March 10, 2011 | by Patrick Folliard
Navigating the high Cs

Andrea Bocelli with Christina Scheppelmann, director of artistic operations at Washington National Opera. (Photo by Karin Cooper; courtesy WNO)

Fortunately for Christina Scheppelmann, she genuinely likes people. As director of artistic operations at Washington National Opera (WNO), Scheppelmann encounters the occasional diva, but an appreciation of folks in general, and more specifically artists, allows her to overlook any blasts of bad behavior.

“Great artists can be difficult, but it’s understandable considering how they have to turn themselves inside out in front of 3,000 people every night,” says Scheppelmann over coffee at an outdoor café not far from WNO’s Kennedy Center home. “Part of my job is to create an environment that makes it comfortable for singers to do their absolute best.”

Hired in 2002 by WNO’s general director Plácido Domingo, Scheppelmann is responsible for both artistic and business aspects of the company. When not deciding on titles and schedules with Domingo, Sheppelmann is discussing finances with the board. Various departments — artistic, technical production, costumes and the young artists program — all report to her. It’s an incredibly challenging position, but one that Scheppelmann finds immensely satisfying: “Despite the appearance of hierarchy, the process is extremely collaborative, and it’s incredibly fun.” she says. “I can’t imagine myself in any other line of work.”

While still a teenager in Germany, Scheppelmann decided on a future in artistic administration. She attended a music high school in Hamburg where she sang in the choir and played violin in the orchestra. She followed her dreams with one exception.

At her late father’s urging, she pursued a graduate degree in banking and economics and consequently went to work at a solid Hamburg bank, but wasn’t happy. A soprano friend suggested she apply for an entry position at an artist management firm in Milan. After learning she was hired, Scheppelmann instantly loaded up a borrowed car and headed off to her new life. “It all happened very fast. My relatives weren’t too surprised — they already thought I was a little odd, but my bank colleagues were certain I’d lost my mind,” she says. “But if you don’t take risks at 22, you’re never going to get anywhere.”

Scheppelmann’s charmed, two-decade career includes heady stints at world-renowned opera companies like Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu and the Gran Teatro la Fenice in Venice. Prior to joining WNO, she was artistic manager of the prestigious San Francisco Opera.

Under the auspices of famed Spanish tenor/conductor Domingo (whose remarkable WNO tenure ends in June), Scheppleman has helped to advance WNO’s reputation as a world-class company. Together, they have successfully presented an increasing number of lesser known modern operas along with productions guaranteed to fill seats like WNO’s current offering “Madama Butterfly.” Scheppelman describes this production of Puccini’s gloriously ill-fated love story as “very clean; touching in its simplicity. Like all good opera, it allows us to live the drama unscathed; it’s a well-told story enhanced with music.”

Most things dear to Scheppelmann can be found at the opera including her partner of six years Beth Krynicki, WNO’s principal stage manager. Theirs began as a workplace romance and blossomed into an enduring relationship. When they get away from the rarefied world of opera, the couple likes to work out, kayak, travel and entertain friends at their home in northern Virginia. A life-long jock, Scheppelmann also plays soccer in a women’s league.

Another part of the director of operations’ job requires periodically taking post-performance questions from the audience. She believes sstrongly that all art — whether hanging a wall or performed on a stage — is open for criticism. It’s part of the experience. But she does insist that the audience respect the performers: “There are no singers who want to annoy or disappoint an audience. They’re all doing the best job they possibly can at that particular moment. It’s required that the artists be respected.”

Scheppelmann’s warm-but-efficient demeanor belies her more ardent feelings about respecting artists and the beauty of the works. Interestingly the character from opera with whom she most relates is Princess Eboli, the alluring seductress/victim from Verdi’s Inquisition-set “Don Carlo” (also Scheppelmann’s favorite opera).

Ultimately, Scheppelman aspires to become the big boss — a general director: “I’d definitely like to run my own company one day. It would have to be a very good organization — I’ve been lucky in that I’ve always worked with the best.  I’d be willing to move almost anywhere except New York. I must have very quick access to boundless, green spaces.”

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