New General Director of Charlottesville Opera strives to involve the community in experiences that impact lives
Dr. Leanne Pettit Clement knows how a single experience can shape a life.
“I grew up in Louisa County, which is, of course, right next door. It's very rural. And when I was in sixth grade, Virginia Opera came to our middle school,” recalled Clement, the new General Director of Charlottesville Opera. “They brought us all to the auditorium. I honestly remember the exact seat I was sitting in — the third row back, fourth chair in. It was the first time I'd ever heard opera. They had four singers. They came out on the stage. They had this big box. They took hats and scarves out. And each time they did that, they transformed into another character, and they sang.”
It was an experience that mesmerized Clement and changed the trajectory of her life.
“I think some of it had to do to with one of the women who looked similar to me. She was a larger woman, and she had kind of broad cheekbones, and, you know, broad shoulders. And when she sang, she commanded that room, and I thought, ‘I want to be able to do that. I want to do that.’”
From there, Clement — who was shy as a child — auditioned for a school play. And then she began taking voice lessons where she realized she was gifted with a natural operatic voice, eventually leading to her specializing as a mezzo-soprano in the dramatic roles of Verdi and Wagner.
“If we could have that impact as an opera company,” said Clement, “through our education and performances, on any other child's life, that they come, and they have some sort of moment where their life is transformed, it's so worth it. And, you know, maybe it's not singing. Maybe it's that they watch the crew members change the set, and they think, ‘Oh, that's really interesting.’ Or they love the costumes. There are just so many aspects to theater work where people could find a home.”
Clement studied at the College of William & Mary as an undergrad and considered becoming a lawyer, so she majored in English and minored in music.
“But I was in every show I could be a part of,” she said. “I worked backstage on costumes and helped with quick changes. I painted sets. I did everything I could to learn every bit of the workings of a theatre. And I really credit my experience there to knowing how to run an opera company, because you've got to know what everybody else is doing and what it takes. And I know because I've sewn a lot of hems and buttons, and I've painted a lot of drops. And I think that really helps me to recognize and respect those individuals who work on every aspect of the shows.”
She went on to Louisiana State University to get her masters and doctorate in voice. While she continued to enjoy performing, she was also increasingly aware of the discipline and practice it took to stay in physical shape as a vocalist. (This actually inspired her to take a break prior to grad school to serve as the first mate on a boat.)
Clement also was finding herself drawn to production. Often during rehearsals, she would be thinking about how things could be done more efficiently and asking questions of the management.
When the opportunity came for her to work with Opéra Louisiane, a then-new opera company based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, she “loved it.” Clement started as an office assistant and eventually moved up to the role of director of development.
“I don’t want to say it was more fulfilling than performing. But I felt like I was thriving,” she said, “And I felt the more that I was successful there, the easier it was for me to sing, because the pressure was off.”
In 2011, the founder of Opéra Louisiane resigned and recommended Clement for the role of executive director. Under her leadership, more than 3,000 students were able to experience opera free of charge each year.
Clement took pride in the work she accomplished with her team.
“It's one of the most fulfilling things to me to stand at the back of the theater, to see a full house and to watch those singers come out, and listen to them sing and be successful, and collaborate with the Maestro and the orchestra. There's so much pride in bringing this group of people together and elevating them all to this place where they can do their work.”
Regarding her new role with Charlottesville Opera, Clement said that the board and donors have been warm and welcoming. She also added that while working on the opera’s summer productions, what she has experienced is “real camaraderie.”
“I don't know if it's because we've been two years without performing together because of COVID, but people are so happy to be back together. And so willing to work with one another.”
Her team consists of people she brought with her from Louisiana, folks who have worked in Charlottesville for many years, and others who are new to the company.
“It really has been kind of a magical collaboration,” Clement said. “Lots of respect from everyone. Lots of gratitude. So, I feel very, very fortunate.”
She has also found a great partner in artistic director, Caroline Worra, who was brought on before Clement was hired. Immediately, the two formed a partnership based on mutual respect.
“We both worked in the industry for a long time but had never worked together. And she has performed for decades. She's had this incredible career. Every opera company in the US that you can think of — the Met, San Francisco, Boston — she's been there. So, she has these incredible connections that are going to continue to help us to bring in artists of the highest quality.”
Looking forward, Clement is excited for the opportunity to re-evaluate the opera’s education programming in order to make it not just free, but also more accessible, so that it fits the needs of the Charlottesville community.
“We're also in a place that our budget is growing, our support from our donors is growing, which is something that's really exciting, because I think people recognize that this is a little jewel of an opera company,” Clement said. “And they're kind of starting to realize, even though it's been 45 years, that to the rest of the country, Charlottesville Opera is known as one of the best training programs in the country for emerging artists. And I think that's something that the community can be really proud of.”
Having just wrapped up its production of “The Sound of Music,” Charlotteville Opera is now preparing for its next mainstage production, “The Merry Widow,” a comedy by Franz Lehár, which will be held at The Parmount on July 22 and July 24. It is directed by Stephanie Havey and conducted by Larry Loh, with English translation by Ted and Deena Puffer.
“It’s as close as you can get to a musical without being a musical,” said Clement. “It’s operetta, and so there's music and there's spoken dialogue. And this one is kind of the quintessential operetta because it has can-can; it’s very French feeling. It's really just a fun show.”
Worra, the organization's artistic director and also the lead in this production, “has sung the role seven times, with many different companies across the country,” she continued. “And recently she sang in Hong Kong with Richard Troxell, who is her partner here in this production as well. They have great chemistry. You would think that they've been performing together for many, many years. It's really exciting to watch.”
Clement is impressed with the level of artists that Charlottesville Opera brings to town.
“It's really quite exceptional. Andrew Stenson, who is the second leading tenor in this production, was recently featured in Opera News. You know, he's kind of a big deal. And, wow, his voice is every bit as glorious as I've heard in recordings, and he brings a real genuine excitement to the stage. He might be performing at the Met, and he's giving it his all. But he's also giving it his all here at Charlottesville. And that's the kind of artist that I love to work with.”
Clement, who listens to all styles of music in the car, talks about the marketing challenge of getting people to give opera a try. “You can't really describe it to anybody. You have to experience it. You have to see it. I can tell you until I’m blue in the face that, ‘Oh, this is aria is so incredible, it will make you cry,’ but it's much more effective if I sing it to you.”
Clement comments that while donors have been “incredibly generous” and have sustained the organization through COVID, there is still a need to “broaden that base of support, so that people recognize that even if you're not the biggest opera fan, opera is good for the community.”
And how does she feel about returning to her roots? "It feels very natural to be back in Virginia,” said Clement. “Like this is exactly where I'm supposed to be.”
While she enjoyed living in Louisiana, she missed the mountains and the family farm in Virginia. Now, her daughter has cousins to play with. Clement and her husband pick blackberries together and help her mother in the garden. She also feels fortunate to be able to spend time with her 94-year-old grandmother.
Whenever she misses Louisiana cooking, she said, she visits the Charlottesville restaurant Maya because “they have really unique Southern cuisine, and their grits actually taste like Louisiana grits.”
As for her life-changing experience as a 6th grader in Louisa, Clement reached out to the general director at Virginia Opera a few years ago. “I just wanted to tell you this story because I think it's important for you to know — for the history of your company, and as a colleague,” she told him. “I want you to know that what you are doing matters.”
While he wasn’t the same director who made it possible for Clement to experience opera for the first time all those years ago, Clement noted that it was still a great exchange.
“I think that it’s important for us to be reminded that, yes, we're making people happy, and we're entertaining them. But we're also really making an impact on people's lives.”
Additional Charlottesville Opera performances:
Opera Unbound – 10:30 a.m. July 20, The Center at Belvedere
A concert of new — some never before heard —arias and songs from today's brightest and most promising composers and librettists. Hosted by opera director, librettist, performer and guest artist John de los Santos.