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VISIONARY

 Once upon a Marin time, Roberta Wain-Becker waved her passion wand, and there was music

 May 20, 2008

 By Jean Bartlett, Managing Editor

In a 1957 Warner Brothers cartoon classic, the Wagnerian Wabbit Brünhilde, played by Bugs Bunny, posed the monumental question: “What’s Opera Doc?”

With of course some exceptions, opera is a staged dramatic work that is sung.  The art form, around since the 16th century, is considered by many to be the world’s greatest musical expression.  It is also a glorious story that begins long before the curtain goes up.

    

 

Roberta Wain-Becker

In this story, once upon a time begins when 15-year-old Roberta Wain-Becker walked through the doors of music camp at The University of the Pacific (Stockton, CA) and discovered the world of classical music.  Voice lessons followed and by the time she was 17, Roberta stood on stage for the California Music Educators Association and performed three opera arias.  In the summer following her junior year, this mezzo soprano participated in “The High School Solo Voice” at San Francisco State University.  She went on to audition for the great voice teacher, William Vennard of The University of Southern California School of Music and was accepted into the program.  While still in college, she would begin singing professional roles which included, Hata in The Bartered Bride.  Wain-Becker completed her double major in voice and opera and stepped out into a life on stage.

In 1971, following performances as Suzuki in Madama Butterfly and the title role in Carmen at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, Wain-Becker auditioned for the Israel National Opera and moved to Tel Aviv.  She learned Hebrew to perform in the company’s operettas.  In addition she sang from the book of standard repertoire – over 180 performances that traveled the tales of such operas as: Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto and Gräfin Maritsa.

At the end of her one-year contract she came back to the States and built an extraordinary singing career – each performance reminding her of what a joy it is to share opera.

In 1996, Roberta Wain-Becker became the Artistic Director and General Manager of Golden Gate Opera (GGO) in Marin and clearly she finds as much exhilaration in producing opera as she does in performing opera.

    

GGO Presents:
Opera In Your Own Backyard

 

“It’s electrifying to be there opening night during the opening moments, when all these details, well planned, properly rehearsed, with the right combination of people, come together and the audience applauds because of the beautiful art we worked so hard on during the production, comes to life,” said the singer.  But what exactly does Wain-Becker do?  Perhaps the better question is: what has Roberta Wain-Becker done?  Around town, and across several bridges, she is known as the woman who engineered the return of professional opera to Marin.

As GGO General Manager, Roberta works with all the business systems of the opera company.  This includes making business agreements with venues, singers, orchestra members, dancers, chorus and dance companies while marketing business arrangements with newspapers, broadcasting media and printers.  It also includes negotiating contracts and acquiring all of the necessary types of insurance.

In addition it includes working with the Business Manager and Marketing Director to meet year-round operational costs and bring in financial funding.  Then there are the working meetings with the Stage Director, the Costume Designer and the Scenic Director to estimate costs based on staged rehearsals and materials needed.  She creates detailed budgets for each new project based on figures from past experience and current known costs.

    

Roberta and volunteer
Marlene Feldman

 

Act Two of Wain-Becker’s GGO professional duties fall under the title, Artistic Director.  This means engaging the artistic staff for each production which includes but is not limited to the: Conductor, Stage Director, Costume Designer, Scenic Designer and the Technical Director and associated crews.  She works with the artists and the media to motivate and communicate what is coming up.  She confirms the availability of all staff.  She keeps supporters, ticket buyers, donors and sponsors apprised of costs – current and projected.  She sees to it that operas such as: Madama Butterfly, Carmen, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi are brought to her stage.  Notably, Roberta stands watch at her opera helm with an eye for calm in the work place and her passion wand on the ready.

“To create opera, you have people whose reputations are at stake and who need a certain amount of time to do it right and they are human beings and can only do so much per day,” said the winner of the Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award.  “I know this from my own experience.  Creativity begins with a healthy and happy artistic staff which ultimately leads to great performances.”

There is a Third Act to Wain-Becker’s GGO undertakings and it is called ‘Outreach Opera-tunities.’  “When you bring opera out into the community,” said Wain-Becker “It enriches lives.”

    

It's electrifying to be there
opening night during the
opening moments

 

 

Outreach school performance

 

Through Outreach Opera-tunities, GGO presents forty-five minutes of live opera, with costumes and piano in school multi-purpose rooms. “When kids are inspired to participate in the fine arts, they will do better in school with their solid subjects,” said Wain-Becker.

“We’ve brought opera to women at Raphael House in San Francisco by offering sponsored tickets to our operas. We have given comps to Marin Services for Women,” said Wain-Becker.

GGO brings opera performances into Senior Communities.  They also offer free outdoor performances in local festivals such as: Caledonia Street Fair or Arias in the Park.  In addition, GGO has Opera Story Night at Habitat Books in Sausalito where they tell the story of an opera to the gathering listeners and offer some of that opera’s music.  “Voila!” said Wain-Becker.  “New opera fans!”

You can also catch the monthly GGO presentation: Opera In Your Own Backyard on Novato Public Access TV Channel 26.  Check your local listings.

“We created these programs and others because we want to build an audience for opera and help people to love and experience this art form just as they do in Europe,” said Wain-Becker.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Prior to our interview, Wain-Becker spent two hours on the floor under her computer trying to figure out why it wasn’t working.  She is a firm believer in leaping into whatever it takes to get the job done.  She is also the first to admit she cannot do this alone nor does she want to do it alone.

“A number of strong individuals help administrate and take our company into the future,” said Wain-Becker.  “It is also extremely important to note that most of the operations of an opera company are run by generous, hard working volunteers, none of whom I could do without.”

Included among Wain-Becker’s core group of administrators are: nationally and internationally recognized pianist Hadley McCarroll who is “a perfect companion for all singers in any repertoire.” Edna Garabedian, opera star and Artistic Director of The California Opera Association and California Opera International Training Institute in Fresno, has lent extraordinary assistance to GGO as Stage Director and Artistic Advisor.  There is Argentinean soprano Graciela Pera who has devoted her life to opera service and is on GGO’s Advisory Board.  Newest staff addition, Maria Sundeen, GGO Development Director is absolutely essential to the team.

There is also Costume Designer Tracy Bell Redig.  She is responsible for costumes and oversees their care, rental, return, purchase, construction, cleaning and storage.

“I’ve worked with Roberta since 2001,” said Bell Redig.  “Roberta has true vision which is one of the things that have kept us in business.  She is extraordinarily creative, gifted and relentless.  She can be a joy to work with and she can make you crazy; but that’s how things get done.”

    

Costume designer
Tracy Bell Redig

 

Redig, who comes with her own powerhouse résumé, is also the Festival Coordinator for the annual Sausalito Art Festival.  “My work with GGO begins the moment Roberta starts casting.  From working with the stage, music, and lighting directors, the cast, principals, the set designers and my crew; my job in many respects, parallels my work as the Festival Coordinator for the Art Festival.  You have to plug into a lot of things to make it work right.  I could design sportswear but I’d be bored to tears. With Roberta and GGO, I can design grand things and work is never dull.  This is where my heart is.”

Asked if an internship provided by a business major would prove beneficial to both the individual and to the Opera Company, Wain-Becker was definitely on board.  “In order for opera to succeed artistically it must succeed as a business.  It must be promoted with conviction and meet funding deadlines.  Cash flow projections are essential, a business plan is paramount.  You have to learn to work with people and their time schedules, to manage volunteers, to move past surprise roadblocks and to provide operational schedules for the future.  Business majors will encounter here the most difficult business challenges and obstacles to getting the job done.”

“In addition, we are always looking for volunteers from the business community,” said Wain-Becker. “Individuals with experience in: communicating with corporations, writing, marketing, fundraising, project management, grant and proposal writing – there are so many talents that we can utilize in our programs.”

    

 

Roberta Wain-Becker
celebrates opera

When asked which opera character might be able to successfully run an arts organization in today’s fast-paced business world; Wain-Becker did not hesitate with her response.  “Brünhilde in “Die Walküre,” said Wain-Becker. “Because she’s a warrior, she’s not afraid of challenges, she brings home the bacon (the dead warriors on her horse she brings to Walhalla – that’s her job) and she loves her work and is vocal about it!”

For more information on Roberta Wain-Becker and the Golden Gate Opera visit: http://www.goldengateopera.org/index.html or write 3030 Bridgeway, Suite 125, Sausalito, CA 94965. Tel: 415-339-9546.

Jean Bartlett is the Managing Editor of Jean’s Magazine.  She is also Arts Correspondent for the Pacifica Tribune and additionally writes for Bay Area Business Woman.  The author of the award-winning children’s book “IndiAsia And The Dragon,” Ms. Bartlett is also a private biographer and can be contacted through her website: editor@jeansmagazines.org.