Photo by Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.

OPERA San Antonio opens its 2015-2016 season at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts with “Madama Butterfly,” Giacomo Puccini’s classic tale of heartbreak, in the H-E-B Performance Hall under the direction of Garnett Bruce. There will be two fully staged performances, with the opening on Thursday and an encore performance Saturday. Maestro Sebastian Lang-Lessing will conduct the San Antonio Symphony.

Soprano Maria Kanyova makes her OPERA San Antonio debut as the tragic Butterfly – the geisha Cio-Cio San. Kanyova has performed leading roles across the U.S., Canada and Europe, and has received rave reviews for this one. The Denver Post stated, “…soprano Maria Kanyova hardly could be more convincing with her appropriately youthful appearance and ability to convey the young wife’s innocence, vulnerability and pain. … More important, she possesses a pure forceful voice with a pleasing soft edge and she knows how to use it.”

Tenor Adam Diegal will perform in the role of the callow and faithless U.S. Navy officer, Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. Christian Dalzon of praised Diegal’s performance of Pinkerton, stating, “His clarion, lyric voice has a sparkling timbre and the portrayal of the thoughtless American officer meets the expectations of the part. He sings the Act 1 love duet with sincerity and commitment. One of the best musical moments of the evening.”

Mel Weingart talks with Tami Kegley at the Tobin Center. Photo by Page Graham.
Mel Weingart talks with Tami Kegley at the Tobin Center. Photo by Page Graham.

OPERA San Antonio Chairman and General Manager Mel Weingart (also the chairman and president of the Tobin Theatre Arts Fund) found some time to sit down and discuss the new season and to reflect on the highs and lows of the Tobin’s first season. As we entered, rehearsals were going on for the youngest performer and his understudy – Kanyova’s four-year-old son will be making his operatic debut in the non-speaking role of Trouble, son of Cio-Cio San and Pinkerton.

“She has brought her child and this will be his first time performing,”Weingart said. “She has two older daughters who performed in this same role with her when they were much younger.”

"Madama Butterfly," Septermber 2015. Photo by Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.
“Madama Butterfly,” September 2015. Photo by Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.

Weingart’s deep love for opera comes through in conversation. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the art form. In addition to his duties here in San Antonio, he travels extensively to view performances in opera houses around the country and the world. His connections in that world run deep, and he’s tenacious.

The inaugural season at the Tobin was a challenging one. The company commissioned and built three productions from the ground up, an expensive proposition, which left the company with a deficit in the six-figure range when the season ended in March.

“From the time I began this project, I had several simple goals,” Weingart said. “They may have been unachievable, but these were my goals nonetheless. I wanted each production to be fully funded before ticket sales. We would raise 100% of the money, and ticket sales would be put into an account to grow the balance for future productions. Essentially, working on the concept of an endowment. I failed the first year.”

"Madama Butterfly," September 2015. Photo by Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.
“Madama Butterfly,” September 2015. Photo by Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.

Weingart is frank in his acknowledgement that the productions were too costly, and perhaps a bit too non-traditional for the San Antonio audience.

“Our goal is to give the audience what the audience wants,” he said. “San Antonio has a hunger for high quality, traditional opera works over the next few years. More contemporary ventures will have to be a part of the mix in the future. In the first season, we did nothing traditional. No Puccini, no Verdi. It was not terribly complicated to decide what we needed to do.”

Addressing the resignation of Artistic Director Tobias Picker, it was a known from the start that Picker would never be a full-time fixture in San Antonio.

“First and foremost, he is a composer. He was never going to give up that career to come here,” Weingart said. “He is an internationally renowned modern composer and that is his primary interest. It is my interest as well, but my primary concern has to be to give the opera-going public here in San Antonio what they want to see and hear.”

On that note, Weingart and OPERA San Antonio went back to the drawing board.

“In connection with our regrouping, we concluded that we needed to manage this company administratively lean and mean. I had to come up with a plan to go forward without compromising the quality of a production. I won’t do it. I am not interested in that and I am not built that way,” he said.

In the process, Weingart came up with an innovative idea: “To find a company that produces excellent work headed by a talented, knowledgeable, qualified, highly esteemed individual who has a company where those productions that company does are guaranteed to fit on our stage.”

The decision was made to focus on the Glimmerglass Festival, a summer opera company that has operated for 40 seasons in Cooperstown, NY. The company’s artistic director is the highly esteemed Francesca Zambello, who also serves as the artistic director of the Washington National Opera.

“I am dealing with an artist (Zambello) who is committed to helping companies like ours get on their feet and establish themselves,” Weingart said. “Not only for what it does for the individual companies, but also the working opportunity for all of the technical and production people. The goal eventually is to have a production and tech team here in town, but we can’t do everything at once. I started developing this company in 2009 and it has taken us all this time to get to this point. This has been a very pleasant development.”

Maria Kanyova and Adam Diegal in "Madama Butterfly,"  September 2015. Photo by Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.
Maria Kanyova and Adam Diegal in “Madama Butterfly,” September 2015. Photo by Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.

Thus it was agreed that OPERA San Antonio would do “Madama Butterfly.” The production was staged by Glimmerglass in 2014, and it made sense for this season in San Antonio.

“So, I’ve got an extremely cooperative and amicable group, they all know each other and they have done it before,” Weingart said. “It saves us time and it saves us money. Not only renting the production, but the technical and production crew, avoiding conflicting personalities and other difficulties.”

The production is totally funded, excluding ticket sales – Weingart’s original goal. “In addition to that, the deficit was fully paid down by June 30, the end of our fiscal year. We had a great deal of help to do that, obviously. Foundations, corporations and individuals in this city made this possible. Our board had 100% financial support. We rallied the troops to pay down the deficit and fully fund ‘Madama Butterfly.’”

In addition to this fully staged production, there will be one more OPERA San Antonio performance this season, Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.” It will be performed as a concert version as a part of the San Antonio Symphony season on March 31 and April 2. Yes, this is a short season, and a conservative choice. As Weingart told independent critic Mike Greenberg back before the opening of the Tobin in 2014, “There’s nothing we would like more than having people be angry with us for not doing enough.”

Weingart and the board are in the final planning stages for the 2016 – 2017 season, with an announcement expected soon. He did share this much: “Our goal for the next several years is to do three productions with two performances of each. My real goal is actually three performances each. The growth of the company is audience-based.”

Weingart, San Antonio’s godfather of opera, repeats his mantra, “There is nothing we would like more than to have people mad as hell because we are not doing enough. The only way to do that is to provide the funding to do it.”

Tickets are still available for this production of “Madama Butterfly.” There are several ways to connect with The Tobin Box Office. Visit TOBi online for more information.

*Top Image: A scene from the Madama Butterfly performance. Photo by Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.

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Tami Kegley

Tami Kegley has lived the life of an artist. Through multiple careers — dancer, percussionist, performance artist, sculptor, goldsmith, gallerist — she has pursued her need to create. The Great Recession...