Hahn successfully leads Pittsburgh Opera through crises and calm
Backstage dramas can't be allowed to derail all the hard work and expense of theatrical productions. But Pittsburgh Opera's spring 2008 production of “Aida” was beset by a such a series of misfortunes that living up to the old rule that “the show must go on” was a marathon challenge.
First, one of the stars became ill the day before the show was to open. The opera's general director, Christopher Hahn texted one of the world's leading mezzo-sopranos, Marianne Cornetti, who received it while attending a concert in Europe. Less than 24 hours later, the Butler County native was triumphant on opening night.
Then, the lead tenor became ill before the next performance. When his replacement was delayed, he sang as much of the performance as he could but lost his voice before the final scene. Conductor Antony Walker ended up singing the romantic lead for the emotional climax of the opera — from the podium while conducting. And there were other cast changes during the run of performances.
Hahn's calm and effective handling of the crisis exemplifies one the many strengths that have made him a success leading Pittsburgh Opera. He joined the company as artistic director in 2000 and became general director in 2008.
“I worry at a low roar about everything, but when the actual crisis hits you're so busy dealing with it, worrying is not a luxury you have,” says the Shadyside resident. “I was so proud of the way this company dealt with that most extreme series of adversities. In a funny kind of way, it said this company is deeply viable because it can cope with a tsunami of misfortune and come out with head held high.”
Yet, crisis management is a small part of running an opera company, which, at the highest level, demands vision in addition to administrative and interpersonal skills.
“I tell people, whenever Pittsburgh Opera comes up, that Christopher is truly a grounded and innovative thinker,” says Michele Fabrizi, a member of the opera's board since 1999 who became co-chairwoman in 2005 and chairwoman in 2009.
“There aren't a lot of people that humbly have great vision and quietly lead and manage the charge to create initiatives that have dramatic impact. Christopher is a deep thinker and has strong vision grounded in tremendous experience. But, at the same time, he's very open to ideas that will help to galvanize the efforts.”
Fabrizi identifies four highlights of Hahn's tenure to date. First, she mentions Hahn's work with in training singers, the resident-artists program, which was very good when he arrived, but he raised to national prominence.
She also credits Hahn for his “profound influence on growing company repertoire.” In addition to programming baroque operas, Hahn has made contemporary opera a regular part of the city's operatic diet, including, but not limited to, presentations of “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Dialogues of the Carmelites” “Billy Budd” and “Dead Man Walking.”
Hahn also has greatly expanded the opera's presence in the community with monthly Brown Bag concerts, art-song recitals and extensive educational activities. Those activities were part of his vision for the company's new home in the Strip District, to which it moved in April 2008.
Perhaps most remarkably, Frabrizi says, “Christopher has managed, with the board and staff, to keep the company among the more stable in the U.S.”
“He's a game-changer,” she says. “In a short period of time, he's had a heck of a track record, especially given the country's economic situation.”
Musical at a young age
Hahn was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where he was “doused” with musical encounters thanks to his mother, who never received the musical training she wanted. He began piano lessons when he was 5, but hated practicing and loved singing in the church choir.
He showed early negotiating skills by telling his mother he wanted to give up piano but would keep playing if he could also take voice lessons. His scheme was nearly upended when at a music competition he received an indifferent notice for singing but an A+ for piano.
In high school, he played tuba, following his brother's example, which served him well when during his year of compulsory military service during the apartheid era he played in the army band.
Hahn left home to study at the University of Cape Town, where he earned a master of art degree in English literature, writing his thesis on the theatre of Tom Stoppard. When he staged Stoppard's “Travesties,” his work was noticed in professional circles.
But when he received another offer to direct, he turned it down because, “I knew in my bones that, if I said yes, I would not leave South Africa and knew what I needed for myself was to explore, to encounter the wider world.”
Hahn moved to London, where he worked in theater for five and half years, taking every opportunity to enjoy the city's rich cultural life. Beside dramas, he attended all the symphonic, operatic and dance performances he could.
Hahn was interested in North America, too, and fell in love with San Francisco during a visit. After moving there, he was called into an interview with San Francisco Opera, where he began as a rehearsal assistant in 1983.
“On my first day of work, I was told to help load a truck of furniture for a dressing room for Luciano Pavarotti in a massive auditorium where was giving a concert. I thought if my mother could see me load furniture on a truck after all my education she would be less than amused,” Hahn recalls.
In the off-season, Hahn offered himself to the young singers and began directing opera with artists who were as young and green as he was.
“It was a very artistically gratifying period for me because that's really where I came from and loved doing,” he says.
He made the regretful decision to give up directing when he was put in charge of the young artist's program because he thought it would be “unseemly” to hire himself to direct. But that decision also led him to have a larger perspective on the business, which is what's needed as an administrator.
“One thing about Christopher is that he's always unbelievably polite and unbelievably firm, and the combination was extra good in running the rehearsal department,” says Sarah Billinghurst, who was artistic administrator of San Francisco Opera at the time, and is now artistic manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
“People both like him and respect him. He's very literate and well-educated and has an interesting background. He didn't just talk about opera, which many people do. He was very interested in straight theater, was interested in reading and very interested in music other than opera. He was also very good at handling pressure and the crises that happen.”
In 1996, Hahn was hired by Los Angeles Opera as its artistic administrator by Patricia Mitchell, now president of the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in Minneapolis/St. Paul. She knew his work because she was executive director of San Francisco Opera before taking the same post in Los Angeles.
Hahn now was responsible for a $6.5 million artistic budget, casting, negotiating contracts, future planning, the young artists program and supervising rehearsals.
“Christopher was very steady,” Mitchell says. “He's enormously accomplished at keeping plates spinning to an incredible degree. San Francisco produces opera in repertoire. You have various shows in various states of needing talent, space, paying attention to stagehands. He's very calm. There's no problem that can't be solved.”
Mitchell says she “just knew” Hahn would become general director of an opera company because “he was so good with complexity and so good with the artistic side.
“The planning process is so long in opera, it's not who will be a great countess today but who in four years will be good or still be good. It's a knowledge and judgment piece that's rare,” she says. “He has an incredible ear for singers, which is why he was so good in the opera center, and has a great nurturing sense for careers which are developing.”
Thus when Hahn was hired as Pittsburgh Opera's artistic director in 2000 it was seen as a smart move in the opera world.
“He's a rare breed,” says Marc Scorca, president of Opera America. “It's one thing to have a job resumé and Christopher's is an important one. But Christopher has such a deep understanding of the art form, such a deep understanding of singers and such a grounded aesthetic point of view that not everyone who's done the jobs he has have synthesized into a real point of view about the art form and what he wants to put on stage. It's what has earned him national respect.”
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.