From the beginning of its search, Utah Opera's board of directors has known it would be next to impossible to find a man to replace the late Glade Peterson, founder and first general director of the company. So they chose a woman.
And when you meet Anne Ewers, who outlasted 54 other applicants for the post, you are immediately impressed by her vitality and enthusiasm. Ewers seems wired for success, and her experience is tailor-made for Utah Opera's needs.She has run a company, the Boston Lyric Opera (1984-89), with outstanding fiscal and artistic success. And her experience as a stage director for some of America's outstanding opera companies has put her in the midst of "the network" - that unofficial underground whereby backstage and administrative staff find out who the best rising artists are, what designers and conductors are making a name for themselves, what sets are for rent and the places where operatic news is being made.
In addition, she has served on two panels at the National Endowment for the Arts: the panel for new works and panel for policy setting. She also assists in long-range planning for the Opera America organization.
Ewers was in Salt Lake City for a few days just before Christmas to wind up last-minute contract negotiations, meet the media, hear Utah singers and locate an apartment. She's now in Edmonton directing "Eugene Onegin," but she will return in late January for an official reception. She will assume her position here on May 1, 1991.
Her foremost desire is to capitalize on the impressive artistic superstructure she inherits, and the legacy of good will and responsible management that Peterson left behind.
"From the first, the board and I talked quite openly about continuity," said the vivacious leader. "Utah Opera has a remarkably efficient and dedicated staff, and I agreed that I want to use the local singers, involve the university, make the whole community a part of this, even more than it already is. I was impressed with how the search was handled, and the guild is so positive. This company has a wonderful sense of grounding, and the community is enormously interested in the arts. It will be easy for me to dive into my work here.
"For me, it's vital to get a total feel for the field I work in," she continued, and her contract stipulates leave to continue stage directing in other companies, and time for her own self-improvement. She has three or four directing stints already planned for 1991, including a "Faust" for New Orleans Opera, and others for which contracts are not yet signed. And she plans to direct one production with Utah Opera next season.
She will return to Italy soon for intensive studies - three weeks of a crash course in the language, and visits to as many operatic sites as possible. "Last year when I was there I saw Castel Sant' Angelo, where the last act of `Tosca' takes place; also the real `Carmen' cigarette factory in Seville, the Venice of `La Gioconda,' and the inspiration was mind-boggling," she said.
Ewers was born in St. Louis but raised in Ottawa, Ill., where her family still lives. Always interested in the stage, she took a degree in theater at Fontbonne College in St. Louis. She had no exposure to opera until she was 21, but that encounter so impressed her that she took a bachelor of arts degree in music as well. She then went on to the University of Texas in Austin for a master of music degree, by which time she felt the pull of directing.
She began her career in 1979 at San Francisco Opera as an assistant stage director and staging coordinator, and it was there that she met Lotfi Mansouri, a visiting stage director who then headed the Canadian National Opera. (Mansouri is now director of the San Francisco Opera.)
"I told Mansouri that I wanted to work with him in Toronto, and he said I could come, but I would have to pay my own way," she laughed. Her first assignment in Toronto was assisting Mansouri with "Peter Grimes," after which he found a little money to put her on staff. She also worked at the San Francisco Opera, assisting the "big guys," then going out to stage for little companies, and gradually evolving to bigger and bigger companies.
In 1989-90, Ewers' directing assignments included the operas of Dallas (Joan Sutherland in "The Merry Widow"), Columbus, Edmonton, Opera Carolina, Canadian Opera, Lake George, New Orleans, San Francisco, Buffalo and Syracuse; also Opera Pacific and Calgary upcoming, among others. Major credits also include New York City, Houston, Michigan and Glimmerglass Operas.
She has selected her 1991-92 season for Utah Opera, to be announced a little later, and is already auditioning singers in New York and elsewhere for leading roles. She began as a singer herself, before the challenges of management and behind the scenes work became more intriguing. But "I know what it is that opera demands of a singer, what it is to audition," she said.
Ewers helped Boston Lyric to retire a $450,000 debt during her tenure there, and she declared herself unappalled by the challenges of fund raising. "I am delighted that Utah Opera operates in the black, and I intend to continue working with the funding people who are already in place," she said. "I want to delve into this community as soon as I can, and hopefully garner further goodwill for the opera.
"I intend to keep a tight hold on purse strings. No matter how big or how small the expenditure, it will be wisely considered, to make the best art possible for the least money."
Commitment to a life and career in Utah came gradually to Ewer. "When I first flew in here in September to interview, I knew immediately that it was a good place. The scenery, the mountains, the people who received me all felt so right. I had honesty from the staff and board, and knew the situation exactly. But I still wasn't sure.
"After I left, with every day that passed I had a more positive feeling about coming. Two weeks later I wrote a note to the board indicating that I had changed my mind from a tentative `yes' to a very definite `yes.' In mid-November when then-board president Cal Gaddis called me in Buffalo, offering the job, I really wanted it. I knew that for me, it is exactly right."
With such a successful career going in stage directing, why is Ewers turning back to management?
"I did enjoy directing the Boston Lyric Opera," she said. "I was asked there in 1983 to direct Wagner's Ring cycle, which we sang in New York also, to critical acclaim. (The Ring on a shoestring, I called it!) But the pull of staging was strong, so I resigned. And ever since, as I free-lanced, I have found myself snooping into administrative affairs of the companies I visited, asking them about management and fund-raising and how they handled things. I have management interest in my blood.
"Then, too, free-lancing is exhausting. I have been on the road continuously since last June.
"And Lotfi has encouraged me to take the post. Last fall when I went to San Francisco to direct `Un Ballo in Maschera,' I had said nothing to anyone about my prospects. But when I went to Lotfi's office, the first thing he asked me was, `Are you going to take Utah?' The grapevine is strong in our business!
"I feel that the potential for opera here is unlimited, and I have commitment and excitement about this proj-ect. I am ready to do it," Ewers concluded.