Diving into the moment of creation: Priti Gandhi and Damien Geter lead Portland Opera out of Covid and into a new season

The opera opens with a new artistic director, a new interim music director, a fresh slate of forward-looking priorities – and an old standby in "Tosca."

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A newly shaped inclusive mission, a new artistic director and newer music director, and a familiar 1900 Giacomo Puccini opera will open Portland Opera’s 2021-22 season on Oct. 29. 

Tosca–the tale of a 19th-century Roman diva caught up in Napoleonic wartime treachery–will be the season’s onstage opener, held over from the previous season, as Covid-19 is now under enough control to allow for three live performances (masks and vaccinations or 72-hour negative Covid tests required), with digital performances to follow in mid-November. Running through Nov. 6 at the Keller Auditorium, “Tosca is full of passion, romance, tragedy and politics,” said newly hired Artistic Director Priti Gandhi. “It’s the perfect grand opera for the return to the theater.” 

Expanding on her thoughts about classical European-based opera, Gandhi explained in an email interview with Oregon Arts Watch that “grand opera, the canon, and operas that have shown their iconic status in the industry, still have the power to do that. We just have to reinspect how we present them now. “

Priti Gandhi. Photo by Christine Dong.
Portland Opera’s new Artistic Director, Priti Gandhi. Photo by Christine Dong.

Not that she plans to produce and promote only warhorses–such as those in Puccini’s beloved often-staged repertoire–at the expense of new productions. But she knows that cultivating audiences to tune into new work will prove challenging. “Many of these new works bring new sounds with them, a sound landscape very different from the traditional canon. Cultivation is also about having our audiences embrace the different ways of considering what an opera can sound like, and what it reveals.”

An opera soprano turned arts administrator, with a number of other talents and pursuits including flamenco dancing, column-writing and painting, Gandhi holds the oldie-goldies in high esteem, fashionable or not.

“Anyone in my sphere knows that I have a deep love of the traditional operatic repertoire, and the way it elevates the human voice to its maximum beauty. It is the core of our art form, and I’ll always champion that. I also know that opening our spaces for new voices and stories is necessary to evolve not just the art form itself, but how we produce it. What happens when you incorporate all of our respective cultures and backgrounds into this art form? Even the traditional repertoire will grow with this new energy.”

She is not one to remain in her or an institution’s comfort zone. With the recent realignment of community values due in part to the sweeping Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements, she says “it is time to re-inspect the industry with a new lens.”

On her radar are using and commissioning Oregon composers’ works (though none has been planned) and staging site-specific productions like Michigan Opera Theatre/The Industry’s Yuval Sharon’s Sweet Land and Twilight Gods set in a parking garage, though that endeavor, too, is not specifically yet on the agenda. Incorporating Indian music into the repertoire is a further stretch, but not impossible. Time, thought and PO collaboration (and money and board backing) will make those hopeful realities, she said.

From Mumbai to Southern California

Gandhi grew up in the San Diego area when her Indian father took an engineering job and moved the family from Mumbai (Bombay) to the East Coast and then to Southern California when she was 3 years old. Most recently, she comes from a three-year similar artistic director stint at the Minnesota Opera and before that, the San Diego Opera. A 20-year opera singer who often performed at Seattle Opera, as well as in Europe and on the East Coast, she is an enthusiastic flamenco dancer. She learned while performing Mercedes in San Diego Opera’s 2011 Carmen after the director cut the ballet dancers and told the singers to learn flamenco.

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With dancing, singing and administrating in her repertoire, she says she is up for the artistic director job with a progressive arts company changing its culture from top-down to “consciously collaborative,” as PO general director Sue Dixon calls it. Gandhi dealt with diversity and artists’ well-being issues at Minnesota Opera, conversations she plans to continue in Portland.

Add to Gandhi’s position the September appointment to interim music director of Damien Geter, Portland composer/actor/baritone (he sings Angelotti and the Jailer in the upcoming Tosca) — and now conductor. Nine-year PO maestro George Manahan left late this summer, and Geter is thrilled to be finally using his conducting skills, gained in part from his masters degree in conducting at Indiana State University. A lifetime music-lover, he was the kid who always chose music over sports or crafts as a pre-school activity, until the teacher told him to pick something else.

PO artistic advisor and interim music director Damien Geter performing Darrell Grant's 'Sanctuaries', produced by Third Angle Music in 2021 at Veteran's Memorial Coliseum Mall, Portland OR. Photo by Intisar Abioto.
PO artistic advisor and interim music director Damien Geter performing Darrell Grant’s ‘Sanctuaries’, produced by Third Angle Music in 2021 at Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum Mall, Portland OR. Photo by Intisar Abioto.

“We are changing our culture to be more collaborative in all aspects of artistic leadership and our work as an ensemble,” Geter said by email earlier this fall, adding that “change takes time,” though he has been at the vanguard of PO’s forward movement in the past 15 months. He has been working as a PO artistic advisor with soprano Karen Slack since July 2020 and plans to keep that role in tandem with his music-directing duties while PO searches for a permanent music director.

The shift in leadership of the 58-year-old company–and this spring’s Journeys to Justice that Geter curated, a six-piece program of Black-experience songs and chamber operas sung by PO’s Resident Artists, all performers of color–marked a major step into a broader opera world. So do the upcoming PO operas, When the Sun Comes Out centered on the LBGT community, and The Central Park Five based on the coerced confessions of the Black and Latino teens accused of rape and assault in the late ‘80s. Rather than a typical four- or five-opera season, this year’s three-opera schedule is a “ramp out of Covid,” Gandhi said.

Loving opera’s journey

Gandhi believes that anyone can fall for opera, even late in life. 

“If an Indian-American who wanted to be a journalist can fall in love with opera as an adult, anyone can. I fell in love with opera not ever having been exposed to the art form. I want people to know that you don’t need an education in music history, or a vast knowledge of all the great singers, in order to love opera. 

“All it takes is a desire to be moved, to listen with new ears, and to be open to a new way of hearing a story.”

She calls opera “the ultimate Olympic feat for the voice, and singers train for years to be able to project their sound in 3,000-seat houses without hurting their voices. It’s a beautiful special practice that involves intensity, vulnerability, and diving into the moment of creation.”

Her journey into opera is not a traditional one of childhood training, conservatory, auditions and immersion in the art form. “I didn’t hear an opera until I was at University of California at San Diego in the early ‘90s studying journalism. Ironically, I heard two new works – Rappaccini’s Daughter and The Passion of Jonathan Wade. I had never been exposed to opera before – though I played piano since the age of 6. Opera was a total unknown to me! A friend gave me his tickets because he couldn’t go, so off I went. I remember feeling so intrigued, struck by the beauty of the voice without any amplification, and wanting to find out more. But it didn’t hook me until I started voice lessons for fun a few years later.”

She began taking lessons during her junior year in college. “I was tired of writing so many papers, and needed something fun to do. I found a voice teacher through the music department and started taking weekly lessons, just to sing musical theatre, American songbook rep. But I didn’t even consider opera until my voice teacher looked at me one day and told me I had an operatic voice, had I ever considered singing opera? I laughed at her because that sounded so ridiculous. I didn’t know a thing about opera at that point! She gave me an Italian aria to sing, and said ‘just go with it’.”

That moment of reaching for the notes in  “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, an aria in every young soprano’s repertoire, will stick with her.

“Something in me lit up in a way I’d never felt before. Who knew doing something so strange, creating this sound, could make me feel so happy? I knew right then I had to find out how to become an opera singer. It changed my whole path. Luckily, I was too naïve to know that it was rather late to start, and that taking the path I did was not the norm! I took my own road into the opera world.”

Her first opera crush? Cavalleria Rusticana. Current favorite? Too hard to say; it changes all the time, she says..

Cavalleria Rusticana “is the first full opera I ever heard on CD, just after I started taking voice lessons. As soon as the music started, my entire body was covered in goosebumps. I had no idea music could affect one so viscerally. It continues to have this effect on me.”

Aside from opera, her tastes in music are as vast and eclectic as Music Director Geter’s, who loves R&B, Tina Turner, Nirvana (at one time), Anita Baker and Dolly Parton, among others.

“When I do a deep dive into a flamenco style I’m learning, I’ll pretty much saturate myself with that music, to get it into my blood and get the feeling of the palo,” Gandhi said. “I’m a child of the ’80s, so when I’m cooking dinner or cleaning the house, that’s the music on my speakers! Other kinds of music on my playlists are Bollywood, yoga mantra music, and solo piano … and who doesn’t love Dolly Parton?”

For Tosca tickets, see here. Digital passes for performances will be available Nov. 16 through the end of the year.

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About the author

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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