‘The heart of the arts’

Alan Held takes the reins at Wichita Grand Opera as general director

Written by Karen Long

Thirty-five years ago, Alan Held, with a freshly minted master’s degree in opera performance from Wichita State University, drove out of the city and into his future. On the turnpike he said to his wife. “I wouldn’t be surprised if someday we move back to Wichita.”

Those words proved prophetic when, 30 years later in 2014, Held returned to accept the position of The Ann and Dr. Dennis Ross Faculty of Distinction in Opera at WSU, his alma mater.

The intervening decades were a whirlwind of global productions for Held, who is hailed as one of the leading singing actors today. The resume of the bass-baritone is studded with the names of international opera houses such as The Metropolitan Opera, The Vienna State Opera and The Royal Opera House Covent Garden.

He’s brought to life legendary roles including Wotan in Wagner’s “Der Ring Des Nibelungen;” Amfortas in “Parsifal;” the title roles in “Gianni Schicchi,” “Der Fliegende Holländer,” “Wozzeck” and “Cardillac;” and many more.

In 2017 Held became director of opera at WSU, all while pursuing an active performing schedule, then in early 2019 he accepted the position of artistic director at Wichita Grand Opera. When, in June of 2020, Held was promoted to general director, he simply added that responsibility to his growing list as professional performer, professor, director of an academic program and artistic director of WGO.

“It’s nice, because it helps to keep things coordinated well,” he says. “It allows us to bring in artists of national and international renown. It all works a little more seamlessly this way.”

Even finding himself in the middle of a global pandemic doesn’t faze this new director of a performing arts organization: “It’s kind of an exciting time — even when everybody’s halfway shut down, we’re still planning and plowing ahead.”

A Sparkling Season

Last month Held announced the 2020-2021 season, beginning with the Opera Gala Concert, Oct. 17–18. “Our goal here,” says Held, “is to use local talent as much as absolutely possible, peppered with major national and international talents.”

In keeping with the theme of stellar local talent, the gala will highlight the winner of the first WGO “Talent of Tomorrow,” a vocal competition for young singers under the age of 18. The rest of the season lineup includes The Opera Ball, Sept. 19; “A Kansas Christmas,” Dec. 11–12; “Christine Goerke in Concert,” Feb. 11 and “Don Giovanni,” March 4, 6 and 7.

The organization has contingencies in place for social distancing, disinfection and mask requirements, depending on guidance from public health experts, says Held. For the October Opera Gala Concert they’ve reduced the number of seats available, and are running two shows. Instead of an orchestra, performances will likely be accompanied by “a very fine pianist.”

Opera for All

Far from being daunted by the unusual circumstances, Held asserts that opera is more essential now than ever, with people in need of the outlet that music and singing can bring. “The opera’s for everybody,” he says. “People think, ‘Oh, it’s some grand art form that I don’t understand.’ That’s only because they haven’t seen it.”

Held points to the WGO December program, “A Kansas Christmas,” as an evening of “whimsy, nostalgia and moving holiday favorites.” All productions will take place at the Wichita Center for the Performing Arts on east Central, the company’s new home, where Held looks forward to impressing audiences with exciting new experiments in staging.

“When people come to the ’Don Giovanni,’ they’ll say, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen anything like that before.’ Opera is a 400-year-old art form that is performed all over the world, and is the heart of the arts. The symphony orchestra as we know it came out of opera. Music theatre came out of opera. It’s such an important, influential art form, and that’s what we’re trying to show people.”

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