Last October, On Site Opera (OSO) announced the appointment of Sarah Meyers as its next Artistic Director, succeeding the company’s co-founder, Eric Einhorn. Meyers has vast experience as an opera stage director at prestigious institutions like the Metropolitan Opera, where she has been on the company’s directing staff for more than a decade, as well as at regional opera companies. Her directing career has spanned a range of productions from traditional opera to site-specific projects to the development of new works of opera. She joins forces with OSO’s General Director / CEO Piper Gunnarson and Music Director Geoffrey McDonald to lead the innovative, uniquely immersive company into an exciting future. Meyers tells us about taking on this leadership role and the upcoming site-specific production beginning on February 14: The Immersive Coffee Cantata Experience, a fresh take on Bach’s Coffee Cantata with a new English libretto and orchestration. Staged at the coffee shop The Lost Draft, in Nolita, complete with a coffee tasting, this production will be the first under Sarah Meyers’ new artistic leadership. For additional info and tickets, please click on the link at the end of the interview.
What drew you to this leadership role at On Site Opera?
I’ve been a freelance stage director and a director on the staff of the Metropolitan Opera for many years and I love what I do. I hadn’t actually been looking for an opportunity to take on more of a leadership position because that isn’t something that I had ever seen as my career trajectory. But when I heard that On Site Opera was searching for someone to take on the role of Artistic Director, it appealed to me immensely because of the work this company does. I really wanted to come and be a part of the creativity here, the atmosphere of innovation and the spirit of the work that On Site Opera puts into the way it brings opera out to the community, and the way it brings to life the locations that it inhabits. I am also proud of the shows that I did in collaboration with OSO; the two projects connected with the company were thrilling for me on a whole other level because of how close the performers and the audience were. The kind of detailed, intimate work that we could do in those shows was immensely rewarding. So, the idea that I could become a more integral part of a company that does work like that all the time was very appealing.
What is your artistic vision for OSO?
It has a lot to do with what I love about the company. I think that the work that it’s been doing for years is thrilling and exciting; it’s opera that really connects with the community and also with the performers, bringing them all together in a space that intensifies everyone’s experience of their own humanity, like the Amahl production, for example. That work is so beautiful. I would love to continue in that way, to uplift and elevate. So, my vision is to do more and to amplify the work, to do shows in more exciting locations, to get to a wider audience, to tell the stories of people whose voices the company has not potentially yet shared—to be a facilitator and an advocate for that.
Christine Lyons, who will be singing the role of Lieschen in Bach’s Coffee Cantata – Photo: Bowie Dunwoody
Do you see the company spreading out beyond New York City?
Yes, in wonderful ways. The company has its roots in New York, and one of the reasons it’s so successful is because New York is this vibrant, cultural, dynamic city with many great locations. We love being here. I’m a New Yorker, born and raised, so I am at home here. While an essential element of the company is being in New York City, at the same time it’s really exciting to be able to branch out and to take our work to a wider audience. That’s a wonderful thing about site-specific work: these shows can be very portable; you just need to find a similar location or something that will otherwise bring out the work in different cities. Packing up props and costumes is a lot easier than packing up the set, which requires trucks to travel. So, some of our shows can and will be traveling in the near future. This upcoming production of Bach’s Coffee Cantata is going to be able to tour; there are coffee shops in every city in the world. We can come to Seattle, we’ll go to Italy, we can do this fun show everywhere, and it’s about connecting with community wherever we take it.
What can people expect when they come to Bach’s “Coffee Cantata”—that starts on Valentine’s Day and runs through February 24?
I’m thrilled about it as an opportunity to do something that feels joyful, warm, and cozy. It’s one of our smaller venues, and we do pride ourselves on doing intimate performances. In this coffee shop we can only fit around 40 people. It’s going to be close quarters, and everyone will be aware of each other in the space, which is wonderful. It is a chance to really share together the entire experience. We’re sharing the music and the coffee together, we’re sharing in the laughter together. That feels like a lovely activity on a cold winter night and I’m looking forward to it very much.
I know you just started in this role, but are there any new developments for the company that you can share?
We have new offices, which I think is a really exciting development for the company because, for so long, it’s been a lot of remote and itinerant work. We go where the show is, and in between shows everyone’s working from wherever they can. Now we have a home base. We have just moved into the fabulous Interchurch Center on Claremont and 120th. We have office space here and access to their amazing resources; there’s the chapel downstairs, there are conference rooms, and just a general supportive energy that we’re so happy about.
In a city like New York where there are so many cultural offerings, how would you invite and entice people to come to an On Site Opera performance?
Well, the wonderful thing about OSO is that, in many cases, we’re bringing the opera to you. People may find that it’s popping up in their backyard or that they’re hearing it coming over the water down at South Street Seaport. That has been one of the most exciting things to me about the company’s work: we’re bringing in the audience by literally bringing the show to the audience. That’s part of our mission and part of what I value and love about what we do. For anyone who lives close or far, I think that what we always offer is unique in the industry: the entirety of an On Site Opera performance is a transformative experience, you live something with the audience and with the performers in whatever location we’re in. It’s about connection and something magical that happens if we come together in the same place at the same time. Opera is a visceral art form made through the body and it emits outwards, and you can feel it as an audience member; in the shared site we can all have that visceral experience together.
Do you or did you ever sing?
That is a very well-kept secret! I sang for a couple of years in college and actually had thought I could maybe someday pursue that as a career, but very quickly realized that opera singing is on a whole other level. Now the only times I sing are for my children, behind closed doors.
So how did stage directing come into your life?
That came from a discovery I made. There were many things that interested me: music, theater, history, philosophy, psychology, science. I took a directing course in college to help myself become a better performer because I felt like I wasn’t fulfilling my capabilities, and I discovered that directing allowed me to do all the things that I was interested in simultaneously. It merges all of my interests, with music at the center.
And you direct with an understanding of the singing voice, which is ideal for an opera stage director…
Yes, and also with admiration and respect, knowing how difficult that component is, and how, as a singer, it takes up a huge portion of your brain to know what you’re doing musically and also physically, adding in the theatricality plus the managing of props and costumes and everything else. It can be a very challenging art form for the performers because they’re trying to satisfy so many different goals; they’re trying to follow the leadership of the conductor, the director’s vision, their own investment in the character and their own authentic portrayal. When I approach a show as a director, I want to help singers perform to the best of their ability and to allow them to achieve their own artistry in the midst of my vision for production.
Top: Sarah Meyers – Photo courtesy of On Site Opera