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Art Review

For opera chief, Hub is quality choice

General director Lesley Koenig (above, center left) watches an Opera Boston rehearsal for Berlioz’s “Béatrice et Bénédict’’ this month. Below: In 1992, Koenig took her first onstage bow at opening night of “Jenufa’’ at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. General director Lesley Koenig (above, center left) watches an Opera Boston rehearsal for Berlioz’s “Béatrice et Bénédict’’ this month. Below: In 1992, Koenig took her first onstage bow at opening night of “Jenufa’’ at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / October 16, 2011

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It would be good if a scrape with death were not in the headline. That was just part of my story, not nearly as big as the size of my dreams. Do you know that Yeats poem that ends, “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’’? That was my background music growing up. Lesley Koenig

The sun beams into a rehearsal room at the Calderwood Pavilion as Lesley Koenig reaches for a pencil. Opera Boston’s production of Berlioz’s “Béatrice et Bénédict’’ opens in 10 days, and the company’s new general director is taking notes.

Her concerns, at the moment, are considerably minor. The soprano should start her part with more confidence. Why is Don Pedro chewing gum? Should the mouthed chatter by characters be in English or French?

She talks with director David Kneuss during a break. He’s glad to listen. Kneuss knows Koenig’s background. In her previous life, at the Metropolitan Opera, they worked together as directors.

“Usually, general directors are fund-raisers or peacemakers,’’ says Kneuss, who directed Opera Boston’s 2010 production of “La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein.’’ “The difference with Lesley is that I don’t need to explain how I do my job. It’s built into Lesley’s system. I can concentrate on the stuff I like to do, working with singers and creating the product.’’

A few minutes later, Koenig sits for an interview at a cafe outside the Calderwood. It is lunchtime, but the wiry opera boss, 54, rarely eats lunch. Over a cup of coffee, she’s asked about her unorthodox path to Boston. This is a woman who directed at the Met in her 30s, served as San Francisco Ballet’s general manager for six years, and then interviewed at a half-dozen opera companies for new jobs, everywhere from New York to Covent Garden. She speaks fluent Italian, German, and French and has a business degree from Stanford.

“Could I run the Met? Sure,’’ she says. “Do I want to? Today, no.’’

This isn’t cockiness. Back in 2004, Koenig was on the Met’s short list for the top job along with record company executive Peter Gelb, opera star Plácido Domingo, and current Los Angeles Philharmonic president Deborah Borda. Gelb got the job.

The headhunters kept calling, sometimes three a week.

The jobs, though, would never be as good as they seemed.

“It’s important to look at a title and company and say, ‘That’s what it really means,’ ’’ Koenig says. “It sounds good on paper - director of opera at Covent Garden - but you don’t know what it was. They have an organizational structure, all these people are separate line reports to the [chief executive] Tony Hall. The only thing you’re doing is production and casting along with the artistic director. I know how to do that.’’

I realized I wanted to pilot a bush plane, not another 747. And there was Opera Boston. I could run a nimble, cool, edgy company. And who doesn’t like Boston?

Gregory E. Bulger, Opera Boston board president, had his doubts. Not about Koenig, one of nearly 70 candidates considered to replace Carole Charnow, who left to become president and chief executive officer of the Boston Children’s Museum. Bulger had doubts that Koenig, with her experience, would be really interested in Opera Boston’s top post.

“The fact is, looking at her resume, I was thinking, ‘Jeez, she’s really overqualified,’ ’’ says Bulger. “When I called, I made it very clear to her that we are a $2.5 million company and we don’t have a few hundred thousand dollars to pay our director.’’

Money wasn’t the point. Koenig loved opera. As a girl, she and her sister would listen to Met radio broadcasts, feeling the vibrations of the music through the rug they were lying on.

At 8, she caught rehearsals at San Francisco Opera, where her mother volunteered. At 23, after earning a degree at Harvard, she started at the Met, a job as a producer and director that would run from 1981 to 1998. The post is not as glorious as it sounds, the equivalent of being an assistant conductor at a symphony orchestra. The staffers usually work with the big-name directors brought in to originate productions.

But Koenig impressed her bosses and, in 1996, she was given a rare chance to originate a new production of “Cosi fan Tutte.’’ With music director James Levine in the pit and Cecilia Bartoli making her Met debut, the opera was praised.

“A staff director would not normally be given a new production,’’ says Joe Clark, the technical director and then assistant manager at the Met for 31 years. “I can’t think of a time that happened. But she was obviously very capable and had ambitions, and James Levine and Joe Volpe saw that.’’

I felt that I had done what I set out to do. It’s pretty important to ask yourself more than once in life, and not too late, is there anything else I want to do?

Every year about 265,000 people take the Graduate Management Admission Test, generally a requirement for business school applicants. Of that total, just 3,500 of the GMAT-takers are women over 40. That’s 1.3 percent. Koenig was one of them.

She had done directing. Now she wanted to run her own company.

So at 42, Koenig applied to graduate school and started at Stanford. She didn’t know how to use a computer at the time. During one marketing class, she answered a question calling for her to do something called regression analysis on minivans.

A week later, the professor passed around the two best solutions. One was a complicated spreadsheet with no words. The other was hers - all words, no numbers.

The key to success, the professor said, was to play to one’s strengths.

“I’ve seen 500 students over 14 years, and she may as well have been the best student I’ve ever had,’’ says Bill Meehan, a faculty member at Stanford who was once a high ranking executive at McKinsey & Company.

Did my experience with pulmonary emboli influence my decision to come here? It has influenced almost every decision I have made since it happened. My lung injury happily helped influence why I would want to work in an amazing company like this and not in a huge behemoth where a board allowed a predecessor to make an enormous mess of things and then would want me to clean it up (and all the stress that would necessarily entail). Here I could make a difference, build the company, put it on a higher level, work with a supportive board, and inherit relatively few issues to untangle. So the story is a positive one, and yes, I am perfectly fine.

It’s not really a secret. It’s just something she doesn’t dwell on. But it can help explain why she, someone with a rare blend of artistic experience and business training, decided to come to Boston.

The Met has a $325 million annual budget and 1,000 employees. Opera Boston has $2.5 million budget and eight staffers. Eight.

But Koenig makes her decisions based on more than numbers. The pulmonary emboli, or blood clots in her lungs, made her think differently about her goals, her lifetime, her plan.

It was 2000, the end of her first year at Stanford, when Koenig fell ill. After repeated misdiagnoses, the doctors eventually found the problem. By then, the pain had become unbearable. The heparin and Coumadin kept her out of danger. The experience changed her approach.

After graduating, she took a job as general manager of San Francisco Ballet, even though she admits ballet is not her first love. In San Francisco, Koenig balanced budgets, led fund-raising campaigns, and negotiated union contracts. She also longed for the right opera job.

A short stop back to the Met in 2008 convinced her she didn’t want to stay there.

Priorities had shifted. At one point, Koenig wanted to take five days off to visit her mother in San Francisco. She couldn’t.

Opera Boston, she realized, would be different. The folks on the search committee were smart. The company had a reputation for putting on dynamic, edgy, and unexpected performances. And it was small enough that she could actually have some time to herself.

“I had never thought about quality of life before,’’ Koenig says. “I was having so much fun doing what I was doing. Now, I’m like, wait a second. I’d like to have a guy in my life. I’d like to have my friends. I want to work and sometimes not work.’’

That’s not to say her new gig is a vacation.

Since starting in January, Koenig has already made changes. The company, which had only been planning nine months ahead, now has the schedule set through the 2015-2016 season. Having that much lead-time, Koenig says, makes it easier to raise money, recruit top-notch talent, and control costs.

They will do more operas. They will partner more with other local organizations. Four members of Boston Ballet II will be part of an upcoming production of “The Midsummer Marriage.’’ Koenig plans to bring in new talent, directors she’s had her eye on, to expand Opera Boston’s family.

She won’t let slip the name of singers who will be participating or the operas set to be staged. But she does mention Met mainstays Tomer Zvulun and Sarah Meyers.

Will she stay here forever? Koenig says she doesn’t know. But she’s excited to be here now.

“I don’t live my life looking for the next thing,’’ she says. “The next thing just happens. I’m here now. I’m happy. I have no idea if I’ll be here for 10 years or fewer. Let me just say there are very few places that could lure me away.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

BERLIOZ: “Béatrice et Bénédict””

Opera Boston

At: Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont St., Boston

Oct. 21, 23, 25


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