As a kid growing up in the late ’80s in Queens, and then on Long Island, I would lie on the living room floor for hours and listen to opera. On warm summer nights, when the Yankees weren’t on the radio, my father would recline on the couch, his legs dangling over the arms, and blast cassettes of Aida and Don Giovanni. He would throw open the double doors to the porch to let the sea air mingle with Verdi, Puccini, and Rossini. 

photography by Sean McCormick
When my dad would occasionally make it to a performance at the Met, it was usually with his boisterous Italian friend who would drive up from South Philly and smoke stogies in our living room, complaining about the dearth of good young tenors and the dire future that foretold for our society. There were fights over opera, too. My mother’s cousin is still not talking to my family, in no small part because of a tipsy argument that erupted a few Christmases ago when she tried to defend the merits of Pavarotti to my father, who dismissed him as overrated, while ducking out of the room to blast scratchy recordings of Beniamino Gigli and Giovanni Martinelli to prove his point.

So when I moved to Dallas in 1998 and eventually started attending the opera here, it was a bit of a letdown. Nowhere did I see evidence of that salty fanaticism I’d grown up with. For one, the gaping Music Hall at Fair Park almost always felt half empty. At my first performance, Tosca in 2002, I remember being impressed with Carol Vaness in the leading role, but I kept wanting to turn up the orchestra. Elderly men nodded off in the seats next to me. The swishing gowns of the debutants drew almost as much attention as what was on the stage. And for every performance, no matter its quality, there was the requisite standing ovation. 

The Dallas Opera’s new general director, George Steel, understands these challenges. He appreciates the bad reputation opera has with most non-fans. “I hated opera when I was a kid,” Steel says on a telephone call from New York a few weeks after being tapped in August to lead the Dallas Opera into its new Arts District opera house. “I thought it was long, boring, and German.”

Growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., Steel was a choirboy, and music and singing were integral parts of his life—but not the opera. Steel studied at Yale, the American Conservatory of Music, and eventually under Leonard Bernstein at the Tanglewood Institute. When he made creative choices, forming and conducting performance groups like the Vox Vocal Ensemble and Gotham City Baroque Orchestra, he leaned toward the dynamic compositions of the modernists and the serene simplicity of early music. It wasn’t until Steel worked with his mentor in the early 1980s on Bernstein’s Mass that he began to revisit that combination of music and drama that seemed so insufferable in his youth.

“I was assisting with the Mass and I didn’t think it was opera,” Steel says. “But it was.”

It was the beginning of a love affair. Steel’s wife is an opera fan, and he immersed himself. What excited him, however, were the pieces that did not fuel the fanatical love of the aficionados I grew up with. Steel loved ambitious operas by Russians, like Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich, and lesser-known pieces by 19th- and 20th-century French composers. It was an alternative operatic education that made him the kind of musical director who is bound to get under the skin of traditionalists.

Opera began to make its way into Steel’s work as a director of the Y’s Tisch Center for the Arts and then at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. Steel staged works like Iannis Xenakis’ Oresteia alongside ambitious concert programming that showcased pieces dating back to the 14th century. He put on concerts consisting entirely of contemporary composers and even art rock. He gained a reputation as a trailblazer and a renegade, reenergizing the concert-going experience in what Steel calls “the most crowded cultural market.”

All the while, Steel harbored another ambition: running an opera house.

When the Dallas Opera asked him to take the reins, many who knew Steel’s work couldn’t figure out why he would leave New York and the environment that encouraged experimentation. But he had built a career out of taking classical music and making it relevant to a wider audience. So finding a stuffy old opera house and getting the opportunity to move it into a shiny new performance space built by a Pritzker Prize winner and transform it into a vibrant cultural landmark—that’s a dream job.

Though i learned to love opera as a kid, I didn’t start attending operas until college, when I was living with a mohawked friend of mine in Munich, Germany. We bought student tickets for a few marks and got standing-room-only seats in the rafters of the state opera house for Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. During intermission, we tried to sneak down to better seats near the orchestra, like it was a baseball game, which ended up being hard to pull off considering the mohawk.

We returned for a second performance that summer to see the debut of Munich’s production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens. Huge outdoor video screens were set up in the platz in front of the theater, showing the performance to a few hundred people gathered outside: single guys leaning on bikes, giggling teenage girls, married couples holding wine glasses, their toddlers crawling around on the cobblestones.

The performance was unlike anything I had ever seen. The set looked more like a holdover from Star Trek, and the costumes, long flowing robes, made all the cast members look androgynous. And out of this setting rose a massive orchestral sound, a spiraling tear of a soprano duet, and a chorus that drove the opera to a fit of dramatic tension. The performance was riveting, and in that open space in the corner of the baroque city, there was dead silence from the spectators, as the crowd fell into the emotions of the piece. It wasn’t Verdi, it wasn’t Martinelli, but it was the same arresting experience that had made such diehard fans out of my father and his friends. And here we were, in the open air, free of tuxedos and expensive intermission drinks, everyone finding a way to love opera.

That is what George Steel will need to bring to Dallas.

“There are many barriers to new audiences,” Steel says. “There’s this idea of connoisseurship, that you have to know all the singers and have all the recordings from the 1930s. But when you bring people in, they discover that it is wonderful fun.”

Steel has ideas of how to break down these barriers in Dallas. He says the new Winspear Opera House will help. But the real problem is that with the current short season format, there isn’t enough space to experiment. Just take a look at this season’s lineup, which the New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini said offered “comfy favorites”: La Bohème, Die Fledermaus, The Marriage of Figaro, The Italian Girl in Algiers. It is the last season at the Music Hall, but there doesn’t seem to have been much nostalgia for the place, so it is as if the opera is letting the walls get one more listen to the classics before heading over to downtown for bigger and better things.

Steel hopes to lengthen the season, increase the number of original productions, build cooperatives with international opera houses, produce more new works and more lesser-known composers, especially Russians and French. He wants to bring in new musicians, hire the world’s best singers, and expand the opera’s educational programming. Steel’s history shows he is capable of effecting these changes—and perhaps do so in a way that won’t step on the toes of long-time, tradition-minded audiences. But with the next two seasons locked in, Steel’s principle work will be spent raising money to make his vision possible.

It’s a daunting task. When previous Dallas Opera director Karen Stone resigned in 2007, she cited the demands of fundraising and their distraction from the job’s artistic side as reasons for her departure. Still, Steel found a way to balance fundraising and artistic direction in his job at the Miller, drawing critical attention for his ambitious programs, while increasing fundraising from $120,000 to $1.35 million annually.

The key to Steel’s success will be balancing the fundraising and artistic sides of the job. Steel believes if he builds the opera house of his dreams, it can’t help but convert the skeptical wider audience needed to expand the Dallas Opera.

“You have to get them to come to the theater,” Steel says. “Then you have to make sure it is thrilling.”

The Dallas Opera begins it season with The Marriage of Figaro on November 14. Go to dallasopera.org for tickets and times.