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  • Laura Deming, cello

Introducing Roger Pines, Dramaturg

Roger Pines has spent his entire professional life in opera, including the past 21 years at Lyric Opera of Chicago, where his title is dramaturg*. “Opera speaks to me as nothing else does,” he says. “I’ve always felt that way. When I hear a great opera performance, I’m thrilled beyond words, and I’ve made it my life’s work to do all I can to bring opera to the attention of a wider audience."

One of Roger’s responsibilities is editing the Lyric program, and we were delighted when he asked us, the Lyric Opera orchestra, questions for an article about the orchestra for the 2017 season program. It was during the off-season, when we 74 musicians are spread far and wide — some off to New Mexico for the summer Santa Fe Opera season, Wyoming and Colorado for the Grand Teton and Aspen Festivals, as well as to Europe, China, Japan, and many closer to home for summer festivals in Door County and Green Lake, WI, and Chicago’s own Grant Park Music Festival.

Respond we did, though, sending Roger more than 7,000 words that he distilled to a 2,100-word article for the program of Don Quichotte at Lyric this season. “Bill Cernota was fabulously helpful in gathering the contributions, sending them to me, and then going through each galley proof of the program with incredible care. I didn’t change any of the words; it’s the orchestra’s words,” explained Roger as I interviewed him in his 8th floor office in the Civic Opera House. It’s lined with books, recordings, photos of famous singers, and a desk and credenza covered with Roger’s current work. “It was just a matter of organizing what I received from the orchestra,” Roger said, “but very tough, because I had a lot of great material, and the program wouldn’t have had space to include it all.”

After turning on a recording device to capture our conversation, Roger then spoke in his eloquent and succinct way about this particular project, as well as his life’s passion, opera. “What I wanted in the article was a very personal article -- individual voices, with readers hearing in their ‘mind’s ear’ each orchestra member saying these words. The most important thing was the orchestra members’ passion for what they do. I remember Frank Babbitt talking about how proud he was of the orchestra’s work ethic – it was very moving to read that. We also have a sidebar from Charlene Zimmerman. It was very eloquent, sort of all of a piece, and it belonged on its own in that way – but everyone gave me their individual voice.

“I asked people what operatic character they would like to be, and that was one time I thought, ‘I wish I could use all of this.’” Roger took several weeks to organize our responses into categories, deciding when repetition was helpful and when it was best to say something only once. He had to be merciless with himself, cutting material he would have loved to include. “There was so much great material, making this one of the toughest editing challenges I’ve ever had!”

Roger’s own passion for opera was evident early. “Although my mother came from opera-loving parents,” he said, “my own parents in their early years of marriage had only about five operatic recordings between them. Among them I discovered highlights from La Traviata. It was the picture of Renata Tebaldi as Violetta on the cover that intrigued me first. But then I played it — I was about three at the time — and it was just the sound of it, especially the ‘Libiamo,’ that appealed to me.” Then, when Roger was about four or five, his parents gave him an “Introduction to Opera” LP, which had stories and excerpts. Carmen and La Bohème especially made an impression.

At age seven, Roger was taken to his first opera: Eugene Onegin at the Met. There he first heard and fell in love with the voice of Leontyne Price. He already knew about her from visits with his grandmother in her New York apartment, where she had a collection of Metropolitan Opera programs. “I would just pore over them,” he said, “and I’d see pictures of Price and ads for her recordings. When I saw that Onegin, I decided she was my favorite, which she has remained to this day. She was the one who excited me about vocal beauty and the emotions that the human voice could communicate.”

Roger bought his first opera LP at when still quite young — it was Aida, one of the first commercial recordings of Tebaldi — “and then from there it sort of grew like Topsy after that,” he recalled. “It was extremely crucial that I had a particular book, Clyde Robert Bulla’s Stories of Favorite Operas, which was written for kids but had very detailed stories of the standard-repertoire works. I completely devoured that, and it was very important in introducing me to pieces that I hadn’t seen.” After pausing he continued, “I haven’t gone back to it to find out if it would have shown me what The Marriage of Figaro and Der Rosenkavalier are really about in terms of the romantic relationships, but the basic plot outlines I got from that book.”

Roger and his sister began studying piano as kids, and his father played several instruments — banjo, guitar, and trombone – but Roger always thought that he would sing. “My whole life probably would have been different if I’d been taking voice lessons in high school” in his small public school in Alexandria, Virginia. “What I’m doing now was not even in the back of my mind. But you know, it’s sort of an addiction — seeing your byline in print.” His first bylines were after grad school working for The Dallas Opera, and he remembers being so excited about being published that he thought, “Maybe this writing thing is for me.” By the late 1980s he was already writing for Opera News and The Opera Quarterly. Over the years his portfolio has grown to include reviews for Opera magazine and International Record Review, as well as program notes for other opera companies and recordings, and obituaries of personalities from the music world that he prepares for The Times (London).

Keeping in mind the goal of somehow working in opera, Roger majored in music and European studies at Amherst College. Accepted into the arts administration program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business, he was given a year’s deferral to study voice at Vienna’s Hochschule für Musik. “I was able to do a substantial amount of performing there, but it was unexpected in that I was a tenor when I arrived and a countertenor by the time I left.” But Roger said he studied with a charlatan “who had absolutely no idea how to work with a countertenor. As a result, my voice was a mess by the end of my year in Vienna.”

He entered the program in Madison but also studied voice privately with Bettina Bjorksten (“an exceptional teacher,” Roger remembers), and singing Messiahs, early-music concerts, and even Oberon in Midsummer Night’s Dream with UW Opera. At the same time he earned an M.A. in business with a concentration in arts administration. The National Opera Institute, which later was absorbed by OPERA America, had a program allowing grantees to serve under important figures in the national operatic community. Under Plato Karayanis, general director of the Dallas Opera, Roger worked for 11 months in education and publications.

Most important, the time in Dallas included a project boasting a scope beyond what most interns would be assigned – managing what was then one of the top three vocal competitions in the U.S. in terms of prize money, the G. B. Dealey Awards, sponsored by the Dallas Morning News in cooperation with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra or the Dallas Opera, depending on alternating years for instrument or voice. “The level was really extraordinary – a fair number of the contestants went on to impressive careers.” The winner that year was American soprano, Susan Dunn, who later starred at Lyric Opera of Chicago in La Forza del Destino and Aida, and one of the judges for the finals was Gian Carlo Menotti. As an intern, Roger organized the entire event.

Following his Dallas experience, Roger joined Lyric as a member of the 1983 Lyric Opera Rehearsal Department. That was the season he first met Luciano Pavarotti, Ileana Cotrubas, Renata Scotto, and Alfredo Kraus. Memorable, too, were Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s Cenerentola production and the company permiere of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. “That season was as thrilling as it could be,” he recalled. “It exposed me to the ultimate professionals – not just the great Ardis Krainik, but also people like Ursula Eggers Carroll, Tom Blandford, and Marina Vecci.”

When the season ended in December and Roger found himself unemployed, he made a short visit to Italy with his father, who was working there. The day he returned he got an offer of a permanent job with the Dallas Opera. He was made assistant to the director of marketing, but within a few months he was doing enough that they changed his title. After consulting with an astute colleague in another company, he proposed, “Dramaturg” and was given the OK, though he had a tripartite job as dramaturg, publications editor, and education coordinator.

During Roger’s five-and-a half-year tenure in Dallas, his most important project was the conception and execution of a three-day symposium on literary adaptations in coordination with the 1988 premiere of Dominick Argento’s The Aspern Papers (based on Henry James’s novella). Scheduled the weekend of the premiere, the symposium attracted Jamesians from all over the world. Roger persuaded the head of the Henry James Society to be chairman. Leon Edel, the world’s pre-eminent James scholar at the time (who was then in his 80s), was lured to the symposium by the chance to see BBC Television’s serialized Portrait of a Lady, which Southern Methodist University, partnering in this symposium, presented in its American premiere.

The symposium also offered papers and discussions regarding the whole idea of literary adaptation, whether in opera, theater, film, or song. In addition to major scholars, the Guthrie Theater’s playwright-in-residence Barbara Field participated, and Julie Taymor, pre-Lion King, talked about her adaptation of Juan Darien, which had just taken the New York theater scene by storm. The concluding event was a roundtable discussion with conductor Nicola Rescigno, director Mark Lamos, soprano Elisabeth Söderström, and Richard Stillwell. Roger raised the money to make the symposium happen, which included a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In 1989, feeling ready to lead a department, Roger accepted the position of director of education at San Diego Opera. During five-and-a-half years he helped expand the existing four programs to 13. Among them were a professional touring ensemble, an “opera patch” program for Girl Scouts, a very extensive study guide, a student dress rehearsal program, and a series of outdoor concerts. He commissioned a puppet opera (with six-member groups of volunteers trained to perform the piece all over San Diego County. SDO’s education programs made a strong impact throughout the community, which was immensely satisfying for Roger, but he eventually felt a need to move his life and career in a different direction.

Roger had always wanted to return to Lyric. “People I’d worked with 12 years earlier were all still here, and I was embraced by them. It felt like coming home.” When Alfred Glasser retired, his responsibilities were divided in two — education and publications. Roger took the latter, with the title of program editor, which changed later to editorial dramaturg and finally dramaturg. The job has developed beyond all recognition from where he started out, the company having added broadcasts and extensive public speaking to his activities.

When I asked Roger to name his favorite part of his present job is, he didn’t hesitate: “I love to speak to groups” (by the way, he was the first person to present pre-performance talks in the theater, “debuting” with Dialogues of the Carmelites in 2007). He added, “I adore my broadcasting work – I love every minute of it.” Roger co-hosts WFMT’s opening-night live broadcasts, as well as the annual all-day Operathon (for which he also serves as music producer) on WFMT. From the stage he welcomes audiences to dress rehearsals and acknowledges sponsors, standing on the spot where his late colleague, Danny Newman, used to belt out his greeting and donor recognition. He shares Danny’s gift of enunciation and love of people and opera.

Roger described a new and extremely rewarding aspect of his position: in the last year and a half he has had three remarkable interns, all with a notable talent for writing. “So you are in a supervisory role,” I said, and Roger answered, “Yes, but they’ve all been terrific self-starters.” He loves the collaborative spirit of working with such gifted and dedicated young people, all three intent on making their mark in the arts.

I knew Roger has been an Opera Quiz guest during intermissions of Met broadcasts for about a decade. Was that thrilling?” I asked. “It was inconceivable to me that I’d ever be a Quiz panelist,” said Roger, after two different opera-company general directors had written without success on his behalf. He’d begun sending Quiz questions when he was nine, with no luck until his senior year of college when he sent 50 questions, writing, “Surely one of these questions is worthy of being asked on the air!” Finally one of his questions was used for a singers’ roundtable – an inquiry regarding how the three singers on the panel dealt with problematic conductors! When Roger was a Quiz guest for the first time, “it was a dream come true.” Now he’s asked annually.

Years ago Roger agreed to speak to the orchestra during a routine rehearsal break about Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, as it was new to most of the musicians. Except for the few whose chairs in the pit line the walls extending out from the conductor, the rest of us cannot see the stage. Some of us speak Russian, French, Czech, Italian, and Spanish, but in general we don’t know the text. Everyone appreciated Roger taking the time to tell us the story, history, and style of an opera we quickly learned to love.

So all these years later, it is an honor to have Roger Pines prepare a program article about us. The final part of the project was “putting together their words with their photos. It was great for me, to finally see them after having typed their names in program lists for so many years. You know, except for concerts, the only time the audience really sees the orchestra is at the end of the Ring cycle when they get a bow onstage. So the fact that we can all connect the player’s name and instrument with a face -- I love that.”

* a literary advisor on the staff of the opera whose responsibilities may include teaching, selecting and editing texts, liaison with authors, preparation of printed programs, and public relations work.

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