An unusual bequest of red-colored records changed Cori Ellison’s life at the age of seven.
The records from her grandfather led Ellison to become an opera dramaturg, and now the first ever to be appointed at Glyndebourne Festival Opera in the U.K.
“The color of those opaque records intrigued me when I was a girl,” says Ellison. “That’s the reason I played them. It turned out they were Mario Lanza recordings, and I was blown away. From that moment on, I listened to everything I could find. I immediately became a hardcore opera geek.”
Although most German opera houses employ one, in the U.K. and U.S., they’re a much rarer breed, she says. They’re so rare, in fact, that I’ve never knowingly met one. To remedy that, I’ve traveled to the rolling Sussex countryside to chat with Ellison.
I find a small American dynamo who appears to live, eat, drink and breathe opera, and who beams happily at her good fortune in finding herself at Glyndebourne. Dressed in loose dark clothes, she welcomes me into her office.
The first question is the obvious one: what does she actually do? If she’s had to explain her job a hundred times already to ignoramuses like me, it doesn’t show. She talks with cheerful enthusiasm and passion.
“Partly my role is to interpret what the company does for audiences via publications, programs, study days, podcasts, and so on,” she says. “I try to give them the information that will really help their enjoyment when they come here.”
The new production at Glyndebourne is Rameau’s “Hippolyte et Aricie.” Ellison has split the program into pieces about the director’s vision, the conventions of French baroque opera, and the power of the Phaedra legend behind the opera.
There’s another aspect to her job too.
“As with so many opera companies,” she says, “there are now teams of people who work here who are not necessarily experts in opera. The general director sensed a need for an internal figure who could get everybody on the same page.”
How can she help do that?
“I’ve just given a talk for everyone -- from the receptionists to the management -- about the whole season. So marketing will be selling the same thing that development is fundraising for and the education department is working on. You’d be surprised how frequently that’s not the case with opera companies.”
When I ask general director David Pickard why he’s appointed a dramaturg for the first time, he’s keen to stress what the job isn’t, before he gets on to what it is.
“We didn’t want a dramaturg in the German mould,” he says. “One director asked me if Cori would be sitting in the back of rehearsals, telling him what to do. No, is the answer.”
In Germany dramaturgs often approach opera from a radical academic and philosophical standpoint, and are known for their policing of intellectual concepts -- sometimes outlandish ones - - in rehearsal.
“Cori is here to pull together all the audience-facing communication about the pieces and productions we do. And she’s an amazing resource for directors too. I like to think I know a bit about opera: she puts me in the shade.”
Ellison was formerly a dramaturg at New York City Opera for 13 years, and is now freelance. How did she come to work in this rare job?
“I trained as a mezzo,” she says. “I noticed when I was studying that my impulses were different from other students. I wanted to go to the library, find the background of a piece, research the context, translate the words, and only then practice the music. I didn’t have quite the same tunnel vision as others.”
After her training, Ellison began to sing with regional American opera companies. Word got around that she was also good at program notes and she was asked to do more and more.
“I had all this scattered operatic knowledge,” she says, “and didn’t know what to do with it. Then suddenly my path called to me. I began to freelance as a dramaturg. It was what I was born to do, and I didn’t even have a name for it until adulthood.”
She tells me later that one of the roles of a dramaturg is “to be the conscience of an opera house”.
Could she elaborate?
“Sometimes, when I see outlandish productions, I feel like a curator of a museum who finds a moustache painted on the Mona Lisa. I want to be the best possible advocate for a composer and librettist who are no longer there to speak for themselves.”
Isn’t she supporting a common complaint there against opera -- that it’s a museum?
“What’s wrong with that?” she says defiantly. “Aren’t museums good things?”
She’s right, they are. Especially in the hands of a great curator.
The Glyndebourne season runs through Aug. 25. Rameau’s “Hippolyte et Aricie” is now being staged.
For information: http://www.glyndebourne.com
Muse highlights include London and New York weekend guides, Scott Reyburn on the art market, Jeremy Gerard on U.S. theater and Martin Gayford on U.K. art exhibitions.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)