Chamber Music Northwest Lincoln Recital Hall Portland State University Portland Oregon

Concentrating on serving our community: An interview with Portland Opera’s Priti Gandhi and Sue Dixon

PO’s artistic director and general director discuss their upcoming season.

|

Priti Gandhi. Photo by Christine Dong.
Priti Gandhi. Photo by Christine Dong.

Portland Opera recently announced its 2022-2023 season: productions of Carmen and Rusalka at Keller Auditorium, Thumbprint at the Newmark Theatre, and a special concert featuring Terence Blanchard with the E-Collective and the Turtle Island Quartet. To find out more about the season, I talked with general director Sue Dixon and artistic director Priti Gandhi. Dixon has been helming the company since October of 2019; Gandhi joined in July of 2021 after having been chief artistic officer of Minnesota Opera. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.

OREGON ARTS WATCH: You are kicking things off in November with Carmen.

PRITI GANDHI: Carmen is an extremely popular opera in the industry and in pop culture. As we are looking to bring people back into the theater, this is such an iconic opera and one that brings new folk into the theater – a perfect way to expose them to the joy and beauty that is opera. It has been a while since we last did it. 

There is a new production directed by the transformative Denyce Graves, who is known for her incredible performances of Carmen. This was the brainchild of the general director of Minnesota Opera, Ryan Taylor, while I was working there. We thought why not make a new production with Denyce Graves directing, and tell the story from her point of view. She has inhabited the skin of Carmen for a long time and would have something new and different to offer on the conversation of the narrative of this character. 

PG: It will be a new production that is traditional but will have a darker bent to it. It starts in Minnesota in late May and moves to Glimmerglass this summer, and we will be the third iteration in the fall. It is a co-production between Minnesota Opera and Glimmerglass in New York. We are renting the production.

Denyce Graves has been working with fantastic people at Minnesota and Glimmerglass to flesh out her vision for the opera. In particular, she has been collaborating with associate director and choreographer Eric Sean Fogel, who will be executing the iteration of her vision for many years to come.

My advisors and I are working with Damien Geter and Karen Slack to bring new voices to Portland. Our Carmen will be Maya Lahyani. So you will see that about 99 percent of our singers this season are brand-new to Portland. Some are on the brink of big career changes and breakthroughs. It is exciting to catch people on the rise and trying out new roles. There are quite a few trying out new roles this upcoming season with us.

OAW: Tell us about Thumbprint, a new opera by Kamala Sankaram.

PG: Thumbprint was commissioned by Beth Morrison Projects. It was written by Kamala Sankaram, an incredible Indian-American composer. She is one of the more exciting composers in the opera world today. When the pandemic hit, it didn’t slow her down. She smoothly went into online work. 

Thumbprint is a work that Sue was already talking to Kamala about when I came on board. So it had been planned for the future, but we didn’t know where we were going to fit it in. 

'Thumbprint' composer Kamala Sankaram. Photo courtesy of the artist.
‘Thumbprint’ composer Kamala Sankaram. Photo courtesy of the artist.

SUE DIXON: I fell in love with this piece the first time I heard it. I am inspired by strong storytelling by women for women. This story is really about hope, and someone who is in an impossible situation. And she really starts to fight for justice. 

Thumbprint expands on our journeys to justice and our commitment to telling works that are focused on justice. This is the story of Mukhtar Mai, who was the victim of a sanctioned gang rape. Because of that, a woman would typically have to commit suicide.

But she fought against that. She found her life much more important. She took her assailants to trial, and even though at one point they were convicted, that has since been overturned. So she continues to fight for justice. With the money she received, she started a school for boys and girls so that they would never have to sign their name with their thumb

Sponsor
Chamber Music Northwest Lincoln Recital Hall Portland State University Portland Oregon
Sue Dixon, Portland Opera's new general director. Photo by Gia Goodrich.
Sue Dixon, Portland Opera’s general director. Photo by Gia Goodrich.

OAW: How did you find the singers for Thumbprint?

PG: This is something that I am so happy and proud about. But first of all I have to tell you that this will be a brand new production. It is not the same production that Chautauqua Opera is doing this summer. We are building a brand new one. 

When I started out a singer in the opera field more than 20 years ago, I was one of two Indian-American singers in the opera industry. Culturally, it felt very lonely, even though being around singers and artists was gratifying and felt like my people as well. However, I used to keep a list of Indian-Americans I heard about in the field, primarily across the United States. I just wanted to know that there were more of us out there. Culturally, opera singing is not something that we were encouraged to pursue. My siblings are doctors. My father is an engineer. As I went on in my singing career, I found that there were more Indian-Americans in the field, which made me so happy. When I moved into administration in 2013, I kept that list going. However, at some point I stopped compiling that list because there were so many of us: singers, directors, composers, librettists, designers, you name it. We are giving our perspective into the opera world. 

I belong to a few groups on social media and one of them is South Asian musicians. When I started casting Thumbprint, I told Kamala that I’d love to see if we can tell the story as authentically as possible by casting all South Asians. She said that’s a fantastic idea. So I started talking to my contacts through these social media channels. Indira Mahajan, who will be the mother in the production, is one of the other Indian American singers I knew of when I started singing. She and I had never met before. So it will be terrific to finally meet her in person. 

We just finished casting, and there are a few people coming over from Europe who are of South Asian descent. The rest of Indian Americans or Pakistani Americans. Even the conductor, Maria Badstue is of Indian descent. She lives in Denmark. 

It will be possible to tell this story with a personal feeling of what it means from our point of view – from our culture. I think that it might be the first time than an opera production in America is done with a fully South Asian cast. 

OAW: Will we hear some traditional instruments in this production?

PG: Kamala has made a score that combines Indian instruments and Indian song forms. So there will be a tabla, harmonium, and other instruments. We are now looking for players of these instruments to augment our orchestra. It will be a very interesting mix of East and West musical influences.

OAW: This is the first time that Portland Opera has done Dvořák’s Rusalka. What is the reason for that?

PG: It is just not as well-known as other operas. It is one of the most beautiful operas that I have ever heard, and the orchestration is to die for. The “Song to the Moon” is a very popular aria that is often on the audition list for sopranos. One of the challenges of doing this opera is the casting. Some of the roles are extremely difficult to cast, especially the role of The Prince, which requires almost a Wagnerian tenor. We are very excitied to bring Limmie Pulliam for this role. He made a huge splash at Los Angeles Opera last year. This will be his first time in this role. Karen Vuong has sung the role of Rusalka several times in Germany. She sang Mimi in Seattle Opera’s production of La Boheme. The conductor is Elias Grandy, who leads the Heidelberg Opera company. This will be his first Rusalka

OAW: The special concert with Terence Blanchard, E-Collective, and the Turtle Island Quartet is a real coup!

SD: I love Terence Blanchard. He is a musical genius. He is the first Black composer to have a work performed at The Met with Fire Shut Up In My Bones and he has also written Champion. Our advisors Karen Slack and Damien Geter are close to him, and this will be an excellent way to introduce our audiences to them. Karen will be singing and Damien will conduct – with our full orchestra as well as his band the E-Collective and the Turtle Island Quartet. Blanchard is a frequent collaborator with Spike Lee. He won multiple Grammys, nominated for Academy Awards. He is an incredible person and will be doing many more operas. 

I love ending our season with a celebration. We can celebrate our artistic advisors and a world-renown musician and composer.  Blanchard is definitely a name that the opera world needs to pay attention to. 

OAW: No performances will take place at the Hampton Center? 

SD: We will use the Hampton space for our Young Artist Program and for vocal workshops. 

There are so many partnerships that we have with smaller organizations that will be using our space. We will use it for rehearsal for our own staging as well. We have found that during the pandemic, individuals have been displaced. So we’ve offered the Hampton Opera Center as a place for people to come in and do their workshops and rehearse. Last summer we even had OMSI camps here for the entire summer. We had kids from 5 to 12 years old running throughout the place. That was really fun. 

This summer, Opera in the Park is ready to come back. They are celebrating their 20th anniversary and will be using our space for rehearsals before they go to Washington Park. 

OAW: It sounds like you are keeping things afloat financially.

SD: It is a challenge as it has been in the past. Every arts organization, business, restaurant – all have been struggling to emerge from the pandemic. I am proud of our organization, that we continue to make art during this time. We also did a lot of reflection and internal listening to our patrons and our community.  There is a lot of work that we did while steading the boat. It’s no secret that we had some financial challenges. We are finding a path forward, and a much more sustainable model. We are continuing to advocate for additional ARPA funds to Portland Opera. Now is the time for the city and Oregon to really help sustain arts and culture going forward.

OAW: Would you think of cooperating with Chris Mattaliano’s OrpheusPDX?

SD: I would never say never. Right now, we are so focused on the work that we are doing and our season that is ramping up in October. Our artists are coming in September. Our planning process goes on in August.

We are concentrating on serving our community. We have a new mission, vision, and values as an organization, and there’s lots to do!

PG: We have town halls scheduled with the public next month to talk with folks. So we are taking the listening and communication with people very seriously. 

OAW: Since you have had a professional opera career as a soprano, will we hear you in a cameo in a future production?

PG: (Laughs wholeheartedly!) Like Sue says, I would never say never. Since I’ve gone to the arts administration side of the business, I just don’t have the time. But I have kept singing and might do a recital.

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
SHARE:
Portland Columbia Symphony A Very Brassy Holiday First Presbyterian Church Portland Oregon
Chamber Music Northwest Lincoln Recital Hall Portland State University Portland Oregon
Dianne Jean Erickson Donald Dahlke Gallery 114 Portland Oregon
Northwest Dance Project Portland Oregon
Imago Theatre ZooZoo Portland Oregon
Open Space Dance Royal Durst Theatre Vancouver Washington
Enlightened Theatrics Seussical the Musical Salem Oregon
Bag & Baggage Danny and the Deep Blue Sea The Vault Theatre Hillsboro Oregon
Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens Portland Oregon
Corrib Contemporary Irish Theatre Portland Oregon Metaverse
Portland Revels Midwinter Revels Andalusian Night Portland Oregon
Hallie Ford Museum of Art Willamette University Salem Oregon
Eugene Ballet The Nutcracker with Orchestra Next Hult Center Eugene Oregon
Triangle Productions Erma Bombeck At Wit's End Helen Raptis Portland Oregon
Portland State University College of the Arts
Future Prairie Artist Collective Portland Oregon
Oregon Cultural Trust tax credit donate
Oregon ArtsWatch grow fund donate