Debbie Chinn, newly appointed executive director of Opera Parallèle, has had a long, busy, varied career as an arts executive, but when asked about her first experience with opera, she reaches all the way back to the 8th grade, when a favorite science teacher and her husband took her to the Metropolitan Opera:
We sat way up in the balcony and I can’t recall the name of the opera that I saw, but I remember being transfixed by the rhythmic movements on stage, the technical elements, magical and visual effects, and feeling the powerful vibrations of the voices and music.
Something inside me came to life and I started to daydream about one day being a singer or an actress because I wanted so much to occupy a piece of that world of theatrics and wonder.
Her original aspiration was to become a pianist, but a hand injury ended that dream, she changed her major to theater, and eventually attended the University of Southern California, majoring in theater also, under the artistic direction of John Houseman.
What followed was a life in the arts, not performing, but facilitating, leading, and supporting performers, organizations, and audiences. Named as Opera Parallèle’s ED last week, succeeding Interim Executive Director Carrie Blanding, Chinn is coming to OP from the Carmel Bach Festival, which she led as its executive director since 2012. Before then, she has had a dizzying array of positions with the San Francisco Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, California Shakespeare Theater, and numerous others.
At Opera Parallèle, Chinn will work alongside founder and Artistic Director Nicole Paiement and Creative Director Brian Staufenbiel, overseeing all administrative facets of the innovative contemporary opera company including financial management, fundraising, strategic planning, education/outreach, and marketing/communications. She will start on Feb. 1, just in time for the company’s new production of Jonathan Dove’s Flight, Feb. 10–12 at YBCA Theater.
Chinn is from Long Island, NY, where her parents — immigrants from China — worked at their family restaurant and nightclub. “In the evenings, I was one of those latchkey kids who either came home from school to an empty house or went straight to the restaurant to help out and get my homework done. It was a non-traditional upbringing — mostly school and work — but I was fortunate in that many of our customers stepped up to provide opportunities for my brother and me, which allowed my parents to focus on running their business.”
Opera Parallèle Board Chair Robert Ripps says the company is “extremely pleased” that after a national search, Chinn “will join the Opera Parallèle team; her expertise and insight, broad base of experience, enthusiasm, and innovative spirit are the perfect match.”
Paiement says, “Debbie Chinn brings a truly wide range of experience and energy to Opera Parallèle. More important and exciting, she is a thought leader and innovator in the fields of music and theater, which is exactly what OP needs in an executive director to parallel the vision and work the company has been widely known for.”
Accepting the appointment, Chinn said, “The most successful arts organizations are the ones that challenge the status quo and bend a few rules in order to remain competitive and compelling. With Opera Parallèle, having been captivated by Nicole Paiement and her vision, I have no doubt that this is one of those rare and extraordinary organizations bursting with bold artistic innovation, passion, and purposeful connectivity to multiple communities.”
Chinn currently sits on the board of the Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET), the national coalition of ensembles created by and for theater practitioners and she is the past board president of the Association of California Symphony Orchestras. Her past board affiliations include Theatre Communications Group (the national consortium for professional nonprofit theaters in the United States), Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, California Arts Advocates, and George Soros’ Open Society Institute’s Leadership Council.
Chinn’s work at the Carmel Bach Festival is featured as one of 13 case studies in Creative Social Change: Leadership for a Healthy World, a new volume in the International Leadership Association Series.