HEAD DIVA: Stone backstage at the opera’s Karayanis Rehearsal Production Center.
portrait by Tadd Myers

In 1957, dallas was less than half its current size and narrowly escaping the death grip of the worst drought in its history. The Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike had finally opened, the City Council cautiously welcomed its first female member—Calvert Collins, wife of Carr P. Collins—and businessman and former Klansman R.L. Thornton presided as mayor. Schools were segregated, and the Cold War was red hot.

None of that mattered the night of November 21 inside the Music Hall at Fair Park. It was the inaugural performance—against the odds, many thought—of the Dallas Opera. A third of the 3,500 seats were empty, despite ticket giveaways sponsored by socialite Elsa Maxwell and more free tickets given to employees of Neiman Marcus, Sanger Brothers, and A. Harris and Co. But for the other two-thirds! The sight of Maria Callas emerging in her Italian gold couture gown! The sound of the great diva shaping and defining the Mozart aria “Martern aller Arten”! The second season, she came back as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata. Word got out fast, and it was standing room only.

Still, it was something of a leap of faith to imagine that an increasingly elitist Western European art form could survive in the crass prairie of North Texas for a second year, let alone a five-decade run. Today, at the start of its 50th anniversary season, the Dallas Opera is bigger, better, and stronger than ever. In 2009, it will move into its first specifically designated home, the $275 million Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House in the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts.

In this silver anniversary year, one of the most growth-oriented, the opera is guided by what are considered to be a strong group of managers, including musical director Graeme Jenkins. Newest is general director Karen Stone (pronounced “CAR-in”), a British-born veteran of the opera world from onstage roles to behind-the-scenes admin, who arrived in 2003 from a stint in Graz, Austria. Nothing much has been the same since the 6-foot-1 tyro took over. Most impressive is her work on the budget, $11 million this year. It finally came into the black last year, overcoming an $850,000 deficit, with ticket sales bringing in 42 percent of revenues. We know she likes walking her dogs at White Rock, cooking and shopping at Central Market, and blogging about books and wine on the opera’s web site, but what about the state of the opera in Dallas right now? A few weeks before the season’s first production, Verdi’s Nabucco, we caught up with Stone in the Dallas Opera’s tousled, workaday offices in the Campbell Centre.

If you had a magic machine and you could see the inception of the opera 50 years ago and today, what would you notice as big differences?

It was absolutely extraordinary that the Dallas Opera actually started 50 years ago and with Maria Callas. That was fabulous. But you know, that was one production, a couple of evenings of opera. We are now doing five productions, for two of which we’re actually building the sets and costumes new. We are doing 20 performances [a year], so I think that’s a fantastic development. And we’re still doing the same thing we did before—giving artists’ American debuts, which has been an important part of the Dallas Opera’s tradition. I think we’re going great guns.

It’s been said that our opera company doesn’t emulate the Met. It sets its own agenda.

Well, we’re obviously not the Met. We’re not doing that amount of performances. I think that different opera companies have their own character. The Dallas Opera has always been very singer-oriented, and maybe slightly heavy on the Italian repertoire. As a city, of course, Dallas is a lot younger than New York, and it has a much smaller population. Dallas and New York—it’s a very different world. So, you know, we set our own agenda. But I think we can truly say that if a singer performs a major role here, they are also singing at the Metropolitan Opera. The standard is absolutely at that level.

There are five productions this year. What happens the rest of the year?

During the season, the orchestra and chorus and wig-makers and dressers and stage crew swells to about 400. Once that’s over, we go back to the nuclear office, which represents all the typical departments, and that is about 40 people. Those 40 people during the rest of the season do planning, fundraising, marketing, and long-term planning. It’s a long day.

Do you have any concerns about the new Winspear house? Will you be able to fill enough seats to do your bit?

Oh, absolutely. First of all, we are looking forward to that. Because as much as we’ve enjoyed performing in Fair Park, it is three and a half thousand seats, which is not ideal for opera, from an acoustical point of view. The new opera house has been designed acoustically as an opera house. It has 2,200 seats. People will be able to enjoy the performances visually and acoustically much better. The point for us is going to be how many performances do we have to do just to satisfy our current audience, and how do we build a greater audience for the future? I’m sure there will be a lot of interest in the new hall, and we will need to add performances.

The opera is negotiating, not always happily, with the orchestra on a new contract this year. Is there any threat to the season?

Strikes are always possible, but I hope that will not happen. We will negotiate until 7:29 pm if necessary on opening night, and the performances will still happen if they have to happen with two pianos, which unfortunately in the opera world they sometimes do. You know what they say: “The opera’s not over until the fat lady sings”? Well, the strike is not on until the tall lady says it is. The point is, we’re negotiating, we’re going to mediation, arbitration, and all the other i-o-n’s. We’ve got a good offer on the table, and I have every reason to hope that it will be over before we start.

You came in 2003. What convinced you to come here, and have your expectations been borne out?

I know Graeme Jenkins because we worked together in Germany, so I knew there was a high standard. Once I started looking into it, well, the big appeal, of course, was the building of a new opera house with an architect like Foster [and Partners]. To be part of something so vibrant and artistic and creative and energetic and growth-oriented—it doesn’t happen a lot in life.

With you and Graeme and Foster all British, should we be concerned about any British conspiracy?

Absolutely. You know how they say six flags over Texas. Well, what about seven?

The budget, $11 million, comes from ticket sales and donations?
It swings around a bit, but currently we’re about 55 percent in donations and 45 percent in ticket sales and other marketing things.

What is the standard for donations versus ticket sales?
I think 50-50 is the classic idea. If you look at heavily subsidized European opera houses that are performing year round and doing 170 performances, you tend to get 20 percent from tickets and 80 percent from subsidy. You’re talking 700 or 800 employees all year around. It’s a different kind of thing. And it’s money from taxation, and the tickets are held very low in price deliberately as a strategy.

I know there are big donors. What about the small or average donors?

Like most companies, the company really depends on 15 very big donors and another 100 or so who are giving considerable amounts. But there are many more who donate at the $50, $100, $200 level. This is year after year. I think the opera can never be money-making. It has to be subsidized.

Does the city kick in anything?

We get $150,000 a year from the city, for which we are grateful. But when that gift grant was originally made, it was supposed to cover exactly our rent in Fair Park. It was supposed to be a wash. The DSO, the DMA, the Theater Center—none of them pays rent. Over the years, that grant has been frozen, but the cost of renting has gone up and up and up. Now the city grant only represents a third of the cost of the rent at Fair Park.

Are ticket prices a problem? The top range is about $900.

For the whole season. Our top single price is $250. As part of a subscription, it works out to $200. And the cheapest ticket we do is $16. Sometimes mistakenly, the price of an opera or concert is compared to a cinema ticket, which I think is wrong. I think if you look at it in terms of a sports event, it’s much truer. The Cowboys’ cheapest ticket, at the top at the back, is 70 bucks. We were kindly invited to a Mavericks game by Mark Cuban, and I was horrified when I saw my ticket was $432. And they don’t have a big orchestra. And they don’t change costumes. So I don’t think we do bad for what we’re actually offering.

Opera at one time had a very popular base. And somehow that’s drifted.

Oh, absolutely. I think there is a perception problem. If anybody thinks, What is the ultimate elitist thing? It’s the opera. And I think it’s still got a bit of a flavor of that. You know, I think rich people have always supported the opera because it needs money. Princes, kings have always done that. I think there’s an aura of specialness around it. 

When you talk to someone who is into opera versus someone who isn’t, there’s a clash. What is it about opera that speaks to people musically that, say, another musical form maybe doesn’t?

It’s the only art form that combines the visual arts, dancing, music, acting. Every single art form is involved in an opera production, which is what makes it absolutely extraordinary. It makes it a very hard soufflé to cook but, boy, when it rises, is it fantastic because it’s got all those elements.

What’s it like being onstage, as a performer, at an opera?

Terrifying. Your mouth gets dry. Then you get too much water in your mouth. This sounds silly, but there is an element of singing that is more like a sport. When you sing a top C, your vocal chords are vibrating at 1,000 times per second. Middle A is 440 times per second. So this requires a level of fitness and health that responds to drafts, environments with cold. You have to be in peak physical condition to be able to achieve it.

All I can say from my point of view is if you stand onstage singing any role or in the chorus, and you’re in a big Verdi finale with the whole orchestra playing and some soprano lying on the floor, and there are 100 people on the stage, you lose yourself in some extraordinary way. You feel a part of something in a way that I don’t feel in many other times of my life. It totally engulfs you, and it’s incredibly emotional. 

Is there anyone in Dallas—maybe other than Mark Cuban—whom you would really like to see show up at an opera this year?

It’s the 50th anniversary of Ross and Margot Perot this year. Margot comes to the opera and subscribes, and I have tried to get Ross to come. I think the 50th anniversary is the time for him to visit.