RapidChat: James Meena, Opera Grand Rapids' new artistic director

Between the large wigs, dramatic costumes, and elaborate sets, going to the opera can be quite the tantalizing experience. While the theatrics can be intimidating, opera, at its core, comes down to very simple stories about love, relationships, and human emotion. This ability to celebrate and explore humanity is one of the reasons why Maestro James Meena, the new artistic director for the Grand Rapids Opera, looks forward to connecting with, and building, audiences in West Michigan.
Forget about Netflix. Opera Grand Rapids' new artistic director, James Meena, is determined to make people of all ages fall in love with a different form of entertainment: the opera.
RapidChat: How did you get your start in the field?
James Meena: I have always been a musician of one sort or another. I started off as a kid playing piano and cello. I then migrated a little bit to the violin, not for too long -- but long enough. I went to undergrad at Baldwin Wallace University in Cleveland and then went to Carnegie Mellon University for the first class of conducting students in a Master’s degree program. From there, I got into the opera house by accident. One of the great things about CMU was they wanted us to be assistants on a lot of different things.
When I graduated from Carnegie Opera, the first call I got was from Pittsburgh Opera House. So, really, that was my first experience in the opera house. Previously I had gone to the opera, but not often. What I like to say to the singers is that I got the opera bug.
RG: Where did that “opera bug” launch your career to next?
JM: I worked with the Pittsburg Symphony as well. That’s kind of how you cut your teeth as a conductor; you watch and work with experienced conductors. That’s how you learn the repertory and the nuisances and all the issues you need to deal with an orchestra. With an opera, you have to deal with the stages, the wigs, and so forth. The multiplicities of the opera house are enormous; there are so many moving pieces. We often say opera is a disaster waiting to happen.
RG: You are now the artistic director for Opera Grand Rapids. Is it a normal transition to go from conductor to that role?
JM: As artistic director I am responsible for programming, physical productions, costumes, the numbers in the chorus…all of the elements that are required to produce a high-level opera. It’s just different. You have more influence on how the organization sees the mission. For example, we need to ask ourselves, how do we engage our community? And how do we connect the organization with as many community members as possible?
RG: What is the significance in the growth of the opera here in Grand Rapids?
JM: The thing is, every community is talking about this. About using the arts to create dynamic communities. But the opera has to do far more in order to engage people; we can’t just put an advertisement out. But in order to do this, you need to break down the communities -- because every community is different. Whether they are younger, art students, never been to an art performance, or so forth. It’s something Opera GR has embraced. It’s just about talking about next steps.
RG: Is re-branding the opera one of the tasks Opera Grand Rapids specifically sought you out to do?
JM: Re-branding was a goal regardless of who they had hired because nationally the opera is re-branding itself. You see it in so many opera companies and orchestras. In the United States, maybe even worldwide, the demographics have changed and fewer people have references with classical art.
I don’t want to blame anyone, but we have focused less on educating our youth on classical art. It’s devastating in a way to traditional arts intuitions. The good news is, at the same time, through our university system we have been educating older people in classical music. There’s a large group of people entering the workforce who do have a background. But one of the things that have gotten diluted is the way they communicate the information. It is much easier to stay at home and watch Netflix or download a classical performance online, as opposed to the whole idea of getting in your car and spending an evening at the opera. That construct needs to change. It’s different having a resident company. The commitment and vision are different.
RG: How do we organically generate curiosity within these younger generations?
JM: Millennials are inherently curious. They are looking for new and unique experiences, and new and exciting ways to connect to their peers -- and even leaders -- in the community. That whole social interaction is an important aspect, so it is up to us to make it fun and add value to going to the opera. At Opera GR, we have to be creative. We ask people: what do you like to do when you go out? What do you consider a unique experience? Because going to the opera is obviously a unique experience. And once they get in the door, they will often realize it is also an emotional experience.
RG: What is your all-time favorite opera?
JM: I really don’t have one! I like so many of them. I don’t really have a favorite; they are all so different. They all have very different aspects, which are so uniquely exciting. But if stranded on a desert island with only one to choose… it would be Mozart’s "The Marriage of Figaro."
Opera is like a Broadway show on steroids. That’s why we call it grand opera. That’s why soap operas also take on their names. Ninety-nine percent of operas are very simple stories about love, relationships, the human emotion around relationships, and they are relatable, regardless of when they were written. We empathize with them, and that is part of the power of it. In a way that is what art does. It reflects our human condition, whether it is a play or a piece of tangible artwork.
RG: What is a suitable introductory show for someone who has never been to the opera?
JM: The Barber of Seville. It’s a comedy that is coming to the Opera Grand Rapids in May. Anybody who goes, they will recognize the piece within two minutes, because opera music is so iconic. It is used in commercials, movies, and so forth. People know this music even if they don’t know where it came from. We also have a really great cast for the performance, so I would highly recommend people to try it. It’s a great piece with a great story. Again, with music everyone would recognize. 

Jenna Morton is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.
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