"The Opera Lady Who Likes It Crazy"
When she meets an artist who wants to work with her, Beth Morrison’s first question is, “What’s the craziest idea you have in your head that you think no one would ever produce?”
Since Ms. Morrison is herself a producer, specializing in new opera, it’s a dangerous question; her career depends on getting a show onstage, not idle daydreaming. But over the past few years, she and her company, Beth Morrison Projects, have developed a reputation for the kind of passionate advocacy that’s able to turn artists’ craziest ideas into box office successes.
Ms. Morrison’s role as producer can be vague, and is different for every project, but it involves some combination of fund-raising, matchmaking, marketing, logistics and old-fashioned boosterism. It also requires both good taste and good luck: Ms. Morrison bet on several composers, like Nico Muhly, Missy Mazzoli, David T. Little and Judd Greenstein, before they were well known. She has a gift for bringing together talented, like-minded creative teams and a clear vision of a theatrically vibrant, musically progressive opera scene. As she notes on her Facebook page: “I’m a dreamer and an optimist. I like to inspire and enable people/artists—and make things happen!”
One of her highest-profile projects comes to fruition this Friday and Saturday at N.Y.U.’s Skirball Center, where she’ll be producing 10 operas for the 11th season of New York City Opera’s Vox Contemporary American Opera Lab. This is Ms. Morrison’s first year as producer of the festival, which gained new centrality within City Opera with the hiring of new-music specialist George Steel as the company’s general manager and artistic director. “My whole being is about developing new opera,” Ms. Morrison told The Observer in an interview in her home office, a tiny, fourth-floor walk-up studio on the Upper East Side, where she’s lived since moving to the city in 2005.
The 37-year-old, dressed all in black except for a slash of red on her lips, is from Auburn, Maine (her father is president of the small city’s chamber of commerce). “I grew up with show tunes,” she said, and her dream was to be on Broadway. Even at an early age, she impressed older people enough to make them want to help her: In her junior year of high school, her school’s choral director drove her to Boston and played at her audition for Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute. She got in, and it proved to be a turning point, convincing her to study opera.
She completed her undergraduate degree in vocal performance at Boston University, then went to Arizona State to do a master’s in pedagogy, intending to enter the university teaching circuit. But a short-lived marriage brought her back to Boston, where she landed a job at the Tanglewood Institute. After her boss’ promotion, she found herself, at age 26, the institute’s director.
It was exactly what she wanted at the time, crafting a larger vision rather than performing herself. But after four years, another urge creeped in. “I really wanted to found a space that was about contemporary music and theater and opera and chamber music, and the vision was to have an art gallery for living artists and a cafe. And I was like, I don’t really know how to do this.”
So she went back to school to get a master’s in theater management at Yale. Her mentor was the veteran producer Ben Mordecai, who put her in touch with Joe Melillo, the executive producer of BAM. “He basically just opened his planner and showed me what he does,” she said.
Mr. Melillo remembers helping persuade her not to drop out. “I reassured her that she was on a very intelligent, strategic path,” he said in a phone interview, “and she would find it at the end of this adventure professionally profitable.”
After graduating, she was hired to produce a staging of Nico Muhly’s The Elements of Style, based on the Strunk and White classic. In short order, she also produced Hell: The Opera at P.S. 122 and worked on a co-production of Don Juan in Prague that came to BAM in 2006.
“I don’t touch anything I’m not passionate about,” she said, but when she is feeling a project, she really feels it. She described Missy Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar, part of this year’s Vox, as “one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard.” And after hearing a recording of David T. Little’s Soldier Songs a few years ago, she said, “It was like, whatever it takes, I’m doing this piece. … I called him immediately and I just said, ‘I don’t know where or how or with what money, but yes, we have to do this.’” She assembled a creative team, split the fund-raising with Mr. Little and secured a hot venue—the just-opened (Le) Poisson Rouge—presenting Soldier Songs to wide acclaim in September 2008.
Lately, grants and her paid work for Vox and other clients have supported—just barely—the projects she commissions; opera, even new opera, is never cheap. “The money part is really, really, really, really, really hard,” she said, “and is the part I like the least, and that I’m the least good at, because I don’t have deep connections here, I don’t have family here.”
The next day, in the spacious main rehearsal room on the top floor of the Koch Theater, the orchestra was running through Scott Davenport Richards’ A Star Across the Ocean. The score was lovely, but any rehearsal is slow going and filled with a lot of phasing out. In a corner, though, was Ms. Morrison, hunched over her laptop, typing away while bopping her head to the orchestra. I was told that she was like this every rehearsal, never without her computer and always frantically multitasking.
“I’m working around the clock,” she said, finishing up Vox, teaching voice at Pace, working on two huge international tours, and monitoring her commissions. There are also grants to write, a nonprofit to develop, a board to build. And there’s still the original dream, far off but not forgotten: a multipurpose arts space. “I have no idea how to even get there,” she said, laughing. “But, you know, it would be amazing. It would be amazing.”