Opera San José announced the appointment today of Shawna Lucey as the company’s new general director, succeeding Khori Dastoor, who will take up duties as general director and CEO of Houston Grand Opera next year. Lucey arrives to direct the company in January and will oversee the last two productions on the company’s schedule, Carmen (Feb. 12–27) and West Side Story (April 16- May 1).
Lucey comes from a background as a stage director, although she is currently enrolled in Columbia University’s Master of Science program for Non-Profit Management. Bay Area audiences will be most familiar with her work as director of San Francisco Opera’s legacy production of Tosca and from Opera San José’s 2018 production of La traviata, which she worked on with OSJ’s current music director, Joseph Marcheso. She also has some 15 years of opera and theater experience, having worked at such companies as Santa Fe Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Bolshoi Theater, and Lyric Opera of Kansas City.
Lucey told SFCV that “I had the great privilege of directing La traviata (at OSJ) a few years ago. My time there was absolutely wonderful. The OSJ family is so warm, everyone from staff to audience to board members. I had done a lot of reflecting, and I knew that being a general director was on my long-term list of goals for my career, and knowing that Opera San José was such an incredible organization, I really wanted to offer myself, it being a company whose mission I really believe in. It’s a company that produces artistically excellent work, over and over again, and that’s something I really care about. I consider myself an evangelist for the art form. I want every person on the street to know that opera is for them. Come, we want you to be part of our community. Come to this party.”
Marcheso, who has also worked with Lucey at SF Opera, commented, “The creativity and energy that Shawna brings to her work is incredibly inspiring, and I am very much looking forward to collaborating with her in the coming months and years. Her approach of exciting innovation, a healthy respect for tradition, and steadfast commitment to artistic excellence makes her absolutely ideal for this post, and I think our audiences will be thrilled to see what she brings to our stage and to our whole community.”
Lucey’s appointment is clearly intended to build on Dastoor’s accomplishments, which in addition to keeping the company together through the pandemic lockdown, included producing online content with optional subtitles in multiple languages (including Vietnamese), and several critically acclaimed productions filmed with the equipment of the state-of-the-art Fred Heiman Digital Media Studio.
Lucey emphasized that in her conversation with SFCV, saying that, “Khori has taken such great care of the company, they’re in such great shape, and we have a great audience base, I can’t emphasize that enough. I am honored to join in that tradition of bringing robust programming to the audiences of Silicon Valley. And that means both honoring our warhorses and branching out. When I say cohort, there’s like a generation of us — I consider Maestro Joseph Marcheso to be in that group — burgeoning leaders of opera who are looking forward to enhancing the art form, because we all love it so much, and helping to usher in the next era so that opera really takes its proper place, which is right at the center of cultural conversation.”
Although the company may still be adjusting to its enhanced reputation and national exposure, Lucey’s theatrical background may end up yielding intriguing results on the stage of the California Theatre. She spent several years working with the world-famous Bread & Puppet Theatre as both a touring performer and staff member, and then 11 seasons with Santa Fe Opera, working her way from technical apprentice to stage director. After graduate work at Columbia University, she moved to Russia to further her theater studies, where her first production was directing and designing a puppet version of Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, performed at the Moscow Art Theater.
She received her MFA in directing and movement from the Boris Shchukin Theatre Institute of the Vakhtangov Theater in Moscow. “I’ve done a couple of puppet operas,” she said, when I asked her about this work. I did a puppet version of [Monteverdi’s] Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria, with Bread and Puppet and then we performed it at the Montreal Baroque Festival. I did a puppet version of [Rimsky-Korsakov’s] The Golden Cockerel.”
Lucey won’t be abandoning traditional productions. She understands that reaching her audience is not all about innovation on the stage. “It involves great conversations and relationship-building. So that means, really connecting to communities, whether it’s the Latinx community or the Vietnamese community, knowing that we want them to be part of our family. And there are a lot of ways in which we can make sure that they are invited to the party. And some of that is program [sub]titling, some of that is connecting through community organizations, some of that is making sure we’re offering educational programming, and some of it is through direct artist connection.”
But she also understands that the goals of representing diversity on the stage also means adding works to the repertory that include the experiences of under-represented minorities and people of color. “It’s our job to really open up and diversify and make opera inclusive in every way possible,” she says. Seeing the company, now in its 38th season, expand its horizons in this way, may have been a little surprising, at first, since it was and still is a company primarily devoted to giving young opera singers there first experiences as regulars in a repertory company. But what was once exceptional is now the norm, and with Shawna Lucey, that seems likely to become a long-term trend.