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Director at Opera Boston moves to Children’s Museum

Carole Charnow is credited with revitalizing Opera Boston. Carole Charnow is credited with revitalizing Opera Boston.
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / June 2, 2010

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The Boston Children’s Museum has a new leader and she’s not a predictable choice. Carole Charnow, who has led Opera Boston during a time of tremendous growth and never worked in a museum, will arrive in August to serve as the museum’s president and chief executive.

For the Children’s Museum, yesterday’s announcement means the end of a sometimes sputtering 15-month search. Louise Casagrande, who took over in 1994 and oversaw a $47 million expansion project that was finished in 2007, left last June. The museum hired Charnow, in part, because “she’s tremendously energetic, enthusiastic, and optimistic,’’ said board chairman Jonathan L. Rounds.

He also praised her ability to raise money. Fund-raising is key, Rounds said, for programs that allow children into the museum free of charge or at a reduced cost. For Opera Boston, the hiring leaves one of the city’s great artistic success stories without its charismatic top manager, someone who found a way to raise money and increase audience while presenting daring and often little-known operas.

Though Charnow leaves, longtime music director Gil Rose will remain.

Heading the Children’s Museum “sounds like a fantastic opportunity, no doubt about it,’’ said Sam Helfrich, a New York-based stage director who has worked on three Opera Boston shows. “But I also think Carole’s one of the most visionary directors of an opera company I know. She just had this strong belief in pushing boundaries and making opera very alive and immediate.’’

Charnow, 55, said she was surprised when the museum approached her a month ago about becoming a candidate. She was familiar with it from years ago, when she would visit with her sons Sam, now 21, and Abe, 15.

Returning as part of the job interview process, Charnow said she was impressed by many aspects of the renovations, from the new entrance to the updated exhibit rooms.

“It really didn’t bear any resemblance to what I remembered, other than the location and the milk bottle,’’ she said, referring to the landmark snack shack outside the museum building.

The Children’s Museum had begun its search in January 2009, but had trouble finding a suitable candidate, said Rounds. Former Museum of Science president David Ellis has been serving as interim director.

Charnow, one of seven candidates interviewed, has led Opera Boston and its predecessor, the Boston Academy of Music, since 1996. During her tenure, Opera Boston has grown from a budget of less than $200,000 with no subscribers, to its current $2.8 million annual budget and some 1,400 subscribers. By comparison, the Children’s Museum has a $10 million annual budget, 90 staffers, and 9,500 household members.

Opera Boston has also become known for producing adventurous works, whether rare operas from famous composers such as Mozart and Verdi or new works by living composers, including John Harbison, Osvaldo Golijov, and John Adams.

Earlier this year, Opera Boston held the world premiere of “Madame White Snake.’’ For that production, the company recruited composer Zhou Long and director Robert Woodruff to tell the adaptation of a Chinese myth.

“To bring about a new opera, to bring to life a new opera, is a huge undertaking,’’ said Tony Fogg, artistic administrator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “And she did it with such imagination. It was really inspiring to see that quality of work.’’

Charnow, who lives in Bedford, said that her new job does make sense considering her longtime commitment to education. After graduating from Emerson College in 1979, she worked in Newton for the state’s mental health department, doing drama with at-risk teenagers. She also staged a production at the Children’s Museum in 1981.

From 1981 to 1995, Charnow lived in London, working in the theater as an actor, director, and producer. She earned her master’s degree in theater directing from the University of London in 1993 before moving to Boston in 1995 because of her mother’s illness. The next year, she took a job with what was then the Boston Academy of Music.

At the time of her arrival, the organization had no educational programs. Today, Opera Boston works with teenagers, visits schools, and collaborates on a summer camp at which children can stage their own productions. “During the [Children’s Museum] interview, I believe they were looking for someone who has a passionate vision for how people can learn and be enriched through education and culture,’’ said Charnow. “They were looking for someone who had a realistic sense of the challenges nonprofits face, and also someone who is kind of an optimist, a glass-half-full person.’’

That describes Charnow, according to Rounds, a member of the Children’s Museum search committee.

“If you’ve known her and followed her work, she’s tremendously energetic, enthusiastic, and optimistic,’’ he said. “At the same time, she has a realistic understanding of the challenges of a nonprofit in the current environment.’’

Opera Boston’s board was surprised by the news of Charnow’s leaving.

“We obviously wanted to keep her, but we couldn’t match their benefits and salary,’’ said Gregory E. Bulger, the president of Opera Boston. “She’s really taken the company from a little, small company to a well-known opera company that’s doing great work on the stage.’’

Charnow’s salary has not been finalized yet, said a Children’s Museum spokesman. But Casagrande earned $191,000 in the most recent year listed in the museum’s Internal Revenue Service filing, well more than Charnow’s $101,000-a-year compensation from Opera Boston.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com

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