I keep telling the people on our board, I want the people who fly from Chicago to San Francisco to see an opera to go, “Wait a minute. Let’s see what’s happening in Salt Lake City. We need to stop over and see an opera there.” —Christopher McBeth, artistic director of Utah Opera
SALT LAKE CITY — In the nearly 15 years that he’s been the face of Utah Opera, 44-year-old Christopher McBeth has managed to, among many other things, dispel the notion that opera is for wimps.
At 6-foot-6, with a booming voice, outsized personality and the enthusiasm of an English soccer fan, the former high school basketball player is about as sedate as a pit bull.
Although a friendly one.
It helps that McBeth, who grew up the son of a Methodist minister in La Crosse, Wisconsin, is himself a convert. He first learned to sing in the church choir and had no time for opera until he unwittingly enrolled in an Iowa college that turned out to be a hotbed for the art.
His plan going into Simpson College, a private liberal arts school near Des Moines, Iowa, was to study to become the next great high school choral teacher — an aspiration that quickly derailed when the director of the music department talked him into taking his accelerated 3½-week opera course.
He’s been studying — and extolling — opera ever since.
At Simpson, he found a fellow opera zealot in a beautiful soprano named Julie Poe, whom he met on the first day of class. Six weeks after they graduated, they were married and set off together for Baylor University to get matching master’s degrees in vocal performance.
After that, they moved to Houston, where Julie worked with the young artist training program at Houston Grand Opera and McBeth got a job working the opera company’s phone bank — easily the lowest rung in the business.
But talent rises, and it wasn’t long before his love and knowledge of all things opera became apparent and he was moved into the artistic side of the operation. Eventually, he wound up as top aide to general director David Gockley, a revered figure in American opera who taught McBeth the opera business inside and out.
With Gockley’s endorsement, McBeth left Houston to work as artistic administrator and director of production for Fort Worth Opera.
In late 1999, after only a short time in Fort Worth and after he had just turned 30, Utah Opera lured him away to become its artistic administrator.
In 2005, McBeth was promoted to artistic director — the person in charge of all facets of the company — a position he holds to this day.
His wife, Julie, who like her husband forewent a performing career to concentrate on the more stable life of artistic administration, is executive assistant to Melia Tourangeau, president and CEO of Utah Symphony & Utah Opera. Together, the McBeths form a formidable team in the Utah arts community.
Utah Opera has enjoyed tremendous growth, popularity and national acclaim under the direction of Christopher McBeth, who recently sat down with the Deseret News to talk about all things opera.
DN: What is it about opera that grabbed you and won’t let go?
CM: Someone was describing it in an article I was reading recently that I think sums it up nicely: Opera is the Olympics for the human voice. The depth of the art form is just captivating. People soon find out, for better or worse, that I can start talking about opera and the joy it can bring people really quickly. They’ll marvel at how passionate I am, and I find myself giggling a little bit because what others find as overwhelming enthusiasm is just my normal way of talking.
DN: And this unbridled enthusiasm can all be traced back to ...
CM: When I went to a little place called Simpson College south of Des Moines, Iowa. I earned a voice scholarship there, and the man who ran the (music) department at the time, Dr. Robert L. Larsen, was a force of nature, a big personality, and he had started and was running an opera company there on campus during the summer. He just instilled enthusiasm and a love for opera the minute you walked in the door, whether you knew it existed or not. He kept saying, “I want you to take my class. I want you to try out this opera stuff.” I really wasn’t interested. But he kept badgering me that whole first year. I finally acquiesced, took the class, and I was bitten. Right away. That was the spark.
DN: That teacher was your first opera mentor?
CM: Yes, and I’ve been so fortunate to have excellent mentors. When we moved to Houston after graduate school at Baylor, a gentleman who has commissioned more operas in this country than anybody else asked me to come work for him. His name is David Gockley. He’s now with San Francisco Opera. I actually told this luminary that being his assistant didn’t sound like much of a career. He said, “No, no, you don’t understand. I think you have some acumen here. Come work for me for two years. I’ll let you in on everything we’re doing here at the company.” So he made me his right-hand man. He told me I spoke art very well but I needed to learn to speak the language of our donors, so he sent me to school to take some accounting, some business finance, things of that nature, so I could look at spreadsheets, develop budgets and talk about endowments with the board members. And then after a couple of years, he just sort of moved me off into the world.
DN: Was his influence a factor in Utah Opera hiring you as artistic administrator at the young age of 30?
CM: It definitely helped. The leader of the company at the time, Anne Ewers, had also had a bit of a seminal experience with him and she felt that if David was willing to be someone who invested in me then she thought I could be somebody worthwhile. But hiring a 30-year-old? That was a bit risky.
DN: Was it risky for you to come to Utah?
CM: We’d been in Texas for eight years, and Texas had been very good to us and there’s a lot to like about Texas. But we had been what we called "escaping to the mountains" twice a year for about four years before that. Of course, it was the other mountains. It was Colorado, it was New Mexico, it was Arizona. We hadn’t yet made it to Utah. But when they flew me out here for the interview, it was obvious that it was an instantaneous fit. I remember calling my wife. I said it’s very clear that the three major tenets of the community here are education, health care and the arts. How would you not want to live in a city like that? The standard of living here continues to amaze us, quite honestly.
DN: Do you see the arts as a healthy part of Salt Lake City?
CM: The reality is we have a huge amount of performing arts here and the quality is exceedingly high. We have found out through our marketing consultant that the saturation rate for the arts is substantially higher in this community than most others. Salt Lake is a great treasure not just for opera but the performing arts in general.
DN: Since opera is seen as something of an acquired taste, what is your pitch to get people interested?
CM: I like to tell beginners that they can really connect pretty quickly with opera because there’s so much going on. If you can’t immediately connect with everything, you can absolutely connect with something, whether it’s a voice, a story, the orchestra, whatever. Then you build on that.
And I think talking with someone at the company can be very helpful to get started: “I’m new to this, I’m nascent, what’s a good beginner piece for me?” (This fall), for example, we open with "Madame Butterfly," a perfect beginner piece.
DN: So a little homework goes a long way?
CM: It does. You can go online to our website or several other websites to learn more. We have an online learning course that comes in installments leading up to any of our productions. We engage different scholars who are good at presenting the material in a way that’s digestible by people who don’t have a lot in the way of musical background. And finding examples of the music online, on YouTube especially, could not be easier. You don’t have to get out of your pajamas or off your couch as long as you have an iPad, laptop, whatever, to access the Internet. You can learn it pretty quickly that way.
DN: What’s the payback for becoming an opera fan?
CM: I hear constantly from people who come to the opera, and it’s always people who manage to come back for a second or third time, who go, “Wow, as I became more familiar with it, the more depth I could see in it, the more detail, the more I could appreciate it for both the forest and the trees,” if you will. When you’re a fan, when you’re a real fan, you become in love with certain operas in such a way that you seek out another opportunity to see that piece in another way. The beauty of the performing arts is every time you remount a piece or do a piece again, it’s different. Every time you see something again, you’re glad because you see something you didn’t before. That’s when you really become a fan.
DN: How healthy is the Utah fan base?
CM: Our subscribership is higher than it’s ever been, and the renewal rate for return subscribers is the likes of which we haven’t seen in a decade. We’re a little on fire right now.
DN: And you’re using some homegrown talent?
CM: We have a nationally recognized young artist training program. I love young artists. I’m a bleeding heart for them, having been something like them at one point in my life. We have a lot of great young talent, and we’re able to give them growth opportunities by enabling them to work with all of our artists who come in from out of town, plus opportunities to sing on stage with the Utah Symphony. And it’s paying off, our last opera being a great example. Two of our five singers were from the resident artist program, and they were just as good as the guy who came from the Met and the lady who had performed at Carnegie Hall.
DN: All in all, then, opera in Utah is alive and thriving?Comment on this story
CM: We probably do more bang for the buck than any other similarly sized company. We produce sets, we produce costumes. Usually at this size company, they’re just renting other people’s stuff, but because we make entire productions here, because we do it all, that becomes very appealing. Then, too, we have the partnership with the Utah Symphony. We get really wonderful conductors to come here, and the singers feel like they’re absolutely taken care of in every way.
DN: What is your goal for the future?
CM: To continue to grow. I keep telling the people on our board, I want the people who fly from Chicago to San Francisco to see an opera to go, “Wait a minute. Let’s see what’s happening in Salt Lake City. We need to stop over and see an opera there.”