Daniel Biaggi, the general director of Palm Beach Opera, lets his eyes do the talking—or, more accurately, the singing. Chatting at the PBO offices in downtown West Palm Beach, he meets each question with an enthusiastic eyebrow raise or a meditative blue stare. His eyes tell the story of a man in love with the art of opera.
Biaggi, a classically trained singer originally from Switzerland, has been with Palm Beach Opera since 2005, serving as general director since 2009. Armed with both an artistic and producing background, he approaches managing the company from a personal and enthusiastic place. He sat down with PBI to discuss his philosophy for running an opera company and what viewers can expect from the 2014 season.
PBI: What first sparked your interest in opera?
BIaggi: The overall experience, the overall combination between music and drama and design and construction and project management. I came originally as a singer to the field. So, clearly, it was vocally driven in the beginning, but then it turned into this overall fascination of the many puzzle pieces that have to come together in order to create the show. And the uniqueness of it, because it's live, because it's non-amplified, because it's only in that moment. You bring people together from all over the world for a short period of time, they create an incredible experience for the audience and, then, they go off to their respective positions elsewhere in the world again.
Who and what are some of your personal favorite composers and operas?
I'm a big Verdi fan. It's sometimes easiest to put it in context; I would choose Verdi over Puccini, I would choose Wagner over Strauss. I wish we could do more Baroque operas. I've found Baroque opera is sometimes easier to update because people don't have this preconceived dramatic notion of what it's suppose to look like. Any piece we're working on at that moment becomes my favorite, because there's so much good stuff.
What is your philosophy for running an opera company in the twenty-first century?
We have to think of ourselves as a cultural institution but also a service organization. We really have to make sure we anchor ourselves into the community, not only by what we put on the main stage but, primarily, what we also do outside of the opera house, so that no community could envision itself without the opera company. I think the most important aspect for us to underline is that it's incredibly important for people to experience it, to be a part of it because it will make them better people. So, overall, that is my biggest drive, to make sure that we are really bound to the community. That manifests itself through educational programming, outreach programming, through taking things out of the opera house, like this big waterfront concert in December.
Can you tell us a little more about the Opera at the Waterfront concert?
Oh, it's brilliant. First of all, one of the biggest points: It's free. Everyone can bring their blankets, they can bring their kids, they can bring their whole family if they choose. We created it as a one-and-a-half-hour concert of mostly favorite arias and ensembles. We have some of our Palm Beach Opera soloists, the orchestra, the chorus, everything at the amphitheatre. We're now trying to see [if we can] create a special app that pushes information on tablets to get a little background on the piece. Maybe we'll have the audience choose what last piece they want to hear or second to last piece as an encore where they vote via text messaging.
Education is part of PBO's mission statement, how do you accomplish this educational outreach component?
It happens on several levels. [In the school system] we have our concert in the classroom program where we go into the schools so the kids have an interactive experience with an opera singer and a pianist. Then, the second step in that is when the schools come to us to watch a rehearsal. We also have our PBO studios for our high schoolers who already have an interest in music; it's almost like an apprentice program. They come to us over the season with after-school programs where we give them an introduction and they can either become part of the technical track...or, if they happen to be performance oriented, they get some voice lessons with the young artists, sit in on rehearsals and, at the end of the season, we put them in one of the performances. So that, together with the family opera, becomes the flagship of the educational performances.
And what about your Young Artist program?
So, part of the education aspect is growing a future audience..part of it is growing a future generation of artists. And so, that's the Young Artist program; these young singers went through leading conservatories, have done one or two internships in Young Artist programs in other opera companies. And then, they come to Palm Beach for five months and sing the comprimario roles, they sing the concerts in the community, they do the family opera, they do our One Opera in One Hour project at the Harriet Himmel Theatre.
Can you speak about the One Opera in One Hour project?
It's a dual-education process. [The Young Artists] get to work on dramatic development of a character in a condensed time frame on a different musical style, different languages—we do German, Russian, French, English works that maybe we can't do on the main stage. And, at the same time, for the audience it's also an education because it exposes them to repertoire we otherwise couldn't do.
How do you go about planning your main-stage opera season?
Great puzzle, always. We set certain parameters as part of our vision: We want to be international, we want to make sure we have a broad spectrum of repertoire, we want to make sure we can always have something that's a little lesser known, but we have to balance that with something that's really well known to create a great first experience for first comers. And then, we sit down with our 20, 25 titles that we would like to do and we figure out what will work with what and take a look at the productions that are available. Then, we see what singers, conductors, directors are available, and sometimes we change repertoire based on that.
In the 2014 season, which opera is the familiar one and which one pushes the envelope?
I think the most unfamiliar here—as an operatic piece—is probably Macbeth. It's not produced that often, simply because it's very difficult to cast, especially for the soprano, Lady Macbeth. And then, the familiar one is Barber of Seville; everybody knows "Figaro," everybody knows Bugs Bunny.
How do you go about casting these main-stage productions? Do you have certain vocalists in mind and see if they're available, or do you do an open casting in Manhattan?
Both. We start with a list of artists whom we would like to invite. So, we contact their artist managers to see if they're available and interested. If they are, then that's great. And if not, we look around elsewhere. Then, we do have auditions in New York for some of the other roles. We're fortunate in that we have a lot of famous singers who want to come to Palm Beach. We don't have that much need to rely on auditions, but we hold them every year so that we're current with who's singing and how well.
What would you like the community to know about Palm Beach Opera?
If I had one wish, then it's for the community to stop worrying about culture. We're here and we've been resilient. It's my big hope that people have faith in organizations and realize that they are a part of their future, rather than say 'oh, we don't know if the theater is going to be here, if the museum is going to make it.' We're continuing to work towards the future. So, I am very excited. I've never felt as good about the company as I do now.