons: What has Arizona opera done right that you've seen, that you would like to build on and what do you think that Arizona opera -- what can be improved on?

Joe Specter: Sure. So what Arizona has done right is to ask the big question, which is how can we be a greater value to the community that we serve? We're a nonprofit, we're a mission-driven organization, we're here first and foremost to serve Arizona. We are Arizona's opera company and in exploring some of the further reaches of the operatic repertoire, I think that we've been asking that question, you know. And now, we can look back at the last couple of years during the time that we have been in that expansion in trying to cast a bigger net and say what programs have worked, what programs haven't worked, where can we make adjustments? But the philosophy of the organization, the spiritual underpinning, if you will, is really the incredible field that we have to work with in terms of propelling the organization forward so the questions are right and we'll keep working on the answers.

Ted Simons: Interesting. So what I'm hearing is we want to keep traditional but want to bet edgy a little bit as well, bring in more folks. How do you get edgy, how do you do something different and not lose the traditionalists?

Joe Specter: Well, I think the way to address that question is the different products that we put on the stage are educational programs, free programs that we might do on the streets, each of these different types of efforts attract different audiences. And, you know, will the work of Puccini, Verde, Mozart, be an essential part of what we do? Certainly. Every season you're going to see the beloved repertoire that brings audiences regardless of their exposure to opera historically to our theater, that will always have a place but is there an opportunity for us to find spaces where we don't always perform and explore some edgier and -- I can't give away too much here! You've got to let me continue to hatch the plans but I think the important thing is find what's going to be entertaining to those different audiences and see the opera world through their eyes, and then deliver on that.

Ted Simons: With that in mind, where is opera now, in the grand scheme of entertainment? There is so much out there. Much of it involves someone looking onto a screen of some kind as opposed to live entertainment.

Joe Specter: Sure.

Ted Simons: Where does opera fit? How does opera continue to be relevant?

Joe Specter: Well, I will say that I think that enjoying opera as a live art form will always be an essential piece of it but do we need to be able to expand into other media challenges to become the art form we can be in the 21st century? We have to embrace social media, we have to embrace the Internet and what it has to offer in terms of how we can share this, undoubtedly, and I think the question is being asked not just here in Arizona but internationally.

Ted Simons: All sorts of entertainment options that may have been very top flight in the past are trying to figure out how do you compete?

Joe Specter: And that's the exciting thing. There are companies that are trying a variety of different approaches of answering this exact question, and I think that the companies that are getting it right are the ones asking the right questions and having a spirit of excitement and a little bit of risk.

Ted Simons: Now am I seeing a world premier this season?

Joe Specter: Riders of the purple sage and it's the first world premier that Arizona opera has undertaken.

Ted Simons: At your website, something that I enjoy because I'm not a big opera buff, I don't know much about opera.

Joe Specter: It's fantastic.

Ted Simons: I'm interested, I'm interested and there was an informational aspect on the website that I really enjoyed, and I think probably would be a good thing for folks just to learn the basics, like Verde and Shakespeare, the relationship there between stories. That's good stuff. Now that will help build an audience.

Joe Specter: Here's what I would say. It's our job to create something that's exciting no matter what your level of information is and when you dig into it, when you come to our website, you read a synopsis, you find out about our team, that's only an opportunity for you to get more details and more excitement around it but what I want to promise to the people of Arizona is that Arizona opera as a brand, we're always going to deliver an exciting and wonderful experience and whether you're a first timer or fluent in Italian and have been going to opera all your life that's our promise to the community.

Ted Simons: And they have that subtitles at the top.

Joe Specter: Supertitles, doesn't matter how you dress, we're going to have the translations there.

Ted Simons: Thank goodness because I went through a ring cycle once. [ Overlapping Speakers ] Last thing. Is there a book? Is there something for those like me and others who are watching right now going I just wish I knew more about opera and I wouldn't mind going but I don't want to go in like a complete nincompoop. Is there a book out there that you would recommend?

Joe Specter: There's almost an unlimited number of resources where you can learn sort of opera 101 and you can Google and you can Amazon, you can do all that kind of thing but one of the wonderful things that has happened in this digital age that we're in is if you're going to go see a show, you can find digital footage of some of the greatest singers of all time when you're looking at a police like madam butterfly, Cinderella, that's the thing that's going to ignite your imagination.

Ted Simons: That's the connection to the web, as well.

Joe Specter: Absolutely.

Ted Simons: All right, congratulations. Welcome to Arizona and good luck. Thank you for being here. We appreciate it.

Ted Simons: And that is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening. "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station. Thank you.

Video: Funding for curate, the Arizona arts and culture fund, is made possible by signal society members Eleanor light and Judith Hardes and by... You can become a curator of the arts on Arizona PBS. For more information call (602)496-8888.

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