As we select our LGBT Texan of the Year, we also want to acknowledge some of the local folks who helped define 2014 for us on the cultural side — people who often don’t get the recognition they deserve, those who made an impact on the discussion and those who simply made North Texan a more interesting place to live. Thanks!

The Dallas Opera’s artistic conscience for 30 years steps down

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor


OPERA MAN | A room in Jonathan Pell’s M Streets home is dedicated to memorabilia he has accumulated over three decades, including a photo of him with Placido Domingo. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

Jonathan Pell is a big believer in signs and symbols.

He began working for the Dallas Opera in early January 1985, and as his 30th anniversary with the company approached, he decided 30 was a nice, round figure to go out on.

It wasn’t only that, though.

“After I got out of college, I went to work with my father as an interior designer in Wichita, Kan. It was easy to come down to Dallas, and I wanted to see a young soprano who was performing here in The Marriage of Figaro.” (He was so impressed by the work the Dallas Opera was doing, in 1973, he became a season subscriber.) And the last production he would oversee in his post? The Marriage of Figaro. The universe, it seemed, has decided: It was time to move on.

“I was beginning … not to burn out, but to get tired,” he admits from the well-appointed East Dallas home he shares with Cleve, his partner of 18 years. “I go to every performance of every production. Over the years, I have [supervised] approximately 170 productions of 90-something titles and seen 600 performances and countless rehearsals, plus seen 450 different operas at companies all over the world. There’s no good time to step away, but I felt comfortable leaving the company in the hands of Maestro Emmanuel Villaume, whom I have known for many years. And I’m still young enough to do other things that interest me.” (Pell turned 65 this year.) “I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve always loved what I’ve done.”

It will be hard to imagine loving anything as much as Pell has loved opera. In his 30 years here, Pell has witnessed countless changes in Dallas, in the culture and in his opera as well, including the historic move just five years ago from the cavernous Fair Park Music Hall into the acclaimed Winspear Opera House.
There was an interim step from Kansas designer to Dallas arts leader.

Pell first became intrigued by opera at age 6; for his seventh birthday, he even requested as his present tickets to see La Bohème. He studied voice and hoped to sing. But very early on, “I realized I don’t have the kind of voice that I would pay to hear,” he admits. After working with his father for several years, he went on a vacation to New York City for two weeks. At the end, he called his dad to say he wouldn’t be coming back.

Pell soon found a position as an artist manager, representing serious musicians, singers, conductors and the like. And here’s where the signs start popping up again.

“The very first time I traveled to see a client perform, it was to the Dallas Opera. I had a great rapport with the cofounders, Nicola Rescigno and Larry Kelly.” He maintained a strong relationship with Maestro Rescigno for several years.

Then, in late December 1984, “Nicola came to my apartment on the Upper West Side,” he says. Plato Karayanis was general director at the time is, and the DO’s operations had become “a business model more than an artistic model. Nicola asked me to become the artistic administrator, but gave me just one week to decide. That was exactly 30 years ago this month.”

As he had done several years earlier with his impulsive move to NYC, Pell accepted. He sublet his apartment and rented one fully furnished in Dallas. After three months, he decided to move all his stuff down here.

“Initially, I thought I’d do this for a couple of years. Although Dallas at the time was not as cosmopolitan as it is now, during the opera season I was occupied with [productions] and was in New York or traveling in the off-season so it hardly seems to matter. It was the best of all possible worlds, with great weather, high caliber work and the DFW airport.”

For many years, the extraordinary work the Dallas Opera achieved was in part the result of its unusual season, which was mandated by the end of the State Fair in October and the beginning of the Dallas Symphony’s season in December (which until 1989 also performed at Fair Park). That was a time when many opera companies were dark, and Pell was able to attract great artists to Texas.

“Some were attracted by the thought of the Wild West, even though of course it was not really that anymore. It was simply that no one was vying for the attention of these great artists,” he says. But while he has worked with many famous talents over the years, what has resonated most for Pell has been helping spot the next great artist.

“One of the great joys has been the identification and nurturing of talent before they were acclaimed,” he says. “There’s an excitement to recognizing someone when they’re coming up.”

The most challenging aspect, he says, is the delicate balance between achieving his mission as artistic leader while still adhering to a season that scores with audiences.

“You have to have artistry, integrity, be innovative, do titles that help sell tickets,” he says. “You put together a season that will appeal to a broad range of people without sacrificing the desire and need to be innovative.
We’ve done five productions of Madame Butterfly since I’ve been here, and audiences always want to be moved. It may be my fifth time I’m seeing it, but it’s somebody else’s first time.”

Pell acknowledges that the Dallas Opera has had some blind spots. They’ve never done a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, in part because there used to be a company in town that did G&S exclusively, “and did it quite well,” he says. They have done some Porgy & Bess, several world premieres and a number of American/English operas, but, he teases, the DO will do something out of the ordinary next season. But he won’t announce what it is for the record.

That will be left to someone else. For now, he’s going to simply enjoy his retirement.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 12, 2014