Q&A with Eric Mitchko


by Liza Roberts

photograph by Jillian Clark

Six years ago, Eric Mitchko moved to Raleigh to lead the newly formed North Carolina Opera, the result of a merger of the Opera Company of North Carolina and Capital Opera Raleigh. Today, N.C. Opera is preparing to launch its most ambitious season yet.

Under the general directorship of Mitchko and the artistic and musical directorship of conductor Timothy Myers, this season’s eclectic series of performances will include traditional operas like Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, as well as more avant-garde performances like Hercules vs. Vampires, and an evening with vocalist Candice Hoyes, who will sing the songs of Duke Ellington.

“We wanted to showcase the breadth and variety of what we can do with opera and musical theater,” Mitchko says. “We like to entertain people with really good music, and if it doesn’t fit into what people think of as opera, that’s OK.”

Wagner certainly fits the opera bill. Mitchko is particularly proud his company will kick off its season with the composer’s Das Rheingold, the first installment of his epic Ring Cycle, and an opera that has never been performed in North Carolina. It’s an ambitious undertaking.

“People have generally thought opera companies our size are not big enough to do Wagner,” Mitchko says, in part because the music requires a full orchestra. “We’re trying to show the rest of the country: You can do it.”

Mitchko and Myers’s solution is to put the 80-player NCO orchestra on the Meymandi Concert Hall stage together with a fully costumed cast and minimal staging. “This music is really powerful,” Mitchko says, “it’s a musical language that really clicks with a lot of people.”

To hear our extended interview with Eric Mitchko, listen to our podcast, Walter Now, at waltermagazine.com/category/podcast/.

Tell us more about why the Triangle should be excited about Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

It’s an incredible piece of music theater. It’s epic, and really human and personal at the same time. There’s an unbelievably rich palette of orchestra colors, and those voices! Plus this opera has never been done in this part of the country, so people who come see it will be a part of history.

A Triangle Wagner Society has just been formed. Is interest in Wagner here on the rise?

There are people here who have always loved Wagner, and now we are beginning to do his work regularly.  We had our first Wagner program – Act I of Die Walküre – four seasons ago, and two years ago did Act II of Tristan and Isolde. So now there’s a real opportunity for their interest to be satisfied locally.

Describe Wagner in three words.

Passionate, beautiful, dangerous – like a James Bond heroine.

Why is Raleigh a good place for an opera company?

This is a great community with a lot of varied interests. It’s not just that the public here is highly educated, it’s that they like different things.

People who don’t know a lot about opera can be intimidated by it. What do you tell them?

Oh, it’s entertainment, just have fun! We have English translations for everything, so all the people and the amazing situations they’re in are right there before you.

What is your favorite opera of all time?

Whichever one we’re doing right now; otherwise, Tristan and Isolde.

Favorite opera singer?

Leonie Rysanek.

Favorite aria?

O patria mia from Aida. It’s a moment of great emotion and tension that’s incredibly difficult and needs to convey repose at the same time. If the singer can pull it off, it’s magic.

What opera cliche would you like to blow up once and for all?

That it’s something only for people of a certain income, class, and reserved disposition. Our experience is that opera is fun, unpredictable, and sexy, that’s how I’d like people to see it.

When did you first fall in love with opera??

In high school, around ninth grade. I actually got into Wagner first, which shows that you never know what is going to strike someone – it’s all very individual.

When did you most recently fall in love with opera again?

Most recently? Just now, preparing for Rheingold, listening to the music again and thinking about it. The way all the pieces fit together is really incredible.