Friday, September 18, 2009

What Makes Leon Natker (and the Lyric Opera San Diego) Tick?

Leon Natker, the General Director of the Lyric Opera San Diego, has been in show business practically ever since he made his stage debut as the Major General in Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirate of Penzance when he was only 12 yrs old. He studied at Juilliard and Roosevelt University and has since worked both on and off the stage at various noted opera houses as a performer and stage director. Now he runs the show at America’s Finest City’s Birch North Park Theatre where the classical music loving locals can drop in to catch anything from classic film screenings (the theatre was built in 1928 as San Diego’s first talkie movie house) to musicals and light operas. That, along with his master classes and teaching assignments, make for a busy schedule. And so I was quite thrilled when he consented to a cyber interview this past week.

Smorg: How did you get into the business of running an opera house?
LN: I was a free lance performer and stage director, I had directed a production for this company and was subsequently asked to become the Artistic Director which I accepted. From there I was eventually appointed
General Director. (In opera land that encompasses being the Exec. Dir and producer)

Smorg: The LOSD puts a lot of effort into education programs to make opera more accessible to the public, especially grade school kids. Are you keeping track of how many youngsters who participate in your programs stay interested in the opera as they grow older?
LN: We have participated over the years in several national studies. All of them have come to the same conclusion, education must be active not passive to develop a continuing interest in the art form. In other words
programs that allow children to participate in performance, through actual projects and then let them see full productions, work. Three singers and a piano coming to do a mini-show in a school is a waste of everyone's time and money. That's why we have an academy and the dress rehearsal program. We do not send singers out to schools.

Smorg: It seems that once an American teenager had given opera music a try, he tends to like it ok. The trick is in getting him to try in the first place. What is the LOSD doing to entice po
p/rock-oriented audience to sampling opera and musicals?
LN: First of all we do everything in English which I believe is essential to engaging new audiences no matter what their age. We also have a more intimate venue not a 2000 - 3000 seat barn, which is closer to a European Opera House. We encourage younger audiences through ticket subsidies and by doing shows that would appeal to younger audiences. We don't do the standard opera fair that has everyone dead in the last scene after
singing long static, sad duets.

Smorg: There seem to be two competing ideas among opera fans about how much the opera should reach out to the mainstream audience. One faction considers the non-traditional staging and modernizing theatrical trend to be ‘cheapening the experience’ or ‘destroying the integrity of the art form in order to draw in new money’, while the other faction sees opera as something that needs to adapt to the new demands of the new era/audience in order to merit its survival. What is your take on the problem? Is there a viable common ground where we can make opera competitively popular among the mainstream audience without totally turning it into upscale Broadway show?
LN: Innovative productions are fine as long as they help illuminate the text. If they are just for sensationalism they are not going to have any lasting effect on the music theater world. They are just controversial for PR's sake. I think the problem is that too many of these director's really want to write new operas and don't know how or can't find a producer. We must make room for new works and ideas but we must never pervert an
existing work. That doesn't mean you need to do the same production for fifty years, it does mean you need to be thoughtful and understand the text both the words and the music when you plan a new production.

Smorg: The small-ish auditorium of Birch North Park Theatre is probably a lot more similar to the sort of theatres that the pre-Wagner composers had in mind when they orchestrated their opera (unlike the 2000+ seat monsters of North America and some newer European houses). Do you have any plan on presenting Baroque or Classical period operas with a small period instrument orchestra there sometimes (something that probably won’t go over well in the cavernous sound-eating halls like
the San Diego Civic Theater or the Dorothea Chandler Pavilion)? Perhaps a small-cast work like Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice?
LN: Our theater is like many European houses. Our American houses tend to be barns. We have done several Bel Canto operas as well as Mozart, Haydn, Pergolesi and Bach over the years and will be doing Barber of Seville
and Don Giovanni soon. I don't think Handel would do well with our audience. It tends to be very static.

Smorg: Do you see a lot of cross-pollinating audience that attend both the film screenings and also the opera and musicals at Birch Theatre?
LN: If you mean the musical films yes. The classic film audience does not tend to be a musical theater audience although we have seen some people getting interested and cross pollinating. I think the longer the venue is opened the more of that we will see. It's about developing and educating the audience.

Smorg: How long does it usually take to prepare to stage an opera or a musical? Do you have to be around to supervise the whole thing or do you generally leave it to an artistic/stage director or the conductor?
LN: Since I both direct and conduct I'm often the person doing much of that work. We usually rehearse for four to five weeks depending on the piece. There is several months of planning that happens with the designers and
production manager prior to starting the rehearsal. Sometimes there may be several years of planning once a show is scheduled.

Smorg: What do you enjoy most about your job?
LN: Working wit other artists, whether they be old pros or young developing artists. That's where the joy is.

Smorg: What do you think is the most misunderstood part of your job?
LN: The day to day fundraising. It's always a struggle and in this economy it's a nightmare.

Smorg: What vision do you have for the Lyric Opera and North Park Theatre for the community? Where would you like to see the company, say, 10 yrs from now?
LN: My vision is about the academy. I want to see that grow beyond just a summer program. I want the theater to be a place where new audiences can develop at an affordable price and new artists can develop.
there is always room for growth. I'd like to see the community embrace the theater more and not be afraid of it.

I think there are a lot of misconceptions in our community about what goes on in the theater and who can participate. I believe the theater is for everyone. The north Park Theater is not a place for snobby people in expensive clothes. Anyone can afford to come to show and there is nothing like a live performance. TV and movies are still just shadows. The experience of sitting in a theater with live people singing and dancing and acting is unique and something everyone should be able to experience.

Smorg: Any favorite on-the-job anecdote?
LN: Yes, one of our patrons has a grandson. He wanted to introduce the boy to our performances so he made a deal with the kid. Grandpa would take him to a baseball game if he would come to see Pirates of Penzance.
After the kid saw Pirates he asked Grandpa for season tickets to Lyric Opera not the Padres, and has remained a subscriber ever since.

How about that! I feel much better now that I know I’m not the only one to get poached into this addictive thing that is opera unexpectedly during a fun comedy. Single ticket to a performance there costs only $32-52 (and there's a discount if you subscribe to the entire season plus the perk of a free pass to the pre-opera lecture). Money well spent and entertained in my book!

Lyric Opera San Diego performs at Birch North Park Theatre: 2891 University Avenue (at 29th Ave in North Park), San Diego, CA 92104. Tel (619) 231-5714. Website:

2009-2010 Season:(click on name of show for sample clip of famous music from each show)
October 2, 3, 4, 8, 9, 10, 11, 2009: Cole Porter's ANYTHING GOES
November 13, 15, 19, 21, 22, 2009: Engelbert Humperdinck's HANSEL AND GRETEL
February 12, 13, 14, 18, 19, 20, 21: Stephen Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC
March 6: PRITI GANDHI IN RECITAL (A Special Event - not included in the season price)
March 26, 28 April 1, 3, 4, 9, 10, 11: Gilbert & Sullivan's THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE


Heather said...

Cool interview. It's great we can do things like this via the net, although I'm sure you would have liked to meet in person!

Smorg said...

Hiya Heather,
Indeed! I'm spoiled by the thing. Wouldn't have dreamed of having so many email pals in so many different countries and getting to sort of chat with interesting folks like Mr. Natker and others in the pre-internet age. The thing really made the world a lot smaller than it is! :o)

Thanks for stopping by. Hope things are going well your way! :o)