There are few things promised in life. Of those, only two are certainties — death and change. Last year, the Kentucky Opera experienced both of these events in an instant.
With the sudden death of director David Roth, the opera was tossed into the cosmic cycle of life and forced to prepare for a change no one was expecting. This summer, the Kentucky Opera announced the hiring of a new general director, Ian Derrer. His first day on the job was Sept. 1.
Derrer, 41, comes to Louisville from the Dallas Opera, where he served as artistic administrator. He brings a lifetime of opera experience that began when he was a child growing up near Charlotte, N.C.
“My parents both sang in the opera chorus in what was then called Charlotte Opera Association but is now called Opera Carolina. They always had a love for singing,” says Derrer.
Having parents who were performers made Derrer’s own transition to the stage easier.
“Opera was always a part of my upbringing just because my parents were either always going to opera rehearsal or learning the choruses. Eventually, they just started taking me to rehearsals,” he says.
He sang in a children’s chorus and continued to hone his skills in high school. His stage family was like an extended family to him. It is where he fell in love with voice.
“I developed this love of singing, this love of singers,” he says. “I thought I wanted to be an opera singer myself.”
Derrer’s plan was to become a singer, but while completing work-study as a Southern Methodist University student, he had the chance to work in other aspects of opera production. One of his inspirations came from a trusted mentor who encouraged him to direct.
After spending some years filling his interests in other areas of the opera, Derrer decided to go to Northwestern University for a degree in opera production. He began singing again on the side.
“I was taking an elective class, and I had to sing this one day,” he explains. “The coach who was leading that class was sick, so his wife took over. His wife was famous mezzo-soprano Mignon Dunn. She said, ‘Honey you can direct when you’re old. You should be singing now.’”
Following her advice, Derrer moved to New York and took private lessons with Dunn. He ended up completing a master’s degree in arts administration, and, through an internship, he found himself at the New York City Opera as a rehearsal and music coordinator.
“Everything clicked, because I realized I knew enough about being on stage, I knew enough about what it’s like to be a singer, then also being a director or stage manager,” he says. “I realized I had a fairly unique perspective, and it served me very well.”
Before accepting the job with Kentucky Opera and working in Dallas, Derrer spent nine years at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. There he worked as director of production.
“People often ask me if I miss singing, and I say not at all. I know I made the right choice,” he says.
Derrer is ready for his role in Louisville. He went through several interviews for the position and fell under the spell of the city.
“It’s so warm and welcoming, it’s hard not to get swept away,” he says. “It’s special. It really is special.”
Running an opera in a city like Louisville presents Derrer and company with unique opportunities.
“The thing I’m excited about is that Louisville — because of its size, population, plus the cultural institutions — has a lot more flexibility than larger companies in larger cities,” he explains. “It seems not only what the opera is going to do but what the orchestra and the ballet are already responding to is a big interest in culture at the moment.”
Derrer was raised in a family of educators and wants to be sure Kentucky Opera is educating its patrons as well as the public and potential new subscribers about opera. He feels that, in the future, an integral part of introducing new operas to the city requires that the company fulfill its duty to educate alongside the entertainment.
“I come from a lot of teachers, so it’s important we set the stage properly,” he says.
Outside of the opera, Derrer can be found in the kitchen or on a driving range. And he says he’s excited about the Louisville food culture and plethora of golf greens.
“I want to see what’s relevant in this city itself,” he adds. “The Speed Museum is awesome. It’s so current and so energetic. I just want to make sure I’m absorbing. When I’m not working, I love to play golf. I love to cook and craft cocktails.”
Derrer seems like a good fit for the Kentucky Opera. He’s perceptive to the city and its ability to adapt and be flexible for the arts. He wants audiences to come to the opera with big expectations.
“I think some people come for the visual aspect and some come for the singing. The one thing I want to reiterate, I want people to feel like when they come to the opera, the singing is Olympian in nature. I want them to always be sure to take away that they saw singing they can’t encounter anywhere but in an opera house.”
First up in the Kentucky Opera’s 65th season is “Madame Butterfly,” which runs Friday, Sept. 23, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 25, at 2 p.m. at the Brown Theatre. Tickets start at $34.