Spotlight on Robert Ainsley, Program Director of WNO’s American Opera Initiative and Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists
Before we dive into opera, tell us a little bit about yourself! When did you discover your love of the arts?
I grew up in a small city in the north of England with a lot of history – Durham, with its beautiful 1,000 –year-old Norman cathedral and castle. I was very academic and ‘nerdy’ through high school, and my big break came when I received a government scholarship to attend the private school in my hometown. Although my mum had paid for a few guitar lessons (she always harboured secret hopes that I would be the next Jimmy Page…), my first real musical experience came at 11, when the school provided me with free violin and piano lessons ‘in return’ for my singing treble in the chapel choir; it seemed like a good deal to me, and I never looked back.
By 15, I was playing the organ for the daily chapel services, taking lessons at the cathedral, and directing the school choir on occasion. Although always more of a pianist, I went up to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge both as the Organ Scholar and as a mathematician, running the music in the college. The combination did not last – the mathematicians seemed to have a lot less fun than the musicians, so music became the focus and remained so after university. After finishing my degree, I got a call from the Director of Music at a large church in Greenwich, CT, who invited me to come over as his assistant for a year. I stayed for six, doing a piano performance degree at Mannes College of Music and freelancing as an accompanist in my spare time. These were all great years, commuting into the city, teaching, playing, learning, getting invited to the opera, helping found a music festival, and I still have many very close friends there.
I do not get back home much, as I do not have a lot of family left up there anymore – those I do prefer to visit me instead! – however, it’s always nostalgic and beautiful when I do.
Tell us about your career path leading to opera and to WNO.
In my final year at Mannes, having become a regular audience member at the Met and having worked extensively with singers of all types, shapes, sizes, and ages, I did a rough assessment of my skill set and decided to ask Maestro Colaneri (now Music Director at Glimmerglass) if I could be involved in the opera department at Mannes. He immediately set me to work playing their production of La bohème, and single-handedly taught me how to be a répétiteur for that show over the next weeks. Then one day about three months later, I played the final full piano dress, dashed across town on the bus, and took an audition for the Lindemann Young Artist Program at the Met, with zero expectation of success. Half an hour later I walked out, completely star-struck, and knowing that somehow I had gotten the job. The next two years were some of the most valuable (and stressful) of my life.
From that point on, I took a job as Chorus Master and Assistant Conductor, then Associate Music Director at Portland Opera in Oregon. This led to the chorus master position at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, to which was added Head of Music Staff later. After Portland, I took the Head of Music/Chorus Master position at Minnesota Opera, and now I am here! The administration side of things is fresh to me, and a completely new challenge which I am enjoying getting my teeth into.
Now that you are in this new position, what are your goals for the Young-Artists program?
It is important to realize how much Michael Heaston did for this program – this is already a magnificent place for young artists to thrive, and it is important to me not to tear down any of that amazing work. I do relish the opportunities they have to actually perform on the mainstage, especially in leading roles in their own performances, and I want to see as many of those chances as possible in the future; there’s no better experience than actually going through a full rehearsal period with a performance at the end of it to work towards. I am also a great lover of song repertoire and am looking for opportunities to get more recital work into their curriculum where possible, obviously while keeping opera as the focus.
What are you most excited for this season?
The other part of my job is the American Opera Initiative, and it has been such a pleasure working with these young composers and the mentors to create these new pieces. I think it will be a very emotional moment to see them all come to life in January, with the young artists all creating the roles for the first time. It is a major team effort just to put on an opera, never mind actually write one from scratch as well, and I think that is the newest and most exciting thing for me this year. Unlike most of you, I’ve actually done Champion before, so that is a known quantity for me (and it is great!)
So far, what do you enjoy most about DC? What is still on your DC bucket list?
Coming from Portland and Minneapolis (both great cities, about which I have nothing but good things to say, by the way…), I think it is great to be back in such a diverse community. Takoma Park, where I live, has a really vibrant mix of people and cultures, and DC has that East Coast buzz and drive without the mania and aggression of New York.
I love that the buildings here are low, and that everything is free! There are still so many museums I have to visit, and so my bucket list is fairly extensive at the moment. Maybe check back with me once I have had time to explore, maybe after the summer!
Why give to the arts?
Being serious for a moment: a culture is measured largely by the quality of its art – when we stop making art, it is a sure sign things are in decline, and when we start to actively destroy it (think of Palmyra), it is a real warning. Art teaches us about ourselves, it teaches us about others, it teaches us right and wrong, it teaches us about why we are here. These are troubled times across the world, and our best weapon to combating ignorance is by acknowledging and fighting for the finest things we are capable of – and that is our art! Want to make a difference in this world, and leave it a little better than you found it? GIVE TO THE ARTS!