The Real Deal

Robin Guarino brings vast experience to her new job at CCM

Dec 23, 2008 at 2:06 pm

Collaboration is a very active verb in Robin Guarino’s vocabulary.The new J. Ralph Corbett distinguished chair in opera at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music is widely acclaimed for her work with stage designers, choreographers and performers and recognized as an innovative educator training students in the arduous pursuit of a professional opera career.

Guarino was in her third year as co-artistic advisor to the Julliard Opera Theater in New York when the search opened to replace Sandra Bernhard, who joined Houston Grand Opera in the summer of 2007. A former colleague now teaching at CCM contacted Guarino who had no interest in applying.

“I’m a New Yorker,” she says, grinning, “and I wasn’t ready.”

Her perspective changed a year later.

“I realized I wanted to go further, to have a level of focus and the time to devote to a master’s program that simply wasn’t possible in New York,” she says. “At the end of my first day of interviews at CCM, I thought, ‘This is an incredible place. There’s so much potential here.’ ”

Guarino’s appointment marks a reversal for CCM: A top Julliard faculty member deserts New York, and not for CCM’s nearest rival, Indiana University. CCM’s unique production schedule and the opportunities for collaboration were major selling points.

“At Julliard, the theater department is separate from opera,” she says. “They don’t work together as producing infrastructures. Here, there’s the synergy of the opera department collaborating across the art forms to create a season of productions. That’s really exciting.”

CCM was on Guarino’s radar screen even before she was recruited. She directed productions for apprentice programs at the Seattle and San Francisco operas and for Glimmerglass Opera, where she says CCM students “were great representatives. When you hear hundreds of singers and the really good ones have CCM on their resumes, it makes an impression.”

Continuing to attract and retain highly gifted students are among Guarino’s priorities. CCM can offer as much as larger conservatories, and even more, says Guarino, who spearheads what she calls the Benchmark Project, researching similar programs “to see what the going rate is — everything from main stage roles to vocal coaching and, of course, money.”

The goal is to “raise the level of artistry and to prepare students to go out and perform at that high a level.” Professionalism involves more than performing excellence, and Guarino is equally committed to a multi-faceted training program that includes business and management courses. Think a career in law or medicine is lengthy and expensive? Try opera singing.

In addition to vocal coaching and rehearsal time, CCM students can expect to take classes in contract negotiations, finance and career management.

“We want them to be business savvy,” Guarino says. “You have to be incredibly well organized and a good multitasker. Students should feel empowered to be at the helm of their careers.”

Not that they’re slouches when they enter the programs. Guarino admires the applicants’ adroit brokering of offers from competing institutions.

“I wasn’t that smart when I started out,” she says.

But she had other advantages, like growing up in New York City in a household immersed in opera, theater and community activism. Her aunt worked at the Metropolitan Opera.

“I saw operas before I saw movies,” Guarino says.

After earning BFA and MFA degrees from Bard College, Guarino served an apprenticeship in Germany with legendary director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and later at the Metropolitan Opera.

Now in her third decade of directing, Guarino has staged major productions at the Metropolitan Opera, Wolf Trap, Glimmerglass Opera, Seattle Opera, Chataqua Opera and Gotham Chamber Opera. She directed young artist productions for UCLA, San Francisco Opera, Seattle Opera, the Manhattan School of Music and Julliard Opera Theatre.

A proponent of new work, Guarino directed the multimedia oratorio Arjuna’s Dilemma by composer Douglas Cuomo, which made its New York debut in November at the New Wave Festival. As a filmmaker, she produced and directed four independent films, including Crossing the Atlantic, shown on PBS’ Independent Focus.

Guarino makes her CCM debut in late January with a production of Handel’s Alcina in the Studio Theatre. In May, she directs Verdi’s final masterpiece, Falstaff, in Corbett Auditorium. Guarino defines herself as a holistic director, one who strives to engage performers and the backstage staff in the process of creating theater. Students are often surprised — and challenged — when the direction isn’t in the form of a command.

“Sometimes it’s frustrating for students, because they want to be told, ‘How do I do this?’ ” Guarino says. “I’m not going to tell them that, but I am open to a discussion that includes all the other elements: movement, dance, lighting, scenery.”

The diminutive director has already earned her colleagues’ respect as an artist and an educator. “Robin champions ‘real’ things: materials and objects in the physical environment and ‘real’ characters with ‘real’ motivations in that most artificial of art forms, opera,” says Tom Umfrid, CCM’s resident set designer.

CCM’s head vocal coach, Marie-France Lefebvre, is impressed with “her extraordinary perspective as an educator — she’s very strong and very smart about getting students from where they are to where they need to be.”

Guarino is mentoring a new generation of performers and directors in the same tradition, she hopes, as those who mentored her.

“My mentors let me be their student,” she says. “You don’t learn it in a classroom or even on a stage. It’s a lifelong dialogue.”