Metro Weekly

Opera Provocateur: Timothy Nelson has big ideas for the In Series

Nelson is positioning the forward-thinking company as a model for the future of opera

timothy nelson, in series, opera

Timothy Nelson — Photo: Todd Franson

The sign caught Timothy Nelson’s eye a few days after he and husband Jeffrey had moved to D.C. “We repent of our racist past,” read the placard outside the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church. “I thought that was so powerful, and having just moved back to America from the Netherlands, which would never admit its own racism, was really striking for me,” he says.

Not long after, Nelson found himself in the church to see a production put on by the Washington Stage Guild, which performs in the venue’s Undercroft Theatre. “When I was leaving, the person giving me a tour said, ‘We’re looking for a minister of music.’ So it all sort of happened serendipitously.”

His work as the church’s music minister provides Nelson a space to “unwind and recharge.” Although it is a paid position, it’s the closest thing to a downtime activity or hobby — outside of the gym — for Nelson, who is now in his second year as the artistic director of the In Series, the forward-thinking, theatrical-leaning opera company.

“Of course, this is Methodist, so it’s a really interesting time to be in the church,” Nelson says, referring to the recent decision by the denomination’s parent body to United Methodist Church divides itself over gay marriage. “Mount Vernon, they’re a very gay church, and a very young church,” Nelson says. “It’s a church with an amazing story, because it was billed as the national church for the racist wing of the Methodist Church.” That was during the Civil War and the previous schism among Methodist churches over slavery. The Mount Vernon church stands as an example of hope and progress when it comes to dealing with thorny and complicated social and historical issues. “I love being part of a community that’s dealing with the legacy of its past,” Nelson says. “I hope to collaborate with them on a project next year that is about looking at reconstruction and what happened after the Civil War, in the same way we collaborated with Foundry [United Methodist Church] this season.”

The In Series partnership with Foundry to stage L’enfance du Christ was a “community project that engages the community in the making of an opera, and then has a follow-through action at the end of it.” It follows last season’s production of the zarzuela La Paloma at the Wall at GALA Hispanic Theatre, in which “we had youths from the Latin American Youth Center in Columbia Heights build the set and design, and we told their stories of immigration. We also provided resources [to help facilitate] the audience to become involved in different immigration relief efforts following it…. There’s no question that it’s the sort of work we need to be doing, and that the key to our relevancy and success as an organization is partnerships and collaborations with disparate organizations in the community. It makes us stronger, and it makes our work more meaningful.”

“It’s still very fresh — it’s still scary every morning when I get out of bed,” Nelson says about leading the In Series, where he succeeded Carla Hűbner, who founded the organization 38 years ago. Nelson has big ideas for the small opera and cabaret company, and can take at least some comfort in the fact that 2019 ended with a boost. “In our holiday appeal this year, we raised double what I expected, and most of those are small donations, which is flooring me.” The group has also attracted new subscribers as a result of the partnerships with Foundry and the Latin American Youth Center, plus another with the Iranian-American Community Center.

Nelson is also heartened by the relationship that has developed with Hűbner, whom he considers a mentor. Last September, she threw him a 40th birthday party that he also saw as a ceremonial “passing of the torch.”

“Carla always had her birthday as a fundraiser for the organization,” he says. “We held it at her apartment building, and she hosted a birthday party for me as a fundraiser. It was actually quite sweet.”

METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with the current In Series production Le Cabaret de Carmen, which I understand has almost sold-out its D.C. run.

TIMOTHY NELSON: Yeah, we’ve added a couple of extra performances. Then we’re taking the show to Baltimore in February. Le Cabaret de Carmen has just turned out to be popular for a number of reasons. D.C. has one of the most thriving tango scenes in the country, so the tango community has really stepped-up and been engaged. I think that’s had a lot to do with the success.

MW: I can’t recall having heard that D.C. has a thriving tango scene before now.

NELSON: I don’t know the reason why, but D.C. has a huge tango community. And not just traditional tango, but it has one of the nation’s leading queer tango groups. And they partnered with us on this because the piece is dealing with a lot of expanded gender and also violence against trans women. So we’ve been able to reach a subset of the tango community.

MW: Elaborate more on the queer elements you’ve introduced in this adaptation of Bizet’s famously provocative opera.

NELSON: We tightrope a thin line, but we play with the idea that Carmen’s gender is not identified, and that she very well could be a trans woman. It’s influenced by the films of Almodóvar, particularly Bad Education. That really informs Jose’s backstory because in the original opera, we know he left home under some nefarious circumstances, and he feels rejected, but this really defines homophobia as the cause behind that. The whole piece sort of plays with nonconforming gender personas, especially with the acting roles that we’ve added to it.

MW: Is that something you’ve seen done in previous versions of Carmen?

NELSON: No, never. It wasn’t even the intention when we started working on it. As we created the piece and wrote it together, it just happened organically. So the piece is now very much men dancing with men, women kissing women, a gender-fluid emcee or host of the evening. Which also connects with tango in a really interesting way because tango, of course, started as a dance in these predominantly all-male immigrant communities in Buenos Aires, so it was really a dance between two men originally.

MW: That’s something else I didn’t know.

NELSON: I didn’t make the connection until we started working with our bandoneon player. The bandoneon is the principal instrument in tango orchestra — tango is traditionally a very male and misogynistic world — and this is a nurse from Georgetown who decided she wanted to learn the bandoneon. She moved to Buenos Aires for a year and lived in this world, and is now one of the top bandoneon players in the country, and lives here in D.C. She helped give the piece a historical context, and made us understand how tango can be woven in, in a more integrated way.

A lot of the outreach we’re doing with this piece [revolves around] providing dance lessons before the shows and allowing the audience to dance on the stage with the orchestra playing real tangos. We try to make it a full evening of exploring tango, as a theatrical experience. We have a queer night [Friday, Jan. 10; sold out] when we’ll do a queer tango lesson before the performance. Then the next night we have a Beginner Tango Lesson for people who don’t know how to tango. There’s also an Advanced Tango Lesson [Friday, Jan. 17) for people who are experienced tango dancers, and want to come dance. They’ll all go on stage with the players before the show starts.

Timothy Nelson — Photo: Todd Franson

MW: Beyond its twists on gender and sexuality, this Carmen sounds like a rare, intimate, and intense adaptation.

NELSON: For me, it’s the most gripping that opera can be. The audience is on stage at tables with the performers, so it feels very voyeuristic. Sometimes it’s incredibly raw. We had to add a parental advisory because it’s quite strong. Sometimes it’s very funny. The Toreador is done as a sort of bad lounge singer who does a whole comedy routine, and then all of a sudden you’re into scenes of great violence. In 80 minutes, it’s like being punched in the gut.

Peter Brook, the English director in the ’80s, did a very famous production called The Tragedy of Carmen that was for four singers, two actors, and an orchestra of, I think, 14. It was the first time anyone had the audacity to take one of these great warhorses and strip them bare. He returned to the rawness of the original novel that it’s based on, where Jose kills five people, and he’s really a serial killer, and it’s much darker. That toured the world for about a decade. It sort of changed the face of opera. What we did was take that score and that approach, and write an entirely new concept and new dialog, and set it inside a sort of underbelly Latin nightclub that is also a sex trafficking place and a place for various gendered pairings.

MW: Hence the warning.

NELSON: Yeah, exactly. It’s strong. I have to say, I’ve watched it now in rehearsals for quite a long time, and I wrote the piece — there are still moments when I have to look away.

MW: What’s next after Carmen?

NELSON: We do a festival of all living women composers, many of whom are local. That will be one weekend in March. It’s a gala concert, two different operas, and then two late-night cabarets. Then we end the season in April with a circus version of Rigoletto at the Atlas.

MW: This seems like a good time for a brief description of the In Series for those who are new or unfamiliar.

NELSON: Last year, we did a rebranding [with the] tagline, “Opera that speaks, and theater that sings,” which kind of says it all to me. Music, of course, allows an emotional connection that words can’t provide, and so we are able to go deeper than spoken theater, but the way we value dramatic integrity also allows us to go stronger than opera normally does.

MW: That speaks to the fundamental core of the organization. How would you say that translates into actual In Series shows?

NELSON: They’re so varied. Just look at this season. We did a version of Butterfly with a prepared piano. Then we did a version of The Tempest from the enslaved black perspective with the music of Billie Holiday. Then we went to a staged oratorio in a church, moving all around. And now we’re doing this really dark, immersive cabaret thing. Then we’re going to go to a circus Rigoletto. It’s just sort of all over the place. It’s really important to me that we’re nomadic and we choose spaces that fit the productions. When we do a circus, it’s going to feel like a circus. When we do a cabaret Carmen, it’s going to feel like you’re under a highway in a really seedy bar.

MW: Being nomadic too, that goes hand-in-hand with the idea of establishing strong partnerships and deepening ties to the community.

NELSON: Precisely. In a city like D.C., if you’re committed to being nomadic, you have a big problem. And unless you can form partnerships with institutions where it’s mutually beneficial to produce art in their spaces, there’s no way to do it.

MW: I know you’re especially proud of this season’s partnership with Foundry United Methodist Church for the staging Berlioz’s grand oratorio L’enfance du Christ. How did that go?

NELSON: That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and maybe the most rewarding at the same time. It was site-specific and immersive, in the sense that the audience moved with the performers around the entire space. It was very much a community project, so there were a lot of moving pieces. That was hard to coordinate.

We’ve done really well in terms of the press this year. Butterfly was maybe our most praised show ever, and Stormy Weather was a big success. With L’enfance, the comments weren’t just that it was good or that it was well-done, but people said and wrote in the reviews that they were changed. That it was transformative. For me, that’s the most meaningful feedback I could get. It made it all worth it to know that people had an experience that made them feel and think differently about how we offer hospitality to strangers.

MW: It humanized the issue of immigration.

NELSON: Yes. And it connected with the holy family as a migrant family, seeing violence and in need of hospitality, and that created a space that people could think of immigration in a different way. It was tied to Foundry’s social justice ministry, so after the performances, audiences went right into an action fair where they could learn how to participate in going to appointments with ICE agents to make sure that everyone’s accounted for when they leave, and how they can be part of finding housing for immigrants — [it] was this other thing that happened on the other end of the production that made the whole thing tie together beautifully.

MW: Is Carla Hűbner still involved?

NELSON: Carla is listed in all of our materials as Founder Emerita. On a contract basis, we bring her in as an advisor for the history of the organization, help with the fundraising, and then she’s sort of become a personal mentor to me. When I have fundamental, philosophical questions about programing, about what we’re doing as an organization, she and I meet for tea and have long conversations, where she does her beautiful abuela routine and calms me down.

MW: You didn’t know her before taking this job, did you?

NELSON: No, I didn’t know her at all. She’s amazing for many, many reasons, but what I most admire is she and I are very different in the way we approach programing and making art. She trusts me, and she respects me. She’ll give me her opinion, but then if I go a different direction, she always supports me, which rarely happens with a founder.

MW: Have you gotten any sort of concrete feedback from her about how she thinks the In Series has changed?

NELSON: Only in a sense of an acknowledgement that my priorities are different than hers. Oftentimes, she’ll express, and rightly so, skepticism about some of my more far-fetched ideas. That skepticism helps me to think about how I’m going to accomplish those ideas.

This group asked me to be on a panel about successful transitions, where I said, “I don’t know what made Carla and my transition successful except that I was compassionate to the fact that this was her baby and she was giving it to me. And that’s huge, and I need to respect that for a very long time.”

MW: I imagine that works to keep you from doing some things you might have pursued in another organization.

NELSON: Not in terms of programming, but in terms of messaging. It’s probably stopped me from being as much an enfant terrible as my gut wants me to be, and that’s probably for the best.

MW: You don’t want to ruffle too many feathers all at once.

NELSON: Right. I came of age in Baltimore, which is close, but a very different place. And it’s taken me time to learn D.C.’s audiences, and it has been a valuable lesson in realizing in what ways they’re a really great audience, in terms of how educated they are and how willing they are to build in a context to their experience with the art. But it’s also a very conservative town. Aesthetically.

MW: And your general approach is not exactly conservative.

NELSON: It is very much not conservative.

MW: Do you feel like you’re making progress with the organization? And is it shaping up as you hoped or expected?

NELSON: Unquestionably, it’s much harder than I thought it would be. I had this company of my own years ago — Baltimore’s American Opera Theater — and I left it and went to Europe, and I missed it every day for a decade and a half. I sort of naively felt coming back that this would be my dream job. It is my dream job, but that doesn’t mean it’s a dream. Right now, we’re doing a lot of art with too few resources and people. We’re building, we’re changing, we’re doing a huge cultural shift, and we’re really growing the organization, and that’s hard. I feel a little bit like I’m learning as I go in some aspects of that, and that’s scary. We do six shows a year with a full-time staff of three, which is insane. The fact that we’ve done them well is amazing, but it’s not sustainable. We need to figure out how to grow the administrative infrastructure so that we’re all not burning the candle at both ends, and that we’re able to do our best work because we have the freedom to be creative and the space to think of new ideas.

MW: How much have you planned next season?

NELSON: The season’s already planned. And it’ll mark a huge shift for us as an organization in terms of what we focus on.

MW: Can you offer a hint about what we can expect?

NELSON: Our entire next season is going to be focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion, with full representation of artists of color not only in our cast, but also in our creative teams, our staff, in our board. Part of that will come from starting a new program that I can’t announce yet, but we’ll be the first in the country to have such a program. And because it’s a first, it’s scary. No one’s done it before. We’re still trying to figure it out.

MW: It seems important here to state the obvious, the fact that you’re a white man.

NELSON: Yup. I am the uber-privileged of the uber-privileged in the opera world.

MW: How much does that fact impact the push for greater diversity in opera?

NELSON: It’s ongoing and evolving, the understanding of how one works as a white, male artist in a way that is making space for other perspectives and other stories, and how one learns to step out of the way when it’s necessary, and how one deals with privilege. Privilege, of course, in most cases isn’t a choice, but is a fact. I’m still wrestling with this. I haven’t figured out how, but I feel bound and obliged to make my work about providing, in whatever small way, some remedy for the extraordinary amount of privilege I have.

MW: Where were you born?

NELSON: West Virginia. I grew up in Southwest Virginia, but my mom’s from Baltimore, and I would spend summers there. Then I went for my undergrad in Baltimore, and lived there for about a decade. I studied composition at Peabody. I wanted to be a composer from the time I was eight.

MW: Did you sing or have any desire to perform?

NELSON: I was a gay boy — I played Winthrop Paroo in The Music Man in the sixth grade, but I wasn’t a particularly good actor. Classical music and especially composing is a very solitary way of working. It provided a refuge for what it was to grow up as an effeminate gay boy in rural Appalachia. I think that’s probably why, at such a young age, I knew classical music was a safe space for me. It was something I could do that no one else could do, and it kept me safe from the schoolyard bullies. It was a way for me to take pride in myself when I couldn’t dribble a basketball, or was afraid to take my shirt off in PE and things like that. It gave me a space where I felt I had control. It was some place that I could turn at the end of a school day to find solace.

Timothy Nelson — Photo: Todd Franson

MW: When did you come out?

NELSON: My senior year of high school.

MW: What gave you the courage to come out at that age, in that time, and in West Virginia?

NELSON: Well, I fell out. My parents found something that I hadn’t intended them to find.

MW: How did they react?

NELSON: It’s very strange. I’m very blessed to have the picturesque, nuclear family, and my parents have always been 100-percent supportive of this strange little being that did music. They’re both scientists. There’s not a musical bone in anyone’s body.

When I came out, they took it really hard, and they rejected me and kicked me out of the house. Within days, they were devastated by what they had done. I was living on my own. I thought, “This is great,” so I didn’t move back in. Our relationship was repaired within weeks, and they have always been beyond supportive since then.

MW: Where did you go?

NELSON: I had a girlfriend — but not a girlfriend, a friend — whose mother let me move in with them.

MW: How did you go from the Peabody in Baltimore to the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam?

NELSON: Oh, there’s always a man involved! At Peabody, I met my first husband. He was a baroque violinist, and we went to our master’s program — Indiana University in Bloomington, the one school that had a degree both in Opera Stage Direction and in Baroque Violin — for two years. Then he wanted to move to Europe, and rightly so, because there’s not enough work in America to be a baroque violinist. I thought that that’s what I wanted too. I thought I wanted the big, flashy European career. We moved first to Barcelona, and then we moved to Brussels. Then finally, we settled in Amsterdam, where I got a job running the National YoungArts program. Things happen. Thirteen years later, we split up. I had, for a long time, been feeling called to come back to America. America felt like home. I realized I didn’t want that big career. I actually wanted a company where I could do honest work. So I was just waiting for the right job. I made a lot of failed efforts to get the wrong jobs, and then this one came around.

MW: Before the move, you first lived in London for two years.

NELSON: Where I met a boy! I was doing a production for English Touring Opera and I met my now-husband, who’s Singaporean, but he studied in the U.K. and was an anesthesiologist in London. I convinced him to move to America, where he has to start his medical training all over again from scratch — he must really love me.

MW: The U.S. doesn’t accept British credentials?

NELSON: America’s the only country that won’t accept it. It’ll take him two years to do tests that allow him not to have to do medical school again, but then he’ll have to do residency again, so it’ll be six years before he’s accredited again.

MW: How long have you been together?

NELSON: Three years, and we got married one year ago.

MW: Is he a fan of opera?

NELSON: Yes. We were at a party and we were introduced to each other because the person knew we both liked opera. It turns out we have very different tastes in opera, or we did then. I’ve sort of brought him over to the dark side, and he is the most loyal. He comes to every rehearsal, he comes to every performance. He’s one of the most essential members of the In Series family.

MW: Do you consider yourself a whole-hearted opera aficionado today?

NELSON: That’s a tricky question. I like to say that I hate opera, but what I really mean is I believe with all my being in the potential of opera to make the world better. I hate what most opera production is, the triviality of it. It is elitist, it is removed from the important conversations that need to be happening, when it could be the tool for open spaces for those conversations. I very rarely go to the opera. I almost never stay for the entire performance, because it hurts me to see opera fail so bad at what it should be doing.

MW: What makes an opera “fail”?

NELSON: I’m talking about the artistic quality. I’m talking about valuing the things that aren’t important over a chance to really connect with an audience member and change their lives.

MW: Can you elaborate?

NELSON: Oh, you’re going to get me in trouble. Let me think. If I found a tremendously powerful, moving artist of color who could actually sing Verdi’s Otello, I would recognize that as an opportunity in the age of Black Lives Matter to have a real conversation with a piece that is about race. To not design a production for that artist that talks about those issues, I find to be offensive.

In opera, it’s still all right to do — I’m not going to name the company, but a local company — [Bizet’s] The Pearl Fishers and have a bunch of white people dressed up as some fettishized, Western idea of what a Hindu looks like, but with projections of the Buddha. That would not be permitted in any other art form. In opera, it goes without comment.

Because I love opera, and because I think it has the potential to fix these problems, to see it so willfully ignore its role in being a solution, or part of the solution, I find it really hard to bear.

MW: You have such passion and drive for involving and engaging the community in your work. Do you know where that came from?

NELSON: When I got into directing opera, I wanted to make shows. Somewhere along the line, I got exposed to the work of Peter Sellars. And by chance, I met him, and he became my mentor. What I learned from him is this principle that art which is unconcerned with justice is vulgar, it’s obscene. That’s a guiding principle in my work that came from him directly.

MW: When did you pick that up, in college?

NELSON: It was after I’d finished my undergrad. I went out to Santa Fe Opera, and he was doing an opera there. It’s hard to describe. He’s one of these guru people that when you meet him, your life can be changed, and mine was. At least my artistic life — the sort of waking up moment, that realizing your art can mean more. It doesn’t have to be just about putting on a show. It can be about making your community better.

MW: There are limits and exceptions to such a principle.

NELSON: Absolutely. One of the tough things about being an artist is, when there is a blight on the community, either a tragedy or a trauma or even just chronic poverty, you think, “And I’m here making art.” That’s something artists wrestle with every day. Everyone has to come to their own conclusion on that. For me, personally, I needed something more concrete than, “I know art makes the world better.” I needed to be able to see a direct line between the issues I tackle with my art and what’s going on outside the theater doors. That’s not right, nor should it be, for everyone.

Also, some of my most successful shows, even to this day, were the ones I did in the early days. But to me, they’re the most meaningless. They were well-done shows, but they weren’t about anything. It took me a while to learn that I wasn’t happy unless I was doing shows that I had a spiritual and emotional connection to.

Now I have a platform to do work that I’ve wanted to do for almost two decades. L’enfance du Christ was something I wanted to do when the Darfur crisis hit the public consciousness, and I just didn’t have the resources to do it then. Having those opportunities now and seeing the impact they have just encourages one to go further.

Le Cabaret de Carmen runs weekends to Jan. 19 at the Source, 1835 14th St. NW. Many shows are sold out, with remaining tickets $21 to $46. Call 202-204-7760 or visit www.inseries.org.

Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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