Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera director

Kathryn Smith came to the top post at Madison Opera after years of on-the-job learning. The company opens Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” on Oct. 26.

People know me as: Kathryn Smith, general director of Madison Opera.

Coming up next: “A Masked Ball” (in Italian, “Un Ballo in Maschera”) by Giuseppe Verdi, performed in Overture Hall Oct. 26 and 28. Tickets start at $18 and can be purchased at 258-4141 or online at www.madisonopera.org. Don’t worry about the fact that it’s sung in Italian — we have projected English translations above the stage, so you won’t miss a word.

Don’t miss it because: “A Masked Ball” is what I call blood-and-guts Italian opera — it has everything that makes opera spellbinding, set to some of the most thrilling music that Verdi wrote. The story is told with elaborate costumes and scenery, an enormous chorus and orchestra, and some truly amazing singing. The emotions are larger than life, and the combination of all of those elements gives you the sort of experience you can only get in an opera house.  

Your training: My training is entirely practical. I started working in high school for the music department of Seattle Opera. I learned to stage manage by watching their stage managers; in college, I started stage managing plays and operas, and improvised what I didn’t know. There’s no substitute for putting on a show, making mistakes and getting better at it.

I also interned for a couple of opera companies, most importantly at Wolf Trap Opera. After college, I worked one season for Lyric Opera of Chicago and then went to the artistic department of the Metropolitan Opera. The Met is the biggest opera company in the world, and the learning curve was a line straight up. I did everything from navigating rehearsal schedules for 26 operas and hundreds of artists to designing a computer system and working on a tour for 400 people to Japan.  

After six years, I went from the world’s largest opera company to one of its smallest, as general director of Tacoma Opera in Washington. I had never written a grant or cast an opera until I did both there — and as with learning to be a stage manager, I got better at it as I did it. The same is true of my time in Madison, as I start my second season: I keep learning and never get bored.

What’s a typical day for you?: Early in my career, a boss told me my day would be 50 percent what I’d planned to get done and 50 percent whatever happened. I find that’s still pretty accurate — although some days it’s more like 10 percent of what I planned to get done.

I’m usually in the office by 7, drinking a pot of coffee and doing any projects that require focused attention, like writing. By mid-morning, I’m usually into the “what happens that day” portion — proofing marketing materials, meeting with staff about finances, getting together with trustees, listening to clips of singers I’m interested in hiring. Evenings are similar — I may be at a rehearsal, giving a preview, getting together with a patron, or attending another performance. If I’m not doing one of those things, the odds are good I’m in the gym.

Most inspiring moment: We did a production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” in Tacoma that was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had. The audience loved it as much as all of us working on it did, with the applause starting during the finale while the artists were still singing. On opening night, I sat backstage remembering how un-simple the process had been, how many decisions and guesses I’d made in the previous year on everything from selecting the set to casting the singers, marveling that it all came together into such an amazing show, and realizing that I really do have one of the greatest jobs in the world.


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