The new executive director of the Anchorage Opera is feeling free.
"When I thought of moving out from Austin it was not moving out here and thinking we couldn't do the same high level artistic product than in any other city," says Kevin Patterson, who as of last July has overseen the business and artistic side of the Anchorage Opera, one of the largest opera companies in the Northwest.
Patterson has worked in opera around the nation: Grand Rapids, Palm Beach, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. Most recently he was the General Director of the Austin Opera. On the prospect of directing productions in Anchorage, Patterson said, "It's tremendously liberating. You can create all the productions from scratch. I just couldn't do that in Austin," where everything from props to singers was for the most part already pre-determined.
"But in Anchorage, because of distance, shipping, you have to arrange for many things in isolation, which makes it more interesting and artistic, in some ways far more creative than the Lower 48," Patterson said.
This season's schedule attests to this innovation in isolation. Anchorage will be the site of a world premiere opera by Los Angeles-based composer Victoria Bond, called Mrs. President. It tells the story of Victoria Woodhall, who in 1872 became the first woman to run for president. At 34, she was a year too young to appear on the ballot, and her "Free Love" party did not have a huge impact on Ulysses S. Grant's eventual victory. Woodhall ran mostly to make a statement, just as she used the daily newspaper she founded to denounce hypocrites in high places. Her audacity landed her in jail on several occasions.
Mrs. President opens the opera season on Oct. 5. Bond spent nearly a decade researching the story and composing the score. It seems to have paid off-music critic and blogger Chris McGovern wrote of a preview performance that it "is bound to become an American opera classic."
Patterson did not select Mrs. President or the other two major productions, Tosca and My Fair Lady. Though he agrees with the choices, he's acting as more of an "artistic caretaker" this season.
The Anchorage Opera has faced criticism that it is straying too far from opera into musicals. Patterson plans to return the focus on opera.
"I would like to see more fully produced opera-there have been concert versions of opera and a pretty steady diet of musicals. I'm not going to abandon that, but as an opera company when musical theater becomes a serious part of your season you start to have identity issues."
He plans to give audiences "very, very high-quality opera" while exploring the "facets of the opera repertoire that don't get seen much."
This includes chamber opera, which uses a much smaller ensemble than a full orchestra. "It allows the audience to experience something that you can't get at a traditional opera house, where you're 40, 50 feet away from the stage," Patterson said.
Patterson is still researching places in Anchorage to hold these performances, but they will definitely be held out of the Performing Arts Center.
In addition to arranging performances, part of Patterson's role as executive director of the AO is education.
"We have educated a generation of people like me, in their 40s, who have hard times with opera, symphony, jazz," Patterson said. "It's not the economy or this or that. I think it's education."
Patterson said he is going to follow the example of stellar music programs like those in Pittsburgh.
"I'd like to introduce programs that are more than inviting little Johnny or little Susie to say, 'Hey, you watched Tosca.' Then during the performance they have to sit still and not interrupt the music. It's not a good environment to have a rich experience with music."
Though arts programs frequently face cuts to make room for a more "useful" curriculum, Patterson hopes to make opera undeniably relevant. He is working with the school district and the Alaska Council of Arts to make programs that form a curriculum "that works in tandem with other subjects" like history, language, science, and math.
Patterson sees some opera companies as being too restrictive in their educational offerings, focusing on telling people why opera is grand rather than showing its possible relevance in their lives.
"That's the obligation art companies have lost. They've looked at kids as future subscribers. But to do that you have to look at more than taking them and putting them in a seat. You have to have an educational dialogue that goes beyond three hours in the theater."