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INTERVIEW: Mill City Summer Opera’s New Artistic Director

Crystal Manich, the recently named Artistic Director of Mill City Summer Opera. Photo by Laura Marie Duncan.

Next summer, Mill City Summer Opera will open its festival season under new leadership: Crystal Manich, the company’s recently named artistic director. Manich has directed operas across the United States and in far-off cities like Buenos Aires. She spoke with the Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine about her vision for things to come.

A production photo from a 2018 production of Puccini’s Il Tabarro, which Manich directed for Opera Delaware. Photo by Joe del Tufo, Moonloop Photography.

Where am I catching you geographically?

I am in Pittsburgh directing Hansel and Gretel for Pittsburgh Opera. It’s my hometown.

Have you directed Hansel and Gretel before?

I haven’t! Directing this opera is just delightful. We’re doing it in English, for all the families with children. There are also a lot of local artists in this production, which makes it feel for me like a family reunion to me, too.

Have you worked with Pittsburgh Opera before?

I started my career here in 2006 as an assistant director, so it’s my 13th season or so. It’s great!

I was assistant director here for two seasons and then moved up to directing. I think this is my 10th production with the company.

What was the first opera that you worked on there?

Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. I’d only been assistant directing for a year, so this was my first “big” gig.

A rehearsal photo of Manich directing Verdi’s Ernani in Buenos Aires. Photo by Liliana Morsia.

When did you first hear of Mill City Summer Opera?

I read about Mill City when they started in 2012, and at the time I was so fascinated with the idea of a company whose work was all site-specific. That’s work that I really love doing, and I was really curious about it, even back then.

Because much of my career has been as a traveling director, it wasn’t on my radar to see one of their shows – I wasn’t living in the area, and too busy working myself during the summer to make a trek to Minneapolis. When I heard that the Artistic Director position was open, however, I just jumped at it.

Something about this job just felt right even before I came in for an interview last July. I left that interview saying to myself, “I really want this job, and if they offer it to me, I’ll take it.” I was speaking with them about the details by August and started working for the company that month (although the hiring was officially announced just a few weeks ago).

Were you involved in the planning for the upcoming production of Così fan tutte?

Così was already selected for the 2019 season when I interviewed, with much of the casting done and some of it still in-process. I finished the rest of the casting and solidified the remaining negotiations.

I was completely on board to do Così fan tutte.

So this is something of a bridge season in terms of planning – you’re implementing the previous leadership’s programming choice.


When we spoke last year, you mentioned that your Baroque opera company Opera Omnia had gone into hibernation. What does your starting at Mill City Summer Opera mean for that entity?

I think those of us who started Opera Omnia have now gone in separate directions, so perhaps the company has had its course. I think there’s merit in moving on; at the moment, I’m now on a different trajectory. Mill City is where I’m meant to be for the next stage of my career.

A promotional photo for Opera Omnia’s 2013 production of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses, which Manich directed. Featured: Jesse Blumberg and Hai-Ting Chinn. (Blumberg is a familiar face, having sung at Minnesota Opera several times.)

When you say “meant to be”, do you mean “meant to be for the nice, warm summer” or “meant to be here for the whole year, winter and all?”

I’m going to be coming in and out of Minneapolis during the year and in residence for the summer. I’ve been to the Twin Cities  once already this fall, and will be in and out a few more times before the summer season starts.

Even though I’m not living in Minneapolis full-time yet, I’m very devoted to being part of the artistic community there, and exploring ways to have as much of a presence as possible. (I’m still freelancing during the non-summer months, so I’m looking to see if I can make some of those freelance projects take place in Minnesota and forge relationships in the area.)

What’s on your calendar between now and Così?

I’m currently doing Hansel and Gretel, then I head off to Boston for Odyssey Opera to direct Gluck’s Paris and Helen. It’s my first Gluck opera, but very much up my alley and rarely performed – I’m looking forward to it!

I’m also doing a new Norma at Utah Opera in May, with the orchestra up on stage. We’ll be using projections, no set, and fantastic costumes by Bradon McDonald, who was one of the competitors on Project Runway some years ago. He has an opera and dance costume background [and is a former member of the Mark Morris Dance Group], so he’s a great choice for a couture-designed Norma.

A production photo from Boston Lyric Opera’s 2016 production of Werther, which Manich directed. Note the prominent use of digital projections in the background. Photo by T Charles Erickson Photography.

How did that creative pairing occur? Did you pick him for your team or was the choice made by the artistic director?

Christopher McBeth from Utah Opera came up with the idea of putting us together. I think things like this make opera interesting and exciting to new audiences.

So after Norma wraps in May, you’ll be looking to see if the snows have melted in Minneapolis.

I hope so! A lot of people who’ve congratulated me on being named Mill City Summer Opera’s artistic director have asked if I bought winter gear. I’ve told them that I’m looking forward to not having to be there too much in the winter, but enjoying being there in the summer.

I always seem to be in residence in Boston during the coldest months.

When we last talked, you were very much an itinerant director, sometimes on the road for months at a time. Do you see your geographic center of gravity and home base shifting any time soon?

At the moment, no. The Mill City position is one where, at the moment, I only need to be present during the summer forthe festival. We do have plans and desires to expand, and are in fact exploring a second stage project during the Così period. That said, I’m also dedicated to developing connections with other organizations in town and exploring joint projects in the future.

I’m excited to see where things will go as Mill City Summer Opera expands and grows. I’ve known since I was in school that I wanted to run an opera company, so this is really part of my planned trajectory. I create 5-year plans to follow, so this is something like the “second half of my 30s” plan that I’m on. I made a real focus in this 5-year plan on getting a position like this – and it’s come early! That’s good, but I’m also looking to see how this will change my life as I look to the next 5 years beyond this.

Doing things on the road is a really fantastic journey for a director, but I see that the impact that I want to have on opera as a whole, on the larger scale, is certainly a part of my path that I’m looking forward to.

You’ve done some film and play directing, but in our last talk you mentioned that you’ve moved away from that in recent years as opera has increasingly taken over. Do you see your focus being primarily on operas and the musicals that opera companies do these days?

Yes – but I am directing a play next year with the Nashville Children’s Theatre. The details haven’t been announced yet, so I can’t tell you the title, but it’s a Spanish-heavy play about a very specific and very timely issue.

I think that the more I’m involved with expanding opera and making it accessible, the more I’m also getting attention for my other traits, like my Spanish language abilities. Spanish-language communities are often underserved by the performing arts, so that’s something for us to work on. All these things are intersecting.

Have you done a lot of work with Spanish-language and biligingual theatre?

It’s something that I’ve wanted to do throughout my career, but it hasn’t been as much as I’d want to. I did some independent projects in college, and now it’s becoming a more active thing – which is great. There’s an opportunity here to help bridge that performing arts service gap with the Spanish-speaking community.

Are there circumstances in which you could see yourself doing a Spanish translation of a classic opera?

Hmm…no one’s ever asked me that before… I think the industry focus has usually been on translating operas into English, but I did once hear someone in Spain ask, “Why hasn’t Carmen ever been translated into Spanish? It is set in Spain and takes place in Seville!”

Translation is a big concern to think about. Language can be a big barrier to enjoyment, even with supertitles and the multi-lingual seatback systems at places like the Metropolitan Opera.

At my opera company in New York, we did everything in English [even though much of it was originally written in Italian] because we felt that the intimacy of the spaces – mostly “clubby” spaces – was great for giving an immediate understanding of the story, because of the close proximity to the action.

I think translation decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis. At Mill City, for the moment, we’re sticking to “original language with supertitles”. However, I just directed a Madame Butterfly where we had sign language translators, because there was an interest in providing that accessibility for the community.

I feel that there are some companies that are really seeking to expand that type of access. I don’t have a [one-size-fits-all] answer for now about how to do it, but it’s something important to think about. I think the choice depends on the company, what you’re trying to accomplish, and what kind of community you’re looking to serve.

What are some of the things that are very important to you as a director?

Comprehensibility of the story. That is the number one thing that I feel is the essential part of doing opera. There’s nothing gained by not having clarity of story, so I’m dedicated to making sure that it happens. I know that sounds simplistic, but I think it’s often overlooked in opears that I see.

There’s a changing feeling or changing approach: we are no longer directing opera “for opera afficionados” anymore. I’m specifically directing opera for first-time operagoers, so I approach productions and directing from the perspective of audience members who neither know the story in advance or have read the synopsis. I think opera’s biggest hurdle has been the assumption that the audience knows what’s happening in advance.

Taking away this assumption has practical implications. With this Butterfly in Colombus that I directed, we got rid of the pageantry that’s usually associated with it. We stripped away the old-fashioned notions of what Butterfly is, and the new-to-opera-people who came to the last dress were shocked at how clearly the story unfolded as a result. That was really encouraging, and it really made me feel empowered to expand how we approach opera.

My #1 mission in life is to make opera exciting through its accessibility and comprehensibility.

Are there any living composers whose recent works you especially enjoy?

Jake Heggie is one of those composers. As an assistant director, I was able to work on a few operas of his. [Editor’s Note: Manich assistant-directed Washington National Opera’s production of Heggie’s Moby Dick in 2014 and Central City Opera’s production of his Three Decembers in 2010.] I think he’s really lead the charge of American opera in our century, and I think that’s been very exciting. He’s continuing to produce great works!

There are other people who are doing experimental things with opera, which I think is a great thing. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to see too much of that because of how my schedule has been, just from having been on the road much of the last year.

There’s a balance to be found trying to make the time to hear composers’ works. I have a solid interest in seeing how the operatic form can go, and how American opera specifically can unfold. I’ve seen and heard a lot of Nico Muhly, and am potentially doing a collaboration with another composer on a new work. I’m definitely thinking about things like this on a daily basis, and I’m really wanting to find a way to get a Spanish-language opera up and running in the future.

Basil Considine