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Wolf Trap Opera's Far-Reaching Influence

Behind the Scenes and Across the Aisle: 

Wolf Trap Opera's Far-Reaching Influence

By Thomas May

Opera is by definition a cooperative, multi-media art. To bring talent before the public, singers in the spotlight rely not just on their real-time collaborators in the pit and backstage but on an unseen multitude of mentors, coaches, producers, and administrative leaders.

Wolf Trap Opera’s (WTO) far-reaching impact on the opera industry is not limited to its impressive roster of alumni singers who remain active on stages across the world—even if the likes of Lawrence Brownlee, Denyce Graves, or Kate Lindsey first spring to mind. The company has also left an indelible mark on figures in high-level administrative and educational positions, several of whom initially trained as performers at WTO but later transitioned to offstage roles through which they are shaping and reimagining the future of this art.

“There’s a company culture, a shared ethos, which these artists have carried forward from WTO,” says Lee Anne Myslewski, Vice President of Opera and Classical Programming at Wolf Trap. In 2019, Myslewski took over the reins from Kim Pensinger Witman, who led Wolf Trap’s opera and classical music programs for 22 years. Witman helped establish an attitude of trust and shared exploration of potential among the young artists that endured as the company has grown and continued to produce great alumni through changing leadership—a testament to the quality and determination of WTO’s leaders overall.

“Wolf Trap Opera was extremely formative for me as an artist even before I became an administrator,” says Joshua Winograde, Director of Opera and Professor of Opera Studies at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music in Houston. As a baritone, he initially planned  to pursue a vocal career and spent two consecutive summers (2000 and 2001) in WTO’s Young Artist program. Winograde recalls how WTO’s leadership instilled in him the confidence “to realize that I could make the transition from the stage to be in management and find that to be highly fulfilling artistically.”

WTO encouraged Winograde to implement his proposal to expand young artist training options with a tightly compressed season of summer operas. “In 2007 the industry was already changing and expecting a lot more from performers,” he says. “I knew it could be a transformative experience for young talent to put all this together over the course of only 10 weeks.” Thus was born WTO’s Studio Artist program, a mainstay ever since of its young artist training.

By offering him the opportunity to create the Studio Artist program, Winograde says, Witman “exhibited the exact same generosity and trust in me as an administrator that she did as an artist. That spirit of extreme generosity at Wolf Trap fostered a culture in which every artist felt safe to take big risks. I feel like I had two births coming through that company—as an artist and as an administrator. Both of those experiences have informed everything I’ve done so far.”

Christine Goerke (alum of ’95 and ’96; Filene Artist in Residence in 2019) similarly characterizes WTO as “a place that allows you to experiment” while at the same time providing “immense support” that is indispensable for young artists at a formative stage. The internationally sought-after soprano astonished the opera world when she accepted a position as Associate Artistic Director of the newly rebranded Detroit Opera in 2021.

“When the pandemic hit, all of us took a collective gasp. What are we going to do?” Goerke recalls thinking. “This seemed like a company positioned to take off, and I wanted to be part of that. I hit it off with Yuval Sharon, the incoming Artistic Director. And I loved how the company was intent on making sure the community was a part of everything. I fell in love with this city and with this audience.”

Although her move into high-level administration happened “ten years sooner than I had planned”—she’s at the peak of her career and continues to sing on a parallel track—Goerke says she always knew she wanted to someday run an opera company. She had been fascinated by Beverly Sills’ later career helming  New York City Opera and her role as “a bridge between popular culture and opera. I loved the idea of artists continuing to create when not on the stage.” The young artists she sees coming out of Wolf Trap give Goerke hope: “They are fearless and intent on change. They not only want to help this art form survive but hope to turn it into something for the masses.”

Rather than negotiate a move from performance to administration, it was as a coaching fellow at WTO that Thomas Lausmann got started in his career (’99). “Kim [Witman] gave me my first professional engagement in the industry when she took a chance to hire me as an apprentice coach,” says Lausmann. He ascended quickly to become head of the music department at Vienna Staatsoper while serving as a principal coach at Bayreuth in the summers. Lausmann has been the Metropolitan Opera’s Director of Music Administration since 2019.

Representing an even younger generation, soprano Kerriann Otaño (Studio Artist ’15, ’16; Filene Artist in ’18) took on the role of Vice President of Engagement at OperaDelaware in 2022. “So much of my philosophy about artist-led programming and putting artists in the driver’s seat came from being in programs like WTO, where I got to see how inventive artists could be,” Otaño said. “You get a different type of performance when you give an artist space for their creativity versus when you tell them: ‘This is what you have to sing.’”

A dynamic speaker who uses her presence on Instagram and TikTok (“opera hype girl”) to entice people to try opera, Otaño has been carrying on the spirit of creative experimenting she admired at WTO in her work with OperaDelaware. She describes a recent project of “micro galas” where artists take their cue from the chef’s menu and create a corresponding musical program of multiple courses. She shares, “It’s a different way to bring the two worlds of the artistic and the culinary together in this restaurant space.” Otaño recalls the idea was inspired by her participation in a WTO program with The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, during which singers were encouraged to develop a musical program based on personal responses to paintings they connected with.

“What resonates with me from Wolf Trap are those intimate experiences. I think that’s how people fall in love with opera: through the eyes of the people who love it the most—the advocates of it.”

Thomas May is a writer, critic, educator, and translator whose work appears in The New York Times among other publications. The English-language editor for the Lucerne Festival, he also writes program notes for such companies as the Metropolitan Opera.