The Wolf Trap Opera’s ‘se­cret weapon’ opens doors to young tal­ent

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSIC - BY ANNE MIDGETTE anne.midgette@wash­ Le Nozze di Fi­garo Through June 20 at the Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Rd., Vi­enna. 877-965-3872, www.wolf­ Tick­ets: $32-$88. “The Ghosts of Ver­sailles” is sched­uled for July 10-18; “Madama But­ter­fly

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.

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