01 Feb 2011

Real Opera In New Jersey

In an episode of the series West Wing, political strategist Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford) visits his friend and speech writer Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) in New York City before heading to New Hampshire for a promising candidate’s campaign speech.

As Lyman turns to leave, he waxes hopeful, “If I see the real thing in Nashua, should I tell you about it?”Just south of New England today, there just might be one of opera management’s versions of the “real thing.” Donors, colleagues, singers, and employees — as well as business associates from his past life as business consultant — are all represented on Richard Russell’s Facebook page: greeting him, telling him of their lives, reminding him of good times, and wishing him well in his ascent from marketing director of Sarasota Opera to General Director at Opera New Jersey (ONJ).

Russell is known for how he carries himself. Warm, affable, and genuine, ONJ’s vetting of Russell uncovers another facet of his personality: he is exceptionally resourceful, giving as much to his work as to relationships. “It is difficult for me to be insincere,” Russell asserts, shedding light on how — along with his approach of “creating an atmosphere” artistically — he inspires results managerially. He gains trust and builds friendships with those he works with. In opera management, these traits would seem essential — a general director is as likely to be figuring out repertory details with musical personnel as hosting a cotillion for sponsors, discussing ticket sales with a publicist over breakfast, or telling a stage hand to secure a scrim. Work comes in many forms, job description margins fade — this in wide-ranging social circles. Russell, with backgrounds in both performance and finance, chuckles that these were a modest preparation for the skill set development that is required of general director.

At Indiana University in a dual degree program (Russell holds a graduate degree in voice performance and choral conducting), he could hardly have imagined ending up in opera administration. In fact, he suspects that his attunement to matters artistic emanate from a yearning to perform that remains even today. Not long after graduation, he spent four seasons as an apprentice at what has become a wellspring of opera management talent. Sarasota Opera boasts five administration alumni as current general directors of regional companies. It is at this point that Russell's life took a course away from opera. He went through a lengthy and disheartening bout of acid reflux that, “took the sails out of the momentum for making a career.” He did not realize it then but the schooling he had received and his performance experience were setting him up for what leadership at Sarasota Opera (Artistic administrator Greg Tupiano and conductor Victor DeRenzi) had already seen in Russell.

It took a stint at Citigroup to round out and turn Russell’s life trajectory back to opera. He found that the work of business consultant, “developing online information and transactional products for use by our institutional clients in the emerging market countries,” called on elements of his creative side. Neither was the compensation package a small part of the appeal. “It turns out that I was gaining skills that coalesced with those I had learned in Sarasota as a performer.”

Russell cites his background in finance as directly responsible for two distinct qualities he brings to the position of general director: (1) Practical and profound budgeting expertise and, (2) managerial experience. “Credibility. Credibility with funders,...I can speak to board members. That is valuable. I know the numbers and can model them when putting a season together.” Russell's finance background means that he constantly weighs costs and rewards and considers revenue. His thoughts today are trained on Opera New Jersey and strengthening its fiscal health.

“It seems like the right opportunity,” remarks Russell, as he contemplates the state of ONJ. The support of the administration at Sarasota Opera (they understood Russell wanted more than to be marketing head) and his hankering to return home (“I missed the North East”) are two other reasons that make the move to New Jersey feel right. Now, Russell percolates with ideas on where to take the company. The top of that list is occupied by a matter of concern of most arts organizations: generating revenue. Specifically, Russell isolates “unearned” money as a main priority for the company, “we are looking at the long-term, building an endowment to solidify the company over the next year or two. We need to bring in individual donors.”

The artistic side of the future of the company is not far from Russell’s mind. He envisions moving a mostly conservative repertory forward, mixing 20th century works with more standard pieces. In 2011, NJO’s beginning fare will be Barber and Trovatore, swinging out to close with Menotti’s The Consul. That Russell considers Trovatore a “conservative” venture might say a little about his confidence in fielding the talent necessary to put on such a work. Slated to conduct the Verdi is none other than Maestro DeRenzi. Decisions like this are evidence that Russell also has artistic quality on his mind. Already, Russell says, “ONJ had been putting on solid productions,” adding, “The quality of regional opera [in general] in the United States is very high.” Russell thinks the company can draw audiences from Philadelphia, Upper New Jersey and New York City.

“There are customers from outside. I see the summer as an opportunity. There is a lot to do in Princeton.” Palpable excitement and eagerness enters into Russell’s voice as he foretells of ONJ being a Summer Festival favorite for opera devotee and novice alike. “People are still becoming aware of us.” Russell recounts that at a Princeton Arts Fair in summer 2010 — just after he took the helm — there were those that approached the ONJ booth to ask where the company performs. Russell sees this as an example of a groundswell of support waiting to surface. If that is the case, Russell’s infectious attitude may be the very “real thing” that attracts opera flocks to New Jersey. “I love opera, and that comes from a very honest place. I like the people in the business…I want to have an impact on the audience.”

Robert Carreras