Paul Kellogg at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, NY
Paul Kellog • Image courtesy of Glimmerglass Festival

“Somehow, after all, as the universe ebbs towards its final equilibrium in the featureless heat bath of maximum entropy, it manages to create interesting structures,” wrote James Gleick in his popular exploration of chaos theory. Nature’s natural tendency is to form patterns. Conversely, the universe teems with randomness and dissipation. “But randomness with direction can produce surprising complexity.” Dissipation, too, could form a pattern. 

I was reminded of that passage from Gleick last night when my father-in-law, a former member of the Glimmerglass Festival’s board of trustees, texted my husband to let us know that Paul Kellogg had died. From 1979 to 2006, Paul had been the general and artistic director of Glimmerglass, transforming it from a sleepy and somewhat slipshod summer festival in upstate New York to an operatic destination. While maintaining that role, he also held the position of general manager and artistic director of New York City Opera between 1996 and 2007. 

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It was in that context that I first encountered Paul’s work. He had made the company into a haven for misfits and radicals, a sharp contrast to its neighbor, the stiff and stuffy Metropolitan Opera (at the time still under the leadership of Joseph Volpe). While flailing as a playwriting major at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, I would often walk next door to the New York State Theater and buy a student ticket for whatever City Opera was performing that evening, as though it were a one-screen cinema. 

Productions originated in Cooperstown were then imported to Manhattan; the shoestring nature of both companies necessitated a sort of asceticism that became its own aesthetic: What was the central impulse that had led Mozart to compose “Così fan tutte” or Handel to write “Orlando,” and how do we make that impulse come alive as if for the first time? As dramaturg David J. Levin wrote in Unsettling Opera, “Any production can unsettle opinions that had become settled.” Paul gave his directors and designers a hall pass to unsettle. 

Canon was a slippery concept for Paul, both in terms of the works themselves and how they were produced. In 2009, when the Met premiered a new “Tosca” that retired Zeffirelli’s old production, much was made over the fact that director Luc Bondy did not follow Puccini’s stage direction for Tosca, after killing Scarpia, to place two candlesticks next to the body. No such uproar happened when New York City Opera’s 1998 production dispensed with the same tradition, through Mark Lamos’s staging of the work (which updated the action to fascist Italy, equal parts Bertolucci and Rossellini, questioning the nature of politics and power). 

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For whatever value canon had in Paul’s life, it seemed to be in the contrapuntal sense of the word; endlessly iterating with curiosity and wonder. Lamos’s later staging for City Opera, of Mozart’s “La finta giardiniera,” was actually his second iteration under Paul’s direction. He had helmed a more “traditional” staging of the work, one that was inspired by Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, for Glimmerglass in the ’90s, however this staging was not the standard import from upstate. Instead, Lamos had made a second run at the work, which was written when Mozart was just 18 but carrying the strands of DNA that would populate later works like “Don Giovanni.” This staging placed the action in a mental hospital. Anthony E. Cantrell, who devoted his entire doctoral dissertation to this production, explains of the concept: 

“Madness was not employed in this opera as a metaphor in the sense of feeling crazy or acting crazy—people, indeed, go mad. Lamos felt that, ‘Mozart was grappling with the energy of emotion,’ the kind of emotion that progresses from rationality to irrationality to psychosis. It is not surprising that love is the culprit and catalyst for this tremendous release of energy that literally disrupts the characters in the opera.”

For me, watching the final product at 18, it was a revelation. In a cultural economy where even Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio” can be hit or miss, Paul greenlit not one but two productions of the work, at two different houses, from the same director. As a leader, it was a remarkable act of faith in both art and those who made it. 

Part of this must have stemmed from Paul’s background, which was neither in business nor music, but in comparative literature. On paper, he seemed like a character fashioned by Donna Tartt: an Angeleno by birth whose parents worked in music and Hollywood who became a resident of Cooperstown after his artist partner (later husband) Raymond Han was hired to do sets for Glimmerglass. I picture Paul, equal parts John Berger and Cary Grant, arriving in the farmlands of upstate New York in 1975 with a closet full of bowties and the fits and starts of a novel. Four years later, he was hired to run Glimmerglass. He had no prior experience running an opera company, but the talmudic nature of comp lit is designed to make complex structures out of the entropy of human expression. What is opera if not the same task?

Paul fostered a complex network of connections. He established patterns out of randomness, looking beyond the usual suspects for repertoire, and bringing in directors and designers like Simon Callow, Jonathan Miller, John Conklin, and Martha Clarke to bring them to life as though for the first time. A vestigial bit of stage direction was nothing compared to vision. 

Inspired by this, I eventually dropped out of Fordham and pivoted to studying the business of opera, first in Italy, and then, moving back to New York, as an intern at City Opera in the summer of 2006. I wanted to be Paul Kellogg when I grew up. As it happened, that summer was his last at both New York City Opera and Glimmerglass. He would stay with the former company until the end of the 2006-07 season before retiring to his home in Cooperstown. Summers already meant that he would most likely be at Glimmerglass, but he would also in that time make the occasional drop-ins to City Opera’s subterranean offices.

He had the sort of soft-spoken charm found among absentminded professors, and often recognized people based on the minutest of associations. If Hannah Arendt praised the “life of the mind,” a tendency towards thinking versus knowing, of looking for meaning versus truth, then Paul’s grand vision seemed to be a theater of the mind. We weren’t so much expected to believe that the ideal representation of an early Mozart work was an inpatient group therapy session. Theater, with the lifespan of a mayfly, was not a Rosetta Stone, but rather a thought experiment.  

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Soon, however, it became apparent that this was a quixotic endeavor, especially in the mid-aughts. One of the reasons that Paul had left City Opera when he did was its new board chair, former Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs executive Susan L. Baker. It became clear that her vision, full of consultants and micromanagement, was to make City Opera a theater of the economy rather than one of the mind. (If nothing else, however, I have Paul and my time at City Opera to thank for introducing me to my husband, who began interning there after my internship ended, encouraged in part by the summers he’d spent at Glimmerglass.) 

For a while, and especially after the 2008 recession, it seemed like Paul’s vision for what opera in the United States could be had given up the ghost. I’ve now come to regard that not as death, but as a dormancy. The periodic, even perennial deaths of opera—of any art form—are essential to its rebirth. This doesn’t mean cancelling Mozart or Puccini, but rather unsettling settled opinions about their works. The old fertilizes the new.

We had been living in an era short on fertile ground, but the chaos of 2020—from darkened houses to social and political upheaval—has led to greater contemplation. Some companies have already begun to return to a sense of curiosity and creativity over capitalism. One of the first that comes to mind is Michigan Opera Theatre, which appointed Yuval Sharon as its new artistic director last year and, more recently, announced that soprano Christine Goerke would serve as its associate artistic director.

Both Sharon and Goerke were with City Opera during the Kellogg era. Sharon ran VOX, the company’s series devoted to new work development. Goerke headlined one of the highlights of the Glimmerglass-NYCO partnerships, Gluck’s “Iphigénie en Tauride.” It’s by no means happenstance that the two are now coming together in Detroit; it’s simply randomness coupled with direction. 

That was the art at which Paul excelled.  ¶