Seattle Opera General Director, Christina Scheppelmann, wants more people to know that opera is for everyone.
It is a long way from her hometown of Hamburg, Germany, to Seattle. But Christina Scheppelmann has never minded travelling long distances for her career. “I’ve lived in five countries, on three continents, and Seattle is my eighth country,” says the general director of the Seattle Opera. “I’m an internationalist, not a provincialist.”
She is also an arts administrator who has never had the yen to be a professional musician herself. This very direct, highly approachable, and enthusiastic head of one of the most respected opera companies in the country acknowledges that she attended a “music high school” in Germany, studied violin, and even sang in the Hamburg State Opera youth choir. But she always knew she’d be happiest backstage, helping manage artists and musical organizations, “because it’s fun and it’s really fascinating.”
The travel perks have been great, too. Before starting her Seattle Opera post in 2019, Scheppelmann began her career representing and promoting opera singers and directors in Italy, where she got to spend time in cities including Milan and Venice. Then it was on to Barcelona, a special place because her grandfather was Spanish, her father was born in the country, and her family spoke the language at home.
Speaking of languages, Scheppelmann is fluent in five: German, Spanish, French, Italian, and English. Her impeccable English has come in very handy in the U.S. She has worked for the San Francisco Opera and spent 11 years at the Washington National Opera in Washington, D.C., overseeing artistic planning in collaboration with general director—and world renown tenor—Placido Domingo. She also did a stint in Oman, Jordan in the Middle East.
After Aiden Lang, the previous general manager of Seattle Opera resigned, Scheppelmann threw her hat in the ring to replace him and make another move to a new locale with her stage manager wife, Beth Krynicki. (Fun fact: The two were married in a civil ceremony by the late Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an opera buff.)
“I knew Seattle, and when I worked in San Francisco I had a great dialogue with Speight Jenkins over the years,” Scheppelmann explains. (Jenkins, as most local opera fans know, retired in 2014 after three decades developing the Seattle Opera into an internationally prominent company.)
“I would come here at least once or twice a year to see Speight and watch a production. It’s such a beautiful city, it has water and mountains and it’s very green. And [McCaw Hall] is a very good opera house, with great acoustics and a great stage.”
Scheppelmann was well aware of the challenges that awaited her. Seattle Opera had amassed a large operating deficit, and like many other major arts organizations was aiming to bring in a younger audience to join its many older, longtime subscribers. With her vast experience and determination, she was prepared for the challenge. But less than a year after arriving, another test—unexpected and daunting—presented itself: COVID-19.
“We were closed for 18 months,” she recalls. “And we had no idea when we would be able to perform again.”
With successful new vaccines, and COVID protocols for audience members and performers, the Seattle Opera got back into action earlier this year, and is now in the midst of its current season. In characteristic fashion, Scheppelmann has slated classic operas along with new works that reflect the company’s commitment to artistic excellence and cultural diversity.
Scheppelmann wants more people to know that opera is for everyone. “We need people to come back to us!” she says. “We need the ticket sales of course, but beyond that we are doing this for an audience. People have gone back to restaurants, to sports games. But what is a city without art, without theater, opera, jazz, ballet? If you want to be a big city, you have to have it!”
Below are the productions on tap by Seattle Opera at Macaw Hall (Seattle Center) through spring 2023. Operas in foreign languages are translated by supra-titles projected above the stage.
Samson and Delilah. This famed opera, composed by Camille Saint-Saëns and dramatizes the biblical tale of the seduction of strongman Samson by the beguiling Delilah, will be presented in a concert version without full costuming and sets but with a complete cast and orchestra. The heralded mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, with local roots, “will sing the role of Delilah,” notes Stoppelman. “I think her mother is going to bring half of Tacoma to see her!” Plays January 20 and 22, 2023.
A Thousand Splendid Suns. This timely world premiere opera is based on a novel by Khaled Hosseini (also the author of the bestseller The Kite Runner) about a 30-year friendship between two women in war-torn Afghanistan, with a score by Sheila Silver and libretto by Stephen Kitsakos.
“It is a beautiful piece, a powerful piece,” declares Scheppelmann. “The director is a brilliant Afghan filmmaker, Roya Sadat, who left her country when the Taliban took over. She will bring a lot of authenticity to the production.” Plays Feb. 25–26, March 3, 5, 8 and 11, 2023.
La Traviata. The season will close with a presentation of this popular classic, based on the romantic 19th century novella, La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils. The tale of an alluring, ailing Parisian courtesan who falls in love with the son of one of her wealthy lovers will be seen in an acclaimed and lavishly appointed co-production with Washington National Opera, staged by leading director Francesca Zambello.
Plays May 6–7, 10, 13–14 anad 19, 2023
Ticket prices begin at around $35, with senior rush tickets $45. Tickets and more information: 206-389-7676 or seattleopera.org.
Misha Berson writes about the arts for crosscut.com and many other media outlets, teaches for the UW Osher program, and is the author of four books, including Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination (Applause/Hal Leonard).