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Skiba returns to OWR as production director

New production director Scott Skiba is no stranger to Opera Western Reserve.

He sang in three of the Youngstown opera company’s productions when he was teaching at Baldwin Wallace University between 2007 and 2010.

His 2009 appearance as Escamillo in Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” with OWR was his last full-scale operatic role before shifting his focus to directing. After he returned to Baldwin Wallace in 2014 to become director of opera studies, OWR Production Director David Vosburgh asked him to direct the 2016 production of “Carmen,” and they started serious conversations about Skiba taking over when Vosburgh retired.

“When I came back and was involved in a production there, I felt like a member of the family,” Skiba said. “It felt like a good fit.”

Vosburgh, who had been with OWR since its inception 16 years ago, retired at age 81 after last November’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

Several things appealed to Skiba about the job.

“What’s impressive to me is the level of talent has always been really high,” he said. “They’ve always had top-notch singers. One of the most impressive things is, I knew how important it was for David to do the opera based on ‘the Scottish play.’ That he had a really strong audience support for a piece that’s not ‘Boheme’ or ‘Carmen’ was really awesome, just to see how the audience embraced it. It was diverse — diverse in population, diverse in age — and just a great energy.”

The majestic Stambaugh Auditorium adds to the lure.

“Whatever entrance you go in, it feel you’re arriving somewhere important,” Skiba said. “It has that impact and beauty.”

The acoustics are pristine, better for those in the audience than for the singers on stage. The sound isn’t as alive on stage as it is in the audience, and he can share that knowledge with first-time performers.

He’s also looking forward to partnering with music director Susan Davenny Wyner.

“Working with Susan is always a great collaboration,” he said. “She brings a great joy and passion and life to everything she does.”

Of course, the job hasn’t been what the self-described workaholic imagined. Directives issued in the wake of the COVID-19 virus have Skiba meeting with the OWR and Stambaugh Auditorium staffs via online conferencing instead of in person, and OWR had to postpone its April auditions for a Nov. 13 production of “La Traviata.”

He isn’t worried about postponing auditions, at least not yet. They are scheduled that early because singers regularly book jobs months in advance, but all opera companies are in the same position right now. He compared opera singers to Olympic athletes, who spend their lifetime preparing their voices and their bodies for the unique set of skills necessary to excel, even if the usual amount of time they have to prepare for a role is shortened.

He’s willing to do video auditions, but it’s not his preference.

“Live is always better,” Skiba said. “It’s best when Susan and I get to hear the artists in the hall.”

Working online has become the normal in the academic world for the last six weeks, and Skiba believes that experience could be beneficial, even when educators aren’t forced to do it by social distancing.

“We had to figure out new ways to be there for the students, to meet their career goals and do something collaborative and performance based,” he said. “Opera Western Reserve is in discussions about how we might use that to reach new audiences, to make alternative venues work.”

He is cautiously optimistic the virus will not disrupt the November opera. Skiba said he saw a quote from someone who said that in the 400-plus years that opera has been in existence, there have been about 120 epidemics, and the art form has survived.

“We’re making sure we have everything in place, so when the path is more clear, we can proceed in a safe way,” he said.

Professional sports teams have talked about quarantining players together in order to protect athletes and play their games. That’s not an option for a rehearsing opera cast.

“They (professional sports) have all the money in the world. The arts do not, but we’ll find a way.”

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