Prior to being named as general director of Indianapolis Opera, David Craig Starkey was artistic, and general director of Asheville Lyric Opera which he founded in 1999. Holding a Master of Music degree (1995) in Opera performance from The Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. While at I.U., Starkey, 48, studied with such vocal music luminaries as Giorgio Tozzi, Mark Oswald, Kathy Olson, William Hicks, and Dale Moore. He spent three summers (1994-1996) as a leading baritone at the Brevard Music Festival, debuted with Amato Opera (NY) in 1996, and with the New York City Opera in 1997. He spent the summer of 1998 as a resident artist at the Bregenz Festspiele in Austria. Starkey performed more than 30 roles and in solo recitals throughout the Southeast. He has been affiliated with numerous institutions as an opera production staff member and educator, including the Yale Opera, New York City Opera, Manhattan School of Music, The Opera Company of North Carolina, Saint Petersburg Opera, Opera Jacksonville, and the Brevard Music Center. Starkey is married and the father of two children—a boy and girl.
Recently I met with Starkey in his office at the Frank & Katrina Basile Center (the former St. George Greek Orthodox Church) located in the Meridian Kessler neighborhood, to chat about his background, his goals and plans for the company and IO’s upcoming production of “Man of La Mancha.”
Would you say you grew up in opera?
My father, Dr. David E. Starkey was a performer. He was an opera artist in New York but did a lot of stuff with a variety shows during the 50s—different types of avenues in the entertainment business. It wasn’t just opera. He actually did some off Broadway, He did the Firestone Hour and the Perry Como Show. He was also a professor. I studied with him as an undergrad at Youngstown State. He was my voice teacher in undergraduate school. He introduced me to people at the next level that were colleagues and friends of his. Early on Indiana University became pretty much a clear focus. I looked at Ohio State, at Cincinnati Conservatory but for me I.U. was the place. I thought that if I was going to have an opera career, and I was completely convinced that I could, I wanted to do it in literally in the best place that I possibly could and see if I could cut the mustard.
Tell me about your student days at I.U.?
I actually began there as a tenor. I had great teachers and we discovered that I was really a baritone—a Cavalier baritone. Because of my physical proportion being someone who is 6′ 7″, a lot directors wanted to use me in things that were very character oriented where I could bring a domineering presence on stage, look funny or goofy or be a romantic. I did Danilo in “Merry Widow” and I did Ned Keene in “Peter Grimes.” However, I am thankful I went to I.U. because I realized what I was not going to be and I think that was very, very valuable.
I assume you made a lot of contacts while you were at I.U.?
I met and became friends with Joshua Bell. I worked under the baton of Kurt Masur. We did a revival of “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” at the Kennedy Center. I sang in Singing Hoosiers. I also worked with Erich Kunzel. He took me to Carnegie Hall with the Singing Hoosiers and gave me my debut as a soloist at Carnegie Hall. I was on some recordings—all these things happened at I.U.
I take it Jacobs School of Music turned out to be everything you hoped it would be?
When I found out almost the entire student body is constantly availed of opportunities, I took them. I was also able to take advantage of things more proactively than some of the other students because I was not a scholarship student so I wasn’t teaching for my academic scholarship. That meant, however, that I had try to be a little bit more scrappy to cover my expenses, so I was also able to be a stage manager for the ballet department and an assistant director for several shows. I also worked on the stage crews at both the opera house and the Student Union and I learned how to be a union stage hand .
When you were at I.U. did you ever imagine you would eventually become the head of IO?
Oh, yes. And I am exceeding my dreams.
How did the IO find you? Connect the dots for me
The dots go back to when I was at I.U. because, as students, we revered Indianapolis Opera. Older students were singing with IO and you saw them take a step to Chicago, to St. Louis and elsewhere. So we saw these stepping stones available that we were taught to be very attuned to. I auditioned for the apprentice program in Indianapolis but I stepped away from pursuing it because I wanted to be gain much more hands on experience. I wanted to advance my career a little faster. But I always kept my eye on Indianapolis. I paid attention to it in a lot of very dreaming kind of ways. Indianapolis has always been one of my favorite cities in the country.
Did you spend time in Indy when you were a student?
I did. I was a soloist for over three years at Tabernacle Presbyterian. When you were a student you either sang at the Methodist Church in Bloomington or you sang at Tabernacle. I was blessed at being one of those premiere singers in the state and so I came up here quite a bit.
What was the time frame?
This was in the 90s. I really enjoyed and met a lot of people at the church and got to know the city. They would tell me about the Children’s Museum They would tell me about the race track. I also had opportunities as a member of Singing Hoosiers. I sang with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra Pops at the Hilbert Theatre and loved it. It was so rewarding.
Indiana itself is not new territory to you then, is it?
No. And I guess you could go back a little earlier because I have family in the Connersville, Liberty and Richmond areas so coming from Ohio to Indiana was a common family trip. Going to my uncle’s farm in Connersville, and revisiting where my mom and dad met at I.U. was part of that So Bloomington and other places in Indiana is a family kind of thing. But once I went to New York after I received my masters, Indiana basically evaporated from the landscape and I started to look at opportunities in the northeast and the south.
To broaden your horizons?
It all started at I.U. but really when I got to New York I got to work with a lot of phenomenal mentors who asked me “So what do you want to do David?” When I met them I wasn’t just a singer. I was at Manhattan School of Music as an assistant stage manager, My inroad at City Opera was basically being an extra. And they would ask me “Who are you? You have acting skills better than the average person.” and I would say “Well, I happen to be a singer.” So door after door would just open and I met people. I continue to have lots of connections on the production side having worked at Manhattan School of Music and the U. of Connecticut and Yale Opera. where I was an assistant director. I was able to connect multiple avenues of experience that I gained at I.U. And of course when they discovered that I studied at Indiana University they would say “Oh, obviously you know something.” You were automatically able to get in the door because you had at least that level of association
The IO must have particularly have been interested in your skill set considering your diverse background.
I think that they recognized that but I think how I really came to this organization is when I reconnected with James Caraher (IO former artistic director for 33 years). We worked together in 2012 or 13 and so from the sidelines at a distance I was observing a time period during which the 20th century silo model had really come to an end for this company.
Give me an example of the old model
One of the old model symptoms is you build your own, basically, platform. “We can do everything. We need to be able to do all the marketing, all the artistic work, all the lighting and design.” If you were a ballet company—”we need to have our own dancers, our own orchestra, we need to have our own designers.” Everything became a silo. You built this big silo and you deposited all your stuff in it. A silo has no windows. It has no doors. There is only an entry point at the top. If that all can function financially and from a great leadership standpoint, it’s stellar and that is why we have some of the great institutions of symphonies, ballets, theaters and opera companies because of that. We built extraordinarily strong institutional models. However, as the funding in our society began to shift, a number of companies experienced a crisis or failed when resources from always dependable arts patrons, corporations or foundations dried up.
What is the 21st century model?
The 21st century business model has a lot of value because it involves collaborating with and surrounding yourself with people who have a singular focus and are excellent at that. Like a lawyer that is specifically trained in HR. Those are really valuable things but you also need to have people around you that understand multiple facets Maybe they came up with a CPA and then they became a financial manager and then they became a CFO.
You are speaking of board members, right?
What changes will you bring to IO?
I came in as a general manager and artistic director with the mindset of the 21st century mechanism. The market has shifted significantly in Indianapolis. I can only feel it. I can already sense it in the way that people are buying tickets. that we are going to have to balance contemporary with traditional simultaneously in this community so I don’t come into this community completely trying to evaporate the old methodology because I think some of that is very valuable. History is tremendously valuable. And we need to understand that is how we even have an opera. I think one of the most attractive things we have is how dedicated board, philanthropists and community leaders are to this company.
How have you sought to change the existing cultured you’ve inherited?
Sometimes you have to chase where the audience is, where the money is and where the philanthropy is. Since money is shifting, I believe that nimbleness, that flexibility is something I want to champion here. If we are truly going to have a balance we also need to honor the traditional which I believe should be totally respected and honored. Sort of the elder statesman aspect of this community. At the same time, there is a renaissance that is happening. If you’re going to have that balance, you are going to have Mass Ave. and you are going to have Meridian St. Let’s just take those two avenues and say “Both need to be respected and honored” and to do that means that the company needs to have a flexibility and a nimbleness to it. That doesn’t mean that it is random. That means that the business model needs to be organized in such a way that you truly understand your capacity but you also say “we need to look at community more.” Not just our own individualistic goals. That is where I believe the word collaboration has found itself completely attached to the 21st century model.
Is “Man of la Mancha” part of that strategy?
It’s a story that dates back to the 16th century. It’s as classic as anything in our literature of Spanish literature, of common man literature, understanding the function of right and wrong. Life does have tremendous challenges to it but you can rise out of it. There are so many things that can be taken from this.
Does this piece have the same book and score as the Broadway show?
It’s the same show. When it debuted in 1964 it was considered to be a Broadway show and I think the composers very specifically chose it because they thought“We are going to go there because that is where we are going to have the greatest success of our show being able to be done.
You produced this show in Asheville, right?
It was box office sellout in Asheville. We are on the trajectory of realizing our first sell out of this company’s programming revitalization in this community. And that is a direction that was established before I got here. I want to champion the very sound evaluation by this company that we be nimble. We have done “Barber of Seville,” We are going to do contemporary opera like we did with the world premiere of “Happy Birthday Wanda June” but we are also going to do lyric theater.
Are you building on what former IO general director Kevin Patterson began?
Yes and that was when I felt this relationship was going to fit as I interviewed them and they interviewed me. That if I was going to come in, I was going to continue championing many of the things that I very much agreed with…
How are you going to address the public relations issue related to the IO’s sometimes, troubled past.
It goes back to my observations as a student in the 90s and the way that we revered the Indianapolis Opera. I think we should understand that we have been given the privilege of even considering having an opera company because of what everyone has done before us and we need to respect that. I believe there is a lot of healing that needs to be done and to take it from that standpoint. I am thankful to have a job with a company I sort of dreamed of being a part of because of what everybody has done before this. I plant to say thank you to those people and hopefully in special ways to honor them. I also want to tell that that story to the next generation. I will tell them that we have a responsibility to step up and to be able to invest and do it now like our parents, our grandparents and our elders before us so that we can pass this on. There’s a responsibility and a demand for us to be able to carry on cultural evolution. I believe if you approach it from a healing standpoint, which I believe music does, and the theater does—it heals.
I value James Caraher and John Pickett. I value what Kevin did. His time here was extraordinary with the heavy lifting that he needed to do to be able to get the company rebirthed. Also, board members such as Arnie Hanish (former IO board president), Patty Curran and Muffie James—these people are iconic from the standpoint that they have sacrificed so much. We Gen-Xers have to come along and understand we have a responsibility, not a mandate. Do we want to have cultural evolution in communities where we live?
Where do you want this organization to be five years from now?
I am beginning to see where the organization needs to be in the next three years because I believe it is in a five year transition right now. I believe in the next three years we have maintained the incredible foundation and philanthropic goodwill we have—people who came back and said, let us help you. Lilly Endowment, The Clowes Foundation, Christel DeHaan Family Foundation have come along side us and now our goal is to ask them to walk along with us a little bit so that we find sustainability and understand our true capacity. We want to continue to have multiple venues in the region— other locations in Indy, other locations in Ind. Also, multiple weekends. We are looking at “Man of La Mancha” selling out so that means we are going to have to find a way to add more performances.
Are those examples of nimbleness?
Absolutely. The way we work with the instrumentalists, with the artisans, with the unions, with the corporations. We need people to understand how to trust us again, that we are a better partner with each of them and achieve sustainability and evaluate our capacity. That is not me saying I want to do certain shows, it is not me saying I want be a certain size or that we need to be back on somebody’s map. I believe the maps are not the same maps anymore so we would falsely put ourselves in a place where we are trying to land, that has moved on.
Will we ever see extravagant opera productions at Clowes Memorial Hall again?
I never say no. In fact I would love to see us do opera in places people become excited for it to be at.
Site specific locations?
I have actually done opera in an arena. I have done opera in a conference center. I have done opera in a park. We have got some amazing places around here. Have people ever dreamed of opera at Conner Prairie? In the Pacer’s arena? Why not? O.K.? That’s it. Opera needs to become more relative to its community.
What can audiences expect upon seeing “Man of La Mancha?”
They can expect to experience exceptionally strong voices singing beautiful, lyrical songs; a stage classic that won five Tony awards including Best Musical, Best Composer and Lyricist, Best Direction of a Musical; a play within a play about Don Quixote, who believes he is the knight errant, and pursues “the Impossible Dream.” As we say at Indianapolis Opera, “A voice. A stage. A story.” That’s the formula for good and true opera.
For tickets and information about “Man of La Mancha” call (317) 283-3531 or visit indyopera.org. Performances are Friday, March 24 at 8 p.m., Saturday, March 25 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 26 at 2:30 p.m. at Schrott Center for the Arts on the campus of Butler University.