Conversation with James Meena

Opera Carolina's Maestro James Meena

Opera Carolina's Maestro James Meena

Opera to some can seem like, well, a foreign language. But at its best, the music is able to transcend many cultures and tastes. Maestro James Meena, general director and principal conductor of Opera Carolina, thinks about that when he's selecting operas for his company to perform. Meena, who came to Charlotte in 2001, is largely responsible for increasing Opera Carolina's audiences, both in size and diversity. They're performing the popular Aida through February 3.


When did your love for opera begin?
I remember in high school my sister had a recording of La Boheme. I used to think she was crazy. This was in the 1960s. We were listening to everything but classical music. In high school I woke up one day and realized I loved classical music. It appealed to me. I decided to study music. And I now own that recording of La Boheme that my sister used to listen to.

How would you describe an Opera Carolina performance to someone who's never been?
For people who've never been, there are all the stereotypes of opera. They think of the cultural elite in diamonds and furs listening to overweight singers, and here that's just not the case. The singers are mostly young, attractive people who are excellent actors. They look the part, they act the part. We use projected titles when we do operas in a foreign language so people can follow the story. Going to the opera is such a great experience—to be in the Belk Theater, to hear live music that's not amplified with a full symphony orchestra. Opera is kind of like musical theater on steroids. Everything is bigger. The music is bigger, the singing is bigger, the sets are even bigger.

How do you select which operas to perform each season?
It's a pretty long process. We schedule two years in advance. First of all, there's a quarterly repertoire we know we're going to perform. There are pieces we know people will want to see, and we try to balance that with something new and unusual. We try to not let the rep get stale. We won't perform Carmen every year or other year. Maybe every eight to ten years.

What is your favorite performance?
Operas are kind of like my children. You don't like to favor any of them. There are some I have a particular affinity for. I love the ones that are based on Shakespeare because I have a love for Shakespeare. They've got the strength of great literature behind them as well as great music.

Tell me about Aida.
Aida is one of my favorite operas. It has everything in it. Everything is enormous. We have animals and dancers and musicians on stage. It's everything you can think of thrown into a production. In one way it's a nightmare because there are so many people involved. It'll have 250 to 300 people working and performing, so managing that kind of production is a challenge to say the least. We're not a traveling road show. We're not produced out of New York, traveling around. We're a local company and we use local singers. We do import some principals, but the rest [of the cast] for Aida will be from the Charlotte area.