Marco Nistico is a Renaissance Man for opera in the twenty-first century. Born and raised in Italy, he probably never imagined that he would enjoy an international career as an operatic Bass-Baritone, eventually landing the position of General Director of Opera On The James in Lynchburg, Virginia. Classical Review calls him a performer of “gravitas, unforced eloquence, and refined vocalism,” but beyond his artistic talent, he is an articulate and passionate advocate for the importance of regional opera, and a vision for moving the art form forward for future generations. He recently spoke with CS Music about the unconventional and exciting arc of his operatic career, his thoughts on Opera On The James, and his hope for the next crop of talented classical singers.
1. Your multi-faceted career is a lesson in artistic diversity. How did your path lead you from Italy to The Met to Opera On The James?
Yes, my career has been interesting, and I’ve followed paths that were sometimes surprising even to me. My father is a (now retired) conservatory voice teacher in Italy. I didn’t go to music school; instead I studied privately with my father, after attending theater school in Paris. I had my first opera audition at age 30. I was hired to perform a small role for a festival in Southern Italy, with basically no experience. That brought me to my second professional job, in Monte Carlo, of all places. With that job on my resumé I had the credibility to find more work in Italy as well as an agent.
When I landed in NYC, a few years after that, I was hired full time as a member of the ensemble of New York City Opera. I spent 4 wonderful years there, learning the ropes and making many connections. Between the USA and Europe my career has been very rewarding. Singing at the Met and at the Teatro Reggio in Turin were high points. But I have had many very rewarding experiences working for regional companies in the US and in Europe, both singing and more recently directing. I believe that regional companies are an essential part of the operatic landscape in this country. They bring live opera to a wider community. They nurture younger singers. They are an expression of the craft of opera, its artisanal side. I love that idea.
Opera on the James is a great example of that. 14 years ago a few members of the community decided that they wanted an opera company in town, and made it happen. It’s an impressive feat. When I saw the posting for the GD position, I thought: this is what I want to do. Go to a place where opera is created locally, at a high level, for an audience of patrons who feel the need to have live opera in their town. I immediately had a great connection with the people of Lynchburg, the board of directors and the leaders of the other arts organizations in town. Lynchburg is a place that values the arts. I want to be part of that.
2. How were you able to make the transition to “the other side of the curtain” as an artistic administrator? What was your biggest surprise in your newer role?
The transition occurred naturally and gradually. For the past few years I have been teaching and directing. When I saw the listing for this position, it felt like something I had to do. I’ve been working with singers, directors, administrators, marketing people, and patrons my entire career. I feel ready to share that expertise with this company, and with the field at large.
Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the feeling of now being in the position of hiring my colleagues. It’s up to me now to create the community that it takes to put on opera. It’s a big responsibility. I take it very seriously.
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3. How do you think artists are uniquely positioned to lead opera companies?
We have this intimate connection to the art form. We have served it for many years, with passion and making lots of sacrifices. We understand it from the inside, what works, what doesn’t work. We’ve collaborated with directors, conductors, designers, patrons, and donors. I have always felt that we, as performers, are the guardians of the art form. Collaboration is important. There is a lot to learn on the business end. But I strongly believe that the deep love we have for opera translates to the way we lead a company. We believe in it and don’t make excuses for it.
4. How have you seen the opera industry in the U.S. change over the course of your career?
There have been good and bad changes. Good in the sense that we are making progress on diversity, inclusivity, civic practice. Bad in the sense that the opportunities that were there when I was starting, over 20 years ago, are no longer available for younger singers. Companies like NYCO, where you could make a living as a solo singer, at Lincoln Center, no longer exist. However there are many smaller companies now. I believe they can be the future of opera. There needs to be more of a focus more on paying living wages to performers, in order for the profession to be sustainable. This is the biggest challenge.
5. What advice do you give aspiring opera singers today?
Cultivate your skills, persevere. But also cultivate self-awareness and develop realistic expectations. This is an objectively difficult career. It can be very rewarding, but it requires a lot of passion and sacrifice. To be honest, I am moved by young singers. Most of them know what it means to be an artist. They work so hard, care about it so very much. I see such discipline and work ethic in young singers. It’s admirable. It deserves to be nurtured.
6. What is your vision for Opera On The James?
First of all, I want to continue to produce high quality opera for the community. After every show in Lynchburg I see patrons enthusiastic about what they just witnessed, what they were part of. I want to build on that. But I also want to expand our role as a local arts organization. I want to create a youth opera program, teaching children about our art form. If we want opera to continue living, we need to cultivate new generations of people who know first hand what opera is. I also want to engage a larger portion of the community, work on diversifying our audience and expand our opera family. And I want to present new works. Opera needs new works. There are many new operas being composed and presented in the US, and we, at Opera On The James, want to be part of that trend.
The next production at Opera On The James will be Amahl and the Night Visitors, opening on December 8th. To learn more about the company, or to inquire about auditions, visit operaonthejames.org.