Mr. Ching's Opus

Opera Memphis seeks to fill director’s shoes

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Daily News

Michael Ching, artistic director of Opera Memphis since 1992, is leaving after more than 50 operas to concentrate on composing while his wife, Barbara, accepts a teaching position at Iowa State University.  Photo: Lance Murphey

Songs of farewell are staples of operatic repertoire, but supporters of Opera Memphis soon will be singing a new lament.

Earlier this month, artistic and general director Michael Ching, whose leadership of the company spans nearly two decades, announced his resignation.

Ching will officially leave on May 14 following the wrap-up of this season’s last production, Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” to retire from arts administration and focus on writing new operas and guest conducting.

The move comes after Ching’s wife, Barbara, accepted a position as chair of the English department at Iowa State University in Ames.

“Barbara and I always had a plan that I would be able to stay home and write and she would be the one carrying the economic ball,” said Ching. “The time was right and the job came through. We weren’t looking hard to leave Memphis.”

Meanwhile, the company he leaves behind bears little resemblance to the company Ching came to work for in 1992, whose facilities he described as “primitive.”

“From practically the first day I got here, it was like, ‘I’m going to either fix this or I’m not going to stay here,’” said Ching.

Fixer-upper

Opera Memphis was housed in an aging World War II Army hospital building on the University of Memphis’ South Campus, where its costumes slowly rotted in non-air-conditioned storage and offices dealt with frequent power outages.

A decade later, the company completed a $7 million capital campaign to build its own center, which materialized in the form of the modern $4 million Clark Opera Memphis Center on a $1 million parcel of land on Wolf Creek Boulevard in East Memphis.

Ching’s original opera, “Corps of Discovery,” about the adventures of Louisiana Purchase explorers Lewis and Clark, had its world premiere production just a year later in 2004.

The company’s overall budget has risen from $900,000 to as much as $1.5 million at times, but Ching used creative ingenuity to work around high production costs.

“Just because you’re a relatively small company doesn’t mean you can’t do interesting and creative work,” said Ching. “I sometimes feel like small opera companies shrug their shoulders and put on another opera of the same sort. We’ve been innovative.”

The 2009-2010 season exemplifies his approach.

October’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte,” which Ching set in America’s Roaring ’20s, was staged at the Germantown Performing Arts Center instead of the Orpheum Theatre, cutting the rental expense dramatically, and Ching hoped, appealing more to suburban audiences.

The company’s production of Gluck’s “Orpheus” (“Orfeo et Eurydice”) was held in the rehearsal hall at COMC, running for six shows instead of two. Ching further shook things up by casting three singers with three different vocal ranges in the lead role.

Both changes in venue were directly related to a recession-driven decrease in donations and ticket sales.

“The last two years have been tough years for the opera,” said Ching. “We’ve had a balanced budget or surplus (two-thirds of the time) of the 18 years I’ve been here. But this year we really had to cut back our production expenses to make sure that we could come as close as we could to balancing the budget.”

And still it was a trying year. Both productions this season were artistic successes, but ticket sales faltered. “Cosi Fan Tutte” opened on Halloween night, which did not resonate well with trick-or-treating families, and two performances of “Orpheus” had to be cancelled because of snow.

A lot is riding on “Madame Butterfly” (April 17 and 20 at The Orpheum), but Ching said he feels the opera’s future will be secure without him.

“I’m really quite confident that it will be fine,” said Ching. “I don’t want Opera Memphis to be anything but successful.”

Difference made

Ching’s second claim to local fame has been the creation of a successful Songwriting and Music Video program for middle and high school students in which opera clinicians lead teenagers through the process of writing and recording an original song. Ching led the students himself for the first couple years before turning it over to other artists.

“I think most communities (outside of Memphis) still have that feeling of opera as being elitist,” said Stephen Carey, Opera Memphis’ assistant artistic director. “(Ching) has really made a point of doing other kinds of shows that are not typically done all that often and he’s branched out into different demographics and tried to get younger audiences into opera.”

Delores Kinsolving, a board member, said it’s still a little early to tell the direction of the impending search for a new candidate.

“Michael has had the job of artistic and general director, but I think that we will probably be looking for two people to do this instead of one,” said Kinsolving. “We don’t want to overload someone. Michael, I think has been overloaded, but he has done a superb job and we are extremely pleased.”

“The board will conduct a national search to find the best possible director,” said Charles Schaffler, board chair. “No timetable has been established, but it is hoped that an executive director will be in place before the 2010-2011 season.”

Ching will be back in Memphis in the fall to help Opera Memphis with the production of another of his original works “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which opens in January at Playhouse on the Square.