This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.
If opera is a disaster waiting to happen, then Maestro Meena is the last line of defense against a production’s unraveling.
“Opera is a disaster waiting to happen,” says Maestro James Meena. As Artistic Director of Opera Grand Rapids, Meena is the first and last line of defense against a production’s unraveling. “As a conductor, you have to be extremely ready to handle the disasters.” As frequent readers will recall, keeping chaos at bay is a common theme among opera professionals. This is not because they’re dour people, but rather a testament to the delicacy of the artform. Opera’s challenge, simply stated, is to stage a musical play and conduct a symphony at the same time, with a full complement of lighting, props, and sound design.
Even if there are no proper disasters, there is a very real potential that the entire spectacle may fall out of step with itself. The audience does not attend grand opera to be underwhelmed. To deliver the caliber of production our audience expects requires advanced strategic planning, finding the right people, and a demanding practice schedule. Meena is at the center of this process.
“Every element that we would call an artistic element of the product is ultimately my decision. It’s a collaborative artform, so I work with the director on what the production is going to be looking like. Selecting a production and getting a director who has the same aesthetic is very important,” says Meena. The winding road the maestro took to his current role prepared him well for its sundry demands.
“I sort of backed into opera,” says Meena. He took up the cello at age six and played in his school’s youth orchestra in Los Angeles. In the following years, he would pick up instruments as his family moved around the country. He learned piano and sang in church. For a year, his interest drifted toward the visual. At sixteen, Meena assembled a portfolio and began applying to art schools. But his love of music was unshakable. A successful audition at Baldwin Wallace Conservatory cemented Meena’s identity as a lifelong student of music. Young people full of passion but lacking direction might take consolation from his example. “It’s not been a straight line,” he says. “But that’s normal for kids.”
His winding road to Artistic Director had another important stop: that of symphonic conductor. Meena was recently married and supporting his family with his work when a call came in from Pittsburgh Opera. They wanted to know if he’d like to help stage their production of Turandot. They asked if he knew the show, and if he was interested. He was not. “At that point, I had no interest in going to the opera. I was going to be a symphonic conductor.” Naturally, he agreed immediately. “I said, ‘Of course I want this job,’” says Meena. The working artist rarely has the luxury of refusal. “Voila! I’m suddenly the Associate Conductor of the Pittsburgh Opera, and haven’t looked back since.”
Meena still conducts symphonies all over Europe and the United States. “I enjoy conducting Brahms Symphonies, Tchaikovsky symphonies, Mozart, and great contemporary pieces.” But he is very happy to spend the majority of his time in the opera house.
“It helps to really like working with singers,” he says with a wry smile. The notion of the larger-than-life singer is an archetype for a reason, and to be a successful opera professional, it helps to enjoy navigating that reality. “Their neuroses are really interesting. Helping, guiding them, and allowing them to be the best performer possible is not unlike working with a pianist or a violinist on a concerto, but the neuroses are much higher. The personalities are much bigger. It is grand opera, after all.”
In addition to being a mentor and ringmaster, the role of Artistic Director requires vision and adaptation. To that end, Meena is part of Opera Grand Rapids’ exciting collaboration with Opera Carolina and Toledo Opera. “These are companies that share an aesthetic. We also share an interest in performing at a very high level.” According to Meena, pooling our resources with these two companies elevates the standards for all involved. Besides saving up to thirty percent in production costs, the collaboration model allows us to present singers with very attractive contracts—seven or eight performances is much more lucrative than two. Much like the performances themselves, Meena is one of those chiefly responsible for ensuring a smooth collaboration between companies in three different cities. “If we do it right, each of the cities will benefit.”
So far, the maestro seems to be doing it right. Many of Meena’s performances have been recorded and broadcast over National Public Radio’s World of Opera, and he routinely receives plaudits from critics the world over.
Even at his level of expertise, the job stays interesting. No matter how meticulous the casting, how prepared the musicians, there is always a chance for chaos to intrude. There is a chance, for instance, that the principal singers will hate each other.
“Nightmare experiences in the opera are a common occurrence,” says Meena with a laugh. “Probably the worst experience I had was doing La bohème. The first day of rehearsal, the Rodolfo and the Mimi hated each other.” In the opera, the two characters fall in love immediately. In real life, the sparks flew right away, but not in a way that was helpful to the production. “If you don’t have chemistry between those two, it’s going to be a war from the beginning, and this was a war from the beginning. By the time we got to the performance, they wouldn’t look at each other.”
Most of the time, though, Meena and his expert colleagues can hide any cracks in a performance. He knows his audience is perceptive; opera courts a large segment of connoisseurs. He understands this as a connoisseur himself, and feels a duty to deliver the opera he would like to experience as a member of the audience.
We are fortunate to benefit from his unique vision. As a conductor, director, lover of music, and businessman, Maestro Meena’s own winding path to Artistic Director has made him an excellent guide.
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