David Craig Starkey: Founder, Artistic and General Director
ALO was part of a vision that Founder, Artistic, and General Director, David Craig Starkey, had more than a decade ago. He was inspired to develop an opera company with such intricate and community-based structure following a diverse career in opera performance and production–after much time of observation and experience. Mr. Starkey holds a Master of Music degree in Opera performance from Indiana University; and his vocal studies have been with pioneers of the vocal arts, including Giorgio Tozzi, Mark Oswald, Kathy Olson, William Hicks, Dale Moore, and Dr. David E. Starkey. He spent three summers (1994-1996) as a leading baritone at the Brevard Music Festival, debuted with Amato Opera (NY) in 1996, and with the New York City Opera in 1997. He spent the summer of 1998 as a resident artist at the Bregenz Festspiele in Austria. Mr. Starkey’s repertoire includes more than 30 roles and solo recitals throughout the Southeast. He has been affiliated with numerous institutions as an opera production staff member and educator, including the Yale Opera, New York City Opera, Manhattan School of Music, The Opera Company of North Carolina, Saint Petersburg Opera, Opera Jacksonville, and the Brevard Music Center. His collaborations with Erich Kunzel and Cincinnati Pops Orchestra include his solo debut at Carnegie Hall and as a recording artist for Telarc Records.
How we got here
The Very Beginning: “The lights were barely on, but it was perfect.”
Mr. Starkey previously knew of the Asheville area through his brother’s schooling at Mars Hill College and his parents’ connections with missionaries in Black Mountain and Montreat. However, it wasn’t until he studied at the Brevard Music Center that he began to appreciate the area’s deep cultural roots and natural beauty. He spent his first summer at the Brevard Music Center in 1994 while he was still a Masters student in vocal performance at Indiana University. Mr. Starkey enjoyed his experience so much, he returned the next two summers as well. It was during one of these summers that his father, now retired to the Asheville area, showed Starkey the Diana Wortham Theatre. “The lights were barely on, but it was perfect,” Mr. Starkey recalls.
While his summers were spent in Brevard, the rest of these three years were typically spent in New York City, making the difficult transition from graduate school to a professional singing career. “I was immersed in the singing world and was on the road eight to ten months out of the year. But in order to make it as a performer, I still needed to make money in other ways. With experience gained in theater and music production during graduate school, I was able to successfully get into performing arts production in the Northeast. I did work with the Yale University Opera, the Manhattan School of Music, the University of Connecticut, and New York City Opera. I met a lot of amazing people, had a lot of support, and doors opened for me.”
It was when Mr. Starkey met Paul Kellogg of the New York City Opera that the idea of starting a company started forming. “We started talking and developing this idea: What if we started an opera company based on all the ideal scenarios of performance and education, instead of money? Both of us had a running list in our head of how it should be. I started sharing our vision and asked for feedback from my other mentors–veterans of the opera world. Soon, Mr. Kellogg and I came up with criteria on how we could best identify the strongest and best scenario in which to start a successful opera company.”
The two deemed that the ideal location would meet these criteria:
1. There must be an artistic community.
2. There must be academic institutions or some aspect of higher education in the area.
3. There must be a community of giving and a spirit of philanthropy.
4. There must be a desire for entertainment.
5. There must be a “center of energy,” or localized focus in the city.
With these criteria established, the next step was to find a place that most closely matched their needs. “I became this grunt who traveled the country digging in the mud to find this special place,” Mr. Starkey said. “We tried to identify cities that met these criteria, and came up with a list of about ten. We didn’t look at corporate support as criteria,” he said. “Companies come and go, but people don’t. The people buy the tickets. The people are the reflection of their community. When we looked at Asheville, we found a really strong sense of community. We kept coming back to Asheville as the potential site. It met all of the criteria. We felt that Asheville really had it all.”
The First Season: “…and that’s how Asheville Lyric Opera was born.”
During the period that Mr. Starkey spent in New York and on the road, he took time to think about where he was and what he wanted to do. “I came back to the Asheville area in 1998, to spend time with my parents who lived in Black Mountain, and that’s when I met Dr. Robert C. Moffatt, a well-respected oncology surgeon in the area who loves classical music and opera. He became my champion. He gave me a lot of encouragement and support, and by having that champion, I was able to put the idea of starting an opera company in Asheville into action.” With this extra push, Asheville’s new opera company had its first meeting in the fall of 1998, and the first event in April 1999, to see if the community would respond. Angela Simpson, a dramatic soprano with the Metropolitan Opera, performed with Mr. Starkey in a joint recital, and attendance and audience response was very strong. The company used the money it raised from that event to bring in Susan Dunn, a Verdi soprano also with the Metropolitan Opera and a faculty professor at Duke University. “We considered these two events to be our first season, and that’s how Asheville Lyric Opera was born.”
At the time, ALO’s office only consisted of an 80-foot closet space, a card table, a folding chair, and a telephone with which to schedule and produce their second season. “We had a desire to experiment with an eclectic offering: operetta and classical musical theatre like Rogers and Hammerstein,” Mr. Starkey said. “Our biggest event at that time was ‘Live from Broadway’ with performers from Les Miserables and the Phantom of the Opera. I knew early on that we had to get the best singers we could afford.” With that goal in mind, the company booked Francisco Cassanova, who was at that time, Luciano Pavarotti’s cover performer. “We were thrilled to think we were going to get this guy … but he called two weeks before the show was scheduled, and canceled. Pavarotti was sick, so Francisco had to stay in New York to go on for Pavarotti at the Met. Instead of Francisco, we were very fortunate that Rockwell Blake was able to come instead. This was almost even better. He’s considered the finest Rossini tenor in the world. He was here for a week and just blew everyone away. He was the best advocate we could ever have. His impact was enormous. For the first time, we could feel that there was real excitement about the idea of a permanent opera company in downtown Asheville.”
The season continued with La Bohème, ALO’s first full production in conjunction with the Asheville Symphony Orchestra at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, in 2000, and it was a huge success even when the odds were not in ALO’s favor. Though the show was almost sold out, the unexpected happened: a snow storm hit the morning of the performance. Word spread that the local emergency management was considering declaring the city a disaster area, closing the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium as it was housed by the Civic Center, a city building; and the show would be cancelled. With very few alternatives, the show was re-scheduled for the next night with hopes that the weather situation would be improved. “The airport was closed, holding the performers in Asheville an extra day, so really, it worked out perfectly,” Mr. Starkey remembers. “Nineteen hundred people showed up at the performance the next night! It was through the roof!” Blown in by a cold, snowy wind, and against difficult odds, opera arrived in Asheville.
“That’s when everything became official,” Mr. Starkey said. “I was already the artistic director, but the board of directors felt we needed someone to be full-time, so they appointed me as the general director, too. I had a major life and career decision to make. I had contracts with opera companies and I had just gotten married. So I felt in my heart, I started this, I need to stay with it. I didn’t have a business background, but I knew music business, so I gave up my contracts, gave up my apartment in New York, kept the wife, and moved to Asheville in 2000.”
A Decade’s Work
Former Asheville Symphony Executive Director Steven Hageman, an avid opera fan himself, supported Starkey’s developing company as much as possible in the early years through collaboration on projects and performances. “During the first production of La Bohème, we didn’t want to stick our orchestra in the pit, so we used them in the performance,” Hageman recalls. “David does a great job, and he is a delight to work with. It’s because of him that I go to every opera I can.” ALO continued to collaborate with the symphony for two more years, until it was decided that Thomas Wolfe Auditorium was not able to accommodate the full-scale productions that they both wanted to do. It was at this time that the Diana Wortham Theatre became ALO’s full time venue.
Dr. Robert Hart Baker, former conductor of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, became the principal guest conductor of ALO in 2004, and with his addition, the company’s musical quality of main-stage productions increased. Since the addition of Dr. Baker, ALO has continued to enjoy its community partnerships with the Asheville Symphony Orchestra and Asheville Ballet. In 2006, the company expanded the Education and Outreach Program as a mission to include the children and family in the community, in its seasonal programming. Amahl and the Night Visitors, a collaboration between local schools and ALO professionals was the first Education Opera produced by the Education and Outreach Program; and since then the Program has continued the annual collaboration.
As the artistic style and quality grew throughout the seasons, so did the audience recognition throughout the country, especially in the Southeastern region. In season five, the company started a touring program after it was inspired by a joint production with the South Carolina Opera Company. The annual tours have taken the company from Indiana to Florida, and they have worked with a wide array of organizations, including universities, symphonies, opera companies and theatre companies. To this day, the company continues to tour, a tradition that makes the company incredibly unique compared to the majority of opera companies in the country that have ended their tour programs.