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0 Comments | Nov 09, 2020

E. Loren Meeker – Living for Art

Loren MeekerSpare a thought, if you will, for your humble magazine feature writer as he navigates the treacherous shoals of our Covid-infested world in the endless search for the most insightful and entertaining personalities here in the Dominion and across San Antonio. It means conducting interviews while wearing a mask, searching from one interview venue to the next for an open lobby or restaurant dining room (FYI: Hotel Emma bar and lobby are closed to all but paying guests), and, for the past several months, beginning every interview with the same question: “So, how has the virus changed your life?”

In recent months, we’ve replayed some version of this conversation with an Olympic track coach, a prominent restaurateur, a symphony conductor, and others, and all predictably bemoaned the uprooted plans, unforeseen closures, uncertain future schedules, and general chaos the virus has caused their respective industries or art forms. But when I asked this question to E. Loren Meeker, General and Artistic Director of OPERA San Antonio, I received a somewhat different response.

“As it happened, the arrival of Covid-19 coincided pretty much exactly with my relocating to San Antonio in March to begin my new role with the opera company. I knew the position would be challenging, but I never expected that a huge part of that challenge would be navigating a pandemic while working to build and operate a world-class opera company. Still, on balance, the virus has been a real opportunity for us to try many of the new, out-of-the-box things that we’ve talked about doing for a long time but have not had the chance to try.”

Loren hails originally from Boston, but had visited San Antonio several times prior to her permanent relocation earlier this spring, spending a few weeks at a time here in recent years to direct operas like The Barber of Seville in 2017 and others. But all of her prior visits had been in the spring or winter.

“So summer in San Antonio is a little . . . different. But I love it here. There’s just something about the place that touched my heart. I love the outdoor spaces, the museums, the Riverwalk, the missions, all of it. The city is a gem. I came here to try to add to the cultural fabric, to help make this city a fantastic experience for its residents and visitors. As the leader of an arts organization, I feel it’s important to live in, and to be a part of, the community of San Antonio.”

Loren’s New England upbringing was the work of her mother (Suzie) and father (Roger), both of whom are also heavily into the arts, each in their own ways. Her father worked as a lighting designer and production manager, while her mother is a visual artist in watercolors.

“I grew up in an artistic family and was always on stage doing something—performing, dancing, gymnastics—so the theater bug bit me pretty early on. What’s funny, though, is that while I loved math and science in school, it turned out I wasn’t actually very good at those subjects. My dream in school was to be a marine biologist—so that I could save the manatee! Problem was, not only were my math and science not up to par, I also wasn’t a very good swimmer.”

And so Loren’s formative years were spent around the arts—dancing, performing, and playing the saxophone (also played by her father and brother). Her bedroom walls were covered with Monet and Degas prints and dance posters, and she spent her spare hours watching Baryshnikov and accosting dancers she encountered for autographs. Ever a child of the nineties, her musical tastes ran to the popular, including NSYNC, House of Pain, and Britney Spears, among countless others. By high school she was performing in school plays and musicals, following which she attended Boston University, where she studied choreography and directing in order to earn a degree in Independent Theatre Studies. But throughout all of it, opera was never once on her radar as a potential career path. So how, then, did it all come to pass? Cue the serendipity that seems to pervade so many of these stories.

“After graduating from BU, I attended a performance of Mozart’s Idomeneo witha friend, but we walked out halfway through it. We didn’t understand what was going on, and it just wasn’t for us. Then, a year later, I got a call from a former roommate who asked me if I was interested in being an assistant stage manager for an opera. My only response was ‘Will I get paid?’”

Next thing Loren knew, she had joined the staff of the Boston Academy of Music, and their first performance was Kurt Weill’s musical Lady in the Dark.

“It was a crossover piece, so the music was already familiar to my ear. They’re dancing, I thought. I can dance. They can use help with dialog. I can do that too. It was just the right place at the right time and a really great fit. I was hooked. I thought the job would be a one-time gig. Only once that door opened, I never looked back. The skill set required for directing is that you be a jack of all trades, which is me for sure.”

But why not acting? I couldn’t help but ask. It’s certainly a more traditional aspiration for the theatrically inclined.

“To be a successful actor you have to be tremendously brave and emotionally open and vulnerable. When I was studying acting, I found I wasn’t ready to break down those walls. In my mind, where I found excitement was not in realizing that I’m blocked as an actor, but rather exploring how I could help other actors to achieve their own breakthroughs.”

And how exactly is the job of directing different? What does it take to bring to life on stage a compelling combination of dancing, acting, singing, and symphonic music?

“More than anything else, directors do a lot of organizing. Eighty percent of my job is getting us to a place where we can set foot in the room and begin to create art. I feel like my skill set is strongest in creating new artistic opportunities and managing scheduling and organizing. Where I have the biggest learning curve is marketing and fund raising. But there’s no question my career is continuously evolving. It started with dancing and acting, then switched into choreography, stage managing, etc. I’d like to continue to grow as a director and administrator because those career paths strengthen one another.

“One of the coolest things about this job is that I get to unravel puzzles for a living. I’m analyzing the music, thinking about character structure, making interpretative decisions. And then I get to take all of the creativity and figure out how to marry it together, something that only happens in one place at one time. We typically do only two performances of each opera, and I love the fact that it’s never the same way twice. We get to craft something and create an image, but it’s going to shift and morph depending on audience, timing, and other factors.”

Fast forward many cities, opera companies, and performances later, and Loren is now in a position to make opera happen in a big way here in the Alamo City. But how does she envision San Antonians relating to an art form that few are familiar with? And how does she compare the ruckus and audience interaction of, say, your typical rock concert with the usually passive listening of classical symphony and operatic performances?

“I’m a total fan of audience/performer interaction. Last fall we did a series of performances of Puccini’s Tosca. But despite it being one of the top ten most produced operas, we still had a large number of people in San Antonio who had never seen it. At the second performance we had a lot of students in the audience. Then, during Act Two, Tosca kills Baron Scarpia and the audience erupted with gasps and cheers. It was a response that floored even people who had seen the opera ten times. That was so fabulous, people living and breathing at an opera for the first time. I firmly believe you should be able to have a real-time experience with opera.”

But there’s no denying that audience/performer interaction has taken a serious hit with the arrival of Covid-19 earlier this year. And so, circling once again back to the preeminent challenge of the day, Loren reflects on the challenges of producing and directing operas in an era where putting large numbers of people in a room is simply not an option.

“So how do we deal with the postponement of spring and fall shows? We’re having to re-envision how we can be viable and sustainable in an era that has gone digital. We’ve started a bi-weekly live interview series, Beyond the Production, that airs on YouTube and Facebook as a way to take our artists off the stage and start to open them up to a broader audience. Seventeen videos are up and running already. We have a donor event called Cocktails and Conversations. We use that as an opportunity to bring donors together on Zoom with a guest artist. We chat about characters, music, and drama for an online broadcast that they view that evening. Our third digital program is based on a live performance opportunity that was originally scheduled in collaboration with the library—Explore Opera for Kids. This has now been moved online starting July 10th. These educational videos each have a different focus and include musical performances. In addition to all of that, we are collaborating with Houston Grand Opera on two productions that will be released digitally this fall, an update of Mozart’s The Impresario, and a piece called Vinkensport, or The Finch Opera by David T. Little. We are, as well, working to schedule an outdoor concert here in San Antonio that will keep our artists and the audience socially distant and safe. One of the challenges with this art form is that opera singers are super spreaders. Being outside in open space enables us to continue what we do, even though we can’t do a lot of closely interactive performance things like dancing, hugging, etc. Of course, all these changes affect the scope of what we can do, as well as how we approach funding. What I’ve been truly surprised by is how, now that external events have forced our hand, awareness is growing about OPERA San Antonio. New approaches are getting picked up and noticed in a big way. I think we will be forever changed by the pandemic. There’s no question digital programs are going to be part of the package going forward. It has reprioritized our vision, and it will be with us forever. Events keep evolving, and so we will have to do so as well.”

Other artistic areas in which Loren has begun pushing boundaries include film versions of live performances, along the lines of MET on Demand in New York. In addition, recognizing that the development of new audiences is an important part of her role, particularly in a new city, she’s keen to produce a Spanish language tango opera by Astor Piazzolla, Maria de Buenos Aires.

But pandemics don’t last forever. So what are likely to be the enduring impacts of our current situation on what has, for centuries, been an intimate experience between audiences and performers?

“There is something wonderfully magical that happens when performers and audiences exchange energy over the course of an evening. The digital component of what we’re doing now will be part of what every company looks like in the years to come, but it is never going to be a full-time replacement for live performance.”

And what would the E. Loren Meeker of 2020, facing a mountain of new challenges in a new city, tell her younger self, were she able to go back in time and spend a few moments sharing the wisdom she’s accumulated over all those productions?

“Learn to play the piano. If there’s one instrument that helps unravel the operatic world, it’s piano. I’d also say to just breathe; you’re going to be successful. Just breathe. I’d also tell that young woman to layer on some additional skills like languages. But I have to say that I expect I’ll always be on a learning curve, even though I’m happy right now with who I am and where I am.”

And so, in the end, for Loren this is all about delivering on a new artistic challenge for her adopted hometown, and doing it (for now anyway) in the midst of a society bereft of normalcy. Like the job wasn’t going to hard enough already.

“We’re doing a lot of building in San Antonio right now. My goal is to spread awareness and make sure everything is produced with as much artistic quality and as excitingly as possible. I want people to know that opera is for everyone. If you haven’t had the opportunity to go yet, you’ll be surprised at how approachable and versatile it is. There’s something for everyone—dancing, fighting, acting, fabulous artistry. I’m here for the hard sell, and part of that is getting the word out, presenting opportunities to people.”

It’s an enormous challenge for sure, though by no means Loren’s first. But the final irony in all this may be that the young woman who steered herself away from acting for fear of openness and vulnerability may, in the end, turn out to be the one who imbues the emerging San Antonio operatic community with precisely those characteristics.

In Puccini’s great opera, Tosca, the heroine Floria Tosca sings the memorable words:

 

“I have lived for art, I have lived for love . . . offered songs to the stars and to heaven, which thus did shine with more beauty.”

 

With hard work, a little luck, and the enthusiastic embrace of a welcoming new community, E. Loren Meeker may produce a bit more of that beauty right here in central Texas.

 

 

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