MAW’s Directing Fellow: Turning the Paige on Opera

By Steven Libowitz   |   June 25, 2024
Paige Cameron is bringing an operatic buffet for the revival of MAW’s Opera Scenes event (courtesy photo)

When Paige Cameron enrolled at Northwestern in her home state of Illinois to study vocal performance, the plan was to sing her way to stardom. 

“I really thought I was going to be an opera singer,” said Cameron, who goes by either she or they and has recently decided to lop off her hyphenated last name of Dirkes-Jacks in her professional life, “That’s what I was studying, the degree I earned, and the path I was on.” 

But somewhere shy of graduation, Cameron veered just a bit, shoving aside singing for stage directing. Not because their love of opera had lessened, but due to a desire to have a greater impact on the art form than a performer can provide. 

“I have a really clear sense of the ways in which I wanted to be a part of opera growing and changing, and that starts with the stories we tell, with casting, and with the environment that the people leading the rehearsal room build for the performers.” 

So they also earned a certificate in musical theater at Northwestern, one of the great thespian institutes in the land, where Cameron initially directed a student theater production on campus that stood in sharp contrast to the opera program.

“I’d be taking classes with these incredible coaches and pianists in the big fancy building with views of Lake Michigan, making this art form with an aura of prestige that felt very elite,” they recalled. “Then I’d jog over to a tiny little black box theater that was quite literally a shack and put on a student play. We had maybe a hundred dollars to our names, but also a whole lot of passion and excitement and grit and caring about making something meaningful. That’s where I found my people.”

Cameron said their desire to see more of that kind of spirit in the world of opera is a big motivator. 

“We tend to think of opera as this kind of unreachable thing, up on a pedestal where it’s holy and untouchable. But I really care about bringing opera down to an accessible level. It started as something that was for everybody and really should be again.” 

After a couple of years that included serving as Teaching Artist with the Lyric Opera and helming a couple of shows as Associate Director with the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company, Cameron is spending this summer as MAW’s third ever Directing Fellow. The position provides rare formal training in stage directing for young artists who crave a career that – as happened for Cameron – is often only carved out through apprenticing and trial and error, plus connections and good timing. 

Their duties this summer include assistant directing the Music Academy’s productions of Bizet’s Carmen with Ken Cazan and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges with Mary Birnbaum. But first, they’re serving as the stage director for the Academy’s revival of Opera Scenes, which returns to Hahn Hall on Friday, June 21, for the first time since before the pandemic and the two-year trial when James Darrah changed course to create Cabaret presentations. 

Now the traditional Scenes is back, with a full dozen opera excerpts that run the gamut from Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito and Le Nozze di Figaro to Donizett’s L’elisir d’amore, to Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress – all of which, save for La clemenza, have received full MAW productions in the past. Also on the program are less frequently performed works, such as Menotti’s Maria Golovin and the slate’s newest offering, Daniel Catán’s 1996 opera Florencia en el Amazonas

“It’s like a directing playground for me,” Cameron said. “There’s scenes in Russian, Italian, German, French, and English. It was really fun to approach 12 very different moments in 12 very different operas and try to figure out how to weave them together. It’s been great to pull them together with these really incredible young singers who are willing to jump in and play around and figure things out with me.”

Cameron said the connecting thread came from noticing similarities between some of these theatrical elements of the pieces, particularly a card game that takes place in two of them, and two that make references to wearing a costume from commedia dell’arte

“I realized I shouldn’t ignore these coincidences, but find a way to tie them together,” they said. 

The answer came in the form of a prop that gets passed off during the transitions between each of the scenes, including the deck of cards and other items. 

“It’s like the Marvel cinematic universe where all of the movies are actually connected in one way or another,” they said. “We’ve created our own Music Academy operatic universe, which offers a sense of flow and connection instead of just little chunks that make no sense together.”

And it also makes sense because, with the Academy having axed the traditional first vocal masterclass that consisted of every singer and pianist performing without coaching, Opera Scenes represents the first time that the MAW audience will get to hear most of the singer and pianist fellows in this year’s Lehrer Vocal Institute (LVI).

The tactic should also offer extra excitement to opera buffs familiar with the pieces, Cameron said. 

“They can have a fun moment of watching two characters from two completely different operas interact and think about what that would be like.”

But no knowledge of the canon is necessary to enjoy the music, acting and staging, as well as the more subtle theme tying the pieces together – the various aspects of love, Cameron said.

“We’re exploring the question of what would you do for love? And we get to see a lot of different versions of love play out – new love, blossoming love, passion and sacrifice, and eventually finding your way back to each other.” 

Which comes in the finale from Figaro, which features the entire roster of 20 singers in a joyful, up-tempo number that Cameron said is a whole lot of fun.

“I want it to be a joyful evening,” Cameron said. “I want people to laugh. I want them to feel moved. It’s all about making opera welcoming and accessible.”

Thursday, June 20: More instrumental studios make their masterclass debuts this afternoon with performance-coaching sessions in Bassoon led by Chicago Symphony’s Dennis Michel (1:30 pm; Weinman Hall; $10) and Trombone & Tuba with Mark Lawrence, the San Francisco Symphony’s principal trombonist for 34 years (3:30 pm; Weinman Hall; $10). Vibrancy also comes from masterclass in violin with Bing Wang, the Los Angeles Phil’s Associate Concertmaster since 1994 (1:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $10), and Lehrer Vocal Institute’s singers and vocal pianists with Tamar Sanikidze, a former winner of the Marilyn Horne Foundation Award for Excellence in Vocal Accompanying who now heads MAW’s Vocal Piano studio (3:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $10)… Tonight brings the season’s first X2 (Times Two) concert, which pairs professional teaching artists with one or more fellows in chamber music concerts. Head to Hahn Hall for the Takács Quartet’s final event of their 2024 residency when a piano fellow gets the honors for a program featuring Henri Brod’s Duo from Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor, Op. 55”; Schumann’s “Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 63”; and Dvořák’s “Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81.” The Takács earned standing ovations at the Lobero last week, including one following their delightful encore, so snap up remaining tickets soon (7:30 pm; $45). 

Friday, June 21: The final two studios show off in their debut masterclass, with Oboe led by the enviably elegant Eugene Izotov, the principal oboist of the San Francisco Symphony, whose playing has alternatively been called luminous, lyrical, and fiery (1:30 pm; Lehmann Hall; $10), and Double Bass with the internationally decorated Nico Abondolo, a 1980s MAW alum and longtime faculty member who also taught at UCSB for 13 years early on (1:30 pm; Weinman Hall; $10). 

Saturday, June 22: The 2024 Academy Fellows Orchestra makes its debut under the baton of the great Osmo Vänskä, the Finnish conductor who is the former music director of the Minnesota Orchestra. Joined by vocal fellows Meg Brilleslyper (mezzo-soprano) and Michael Segura (baritone) in one of MAW’s continued collaborations between LVI and the instrumental studios, the 90-member strong ensemble will perform Wagner’s Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) and “Symphony No. 2, Op. 43,” by Vänskä’s countryman, Jean Sibelius. If this summer’s symphony orchestra follows in its predecessor’s footsteps, we’re in for a treat, even for those accustomed to hearing CAMA’s touring world-class orchestras (7:30 pm; Granada Theatre; $18-$115). 

Tuesday, June 24: People are still pulsing pleasurably from the Percussion Fest performance at Hahn Hall last weekend, and today brings the singular masterclass this summer conducted by Joseph Pereira, the Principal Timpanist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 2008, and a composer, conductor and soloist in his own right (3:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $10)… Call in 2X5: Tonight’s first Teaching Artists Showcase of the season offers a sumptuous selection of sonatas including Debussy’s “Sonata for Cello and Piano” (Alan Stepansky, cello; Natasha Kislenko, piano) Hindemith’s “Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 11, No. 4” (Richard O’Neill, viola; Margaret McDonald, piano), George Walker’s “Sonata for Cello and Piano” (Seth Parker Woods, cello; Conor Hanick, piano), Bottesini’s “Elegy No. 1” (Nico Abondolo, double bass; McDonald, piano) and Beethoven’s “No. 10 for Piano and Violin in G Major, Op. 96” (Martin Beaver, violin; Jonathan Feldman, piano). (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $40)

Wednesday, June 25: MAW’s Salon Series, subtitled Intimate Soundscapes because it takes place in the one-time Miraflores estate’s banquet hall following a pre-concert wine reception, features the fellows in often esoteric programming they likely wouldn’t be exposed to elsewhere. The season kickoff features Christopher Cerrone’s “New Addresses,” Ned Rorem’s “Ariel: Five Poems of Sylvia Plath,” and Valerie Coleman’s “Afro-Cuban Concerto.” (7:30 pm; Lehmann Hall; $45)  


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