What strikes me most when talking with Deborah Sandler is her curiosity about the world. When she’s not listening to an opera or planning one, she’s probably reading about design or current affairs in The New York Times, or taking in fresh air at Loose Park, or enjoying the Kemper Museum, or settling in with a good book (current read: Whitney Terrell’s Kansas City novel The King of Kings County).
Deborah, who took the reins as the Lyric Opera’s general director in 2012, eschews TV news and, after a long day at work, prefers to have conversations with friends or family members: to find out how their day went, exchange ideas. “I love intellectual stimulation, fabulous conversation. Learning new things is really, really important to me. Every conversation can be a new path, can be a new journey.”
Classical music is her first love, of course: She began as a pianist and studied Baroque opera at NYU as a graduate student. But on her Spotify playlist, in addition to Beethoven sonatas and Dvořák concertos, you’ll find a wide range: Broadway and cabaret (Edith Piaf, Cleo Laine, Barbara Cook), jazz (especially Etta James) and pop (Judy Collins, Pink Floyd, Coldplay, cultural fusionist Idan Raichel).
If she could meet anyone from history? “I’d like to sit with Mozart, because he’d probably be pretty entertaining. He may be a little wacky but he’d be really brilliant.” She’d also like to meet Wolfgang’s sister, Nannerl. “She was a pretty talented musician herself and she kind of got pushed aside.”
Family is critical for Deborah, and she wants to carve out a new “niche” for the Lyric by building up an opera repertoire for families. “Relationships and kids are very important to me,” said the mother of Ben, 33, and Shira, 31. “Having children is a life-altering experience, and you greet the world in a very different way.”
She also loves travel, although she doesn’t get to make as many non-work-related trips as she’d like. Again, it’s about seeing the world differently. “I like going to another country and just sitting down and watching people. Looking at the architecture of a city, and asking what that tells you about a city. … You find there are many more dimensions to people. It’s so easy to stereotype.”
As a Philadelphian in the heartland, she knows what that’s like. “I’m from a different part of the country, and the culture is a little different. My communication style may be faster, may be more direct. And I think that that’s not the culture here. … I’m more multifaceted than people understand, because they slot you in a certain way. … I like to have fun. I don’t know if that comes out enough.”
Now in her fourth season with the Lyric, Deborah harbors big dreams. “My vision for the Lyric has the company standing on two very firm legs,” she said. One of those “legs” is formed by what goes onto the main stage: gorgeously sung, powerfully-visual productions spanning the 400 years-plus years of the history of opera. “We want every opera to be a ‘wow’ experience.” That includes standard rep in fresh productions but also will eventually embrace newly commissioned works, once all the right conversations have taken place. “I would need the right partners and the right team, and even then it’s still a risk, a very big risk. … Do I see commissioning in our future? Yes. Am I ready to announce anything? No.”
The other “leg” has to do with community engagement, and family operas will form a crucial part of that. “One of the things I would like for us to do is create a body of work that speaks specifically to multi-generational family audiences,” she said. “What can we own as a company that makes sense for us and our community? … I would like for the Lyric Opera to own programming for family audiences, and to create a body of literature that will be of service to our community and to the field.”
Also featured in the November 14, 2015 issue
By Paul Horsley
Photo Credit: Tom Styrkowicz