In conversation with Katherine Skovira

by Paul McKean '11,

New Zeller opera chair brings innovative programming to music department

Contemporary music vocalist and mezzo-soprano Katherine Skovira was recently named Willamette University’s Johanna Beckham Zeller and Norman K. Zeller Endowed Chair in Voice and Opera Studies, an endowed position that was funded by generous gifts from Norman ’57 and Marie ’55 Zeller.

The position is an extraordinary step for Willamette. The music department has not had a tenure-track faculty member dedicated to opera instruction and performance for several decades.

The role involves Skovira teaching, performing and collaborating with departments across campus as she forges a new direction for operatic and vocal studies in the music department. 

We were recently able to catch up with Skovira to hear about her experiences at Willamette and her plans for the future. 

Read our brief interview below. Alumni and community members are invited to attend a special preview performance of Skovira’s first opera on Jan. 28.

What has your first semester at Willamette been like so far?

Busy, busy!

What does it mean to you that Willamette is making this investment in opera?

Willamette has had a history of Dramatic Vocal Arts directors programming canonical and more recent operas, and just last year presented Town Hall, a new work by Theo Popov with a libretto by Willamette alumna E.M. Lewis ‘94 — the historic support for what is coming up for DVA is all there! Now, the focus that a tenure-track endowed chair offers to the department is unprecedented, so it is an incredibly exciting time, latent with possibility, and I believe the students, audience, and department are ready for it.

What would you say to someone who is inexperienced with opera?

Opera is such an inclusive art form; it can be beautiful, terrifying, uplifting, horrifying, and shockingly new. Opera is so much fun. If you feel nervous about attending, just enjoy the ride. There is so much to learn, explore and discover. Sometimes, you benefit from experiencing opera with a fresh mind; other times, it’s useful to do some research and reading ahead of time: look for articles, read the libretto and translation ahead of time, learn about the composer and history behind the work. It is such an all-encompassing art form, and I can’t speak enough to how enthusiastically it transforms. I love it.

What are you hoping to accomplish in your first year as opera chair?

Set the stage for all that is to come. With any new position, there is the building of momentum for new directions, identifying needs and expectations, learning, and, above all, opportunity for evolution in the department and for its programs.

What can audiences expect from your upcoming performances?

Humor, bucking trends, and hidden easter eggs for what is to come. Audiences can look for all sorts of meaning in our next production; this particular double bill casts two opposing operas, which were actually staged in competition with each other in 1786 at the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II’s palace on opposite sides of the Orangerie.

The two operas we will hear are Mozart’s Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) and Salieri’s Prima la musica e poi le parole (First the words, then the music). In this coming year’s 2020 production for contemporary audiences, our competing composers, Mozart and Salieri, will walk the stage alongside our actors and singers, and the Emperor himself. The fourth wall will constantly be broken.

When you look at the future of the Willamette opera program, what are you most excited about?

We will continue to explore all possibilities, next in March 2021 with workshops and commissions of new operas by living composers. Our composers, Mozart and Salieri, walking the stage in 2020 will be played by actors; our composers in 2021 will be living, breathing people who reflect the face of opera today, as a living art form able to address our needs for social advocacy and awareness, and our shared humanity.

Katherine Skovira
Willamette University

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