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One-on-One with Tony Zancanella

Tony Zancanella

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There were only three opera performers, singing to an outdoor audience of about 10 people who were following the translation on their phones.

The performers stayed at least 18 feet from the audience and from several accompanying musicians because, despite the coronavirus pandemic, they can’t sing with masks on.

This was Opera Southwest, pandemic-style, in what executive director Tony Zancanella called a “research and development project.” The goal was to experiment with how the company might operate when the coronavirus loosens its grip.

“This was just really a trial balloon to figure out how it all works, where we would more or less do something like this but for a larger, more economically viable audience with a larger orchestra,” Zancanella says.

Zancanella has been coming up with innovations at Opera Southwest since he started directing the company eight years ago when he was 25. He has pushed to diversify the type of operas produced, as well as the singers who perform them.

A move from the KiMo Theatre to the National Hispanic Cultural Center alone resulted in “almost an immediate doubling of Hispanic/Latino participation in what we’re doing,” he says.

The company also performed such popular operas as “Bless Me, Ultima,” based on the story by Rudolfo Anaya.

“You would look at the performers and, by and large, they were a largely Anglo performing group, and that’s just terrible business,” says Zancanella, who is also executive director of Chatter, an Albuquerque chamber ensemble. “When the faces on stage look like the faces of the community, it’s a lot easier for the community to buy tickets.”

Zancanella, who grew up in Albuquerque, was a singer and a volunteer with the company when he was younger and dreaming of becoming a professional baritone.

However, a mentor told him that while Zancanella was a good singer, “there are lots of good singers out there.” Instead, the mentor suggested, he could use his talent at fund-raising and other skills to become a good administrator.

“I do miss singing, but I also really enjoy being able to make an impact on the field in this way,” he says. “It’s been a way, I think, for me to have more of an impact than if I’d just been another mediocre baritone.”

Chatter and Opera Southwest have seen impressive growth under your direction. How do you account for that?

“I’ve always kind of allowed myself to be led by the art and artists, and I think that’s been really key. You just wake up every morning and try to do everything just a little bit above average. My dad’s philosophy is if you can be consistently slightly above average over time, that’s really excellent, because it’s very hard to be consistently above average. And that creates the environment for excellence or creativity and really one-in-a million-kind of experiences to happen.”

Were you involved in the arts as a kid?

“I definitely had a stage mom. She literally pushed me into singing and ballet and tap dance, and I was just constantly involved in this or that musical theater or high school choir.”

How do you spend your free time?

“You know, I’m kind of married to my job, according to my wife. But my wife and I are avid, avid campers, hikers.”

Whom do you look up to?

“My grandfather and my father really instilled in me … (my) work ethic and outlook. My grandfather actually passed this year at the age of 98. They came over here in 1923 from a little town in northern Italy that was the war torn region between two powers and rising fascism. He went on to be a very successful person and more or less got to live the American dream. I don’t want to put a very fine political point on this, but I just think the times we live in, it’s very important to remember where we came from and that there is very little that is different between my beloved grandfather and any of the many children who might be arriving at this country now, more or less as refugees.”

Tony Zancanella, head of Opera Southwest.

Do you have a favorite place in the world?

“I would go back to France every single summer to the exclusion of everywhere else. Which is funny because, of course, I’m Italian. I just really, really love Paris, France, the whole French cultural milieu. I know I said I’m kind of married to my work, but the French have this relationship to work that is … much more distant than the Anglo-American approach is to work. A lot more holidays, a lot more extended vacations. And then just the broad investment in art, culture. They take things like museums and arts culture, extremely, extremely seriously. And then in the United States when I start thinking about where I like to go in terms of being outdoors, I’m quite fond of places in the Zuni Mountains (near Grants).”

Tell me something most people don’t know about you.

“Certainly a lot of people have been surprised at how avid I am as far as the outdoors, because I think a lot of people see me only in my opera director environment. You know, in a suit, in a tie. I think people assume that somebody who’s into opera would not at all be interested in getting dirty and going hiking.”

Is there anything you’d like to add?

“I appreciate your interest in me personally, but what’s interesting about what I do is that it’s the product of a huge team of … really smart, talented, dedicated people who deserve essentially all the credit for what happens. Those people are struggling right now. The administrators, by and large, are still working, although there are mass layoffs at bigger companies. But the gate workers, the performers in this country that make art and culture and a lot of the things that make life worth living have been so unbelievably impacted by COVID, and there’s not anywhere near the level of relief that’s necessary.”


with Tony Zancanella

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