The first time Ryan Taylor walked into Minnesota Opera he was an aspiring baritone, chosen for the company’s Resident Artist Program. Last May, he took the elevator to the top floor, where he took up residence in the president/general director’s office.
Taylor returned to his roots after three years as general director of Arizona Opera. An Atlanta native, he now runs an $11.2 million company with an audience totaling 42,000 annually. Minnesota Opera has established a national reputation as a developer of new work, with “Silent Night,” “Doubt” and “The Manchurian Candidate” as three recent examples of world premieres. This season, Minnesota Opera continues the mission with “Dinner at Eight,” based on the George S. Kaufman-Edna Ferber play.
Taylor spent 10 years as a singer, performing more than 30 roles on stage, including a stint as Sharpless in Minnesota Opera’s 2004 “Madama Butterfly.” He recently sat down in his Minneapolis office for a few questions.
Q: You start the season with “Romeo and Juliet,” but then we get “Das Rheingold.” Wagner is something we haven’t seen here in many years. What’s up?
A: They’ve done a “Flying Dutchman.” That’s the one people can stick their toe into and figure out what Wagner is. But this is a whole new world. The biggest challenge for us is physical. If all the musicians really like each other, we can squeeze maybe 62 players into the pit at the Ordway. We have upward of 80 to 85 for “Das Rheingold.” We felt we could create a road map for other companies, so we constructed a set that puts the orchestra on stage as part of the landscape. There is something about Wagner, how he makes the orchestra a character, and being able to use the musicians to tell the story makes sense, whereas it wouldn’t in a bel canto piece.
Q: Anyone we will recognize in the cast?
A: Greer Grimsley [“Macbeth”] is back to sing Wotan. Denyce Graves [“Doubt”] makes her debut as Erda. [Minnesota Opera music director] Michael Christie is conducting. When he talks about Wagner, he does it in a way that’s completely different from the way he talks about other operas.
Q: You’re now four months into this job. How do you see the chief administrative role in an opera company?
A: I see myself as a traffic cop. The folks on this staff are incredibly good, and it’s my job to see that they are on the road, moving smoothly without any accidents. Part of my job is to pick the route we are on, so you could say I’m a tour guide also.
Q: Nice to see you keep your metaphors consistent. Do you feel a part of the artistic expression?
A: I am a product of this artistic director’s [Dale Johnson] work at Minnesota Opera. Dale was here when I was brought into the Resident Artist Program, and that year was transformative for me — I carried it as the foundation of my artistic ideas. It’s a great gift to have trust and fondness for the artistic product. Dale and I are in constant discussion, and we aren’t shy about telling each other what we like and what we don’t like.
Q: Will we see some of the old audience favorites this season? Brenda Harris, James Valenti, Kelly Kaduce?
A: Yes, Brenda will be with us for “Dinner at Eight.” We’re trying to find new faces on our stage, and as conductors or directors. We like a semblance of balance — a third familiar, a third who have had great success in other places and a third who are brand-new.
Q: Do you fear ever having to face the kind of situation that occurred last year when the lead in “Tosca” had to be replaced a week before opening?
A: I can guarantee I will at some point. But it’s not something you ever want to have. I think they handled that delicately, and they were fortunate to have someone like Kelly [Kaduce] come in. I’m not a fan of one person doing more than one big thing in a season. Kelly did three last year [“Rusalka,” “Tosca,” “The Shining”] and did it well, but we need to present a variety of viewpoints.
Q: Minnesota Opera has been in an administrative malaise since Kevin Smith, who now leads the Minnesota Orchestra, retired six years ago as president. Two people have cycled through this office, and there has been lots of staff turnover. How do you get that straightened out?
A: Yes. People are waiting to see if I get past the two-year mark. I have been the beneficiary of two great mentors. I actually contracted Kevin Smith to come down to Arizona and teach me my job when I was hired there. I learned the Zen, deliberate approach to problem solving from Kevin. He’s my Obi-Wan.
The other is Kim Witman [legendary leader of Wolf Trap Opera in Washington]. I won’t say that they are both ego-free, but from the moment I started working with them, I knew I mattered. The administrative funk of the past years is that there can be an instinct to point fingers and not open hands. For me, it’s about the environment. Everyone needs to be proud of what they’re doing. That’s difficult, but when it works well. …
Q: Minnesota Opera has raised its national profile with the New Works Initiative. Where do you see that going?
A: We will continue that, but there are also other works that others have created that we’d like our audiences to see. Typically in our season there’s a warhorse, something that’s not seen as frequently, something modern and an American premiere. That’s a good formula for us.
Q: You mention other new work. Sometimes the second performance of a new work is more important than the first, isn’t it?
A: Exactly. I wish a foundation would be set up to fund repeat performances of shows made over the last five years. It would help solidify the work because it is super hard to get that second production. We have four producing partners with “Dinner at Eight,” so we know that will be seen in four different cities [St. Paul, Calgary, Wexford, Atlanta]. That is very different for a new work.
Sometimes a work is closely identified with the city it premiered in. For example, “JFK” was made for Fort Worth because it was about the day before the president was assassinated. That’s something I hope to produce in the future. “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna,” the mariachi opera at Houston, we did that in Arizona. “Dead Man Walking,” “A Streetcar Named Desire.” If I’m here 30 years, maybe we’ll get to all of those.
Q: Does your background as a singer and performer make you more likely to stick your oar in when you’re watching rehearsals?
A: You need to let them do their job. That doesn’t mean that if there’s a situation that requires extra sensitivity, I wouldn’t have a quiet word. I can only think of two instances in my career in which I said, “Do something” or, “Don’t do something.” In both cases, they were about the environment of the situation.
Q: What new things do you want to do with this company?
A: I would like there to be an element of surprise in our seasons, in the scale and style of storytelling. We want to test to see how far we can push ourselves to transform.
Q: Something like the Komische Oper Berlin “The Magic Flute” from a couple seasons back?
A: Absolutely. People passed around that video and it was like wildfire, but we were the only one who said, “Let’s do that here.” I get asked, “What does success for this company look like?” It’s by not making decisions out of fear. When you operate from fear, you stop being a vital arts organization. You don’t do “Silent Night” or that “Magic Flute.” You don’t do work that can be the next greatest moment in someone’s life.
Q: What about the age-old questions about whether your audience is too old, or not diverse enough?
A: I would never say our audience is too old, or whatever. They are what they are, and I love them. We have to expand the audience, and we’ve established a task force to look at equity and diversity, and how we become a more accurate reflection of the community we serve. And it can’t just be audience. We’re looking for diversity in casts, staff, board members.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune reporter and critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.