The Artist Interviews: Ned Canty, Opera Director
Ned Canty is a stage director with credits from companies such as Glimmerglass Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Santa Fe Opera and New York City Opera. The New York Times has described his stage direction as having "a startling combination of sensitivity and panache," and Opera News said, "The future of American opera is in good hands." As Festival Director of the New York Television Festival since 2005, he helped the organization grow into a nationally recognized forum for the discovery of new television talent, as well as a leader in the exploration of digital and new media storytelling.Canty's career in opera reflects a strong interest in working with emerging artists. He has helped to inspire a new generation of singers through his work with leading opera companies and major conservatories such as The Curtis Institute, The Juilliard School, the Israeli Vocal Arts Institute and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. He has collaborated with a number of composers and librettists on the development of new works through American Opera Projects and has directed world premieres for AOP in New York and Tel Aviv. A self-described “pop culture omnivore,” Canty is a firm believer in the relevance of opera to all generations and takes special interest in introducing opera to new audiences.
Can you start by giving us a description of the work that you do?
I am currently the General Director of Opera Memphis, a job I've held since January of 2011. I've been working as a freelance director for about 15 years now, working primarily in opera, although I started out in theater. The freelance part of my career will probably continue in some form in the years to come, but right now one hundred percent of my focus is on running Opera Memphis.
Early Arts Education
So going back to your early education, how much of your early theater education exposure happened at home, how much happened at school? Did you consider yourself an actor as a kid? How did all this start?
Yeah, you know I think like a lot of other people in the arts, I found that being in the theater crowd or doing plays was just an easy way to make friends and meet girls. In my case, you know I think that was probably my number one reason for getting into it in high school: it was an easy way to meet girls especially going to an all boys high school and we had an all girls high school that we shared with for production. So it was a great way to find a girlfriend.You know I think going back further than that, I went to a Catholic school early on so I didn't actually get a lot of arts education. It was a fairly small school. If we did, I don't remember much of it. But at home, I was exposed to a lot of music: on the popular side from my father who was sort of a Beatles man and on the music theatre side from my mother who was a big fan of it and that involved everything from taking us down to see shows in New York on occasion, to watching West Side story on a Saturday afternoon with her in the living room.But I had very little exposure to opera. I didn't see my first opera until I was eighteen, in fact, and I didn't see my second until I was twenty-six.
Did your parents have any sort of positive or negative attitude about you ultimately ending up with a career in the arts? Did they have any thing to say about that one way or the other?Sure. You know when I made the decision in high school that I thought I wanted to be an actor, that was the initial decision, my father was, he was supportive, he thought I was good but he said, "You know you just need to make sure that you have skills that are going to keep you alive while you try to do this." Which, you know, was actually fantastic advice. I think it's advice that I think that everybody should get if they want to do this: if you have a skills as a graphic designer or if you can make webpages or you can bartend or whatever, having those job end skills is incredibly useful and it would have served me well.I'm actually pretty lucky in that, with the exception of about two months in 1993, I've pretty much made a living entirely from theatre or opera since I graduated college. But I think I did make sure that I had some knowledge or some skills or some abilities outside of my field in case I wanted to do something else.
On my mother's side, she’d worked in human resources for a couple of decades at that point, and the way that she felt was that undergrad education is primarily about following your passion: seeing where you stand, just trying to soak everything up and that, really, grad education is—if you were going to pursue something like the arts—you might get a graduate degree to pursue that or you might go on and do something else. She had a—I forget the exact statistic—but she could say that a majority of CEO's or people at a certain level in business had studied philosophy or English or whatever. They weren't focused on business. So she was very supportive of me just doing something that I was passionate about at that age.
I love the bit that you just threw in there the bit about the bartender because everyone is so loath to admit that we may end up having to do something else. As you may know, there's a lot of conversation about arts education and arts assessment specifically; a lot of people posit that assessment of the art kills passion for the work or that telling students that they're doing something incorrectly or creating some sort of standard in the arts is not only an impossibility but also an insult to the craft. Can you talk about rules and discipline as they’re applicable to what you were doing in high school or to the work you do now? I’m really interested in parameters and discipline and whether or not that's an integral part of your experience as an artist and a director.
You know, in some ways it does depend on the art form you're in. You know there is a certain limited set of things on a craft basis; for example, if you're trying to sing a C, you are either are singing a C or you're not, and if you're trying to play something, you're either hitting the notes or you’re not. So on a craft level, I do think that there are certain objective measures.
I think, though, that on a subjective level in terms of teaching people how to be artists, I think you know there really is no way to measure that. The ineffables are really the things that turn you from a craftsman to an artist are precisely the things that can’t be measured.Although, it's funny we're talking about this because now that I'm running a company, a large part of our money comes from grants, from various foundations. Of course there is a desire to make sure that you can measure what the effect of what you're doing on an audience level, and that's something that I'm really trying to figure out what is the most true way to measure someone's subjective experience of watching an artistic experience? I haven't thought as much about the objective experience of learning the arts.
You know I will say that there's something--I don't know how measurable this is—but it makes me think. Some of the best lessons in art I learned were actually not from art classes; they were from English classes or economics classes or something else. I had a fellow who taught a class in high school on short stories and we spend a lot of time reading but we also had to write three throughout the course of the year. I had a friend who had this very kind of post modern, weird, abstract writing style and he wrote a story that way and the teacher didn't accept it. [The teacher] said, "You know I think what you're doing is really interesting but before you break the rules of writing a story, you need to prove to me that you know what those rules are and you need to send in the kind of story that we've been reading all semester." And so this fellow did write a story that you could have read in the New Yorker in 1965 or whatever. I mean, he handed in a story that followed all the rules, whatever they might have been—and he got an A. Once he did that, teacher said, "Your next two, do whatever you want. Follow your passion." So I think that there's something to the idea that, if you're going to be an artist, a really good entry point is being a good craftsman or craftsperson. There are exercises that are objective, there is a kind of history or understanding of how the world views the art form, all of those things that can be measured to a certain extent—my knowledge of composers or librettists or opera history or art history or whatever. You know, those are things that could be measured on a test, and I think it's useful to know them. But really, to make it to the next level, to create art that's worth supporting and worth watching, it's really all about how I connect those pieces and share that knowledge or share that insight with an audience, and that's much harder to measure.
Right. This is something that I've always argued about creativity. You know we talk about creativity as this divine light that sort of comes down and hits you and suddenly you've had this creative moment. But the truth of our creative experience is largely that we're doing exactly what you said, we're making these connections across all kinds of disciplines and experiences and ideas and ultimately how we weave them together really sort of defines our work and who we are as artists. So I'm really interested in uncovering those moments where your identity as an artist -- and that can be as a director, I mean, you can frame it however you want—but how your identity as an artist really got its foothold or moments where you really felt empowered to take what felt like big steps at the time for your own artistic development. Are there key influential people or events that come to mind that sort of got you where you are on the path of becoming a professional artist?
Wow. You know, there have been a lot of people who have sort of contributed bits of pieces of it. I think that there's, as a director I think my biggest influence actually was probably an acting teacher by the name of Bill Graham at Catholic University where I went because he was really imparted the philosophy of why do you theater, why are you in this, why are you perusing this rather than some other field? I think the word that he used more often than any other word was "generosity," and that's a word that I tend to use a lot in my own work and it's something that I look for. I think making great art is incredibly difficult and I think that if people do not approach it especially in something as collaborative as opera where you have so many people who need to work together and pull in the same direction. If somebody doesn't approach it with a spirit of generosity and humility, you're kind of sunk and you can do good art or even really, really, really good art but not great art if there's anything grudging about it. I think that's something that I really believe in.I also know that there are directors who specialize in sort of questioning the spirits of people they work with and getting them to do as with puppets to do whatever they want to tell a particular story. But I just don't know that that ever creates the highest form of art and the sort of highest level of story telling. I just can't believe that.
Was there a moment where something happened where you realized that you were actually quite good at it? I know that's a terrible question but was there?The goal of the question is to establish how this happens, like how you get from high-school-kid-in-theater to where you are. So if we're going to be empower people to understand it and foster it in ways that really matter and leave behind ways that don't matter, then I think that those are the kinds of things that have to be told.
Sure. I don't know that I've ever really thought about it. There have been a lot of moments. You know, I think from an early age I knew that I could make people laugh and that was something that I do remember there was a moment in grammar school, in I guess let’s see, it probably would have been the third grade. You know, the teacher had left the room and I started, I don't know, some running monologue and I was making all the girls at my table laugh and I remember thinking, "Wow, this is something I can do. I'm entertaining. "I think once you have that moment where you recognize that you were able to basically tell a good story—and it all comes down to that in one way or another; I think once you realize that, the die has sort of cast. Certainly there have been moments…I can think of one in particular when I was directing "A Month in the Country" at the Manhattan School of Music. There was a moment in one performance where, at the climax, there's this moment of complete silence where everything's sort of teetering, where, without giving you the whole plot, basically a character been asked to say goodbye to this other character. Everybody's waiting for her to say goodbye and she's sort of teetering on this decision of whether or not to turn around and say goodbye to this person. It's a pausa lunga there in the score and she had these rose clippers—she’s over with her roses—and I'd gotten these really noisy, loud clippers that made that kind of SHINK! sound that clippers make. So her husband is saying, "For gods sakes, at least say goodbye to him" and then there's this silence, and then she breaks the silence not by saying anything, or by musical moment but by closing these clippers and clipping, continuing to clip her roses. There was one performance out of four where, when this moment happened, it was one of the moments of true, pure silence that you have in the theater where nobody rustles, nobody moves, nobody clears their throat and you can just feel the fact that everyone in the room is there with the story. I don't know if it's a moment that made me think, "Gosh I'm really good at this", but it was a moment that really gave me clarity in terms of what it is we're trying to do. You know that this is the moment that you are constantly reaching for and working towards, and the fact that you only get it one percent of one percent of the time, to be quite honest and frank, is the jackpot that you occasionally get that keeps you pulling the handle of the one armed bandit in pursuit of the incredible crack cocaine of that moment.
Choosing a College and Major
That's a great story. Okay, so back to school. How did you end up at Catholic University in particular? Why that one? And I know you have degrees in drama and philosophy: can you tell us why you have a philosophy degree?
I have a philosophy degree because I got into the Honors Program and the Honors Program at Catholic had a lot of classes where the emphasis was put on being able to talk and articulate and argue and less on memorization and that sort of thing. That suited my learning style and it sounded like an interesting way to create a coherent way of looking at the world, would be the way to be to follow this particular path and certainly those courses that I took have had an immense impact on just the way that I organize my thoughts and the way that I organize my particular world. So I do think in, you know at the age of 18, a lot of it is, in all honesty if somebody says, "Hey, you got into the Honors Program! Do you want to be in the honors program?" …and of course you say yes because you think like, "Hey this is great, I got into the honors program! What do I do?" Sometimes that works out quite well, as I think it did for me. Other times, you know I look back at high school where I do well enough on some language test on my entry exam that instead of taking Latin like everybody else, I was given the chance to take Greek because I had this good score, and so I took four years of Ancient Greek in high school instead of taking four years of Latin—and I look back now and I kick myself because Latin would have been incredibly useful in my everyday life and, especially working in opera where it's the root of Italian and the root of all these other languages that operas were written in, whereas Greek has not really been that useful to me (other than helping my wife when she went back to school for veterinary science that I could tell her the roots of medical words, that's really the only use I've had for it in years).
That was a choice that I made out of people telling me that it was an honor to be doing this, so I went along with it—it sounded like fun at the time. As far as why I ended up at Catholic, the truth of the matter is, I got a full scholarship there and again, just in terms of the pragmatic nature of how these things work, I thought, “Well, if I can study theater and get out of four years of school and not have any debt hanging over my head, I'm going to have a real leg up on everybody else. And that actually proved to be entirely true. It meant that when I got out of college without any debts, I was able to do some internships and some things for no—or virtually no—money that, if I had to work and work and work overtime to pay off college debts I don't know that I would have been able to take those opportunities.
The Value of Struggling
I think it's really interesting to look at your coursework, since you ultimately told us that your real skill is that you're an excellent storyteller and that's what you use and refine as a director, that, ultimately, all of the philosophy that you studied really sort of frames or you know provided an exploration of the world in which you are going to be telling these stories. Philosophy and drama actually work in tandem really well; it's important to me to observe that because it's so easy to parse out the arts from philosophy, from science, from math, and I think that the ways that they integrate ultimately makes these really rich experiences. So I'm actually expecting a no from this question, but was there ever a point where somebody shot you down, like, "Dude, you really ought to go into accounting?"
There have been plenty of those, gosh-- you know most of them though it's good. You need those moments because if you don't have to fight for it, if you don't to struggle for it, then you won't really know how to value it. There were moments like that: as an actor, where an acting teacher said to me in some class… you know I was always very good with text. I was always very articulate. I'm fairly tall so that was always helpful on stage. In my senior year of college I had a teacher basically say to me, "You know, when you act, I'm always aware of you outside yourself looking in. I'm always sort of aware that it's you."
It was crushing. I mean I was heartbroken. In hindsight that was one of the things that made me realize that my skills are not best suited for being an actor: really, I'm a director, just like so many of us who start out with acting because that's what you can do. You don't get hired to direct your high school show in high school, so you start out doing what you can do. That one proved very useful. There have been others as a director. One of the interesting things about [directing] is you often get praised for things that you had nothing to do with. In some cases, you get praised for things you actively tried to prevent—that just happened to me. [laughter] But you often get blamed for a lot of things that are beyond your control, and so there have definitely been times where I directed projects or directed shows that have just not worked. [I wouldn’t say that that they’ve] really been failures because I think in some ways, when you do something that is bold and fails, that's just one thing. I think that true failure, especially in an art form like opera, is just doing something that is relentlessly mediocre and that is more harmful long-term to the health of the art form than anything else. I think that the worse thing you can do is accept something that's mediocre, and really I think a lot of the time in opera your struggle is not between something being a disaster and something being great; it's a struggle between something being mediocre and something being great. I think as a director, you're one of the few people who can address core issues or, certainly, you’re expected to be the person who pulls everything together. It's really you and the conductor who are expected to pull everything together, and if it doesn't all come together, if you can't overcome the obstacles in front of you, it gets laid on your lap.
I think there have been times, there have been shows, one show in particular where I feel like I didn't overcome the obstacles set in front of me and the show did end up being just okay. I mean, it wasn't terrible; the audience loved it. The audience gave it a standing ovation every night. And yet, there was something about it that was just unsatisfactory to me about the experience of it. Again, it wasn't somebody sort of saying, "You know wow you should really go into accounting." It was sort of me saying to myself, “you know should I really be going into accounting or advertising or something else?” If you’re a director—I know, myself included—we’re always our worst critics, because what you’ve got in your head is the perfect production put together of every best moment you ever had in rehearsal; it’s this sort of Platonic ideal of what the show can be. You're constantly trying to make it that and the odds of success of ever really reaching that internally are stacked against you and I think any director worth their salt would probably agree with that: your job is to get as close as possible, like an arc that bends towards infinity. The closer you get to perfection, the harder it gets to have any kind of incremental improvements of the show. It's rare that you ever get that feeling that every single thing you wanted to happen, every single moment you wanted to happen, is perfect.
The metaphor I often use is that producing opera is like getting twenty people to stand around a football field. They've all go a bow and arrow and on the count of three, they're all going to shoot their arrows into the air and they're all going to have all twenty of them hit in midair. It's a virtually impossible thing. And yet, when it happens, it's so incredibly powerfully that you keep trying to make it happen because the payoff is so immense, so much more wonderful than anything else. I think that, while I've had my share of great reviews and my share of terrible reviews, and I've had one or two people who've just been so relentlessly unpleasant as colleagues that I've wanted to go into something else, that's definitely been the exception rather the rule.
Loving Pop Culture
I read somewhere that you're really into pop culture. Is that true?
That is 100% true, yeah.
It's so counter-intuitive to me. Can you talk about that as being somebody that directs this art form that people have been doing to exacting standards for hundreds of years. Like what kind of pop culture are we talking about here?
We're talking everything from you know Top Chef on Bravo to… I play a lot of video games, I love the story telling of video games… the kinds of music I listen to. My last job, before I took over Opera Memphis, I ran the New York Television Festival. I was festival director there for six years, and really, television runs a gamut of the lowest forms of popular culture all the way up to the highest forms of popular culture.
You know again, opera, when it was written, was essentially popular culture. There's nothing inherently better or worse about Boheme than about Jersey Shore. And really, at the end of the day it's all storytelling. Tosca famously was called “a shabby little shocker.” Some of the operas and there is every bit the earthiness and vulgarity in opera that there is in pop culture just the same way that there's every bit the depth of feeling and emotion that there is in a show like Deadwood or The Wire or anything like that.Any kind of popular culture runs a gamut from very, very bad to very, very good. and since all of them are about telling a story effectively, then all of them are worth watching and worth taking in. Opera, especially in this country, labors under this incredibly heavy burden of the idea that, as an “elitist” art form, that it’s hard and inaccessible. Anybody who loves the art form can tell you that that's just patently false and that it you know that while there are certain things like reading titles if you don't speak the original language, certain things that you need to do slightly differently, there is no inherent difference between good story telling in any field.It just so happens that opera, because you've got a story being told through music and words together, is a more intense form of story telling than some others.I would say with video games, for instance, are really one of the only new forms of storytelling we've seen in hundreds and hundreds of years because they allow the level of participation in the story that other forms of art often do not. I think that looking at that and trying to track how that sort of art form changes the way people take in information just makes me better at my job.
I always say that I learned to love opera from watching MTV. I'm 40 years old. I grew up watching MTV, so the idea of words, music, and visuals blending together to tell a single story? That's something that I learned at a very young age and I learned it from Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson before I ever learned it from Mozart.
Arts Education and Advice to Young Artists
That's such a compelling answer. I'm totally buying it hook, line and sinker and I went into it with a total raised eyebrow. That's is just so interesting. Is there anything that you encounter or that you've seen or that you know about arts education that is bugging you that you wish that you saw more of? Or, if you ran into a young artist who's 15 right now and not yet aware of where he may be going, is there something that you might say to him or advise him to do? Take free reign.
Sure. I would say the most important thing, really for any artist—but I think for opera singers or opera artists more than any other field—is it's very important to not spend all of your time with too narrow of focus. To be a great artist in opera requires knowledge of art and history, and literature, and all of these connections that you need to make, so what I encourage especially younger singers to do is to just try and get into the habit of comparing the things that they watch to other things. If they're seeing a romantic comedy, well, how is this different or similar to the Barber of Seville, which is essentially a romantic comedy. The themes in Barber of Seville are the exact same themes that were in Say Anything or Pretty in Pink—movies I loved growing up. I would say that there needs to be a larger emphasis on making the connections between all the different art forms so that when you are responsible—as you are as an opera singer for putting them all together—that you will have some background for that. I'm actually going to cheat and say two things in this because this one is very singer specific: I think that, while I love a lot of the comedy that exists today in popular culture, from The Office to Will Ferrell to anyone, really any modern comedy from Monty Python on relies on a sort of Meta comedy: surrealism, understatement. [It involves] a sometimes sort of hipper –than-thou hyper-cynicism. All of those things can work in film and on TV and are incredibly, incredibly difficult to do in operatic comedy. If you really want to be able to perform operatic comedy, you need to go back and study the great silent comedians. You need to study Buster Keaton; you need to study the Marx Brothers; you need to watch movies like Singing in the Rain. You need to watch screwball comedies from the 50's and 60's because you need to understand how comedy was done before we reached this surrealist point where comedy collapsed into itself and became very self aware. Rossini is itself aware in its own way, in its own theatrical way, and you can sometimes utilize that in a way. But you really need to understand not only the comedy of these artists but also the comedy that your audience grew up watching, and, until the majority of the audience for opera is 40 and under, or the audience ages to the point where it's all people who grew up watching Monty Python and all these things, you need to understand the craft of comedy, if you really want to be a comic artist.
That's great advice. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.