The world of opera hasn’t historically been an art form defined by women calling the shots and holding the baton as much as it has celebrated women who have captivated audiences as performers for centuries. However, as opera director E. Loren Meeker (Loren) has shared with ELEANORA’s audience before, it’s a thrilling time to be a female artist, and the excitement for women in the arts is now extending behind the scenes in the modern American opera house.
A life-long performer who fell in love with the art of directing in her college-aged years, Meeker has traveled the world earning her directorial stripes shaping the stories of an age-old art form whose universal human themes and archetypal characters deserve to be handled with great care and intuitive finesse as these timeless tales are adapted to connect with and relate to today’s audiences.
By Eleanora Morrison | September 2019
As Artistic Advisor to OPERA San Antonio, Loren and the company of Tosca are gearing up for OSA’s 2019-2020 season before the curtain rises on their opening night Thursday, September 12th, 2019. In anticipation of the season, Meeker shares insights on her creative and professional journey, her personal mission when it comes to directing, her thoughts on women in opera (both on stage and off), what to look forward to about this staging of Tosca, and much more.
Meeker leads rehearsal for OPERA San Antonio’s 2019-2020 season opening production of Tosca
EM: Was a career directing opera what you always dreamed of pursuing, or was this path something you happened into and didn’t expect?
ELM: I grew up in a theatre family bursting with behind the scenes talent – stage managers, lighting designers, scenic painters, production managers, and arts administrators filled out the ranks of my immediate and extended family. My relatives can be found on Broadway, in the top regional houses, and in straight and musical theater venues across the country but no one had ever dipped their toes into the world of opera. I’m lovingly called the black sheep of the family for going into opera, but I think that’s because they are surprised at how successfully I have been embraced by such a tremendous and complicated art form.
My youth was spent sleeping in dressing rooms at Williamstown Theatre Festival and running through the halls of The Huntington Theatre Company so needless to say the theatre bug bit me early in life. I grew up studying ballet, tap, and jazz, I was on a gymnastics team, and I acted in many high school plays and musicals so when it came time to apply to college it seemed like theatre was the best place to apply my varied talents. Off I went to Boston University where I graduated with a degree in Independent Theatre Studies with a focus in directing and choreography. After graduating I joined the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Internship program as a director for a year before returning to Boston with no work in my future. I was preparing to hoof it or rely on family connections and make a move to NYC, Chicago, or LA to get my professional career started when a former college roommate asked if I would be interested in joining the stage management team for a production of Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark at Boston Academy of Music. I immediately said yes and it turned out to be absolutely the right gig at the right time. I tripped into the world of opera and discovered that it utilized tons of my skills – direction, choreography, acting, reading music, and fight direction to name a few. I went from feeling like a jack of all trades, but a master of none to feeling like I had finally found my artistic home. Once the door opened, I never looked backed and embarked, in the early part of my career, on what felt like a professional version of graduate school. I took stage management and assistant director jobs to learn the skills that were new to me like working in multiple languages, understanding the demands of being an operatic singer, how to work as a director specializing in opera, and learning the history and traditions of the art form. Those early years fascinated me and from there my hunger to direct opera grew into a passion for creating an innovative approach that I hope will propel the art form forward for the next generation of artists and audiences.
EM: Looking back on the journey that has led you to this point in your career, what has been a pivotal moment that propelled you to becoming a director?
ELM: My sophomore year of college I had a miserable experience. I was acting in a two person play and I was tremendously inexperienced, terrified of the role, and scared to be intimate with the young man I was playing opposite. I was desperate for the director to help me – to help me find my voice as an actor, to guide my interpretation of the character, and to feel comfortable playing a married, beaten wife. I had barely experienced life offstage and my director failed to help me craft an approach to acting that would allow me to find a way inside the character. I was frustrated, scared and alone. Then it hit me – I realized that I was never going to feel comfortable onstage. I’m just not built to live a life exposing that much of my soul to the public, but I could have had a better experience if I had had a trusted source from the outside, a director, who could truly guide me. So, I switched from pursuing a focus in acting and dance to directing and choreography. As a director I work to help actors discover characters and themselves in a comfortable environment that brings out their best work and provide a place where they have a voice in the collaborative process of creating art.
The most pivotal moment in my operatic career was meeting Francesca Zambello, now my mentor, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. I had been on staff for three seasons and was ready to leave and pursue my own directorial work when I learned that she would be in Chicago the following season for a new production of Show Boat. I stayed to assist her thinking ‘well we could be oil and water and if that’s the case at least I can say I was in the room with her and learned as much as I could, or we could be a great match and perhaps she will give me the chance to direct at both of her companies’. Here we are eight years later and I’ve now directed twice for The Glimmerglass Festival and once for Washington National Opera where I will direct again this winter. She has also been tremendously generous, recommending me for directorial opportunities across the globe. In fact, her recommendation was what brought me to Opera San Antonio for the first time when I directed The Barber of Seville three seasons ago.
Rehearsing for OPERA San Antonio’s 2019-2020 season opening production of Tosca
EM: What is your favorite opera, and why?
ELM: This has always been an incredibly difficult question for me to answer. In every aspect of my life I?m not a favorites person. I don’t have a favorite food, or color, or city, etc. I have such a huge desire to devour so much of life that it’s always hard for me to choose just one thing. When it comes to art, I feel the same way. I fall in love with music and stories and I’m as eager to direct a piece that intrigues me upon first discovery as I am to direct a piece that eludes me (I like the challenge). There is just so much fantastic and diverse operatic rep – sweeping melodies from Puccini, great dramatic theater by Verdi, twelve tone and atonal composers like Berg fascinate me, and that doesn’t even touch modern greats like Heggie and Mazzoli (finally a female composer). I’m dying to explore them all. That being said, on my ‘to do list’ are pieces like Wozzeck, The Flying Dutchman, and Rusalka. I’d also love to explore more musical theatre rep like Ragtime, Guys and Dolls, and Gypsy. And finally, I want to try all the new rep I can get my hands on like Breaking the Waves, As One, and Silent Night just to name a few.
OPERA San Antonio’s 2018 production of La Boheme, directed by Meeker
EM: What are your sources of creative inspiration, and / or practices that help you remain fresh and innovative in your approach to storytelling?
ELM: Inspiration comes most easily when I am at peace so I make it a priority to find time to decompress and recharge. To achieve this I enjoy quiet time at the lakes surrounding Glimmerglass, I do yoga and a bit of gym time each week, and I write poetry though I’m really bad at it. I try to balance down time with exploration in far flung cities across the globe. I love being exposed to different artistic viewpoints and cultures. This means exploring art museums, theatrical performances, and even dining at an amazing restaurant can uplift and fuel me creatively.
The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2018 production of The Cunning Little Vixen, directed by Meeker
EM: As a woman who holds a position of leadership in the arts, particularly in a role that has traditionally been male-dominated, what has been your personal mission that has pushed you to blaze a trail as a director and as a storyteller?
ELM: I feel like I didn’t realize how male dominated the opera world was until I was well into my career. I was lucky enough to assist a fair amount of female directors and work at many companies with women in prominent leadership positions so it wasn’t until I really started to pursue work outside of my home companies that I stopped and thought, ‘wait a second–the vast majority of companies are led by men and the vast majority of directors are male’. Suddenly being a straight, white, American female meant I was a minority in my industry. That realization made me even more determined to become an operatic stage director.
My personal vision is to breathe life into operatic works in a way that stays true to music and drama of the story while also shaking people up. I want my work to make people question assumptions about characters and stories. Opera stimulates my imagination, whether that’s interpreting a piece from hundreds of years ago or developing a world premiere.
EM:What are you most excited about as you open this season with Opera San Antonio?
ELM: This is my first full season as an artistic advisor to OSA in addition to directing both mainstage productions. It’s an awesome responsibility. I am working incredibly hard to raise the profile of OPERA San Antonio by bringing in amazing and diverse artists combined with productions executed at a high standard. Our cast for Tosca is not to be missed. Our three principal artists perform their roles at the greatest opera houses internationally. The title role is one of Jennifer Rowley’s signature roles and this season she’s performing Tosca with the Metropolitan Opera and San Antonio. This is my first time working with Jennifer, but the men who fill out the doomed love triangle are colleagues I have had the pleasure of working with before. Rafael Davila, as the painter Cavaradossi, will unleash his gorgeous voice and personality. We will all fall in love with him. And Michael Chioldi as Scarpia will bring fierce, precise, roaring drama to the stage. It will be an absolute treat to develop a fresh take on this classic story with them.
Great art withstands the test of time of time because it illuminates aspects of the human condition that each generation struggles to understand and define for themselves. I believe this to be true of Tosca. Susan Vandiver Nicassio, in her book Tosca’s Rome puts it in this context, ‘The universality of Tosca includes not only the personal, the emotional, and the artistic, but also the greater world of political and religious struggle, and the titanic clash between revolutionary and traditional worldviews.’ If that’s not a tantalizing and important story to tell in 2019 then I don’t know what is. But there’s a trap – this glorious, sweeping story can easily become a melodrama driven by three stereotypical characters: Tosca, the jealous (and therefore weak) female lover, Cavaradossi the romantic hero, and Scarpia the villain. My goal is to make these characters convincing as individuals. Each character has a psychological and emotional reality that can be uniquely explored with the cast of actors that we have engaged for this production. Together we are redefining how the characters are perceived. We are finding the shades of grey that make each of them richer, deeper, and more fallible humans.
As both director and artistic advisor it’s wonderful to be in a position to not only move the art form forward, but to help give women more opportunities in this niche industry. This season we have women in prominent positions across multiple disciplines. Veronica Lopez, our artistic administrator, Madeline Elizondo our Education and Development Coordinator, Alison Vasquez our prop master, and Dottie Randall, our chorus master, are all local to San Antonio. Women in guest artist and staff positions include Megan Bennett, Emma Cooney, and Emily Barber as our stage management team, Mandi Wood is the assistant lighting designer, plus we have Ellen Jackson as the assistant director on Tosca and Felicity Stiverson the associate director and choreographer on our spring opera. Putting together this powerful team makes me feel like I’m helping women take up more space in opera. Space that is long overdue and greatly in need of female voices.
OPERA San Antonio’s 2018 production of La Boheme, directed by Meeker
Connect with E. Loren Meeker on Facebook and on Instagram @elorenmeeker, and OPERA San Antonio at OperaSA.org, on Facebook and on Instagram @operasanantonio. To purchase tickets for Tosca, visit Tobi.TobinCenter.org/OperaSA.
This feature was (Em)Powered by OPERA San Antonio.
Edited from an interview by Eleanora Morrison.
Creative Director & Editor In Chief
Eleanora (Ellie) Morrison is the Creative Director & Editor In Chief of ELEANORA. A digital creator and multimedia storyteller living and working between her native city of San Antonio, TX and Los Angeles, CA, Ellie is thrilled to showcase a cast of diverse talents on the ELEANORA platform. Her day-to-day experiences, creative curiosities, mindful musings and portfolio highlights can be found on Oh, Eleanora, Ellie?s personal channel on the ELEANORA platform. Connect with her and follow her on social media @eleanoramorrison.