The Wolf Trap Opera’s ‘secret weapon’ opens doors to young talent
At first glance, the Web site of the Wolf Trap Opera Company looks like many other opera company Web sites. You can find information on upcoming shows (including Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” with performances Sunday, Wednesday and Saturday), interviews with the young singers and a link to the company blog.
Click through to the blog, though, and you’ll see a difference. Most opera company blogs, when they exist, are updated occasionally by a staffer or intern. The Wolf Trap Opera blog, however, is the personal platform of the company’s head, Kim Pensinger Witman. It affords a behind-the-scenes look at the whole process of putting on operas, from the 500 to 600 singers Witman hears audition every fall through to the jitters of opening night. For audiences, it’s a peek behind the curtain; for singers, it’s a rare chance to learn what someone hearing their auditions is actually thinking. This summer, Witman is posting on it every day.
“One of the reasons that I have the blog,” she said this month, sitting in her clean modern office in the administration and rehearsal building behind the Wolf Trap Barns, “is because I’mnot an insider. I did not grow up with this.” She added, “Had I not worked in this industry, Imay not even have become a patron, because it felt so forbidding to me. So I came in through the back door, and now it’s my job to kind of open up the front door and let other people know.”
Witman, 58, is celebrating her 30th year at the Wolf Trap Opera. When she started in 1985, she was a coach, new to the opera world, playing for rehearsals and earning intern-level pay. And even now that she’s leading the company — her official title is senior director of the Wolf Trap Opera and classical programming at Wolf Trap— no job at the center is beneath her. She does a lot of things that many general directors don’t do: accompanying singers, making casting and repertoire choices, and, yes, blogging.
“She’s sort of like this huge unheralded secret weapon,” said Ryan Taylor, general manager of the Arizona Opera, who sang as a baritone with the Wolf Trap company in 2001 and 2002 and later cut his administrative teeth here as manager of community development. “I cannot think of another person who knows the inventory of singers today as deeply as she does. She travels, she auditions. And there are those who have large public profiles because of their own singing and conducting and administrative success, but there’s never been anyone else I can think of whose focus has solely been on the art form.”
In a field known for self-promotion, Witman’s open, down-toearth warmth can come off as self-effacing. It takes a while to see that it’s actually a form of self-confidence. She’s straightforward about the priorities in her life, which include, very much, her family — she has two grown children and a baby granddaughter — and her opera company. Modest about her own role, she lights up with pride when asked about her company’s achievements. Since 1997, when she took over, the Wolf Trap Opera has developed partnerships with the National Symphony Orchestra, the Phillips Collection and other institutions; commissioned two new operas, one of which (“Volpone”) was recorded and nominated for a Grammy; and recently created an artist-in-residence program that brings successful Wolf Trap alumni (this year, Michelle DeYoung) back to work with the current young artists.
There’s also the studio artist program, set up in 2007 for younger singers. “But I can’t take credit for that myself,” Witman said. Why not? Well, she hired a former singer with the company, Joshua Winograde (now senior director of artistic planning at the Los Angeles Opera) and told him to set it up. In other words, Witman had an idea and oversaw its realization, but doesn’t, somehow, think she was responsible.
“I don’t want to say she’s a modest person, because she’s ambitious,” said Arvind Manocha, who took over as the president and chief executive of the Wolf Trap organization in 2013, “but selfless is a good word. It’s not about her. She has big plans for these young artists and wants them to do the best they can.”
Even after 30 years, Witman retains her “outsider” identity. For one thing, the Wolf Trap Opera stands slightly apart from other companies: It’s effectively a training institution, even though it’s presenting professional singers in professional productions. (One signal difference is funding: “If I was running this size company outside of the umbrella of this parent organization,” Witman said, “I would probably spend 90 percent of my time raising money.”) But Witman also has an unusual background — something she has learned, she said, “to make an asset,” as she launches into her story for what must be the hundredth time.
Passionate about music from an early age, Witman put herself through college playing in piano bars in the Poconos, which, she said, has “led to a lifelong aversion to alcohol.” At age 20, she earned a degree in music therapy and landed a job in a state psychiatric institution in Connecticut.
Cue the witticisms about crazy singers. “The jokes always were, ‘You didn’t change career, you just changed venue,’ ” she said, with a patient smile, “and of course we laugh. The serious part of that is, not a single thing I learned there about working with people during that period that hasn’t become useful.”
After a few years, Witman and her husband, Don, a trumpet player and music teacher, decided, idealistically, to take a break from their careers and get master’s degrees in music from Catholic University — he in conducting, she in piano— before returning to work and starting a family. When Witman got to Catholic, the graduate teaching assistant in the opera program hadn’t shown up. “As you can only do when you are in your 20s,” Witman said, “I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do that.’ I had started college as a romance-language major, so I had languages; and I never liked to practice as a pianist, so I could sight-read my way out of anything.” She spent the next two years frantically studying to keep one step ahead of her students. She saw her first opera at Catholic — from backstage, having helped prepare it. (It was “Nozze di Figaro.”)
This kind of fairy-tale story doesn’t do full justice to the kind of commitment, ability and focus it took to carry Witman from that beginning, through two additional years of self-study, to an actual job at her local opera company. Working at the Washington Opera during the year and Wolf Trap during the summer, she rapidly became enough of a mainstay that within a few years, Peter Russell, her predecessor, was bringing her along on audition tours. It was Russell who, when he was planning to leave Wolf Trap, suggested that Witman apply for his job— although she was initially reluctant.
“We were just all so impressed with her,” Russell, now head of Vocal Arts DC, said in a recent phone conversation. “She was so businesslike and savvy and smart.” He added: “What is wonderful about her in the context of a situation like Wolf Trap is that, because almost nothing fazes her, she is able to apply what I believe must have been her strength as a music therapist: the ability to calm and cajole the insecurity factor of young singers. She’s not the kind of coach who said, ‘Phrase it like this.’ She can cajole people into working together, and put a personal stamp on it.”
Witman’s story is almost unique in the opera world as a model of solidity and balance, a solution of the work-life conundrum. “We built a life in music in a geographically stable way,” Witman said, “which is like, it’s impossible.” Although she’s certainly had offers from other companies, none has yet offered her the freedom and range and geographical convenience of her Wolf Trap job — particularly now that she has an active role in all of the center’s classical programming, including the year-round chamber music season at the Barns. “Being part of an organization that is not opera specific,” she said, “informs our culture in a wonderful way.”
The Wolf Trap Opera is not designed to take the opera world by storm. Yet, like many training programs in the classical music field (the New World Symphony comes to mind as an orchestral parallel), it has the ability to try out a wider range of repertory and presentation than a regular company— as well as offering the steady titillation of possible new discoveries. There’s always a chance you may be hearing the next great singer in a Wolf Trap performance. And if you do, it’s Witman who has heard him, identified him and then decided what repertory will best showcase him at this stage in his development. It’s a rare opportunity for singers and manages, at the same time, to be fun for audiences, not least thanks to Witman’s opera-is-for-everyone mantra.
“I honestly cannot think of a single person in this field,” said Peter Russell, “who, if you mention her name you get, ‘Oh, my gosh, she’s a role model. What’s not to love?’ She doesn’t have enemies.”
“I cannot think of another person who knows the inventory of singers today as deeply as [Witman] does. She travels, she auditions.” Ryan Taylor, general manager of the Arizona Opera
“I did not grow up with this,” says Kim Pensinger Witman, who entered the opera world as a graduate student and teaching assistant at Catholic University. “So I came in through the back door, and now it’s my job to kind of open up the front door and let other people know.”
Wolf Trap Opera alumni at a 40th-anniversary celebration in 2011. Witman created an artist-inresidence program that brings successfulWolf Trap alumni back to work with current young artists.