Photo: Rick Dahms for Seattle Opera
By Melinda Bargreen
Special to Classical KING FM
Seattle Opera has a new general director designate: English-born Aidan Lang, who will become the Opera’s third man at the top in the company’s 50-year history. Lang, currently general director of New Zealand Opera, will succeed Speight Jenkins in the Seattle Opera post on September 1, 2014, following a six-month transition period in Seattle when Lang will work closely with Jenkins and executive director Kelly Tweeddale to ensure a smooth changeover.
Lang, in Seattle for the eagerly anticipated announcement, told Classical KING FM that the Seattle Opera job is “perfect for me, in three ways. The scale of the company is perfect; the timing is perfect; the place is perfect.” He is “ready to move on” from New Zealand, where his daughter Eleanor (now 16) will finish school in the fall of 2016.
Born in the UK in 1957, Lang is a former freelance opera director who has held leadership positions at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Glyndebourne Touring Opera, Buxton Festival, and Opera Zuid (of the Netherlands). He is a graduate of the University of Birmingham and has been married for 23 years to Linda Kitchen, an operatic soprano who coincidentally was a schoolmate of Wagnerian diva Jane Eaglen.
“We are looking forward to living in Seattle,” Lang says, jokingly adding that his wife has placed him under “strict embargo not to do the Underground Seattle tour until she arrives.” His previous posts have all had a duration of approximately 7-9 years: “I don’t have itchy feet, but opportunities do happen. The arts are always in a state of flux, and you have to keep aware of change to lead change. You need to bring people along: your team, audiences, donors.”
Lang explains that he gets about four or five offers a year from opera and theater companies, but the Seattle Opera one is “not a job that comes up every day.”
It certainly isn’t, with only two general directors (Jenkins and founder Glynn Ross) in half a century.
His background in stage direction has made Lang acutely aware of opera’s crucial task in engaging audiences. His great mentor, the German theater and opera director Peter Stein, told him: “In the first ten minutes of a show, you have the audience at its maximum attention. This is when you lay down the rules of the production, making it clear to your audience what their journey is.” The key, Lang says, is clarity – communicating the opera to the audience.
Lang was impressed by his Seattle Opera interview earlier this spring, when he spent “an extraordinary three days” with the company. He says he was “amazed by how passionate and informed the Seattle Opera team is, and how the culture of the company is so devoted to the joy of putting on opera.”
“Yes, there will be challenges ahead,” he concedes, “but they become a lot easier when you have a team that is fully engaged in everything that happens.”
Look to Lang to continue Seattle Opera as a Wagnerian center. He is a longtime “Ring” devotee who has been deeply involved in the Wagnerian masterpiece, working on two cycles (including an assistant directorship in the last presentations of the acclaimed Götz Friedrich production at the Royal Opera at Covent Garden). Lang also considers the re-establishment of the Young Artists Program, which has been temporarily suspended next season due to lack of funding, a priority for the company. Restoring the number of annual mainstage opera productions to five (presently there are four) is also on Lang’s list of objectives.
“Here in Seattle we have four great strengths: the Opera, the Ballet, the Theater, the Symphony. This is a great starting point. Now we need to widen our audience and keep widening it. At Seattle Opera, there are wonderful audiences, and we need to engage them and gradually stretch them a little … but not too far. Our work is all about engaging the audience – not about the egos of the presenters!”