A Stellar Career: Director Lesley Koenig

Lesley Koenig has worn many hats. From Stage Manager for San Francisco Opera at the age of seventeen to the youngest-ever stage director at the Metropolitan Opera at twenty-three, to General Manager of the San Francisco Ballet to consulting with Stanford University’s Institute for Creativity and the Arts, she has covered more bases than almost any arts manager in recent history. Her love of opera is legendary.

I remember from my days at the Met hearing her called to the stage over the P.A. System and watching Lesley’s high-energy directing from the pit, but we had never actually met. I was delighted to sit down with this brilliant live wire to chat about her upcoming production of Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila at San Diego Opera.

EM: It’s such a pleasure to finally meet you!

LK: And you!

EM: First of all, I just have to know how you became such an opera devotee.

LK: When I was growing up in San Francisco, I listened to the Met radio broadcasts – with my cat, who hated Samson and Delilah but liked Wagner. I fell in love with all of it.

EM: Is it true you decided you wanted to direct opera at age eight?

LK: My mom was active in the San Francisco Opera Guild. After school I used to help her with mass mailings; my job was to sort zip codes. One day, (head of ticketing) Margaret Norton visited us and asked if I wanted to see a rehearsal. Of course I said yes, and she took me backstage. I just loved the atmosphere. I asked, “Who’s in charge of all this?” She replied, “The Director.” I knew right then that was what I wanted to do.

EM: At age ten you had a meeting with Kurt Herbert Adler, the General Director of San Francisco Opera. What was that like?

LK: He was very nice, not intimidating at all, and he offered me valuable wisdom. Most memorable was: “In the course of your career, as you climb the ladder, you may step on some toes. Whatever happens, just be sure you do a great job.”

EM: How did your love of and knowledge of opera grow?

LK: As an undergrad at Harvard I observed how an opera was put together. I was asked to take notes, give entrances, read music cues to the conductor. I learned how to prepare the staging and taught myself to have a whole opera in my head without ever studying music theory. Then at Harvard Law School I decided I wanted to run a company and set my sights on that.

EM: And you started at the top!

LK: I was offered a position as Director of New York City Opera, but I didn’t like the feeling there. Around the same time I met with Joe Volpe at the Met, and waited for two weeks before hearing back. I gave an interview – in four languages – and must have done extremely well, because he offered me a job. After that I went ten years without a vacation, directing there and eventually all over: New York, Chicago, Salzburg, France. But I was away from family, never seeing anything of the cities, always working: detailed preparation before arrival, long days of tech rehearsals. It was brutal. I also found I disagreed with many of the companies’ business decisions. I couldn’t understand why valuable artists were let go. I decided I wanted to direct and run a performing arts organization. But I knew I had to understand the business side of the arts.

EM: And you went at it with a vengeance.

LK: I stopped directing for a while. I studied at City College of New York first, but I wanted to be in a pretty place, so I went to Stanford, which smelled of Eucalyptus and reminded me of home. I studied calculus, statistics, accounting, bonds and annuities, winning awards at both places. But it was tough, living in the dorms, being so much older than the other students. And my first efforts at a computer were tricky. I also was told I spent too much time writing papers, that I should limit myself to twenty minutes. Best advice ever. That’s what “management” is all about. But meanwhile I was dealing with life-threatening blood clots in my lungs and excruciating pain. Terrifying.

EM: Yet you still got your MBA in only two years.

LK: After grad school I did “odd” jobs, like helping bright, disadvantaged students in a special program at Stanford Business School – great training in non-profit studies. Then I heard San Francisco Ballet was looking for someone to do strategic planning. I called SFB and found out their most vital need was sustainability and balancing their budget, a huge challenge in a recession. Over a six-month period there, I worked out a five-year plan for 2003-2008. In 2008, the seventy-fifth anniversary, we had ten world premieres. It was a huge success.

EM: But you didn’t stop there. You were in great demand elsewhere.

LK: I interviewed for manager at the Met, San Francisco Opera, Covent Garden, Chicago Lyric and Dallas Opera. In the process I learned how to make sure the job was actually as good as it looked. I also had a natural curiosity about things I’d never done before. Ultimately I chose to run Opera Boston because it was so innovative; they did operas you’d never see anywhere else. My first commission won a Pulitzer, the first in forty-nine years for an opera.

EM: Tell me how you see a director’s role, and how it applies to your current production at SDO.

LK: As director I’m responsible for everything from pure aesthetic decisions to the nitty-gritty, the look of things. I prepare carefully, figure it all out ahead of time, including costumes – I wanted the High Priest to look sexy! (laughs). Plus I set the atmosphere of the ensemble. I have to be a skilled negotiator, to see what people need and make them laugh even if they can’t stand each other. We work hard, but it’s fun, everyone has a good time. Samson is the first opera I’ve directed in thirteen years. I’ve done it twice before and this time I have very different ideas.

EM: Please elaborate.

LK: I establish the intimacy between Samson and Dalila early on. They’ve never seen each other before, yet they can barely keep their hands off each other. The High Priest is also physically interested in Dalila, but his love remains unrequited so instead he just manipulates, a magician who makes Act One happen. It’s a kind of love triangle competition between the two men. And the cast is superb. It’s Nadia’s (Krasteva’s) first time as Dalila. Her voice is extraordinary; she never sings chest tones. And she’s beautiful on stage – she even dances. Cliff (Clifton Forbis) has sung Samson before, but he’s open to new ways of playing it. And he looks gorgeous, trust me!

EM: How about lighting, scenery and props?

LK: I participate in everything. I like it simple, nothing extraneous, a clean background with good lighting. I cut useless props to such an extreme they call me “Coupée Koenig” (laughs). Telling the story is the most important thing. I integrate the dance into it; Dalila takes part, as does the chorus. French opera may need dance, but it needs gorgeous moments more. I make the Bacchanale the point of the story.

EM: How is it working with SDO after a long absence?

LK: I love it here. SDO takes care of their artists, from airport pickup to the rehearsal hall. Everything I need is there; I want for nothing. There’s great respect for the cast. And it’s a very tight ship. I can work fast. The rehearsal process is smooth, the stage manager superb, the support staff heartwarming. Ian makes it easy, he’s respectful of what everyone wants. There’s good humor, camaraderie. We have a running joke with the Ten Commandment tablets: “Thou shalt not let the Director make mistakes.” (laughs). The chorus and supers are a delight, even the kid who leads the blind Samson is smart as a whip, not just a prop. Plus I get to walk the beach each morning, looking for sand dollars. What could be better?

EM: Are you especially drawn to French opera? What would you like to direct that you haven’t yet done?

LK: Pelleas, Lohengrin, Boris Godunov, Kovanschina, Otello, Falstaff – anything but bel canto. I’ve had such luck to direct so many operas, and I started off with the best: Vickers, Horne, Domingo, Verrett. I’ve told the Three Tenors what to do! Though some divas had trouble being directed by a woman, especially one who is younger than they are.

EM: I for one can’t wait to see the results of your efforts on stage this weekend. Thank you!

LK: My pleasure!