Q & A: Haymarket General Director Chase Hopkins on Stepping Into a Leadership Role in a Trying TimeBy Polina Lyapustina
When the COVID crisis has hit literally every opera company — big or small – every manager was forced on deciding how to overcome it, based on their own experiences. Tenor and Opera Manager Chase Hopkins didn’t have much under his belt when in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit the United States, he was offered the position of the Interim General Director at the Haymarket Opera Company in Chicago.
The year of the pandemic was a kind of test of his leadership skills, as well as a time for the company to discover and progress together. And now, I can conclude with certainty that the Haymarket company, with its witty and fast planning and artists-oriented approach, has been more successful in its Tenth anniversary season than anyone thought possible.
Today, Chase Hopkins sounds confident — the success and effectiveness of his decisions are clear. And after gaining the experience worth maybe 10 years, he is also more serious and astute, understanding that his newly established permanent appointment as a General Director will require only more responsibility for him.
OperaWire had a chance to speak to him about the past year and how he views the company’s future.
OperaWire: What was happening at the Haymarket Opera when the US faced the pandemic?
Chase Hopkins: When Chicago started shutting down places at the beginning of March 2020, we had just finished a concert with Elizabeth DeShong, Jory Vinikour, and our orchestra. Little did we know that it was gonna be our last concert in a while. At the same time my predecessor, Dave Moss announced that he was taking a position elsewhere, and so the Haymarket board asked me if I could step in as an Interim General Director.
I started on March 1, 2020. We were preparing to produce a new production of “L’incoronazione di Poppea” with an amazing cast, led by countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim as Nerone. We were also set to move to the new theatre, a newly renovated space here in Chicago — a smaller one, which we felt, supported our repertoire so well. And then, everything just stopped.
OW: And what was your first reaction to this?
CH: I’m really proud that although I was new to the team, we made many decisions very early on. So my first board meeting was about the fact that we were canceling all our plans. At that time, we accurately projected that we would need to cancel everything through the fall. It’s not like we anticipated how the virus would spread, but we just understood that if we experienced a financial disruption, we would have prolonged issues moving forward.
So we accepted that working in person wouldn’t be an option and started to think about what else we could do. It was also Haymarket’s Tenth Anniversary Season, so we had to figure how to organize everything, protect our artists, and produce something for the audience to celebrate this milestone.
The idea of the film came to us, and we found a wonderful company — Resolution Studios, with all the facilities and experience we needed. And already in April, we had a first meeting with the team, discussing the process in detail. We were quick.
There was also a question of the sustainability of the company. I certainly acknowledged that in the face of the complication and hardships we were well-positioned as a small nimble company to make our choice fast. And the whole team was really onboard. And we were asking questions and adjusting to the new reality because we had little experience in what we launched for the company. Although we certainly want to improve and add other parts into our productions, I’m proud of the results we are getting and how we managed the process.
OW: Tell us about the choice of the video production company.
CH: We started by discussing this idea with a person who supports the company and has huge expertise in marketing and content production, and he introduced us to Resolution Studios.
As a creative producer, I knew that it was important for me to understand what was going to happen on site because a lot of it was new to me. I asked a million questions. But also, on our side, we had such amazing professionals — performers of great expertise. So we decided that we could keep the production simple, concentrating on the music, and artistic parts. That served us and helped to avoid numerous issues.
Resolution Studios really welcomed our process. And we shared the responsibilities. More than 10 technicians worked on the set from their side, but we chose the director and lead audio engineer. We understood that we were trying to bring old music into the new space, and we wanted to be sure that the visual and technical side was in line with what we wanted artistically.
OW: Whom and how did you choose for directing and audio engineering?
CH: Our film director, Garry Grasinski, was with Haymarket for a long time already. He has done a lot of our promo materials. And that was exciting to have the professional among people whom we trusted and see the project to come where he could use his skills.
Our audio engineer, Mary Mazurek, works for the classical radio station here, in Chicago. She is an incredibly accomplished audio engineer for classical music and a Grammy nominee, and a fantastic person.
Having these two and a whole production team of Resolution Studios, we could achieve what we had.
OW: Before this appointment, you had more experience as a singer than a manager. How has your perception of this work changed during last year?
CH: That’s true, I didn’t come in as an experienced General Director. But Haymarket was always a beautiful creation of musicians and performers. It was founded by Craig Trompeter, who is a really fantastic continual cellist. And this idea of constant exchange between the continual team of musicians and singers is very powerful in this company. They rely on each other so heavily. Listening, responding. It’s amazing how these instrumentalists enjoy vocal repertoire. It’s just beautiful when musicians are so moved by the power of the voice.
And so, I think my expertise as a singer was required for this position too. I understood that we were putting our singers in a very stressful position due to all the regulations. The singer’s perspective was very important to deal with this new reality at that moment.
Although I had understood quite a lot about being a freelance singer (whom I always was), this time, I saw it from the manager’s perspective. In the first month, I was canceling people’s contracts, and the vulnerability of our artists was so clear. And I didn’t know many of them individually, and that’s another difficulty – you don’t know the individual scenario of each artist. And it’s very tricky to navigate when you want to offer all the support you can.
OW: What values are most important for you as a manager, and therefore for your company, in this new reality?
CH: The two most important things were to make sure that we did stay connected with our audience and support our artists.
Our musicians are what the company is. Craig founded it, I run it, but actually, it is made up of these fantastic artists. And since we support Chicago-based professionals, we know our community of singers and instrumentalists very well. And I think that all companies should feel this way. Moreover, I think it’s dangerous if they don’t have this connection.
More than Baroque opera, our audiences need to know that we are fighting as hard as we can to survive and be on stage for them. And we saw an overwhelming response to that effort by the end of the year in the people’s feedback and their donations. It proved that our audience had recognized that we continued to employ our artists, that we fight together for the artform.
OW: The entire concept of your productions served this honesty and transparency…
CH: Space, where we were filming, was huge, and eventually, we decided to show the backstage, the technology, hide nothing. And this live process, all those people, who are never shown has become a part of this opera and people’s experience.
OW: What is the plan for the end of this season?
But before that, we have another event to run. Every spring we host a fundraising event called the “Early Opera Cabaret.” It usually takes place in this beautiful contemporary art museum in Chicago. We bring the orchestra and singers, and they just perform what they love. It’s an important event and very informal at the same time. That is what we are going to hold this year too, in May. It obviously has to be virtual this time. We’ll keep it shorter, but it’s important to celebrate our tenth season. And I think, there’s a lot to praise and reflect on. It’s a bit sad that we cannot do it in person, but we’ll do our best and have fun. After all, that’s what this event was created for.
OW: What is your strategy for the next season?
CH: That’s hard to say, it can easily change in a month. Surely, we are looking forward to returning to live performances. Last year, at this time, we had to find a new immediate solution. But now we should be careful. It’s just dangerous to put on the plans that could be so easily canceled. We hope, but hope is not a strategy. I don’t want to put my company in the position where artists are learning their roles and the audience is buying tickets if I don’t believe that there’s a real possibility that it’s going to be presented. I see a huge desire in all of us to get back, but I don’t think that we are out of pandemic yet.
The United States has had difficulties containing the virus, so even with the vaccine, we could see another wave that could overwhelm our medical system or our front-line workers again.
I’m hopeful, but for now, we should have options for either scenario.