Christina Scheppelmann Takes Her Leave from Seattle Opera with a “Barber”


Christina Scheppelmann would rather not be remembered as the General Director of Seattle Opera during COVID. “We had problems before,” she says in her characteristic matter-of-fact tone. “It’s very easy, I think, to say ‘COVID made the disaster.’ I’m sorry, anybody who blames all our problems on the pandemic is not being honest with him or herself. Look at the financial situations of opera companies before COVID,” she continues, “the sales numbers, the increasing cost of production. And we just cannot transfer those costs to the ticket price. We can’t do that.”

Board president Lesley Chapin Wyckoff, in a letter appearing in the program for Il Barbiere di Siviglia, now running for the final weekend at McCaw Hall, cites Scheppelmann’s response to the pandemic as singularly courageous. “Through digitally streamed recitals and full-length operas, she delivered the promised season and more to our loyal subscribers. She even presented extra programming, including online educational events, libretto writing workshops, and the Path with Art Veterans Choir.”

Indeed, during lockdown, the natural impulse might have been to scale back ambitious programming, particularly new works. Among the productions streamed during the pandemic was Jonathan Dove’s Flight, based on an Iranian man’s years-long ordeal at Charles De Gaulle Airport and filmed at the Boeing Museum of Flight. After the tentative return of live performances in McCaw Hall, contemporary operas on charged modern themes kept appearing on the roster, usually one per season. Jeanine Tesori’s Blue, the world premiere of Sheila Silver’s adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, and most recently Anthony Davis’ X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.

In addition to the recent national backlash against official policies regarding equity, diversity and inclusion — policies that Seattle Opera implemented several years back —  Scheppelmann frequently fields complaints of politically motivated programming. “Art has always been critical of the status quo,” she states, seemingly unphased, “and opera has always been political. We don’t see it for what it was then, but come on, Verdi had to disguise the political content of Piave’s libretti to get past the Austrian censorship, right? That doesn’t mean it’s not there.” She continues, “The Beaumarchais trilogy, especially Le Nozze di Figaro, clearly criticized the monarchy and the nobility. Opera has always been political,” she repeats, “it always has been.”

Scheppelmann, a native of Germany, held a variety of administrative posts (notably at San Francisco Opera, Washington National Opera and the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona) before arriving here in the summer of 2019. She has accepted the directorship at Opera La Monnaie/De Munt in Brussels, beginning next January. We spoke about her Seattle tenure in her modest office at the Opera Center on Mercer Street.

“This building opened in December 2018, so I feel very lucky.” Scheppelmann credits her predecessors Speight Jenkins and Aidan Lang and an involved Board of Directors with the heavy lifting of envisioning the facility, securing the property, and guiding the project through construction. “It’s really what a modern company needs,” she states. “Before we were rehearsing all over the place. We use the intimate Tagney Jones space for youth programs, the teen vocal studio, open discussions, panel discussions, all kinds of outreach.” An interior window behind her desk reveals a blocking rehearsal in the space below. “That’s the size of the mainstage, which is critical. Mainstage time during rehearsal is far too expensive.”

She continues, “There is a rehearsal space for dancing with a sprung floor and mirrors, and a rehearsal space for the chorus.” In addition to direct backstage access to McCaw Hall, the greatest benefit the Opera Center may offer is a single roof covering administrative staff, the scenic shop and the costume shop. The new building also hosts the KING-FM offices and broadcast booth.

Scheppelmann has also championed opera in concert. Saint-Saen’s Samson et Dalila was given twice in January 2023. “The last Samson I worked on was the Giancarlo del Monaco production [at Washington National Opera] that needed 21 trucks to ferry the sets around.” She chuckles. “21 trucks! Do you really need a set so vast and so expensive? I love this music, but it’s far too clunky to stage, and besides, it started life as an oratorio, so it probably works better in concert anyway.”

The performance was enthusiastically received, so Scheppelmann programmed an Opera Chorus Holiday Concert last December and has scheduled a concert performance of another French grand opera next season, Berlioz’s Le troyens à Carthage. “How do you tell that story in some believable way?” she wonders. “One way of giving the audience some of this beautiful music is to find singers of renown who want to sing those roles. So, we have mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges and tenor Russell Thomas who are happy to come here for seven days to sing this fantastic score.”

A common criticism of contemporary opera is a perceived lack of tunefulness, or at least a lack of memorable tunes. Scheppelmann takes issue with the notion. “It depends on coming a second time, right? The bel canto operas were designed with the catchy tune in mind, so you have “Una furtiva lagrima,” you have “La donna e mobile,” you have the “Libiamo” (from La Traviata) But there are just as many great melodies in [Verdi’s] Otello: but his music was more integrated and sophisticated by then, so you have to hear it several times to keep it with you. With Wagner, he is beating you over the head with these leitmotifs, so of course you remember the tune after five hours.”

“These are long form works, there is a lot of music to digest. I’ve seen Malcolm X ten times and more, including the rehearsals,” she says, “and with so many hearings, suddenly, it’s familiar. But no one sees an opera that frequently now. In the nineteenth century, there was no radio, there was no television, nothing. You would go to the theater and kill five hours by sitting there, hearing some music, chatting with your friends. It was like seeing a series down at the ballpark – it was a pastime. It’s not a pastime anymore.”

Stendhal might be opera’s most famous fanboy, each chapter of his Life of Rossini a detailed account of the operas he attended, season after season. “Stendhal was going multiple times to hear Rossini because he knew that eventually the tunes would stick, and it would be rewarding.”

Two hundred years later, Rossini’s operas still hold the stage, and Scheppelmann was impressed enough with the 2017 Opera Queensland/Seattle Opera/New Zealand Opera co-production of Il Barbiere de Siviglia to remount the show. The familiar high-chroma set and matching costumes, still of recent memory from the production of this opera in 2017, occasionally triggered a bit of deja vu, as did the direction and movement from the earlier  creative team.

Director Lindy Hume saw potential laughs everywhere in this show, so no lazzo in the commedia dell’arte toolbox went untried. This set a high bar for the performers, requiring equal measure vocal skill and acting chops. The youthful Sunday matinee audience for the performance I attended seemed primed for the zaniness, and the audience set the singers at their ease as the performance progressed.

Tenor Cesar Cortes in particular appeared to relax over time, his honeyed sound a perfect match to Almaviva’s supple deportment. Baritone Luke Sutliff, arrayed in purple and vermillion flamenco-wear, broke through the fourth wall straight away with Figaro’s famous harangue “Largo al Factotum,” and what a marvelous restorative it was to hear Rosina’s fioratura, written for a contralto, realized in the dark timbre of mezzo-soprano Taylor Ravent.

As Rosina’s guardian Bartolo, baritone Ashriaf Sewailam probably gave the most idiomatic performance, deploying a battery of stage gags to augment his Elvis wig and arduous patter. He found an excellent comic foil in bass William Guanbo Su’s sleazy Don Basilio. Conductor Valentina Peleggi drew riotously funny sounds from the orchestra, notably in Basilio’s aria “La Calunnia,” and the first act finale.

Rounding out the cast were the domestics, also Italian theater archetypes: the mute butler and the sex-starved maid. Deanne Meek, as Berta, grumbled through most of the opera looking like Edith Head, but it was Marc Kenison (Waxie Moon,) reprising his role as the omnipresent Ambrogio, who got the biggest yuks. Skulking about the stage like Tim Conway’s Oldest Man character, Kenison’s covert bits became something of a “Where’s Waldo” game for the audience. At one point he appeared dangling from a chandelier by his foot.

The advent calendar set deserves special mention in setting the proper mood for this show. A proscenium and matching mise en scene built entirely of doors, or rather colorful matte images of doors, create the illusion of endless secret passages. This visual feast is further enhanced with finely synchronized lighting design, all expertly realized. Choreographer Daniel Pelzig also deserves high praise for creating a Bollywood-meets-Andalusia style dance finale featuring the excellent Seattle Opera Chorus.

James C. Whitson
James C. Whitson
James Whitson is a retired architect who writes about opera for "Opera News" and "Encore."


  1. This is wonderful reporting! Thank you’ I
    I am not a regular opera patron but have met Christina socially a few times. She is an amazing person as well as an professional. . .


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