2015 Best Music Director of an Opera Nominee: Jean Anderson Collier for Boston Opera Collaborative's "Our Town"

Before we announce our 2015 ArtsImpulse Award Winners, we are proud to present our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series. 

NOTE: If you were nominated for an ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series, please email us at brian@artsimpulse.com.

Photo Credit: Linda Holt

Photo Credit: Linda Holt

Jean Anderson Collier impressed us with her masterful precision and understanding for the deceptively difficult Ned Rorem's Our Town, performed by the Boston Opera Collaborative. With few performances and even fewer recordings, Jean made her mark on the opera and music scene by expertly crafting Rorem's adaptation of the classic Thornton Wilder play.

In her Interview, Jean tells us about the process to bring Our Town to Boston, the differences and distinctions between the opera and play, a bit about her own hometown, and one of her favorite memories.

Jean, thank you so much for participating in our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series.  Can you start by telling us about yourself and your work?

I am a vocal coach and pianist, and I work at New England Conservatory, where I teach courses in diction and art song repertoire and work as a recital and opera coach and at The Boston Conservatory, as principal opera coach and private coach for recital and operatic repertoire.  I also work as organist/choir director at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Scituate, Massachusetts.

How did you become involved in Boston Opera Collaborative’s (“BOC”) Our Town?   Was this a typical process for you?

I have known and worked with Greg Smucker and Trish Weinmann for years, since they were colleagues of mine at New England Conservatory. When they took over leadership of BOC in 2014, they asked me to serve as music director for their upcoming production of Werther, then asked me to music-direct Our Town.

I have had a close relationship with BOC for years, doing audition master classes for them and playing at their fundraising events.  The process was typical for me in the sense that its rehearsal process was smooth and organized, due to the outstanding organizational skills of Greg Smucker.   What was atypical was the difficulty of the orchestral part. Being responsible for the singers while simultaneously playing that orchestral reduction was quite a challenge.

The Final Act of Ned Rorem's Our Town presented by the Boston Opera Collaborative (Photo Credit: Dan Busler Photography).

The Final Act of Ned Rorem's Our Town presented by the Boston Opera Collaborative (Photo Credit: Dan Busler Photography).

Tell us about this opera and its composer.  What should we know as a viewer and listener? What should we listen for?

Ned Rorem is primarily known as a song composer, having written hundreds of songs. He does not consider himself an opera composer but a song composer, and his decision to create Our Town was something of a departure for him.   He is a cerebral composer, and his music is dense in material and often dissonant, making it sometimes challenging for the ordinary opera-goer.  However, since Our Town is such a well-known, well-loved play, the musical challenges seem easier to tolerate — the familiarity of the story seems to mitigate the strangeness and newness of some of the music.  Also, Rorem managed to create a score that remains faithful to his musical style and still capture the world of Grover’s Corners, the boys playing baseball, Emily’s adolescent worries about whether she is pretty, the marital relationships of Emily and George’s parents, and the world of the dead in Act 3.   

I find the choral writing in this opera especially haunting, particularly in Act 3, which is a bit unusual considering that often opera chorus music is more functional than gripping.  I would say that audiences should listen for this music in particular, as well as the quirky, playful music in George and Emily’s scenes in Act 1, the ethereal Act 1 duet between George’s parents, and Mrs. Soames’ hilarious interruptions in the wedding in Act 2.

How was this production different or similar to other productions of Our Town (the opera, not the play)?  How is it different or similar to Thornton Wilder’s play?

I am not really familiar with other productions of the opera except in recording. I had access to two recordings of the piece, and both chose a more musical-theater approach than the one that we chose in our production. While we wanted to maintain Wilder’s evocation of the ordinary, casual world, we felt that his music, so full of counterpoint and nuance, called for voices that truly sounded operatic. The opera was quite faithful to Thornton Wilder’s play, and the librettist, J. D. McClatchy did a masterful job of transferring the play to the operatic genre.

Tell us about your hometown.  Do you return?  How does it feel? What are some of your favorite places to go, or what are your favorite things to do?

What an interesting question!  I grew up in Hampton, Virginia, which is on the coast, just across Hampton Roads waterway from Norfolk.  I have not been back to Hampton for many years since I do not have any family there anymore, but, last summer, I did visit friends near Williamsburg, Virginia, about 45 minutes away.  Having lived as an adult in the Midwest for many years and in the Northeast for the past sixteen years, I have a strange ambivalence when I return to Virginia. Its landscape, the people that I knew there, and my childhood memories wrestle with my grown-up perceptions of the racism that existed when I was growing up, as well as the general intolerance of anyone who made choices different than the norm.

I was supposed to get married young and stay in Virginia, and I did not do either of those.  It took me a while to get go of the frustration that I felt about the tunnel vision that permeated people’s thinking.

And yet I have such fond memories of going to Virginia Beach, Bill’s Barbecue, which was a dive near my grandmother’s house; the tire swing over the creek near our house; fishing off of Red’s Pier on the James River (and never catching anything); my Aunt Shirley’s biscuits and my mother’s corn pudding.  When Emily says goodbye to the world after her death, those are the very types of things she mentions — coffee, hollyhocks, starched dresses.

What is one opera that you would love to music direct?  What is one opera that you would never want to music direct? Why?

George Gibbs (Mark Williams) and Emily Webb (Laura DellaFera) in Boston Opera Collaborative's Our Town (Photo Credit: Dan Busler Photography).

George Gibbs (Mark Williams) and Emily Webb (Laura DellaFera) in Boston Opera Collaborative's Our Town (Photo Credit: Dan Busler Photography).

I love Benjamin Britten, and any of his operas would be dream projects for me — especially Albert Herring, The Turn of the Screw, or Billy Budd. Mozart’s Don Giovanni would also be wonderful, although I am not ready for a score like that yet. Also, Jonathan Dove’s Flight, which we just did last fall at The Boston Conservatory.

As for pieces I would not want to music direct — well, to be perfectly honest, I would not have chosen Our Town. But it turned out to be a great project. As is so often the case, pieces that I thought I did not like often turn out to be simply pieces that I did not understand.  One of the beauties of being a musician is that often someone else chooses the music for you, and, if you want to work, you do a piece even if you do not like it, and then you discover that you do like it, and it broadens you. So while there are pieces I might say I do not like and would not be interested in, there is probably not that much that I would not try to tackle if I were asked to.

What is one of your favorite memories?  What colors or sounds would you describe as part of this memory?

I think it would be a day-trip that I made with my then-boyfriend, now husband, to Block Island on July 25, 1998.  I still remember the date.  We took the ferry from the Rhode Island coast, and smelling the salt (I had only been back on the east coast for a short time then) felt like coming home. We got to the island, rented a mini-bike, and traveled around the island, which was all country roads and honeysuckle. The smell of that honeysuckle!  I planted honeysuckle after that.

Two little girls had set up a lemonade stand, and we stopped and bought lemonade. Then we went to the beach and had a picnic and swam. In the evening we had dinner, then took the ferry back across the water at sunset.

Not to mention that it was that day that I realized that I was in love.  It was a magical day, filled with the smell of the sea and the honeysuckle, the sounds of the waves, and the indescribable colors of the sunset.

Beach or mountain? Why?

Well, I love both — I love to hike in the White Mountains.  But I guess I would have to say I am a beach girl.  I grew up by the beach, and I still feel the most grounded when I have sand between my toes and messy hair.

For someone with an emerging appreciation and interest in seeing (and reviewing) opera, what resources would you recommend?  What should we learn to listen for or see?  What operas or kinds of operas would you recommend seeing?

There are so many small local opera companies in Boston, and many of them are doing things that are easy for the emerging opera enthusiast. One of the most interesting I have seen lately was Boston Opera Collaborative’s Opera Bites in November 2015, which featured eight (I think) ten-minute operas, all in English, and the audience sat at tables and had wine and snacks.

There were many people there who had never been to an opera before, and they loved the accessibility of these short pieces in their own language. It stripped away the snobbery and pomposity often associated with opera and made it a living, breathing art form for these people.

I know that so many local opera organizations — Opera on Tap, for example — are coloring outside the lines and coming up with new and fresh ways of presenting opera. I would recommend that the person interested in experiencing opera for the first time go online and find some of these events.

Do you have any upcoming projects?

I am currently coaching La traviata and Le nozzle di Figaro for The Boston Conservatory, and I will be doing musical preparation for Boston Opera Collaborative’s production of Idomeneo in May and June 2016, as well as playing several art song recitals and opera scenes programs.

Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

I guess just a heartfelt thank you to the entire community who support the arts.  I know that my musical colleagues share my gratitude for all those who continue to come and share with us in creating art. The audience, in my opinion, is part of the artistic creation, and every performance is different because of that. We are so blessed to be co-creators in making the world a more meaningful and beautiful place through music and drama.