A central figure of the local theatre world, Carol I. Crawford, will soon take her final bow with the Tulsa Opera. She announced her resignation last May, and her upcoming production of Lakmé (Feb. 29 and March 2 in the Chapman Music Hall of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. 2nd St.) will be one of her final operas with the organization. Henry G. Will, president of the Tulsa Opera Board of Directors, has called her "an enormous cultural ambassador for the city of Tulsa (who) will be sorely missed."
In some ways, Lakmé will serve as an emblem of the service Crawford has paid to Tulsan music lovers and theatergoers.
"Tulsa Opera's long-term and loyal subscribers always hunger for something new," Crawford said of the opera.
Her record attests to her commitment to expanding the Tulsa's operatic repertoire, bringing both unfamiliar classical music and new contemporary work to the local stage.
Lakmé, a French opera by Léo Delibes, premiered in 1883 on the Parisian stage. In it, the titular figure falls in love with a British soldier, Gerald, who is occupying her native India. They meet while Gerald has trespassed on sacred temple grounds, and Lakmé's father Nilakantha, a Brahmin priest of that temple, declares the soldier must die for his transgression. Nilakantha lures Gerald into a trap with his daughter's beautiful voice, but fails to kill him. The injured soldier flees to the forest, where Lakmé finds him. There, she asks him to drink sacred spring water, a ritual which will seal their love forever. When she goes to fetch the water, Gerald receives word that he has been reassigned, and must leave Lakmé. She returns and, intuiting his imminent departure, commits suicide by eating a poisonous flower. Before she dies, he drinks the water, sealing their love. Nilakantha witnesses both this ritual's completion and his daughter's death, yet can do nothing to prevent either from happening.
Lakmé is emblematic of Ms. Crawford's commitment to bringing new and promising talent to Tulsa's attention. The title role will be performed by Oklahoman native Sarah Coburn, daughter of senator Tom Coburn. Crawford said she "engaged Sarah Coburn to make her company debut in the title role since it showcases her unique abilities."
Coburn has developed a reputation for her talent with coloratura. The term has precise meanings in musicology but the layperson may understand it simply as musical embellishment. Coloratura characterizes many French operas, one of which being Lakmé, and Coburn's penchant for it makes her a great fit for the role.
Of her appearance in a production of I Puritani the Washington Post said, "Coburn's coloratura technique was flawless, each note hit squarely, never ruffling Bellini's flowing line." Likewise, the Baltimore Sun reported that she "apparently never met a coloratura hurdle she couldn't surmount... even at its highest and loudest, her voice never lost its essential beauty."
Recognizing and nurturing talent is one of Crawford's passions.
After she resigns from the Tulsa Opera, her plans include a possible trip to Venezuela "in order to meet a musician who has demonstrated the kind of vision that has impacted the arts in his country and see first-hand the fruits of his vision through his long-term commitment." Before then, however, she plans to "spend time at home to relearn Spanish and begin to learn Chinese before I leave in June to conduct one of the productions in Martina Arroyo's opera program in NYC for part of the summer."
Such industry may seem incredible, but it comes naturally to one whose curriculum vitae encompasses such a wide breadth and depth. She has directed in major opera houses in San Francisco, Houston, Richmond, and Memphis, and has guest conducted both here and abroad. She earned a Doctorate of Musical Arts in orchestral conducting at Yale University after attending as an undergratuate universities such as Julliard and the Mozarteum.
However, she said, "Serving the music, as opposed to serving one's own ego, is the ultimate goal."
To young music lovers she advises, "First, remember that the best teachers are often the most demanding teachers, and second, avoid accumulating massive student loan debt in undergraduate and graduate school if at all possible."
She acknowledges the difficulty in this, and urges students to compete for scholarships as they are "the only way out to allow someone entering the profession these days to earn a living in the arts as well as buy a home, raise a family, and save for retirement."
After 11 years as General Director of the Tulsa Opera, Crawford has had ample time to consider the financial perils of professional music performance. One of her greatest challenges during that tenure presented itself when the Tulsa Philharmonic closed in 2002.
"It was difficult to watch many excellent TPO (Tulsa Philharmonic Orchestra) musicians leave Oklahoma in order to make a living playing, knowing that there would be no meaningful influx of orchestral musicians to replace them," she said. "The work simply wasn't here."
In an effort to provide more work for local musicians, she, together with the Board of Directors of 2002, secured the means to assemble the Tulsa Opera Orchestra. She also sought to emulate the model of Salt Lake City, which combines the opera and symphony into one organization, and worked with the Mayor's Task Force in 2003 "in the hope that various economies of scale through various 'mergers' would restore both long-term financial viability and very high artistic standards in order to serve the local community and the state in unprecedented new ways."
Crawford expressed regret that the plan did not succeed. "When the necessary political and financial leadership did not emerge to make this plan a reality, another wave of former TPO musicians left the city."
As is all too common in the American arts, the bottom line diminishes the artist's ability to create. Crawford recognizes the distinction between an organization that produces mere profit and one that expresses professional integrity in spite of profit.
"While it is imperative in any business to be fiscally responsible, since 2001 the pressure on not-for-profit performing arts organizations to 'end in the black' in the midst of mammoth social changes has been unceasing."
Expanding on this idea, she related a speech she heard once during a Rotary Club meeting, given by Paula Marshall-Chapman, CEO of Bama Companies, Inc.
"When Ms. Chapman stated that the pressure on publicly owned companies to report profits quarter after quarter to their shareholders can inhibit the kind of reinvestments required to keep pace with change in order to assure future survival, I could not help but relate this concept to opera companies and arts organizations, both here in Tulsa and throughout the country. In other words, you can't cut your way to long-term growth. At some point, a major financial reinvestment is required for future survival (along with clear vision, of course), whether a company is for-profit or not-for-profit."
Crawford declined to state the reasons for her resignation.
Despite the setbacks Tulsan music lovers have suffered after the Philharmonic closed, Tulsa Opera has been a beacon beyond our borders. The organization is nationally renowned. Opera News in 2003 named Tulsa Opera as one of its top ten favorite opera institutions in the nation.
Reminded of that honor, Ms. Crawford wryly replied, "We have a saying in the arts: 'you are only as good as your last performance.'"
Here's hoping Lakmé is one of her best.
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