New Act: COT executive director reflects on 13 years with the company
Fifty years in the opera business, thirteen of which have been spent as executive director of Chicago Opera Theater, Brian Dickie is hanging up his hat to spend some time with family and a few side projects. Chicago Classical Music caught up with Dickie, who shepherded the young company into its new home in downtown Chicago and challenges opera goers to see themselves in the fresh, contemporary interpretations of classic works and characters.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when you took over Chicago Opera Theater?
What was clear to me was that if Chicago Opera Theater was going to move to the new downtown space at Harris Theater, and was to be seen beside the great arts institutions in the city with international reputations (the Art Institute, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera, and Goodman Theatre), it needed to be more. It was doing serious work and it had keen people who went to it, but I sought to make it so that the company that was producing performances of the highest possible standards. We would pay attention to what Lyric and others were doing but it wouldn't seek to compete, just seek to add to the experiences of opera goers. By the time we got to move to the Harris Theater in 2004, we had already staked a claim as a nationally and internationally recognized organization.
What are some of the ways Chicago Opera Theater provides a unique and complementary opera experience?
Almost always, we put on new productions. We don't borrow and recycle existing sets or costumes, which does set us apart from the vast majority of companies on the country. I suppose we've also become known for selecting interesting directors and designers, which has brought a degree of freshness to the repertoire.
We try as hard as possible on the artistic side to create productions that people can recognize the characters; these characters on the stage are not dusty relics of some past era, but flesh and blood human beings who audiences can understand.
You often pick unexpected directors and designers for productions. What do you look for?
I look for people who are collaborative and willing to work within constraints that are imposed by a company that doesn't have a lot of funding. By and large, people who have come from the theater world, as opposed to the opera world, are able to adapt the challenges this company faces on a continuing basis, because those challenges are similar to those in the theater. What I don't necessarily look for are people who are experienced opera directors, but people involved do have to be responsive to music.
When did you find your passion for music?
I got into opera when I was eight years old, because I had a music teacher who was all about music appreciation. He'd play old 78 gramophone records of opera, and so I really came to love it. The ability to express these universal feelings which define the human spirit, with such depth and many layers of music and singing is unique.
What has been one thing you've learned working at COT?
Running a very small company is much more difficult than a large company, especially with such a lean budget!
If you had to give advice to a young artist just starting out, what would it be?
Find a top class situation right at the start of your career. When you've got your foot in the door make yourself indispensible. You have to have a passionate commitment too.
What's after COT?
I have nine grandkids-eight of which are boys from ages one to twelve. I'm going to continue to do some work for foundations and other projects, but want to spend a good amount of time with my family. I'm not retiring-I guess just running a different kind of company!