The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Let us now praise Madison Opera’s Allan Naplan

November 19, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

As the wise humorist Garrison Keillor likes to say every week about the fictional village of Lake Wobegon: “It’s been a busy week in my hometown.”

Certainly we in Madison have learned some interesting things about the classical music scene here in the past several days.

But the biggest thing we learned is that:


Starting March 1, the Madison Opera’s general director Allan Naplan (below) will be moving on to head the Minnesota Opera as President and General Director.

That means going from a budget of $2 million to $9 million, and going from a city of 250,000 to a city/metropolitan area of almost 3 million, making it the 16th largest such region in the U.S. This is not just a promotion or an advancement. This is a Great Leap Forward.

The Minnesota Opera is the 15th largest opera company in the U.S.

Take a look at its impressive home website:

And then look at its announcement of Naplan’s equally impressive biography and appointment:

Allow me, if I may, to interpret: This move amounts to another step up in a career path that The Ear thinks is likely to take Naplan (below) – who previously worked with the Houston Grand Opera and the Pittsburgh Opera — within the next decade or so to an even bigger major opera company in an even bigger market or major city like Chicago or New York, Boston or Washington, Los Angeles or San Francisco. One day, we’ll say we knew him when.

Look at his achievements. Big or small, they are striking and impressive – and allow you to understand why Minnesota Opera came calling on him, not him on them.

Naplan has had a steady stream of sell-outs and near sell-outs since he first came to Madison nearly six years ago. That speaks well of his ability to choose repertoire, but also to orchestrate marketing campaigns and to surround himself with a staff that provides both artistic excellence and business acumen.

Not for nothing has the Madison Opera just closed the books on its fifth straight year of surpluses. That in itself is a cause for celebration in the opera world, where even Opera Cleveland is facing a possible final curtain, as are many other major symphony orchestras and opera companies.

What else has Naplan done in his tenure?

He instituted a third, mid-winter opera in smaller Overture Center venues, and each has been successful, from Copland’s “The Tender Land” and Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” (below) to this season’s “Three-Penny Opera.”

He has used new media and social networking to reach new audiences and educate the public, and launched the first Blogger’s Night. It was successful. I know because I was there and participated. It continued this fall and plans are for it to continue every season with new voices blogging.

He also inaugurated the Opera Up Close previews that helped build an audience that would feel comfortable with opera, and the level-headed Naplan did not feel threatened by the Met’s hi-def live broadcasts but instead used them to his advantage.

Last summer, he helped set the record attendance (14,000) for Opera in the Park (below), which will celebrate its 10th anniversary next July without him.

He has consistently chosen great young singers, great sets and great costumes to import for productions, including the Madison Opera’s first Wagner opera (“The Flying Dutchman,” below).

He has negotiated wisely and well with some big egos and big talents in the opera world, at least judging from appearances, and works well with music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot).

Naplan also works well with the media. I have always found him accessible, pleasant and informative to deal with. With me he has always been a straight-shooter. He is no prima donna, no Rudolf Bing (go ahead Goggle the Met legend).

A former professional touring baritone who composes and arranges music, Naplan made a recording that went up on a Space Shuttle. With mastery, he uses his resonant and mellifluous voice to get points across. He sounds great on radio or in person. In short, he has presence and can talk as well as sing.

I think we will miss him and what he has accomplished. A lot.

Will he be replaceable? I am sure the same process that found him a can find another talented person like him. There are many out there, especially during these hard economic times.

But will the new person measure up to him? We can hope only we are so lucky.

Naplan took the solid foundation he inherited from Madison Opera founders Ann Stanke, and Roland and Arline Johnson, and built on it. Naplan, who has two young sons with his wife Christina, leaves a very big record built up in a very short time, one that won’t be easy to match. He leaves the Madison Opera just as it celebrates its Gold Anniversary  — middle in age but strong in body and young at heart.

In the meantime, we music-lovers can all say: “Thank you, Allan, for your service and for bringing so many of us many hours of pleasure. We will miss you, and we wish you success and good luck. We will remember you fondly and hope that you will remember us.”

Posted in Classical music

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