About La Strega
My name is Thea Cook and I'm obsessed with opera.
I come from a musical family. My dad played guitar. My mom's grandfather played fiddle in a band that included jug, banjo, and washboard. My siblings and I all took piano; I took violin as well. In our house we listened to an eclectic mix of music: big band, jazz, rock, and classical.
But since I was 8, opera has been my life's passion. It started with a mistake: my parents belonged to a record club, one where they sent recordings and you returned them if you didn't want them.
One day, a recording of Aida arrived in the mail. I didn't particularly want it, but my parents forgot to send it back. I don't know how many months went by before I opened the shrink wrap, and began reading the story. This wasn't how I had pictured opera, somehow, from watching Bugs Bunny riding around in drag on the back of Rubenesque horses. It made me curious enough that I put the first disc on. Swept at once into ancient Egypt and a love story, I found myself captivated more by Amneris than I was by Aida and Radames, I was hooked. Obsessed. Addicted. I longed for opera, and more opera. I began saving my allowance to buy records and borrowing practically everything in the opera section of the local library. This opera was by Verdi, and so I stuck with him for a time. Trovatore. Traviata. Rigoletto. Then Vespri, then Luisa Miller. Otello. Through the liner notes I found out about other composers' operas, and I would add them to my collection. Rossini, Bellini, and especially Donizetti became favorites. Every birthday and Christmas, I eschewed toys and clothes, begging instead for opera records.
I explored the recorded legacy of all of the great singers I could, marveling at how their voices worked. Pavarotti, Milanov, Price, Warren, Grist, Rysanek, Pons, Ghaiurov, Arroyo, Crespin, Bacquier. And of course, Caballe, Sutherland, and Horne, whose exploits in the bel canto repertoire made me fall in love with that style.
I worked my way through much of the major repertory, and began reading voraciously about opera history. My specialised obsession with Italian opera - bel canto, the age of Verdi, and the verismo repertoire - grew, and I learned to love French grand opera as well.
Having heard most of the canon, as I got older, I began delving into more obscure pieces, first through specialised record labels like Bongiovanni and Opera Rara, then by collecting scores and playing through them at the piano. Tunes from operas that had faded from the collective memory long before I had even been born began to stick in my head. And over the course of my adult life, I amassed a library of books, scores, and ephemera relating to 19th century Italian and French opera.
For a long time, I wrote about opera - as a critic, and eventually as a historian and a documentarian. But, dismayed that so much good music was going unheard by audiences that might enjoy them, I began to produce concerts, sometimes using the long-neglected song and opera scores as material for programs. In New York, I founded my own company, made a host of rookie mistakes, saw that enterprise fold, and gained the kind of knowledge and experience that can only come through failure. For a while, I swore off concert producing.
That didn't last, of course. Before I knew what had happened, I found myself working in the indie opera scene in New York as a producer and dramaturg - both independently and with such small but groundbreaking groups as Opera Feroce and Vertical Player Repertory. During this time, my areas of specialisation widened to include women composers and American verismo.
I have produced themed recitals of songs by women composers (including the world premiere of an unpublished song by Amy Beach), a recital tribute to Giuseppina Strepponi-Verdi (reconstructing her career and basing the selections on roles she either created or sang frequently). I also spearheaded a project to revive, for the first time in 154 years, Giovanni Pacini's opera Malvina di Scozia, one which came to fruition in May, 2016 with two semi-staged concert performances.
I did all of this while holding down a series of stressful day-jobs in legal administration and later social non-profit management. While valuable in the sense of giving me much-needed business skills, they sapped the energy I really wanted to use to make opera. Eventually, I decided that I wanted a full-time career in opera production, management, and dramaturgy. An advanced degree in arts management seemed the next logical step in this direction. I began to suss out programs in Europe, and found the prestigious program in Arts Management & Cultural Policy at University College Dublin. I was ultimately accepted into this program, and have, as of August 2020, completed all my degree requirements for a Master of Arts in Arts Management & Cultural Policy.
It is as the end of this process that La Strega was born. Or rather, she is the beginning of the next phase.
First of all, let me say briefly what this blog will not do. My days as a critic are behind me. There are enough opera blogs doing a beautiful (and sometimes not-so-beautiful) job of documenting and evaluating performances. So what brew, then, will La Strega be cooking up in her cauldron?
I will be writing about various topics amplifying the history of the art form, the present state of the business, and about opera management specifically (and arts management more broadly). With any luck, I will also be presenting interviews of singers and opera company managers around the world about their experiences and approaches.
Opera today is up against a seemingly existential threat in the form of COVID-19. But it was already facing challenging questions about its continuing relevance in the modern world, its ability to sustain itself financially, and even more fundamental questions about exactly what its nature is. Is it theatre first? Is it classical vocal music first? Is it an equal-parts combination? How can opera attract and retain new audiences? How can we bring an art form this old into a modern world grappling with questions about gender, race, sexuality, and rising authoritarianism? Can we do this without destroying its essence? What funding sources should we take or avoid taking? What role should stage directors play in the future of the art form? These are the types of questions that we must all grapple with as practitioners.
I have more aspirational plans for this blog, but they will come later once the foundations are laid. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the it, and I welcome constructive feedback and suggestions for future content.
aka Thea Cook