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Originally published June 19, 2013 at 3:20 PM | Page modified June 19, 2013 at 10:55 PM

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‘Wonderful theatrical experience’ key, says new Seattle Opera leader

Aidan Lang, director of New Zealand Opera, will become general director of the Seattle Opera in September 2014, after the retirement of longtime general director Speight Jenkins.

Seattle Times arts writer

About Seattle Opera

Founded: 1963

General directors: Glynn Ross, 1963-83; Speight Jenkins, 1983-2014; Aidan Lang, director-designate.

Attendance: Paid tickets to McCaw Hall performances average 90,000-100,000 per season.

Annual budget: 2011-12 operating expenses: $21.6 million.

Staff: 73 full-time employees; 541 part-timers; 261 volunteers

Milestones: First North American company, other than the Metropolitan Opera, to stage Richard Wagner’s four-part “Ring” cycle in its entirety; has presented all 10 major Wagner operas; put on a live, free HD simulcast of opening night of “Madama Butterfly” at KeyArena; has premiered at least five new operas.

Famous faces: Notable names that have appeared with the opera include Renée Fleming, Beverly Sills, Richard Cassilly, Joan Sutherland and Bette Midler.

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The two-year search has come to an end.

On Sept. 1, 2014, after current general director Speight Jenkins retires, Aidan Lang, director of New Zealand Opera, will become the new general director of Seattle Opera. He’ll be on the job earlier, though: Starting March 10, 2014, Lang will work alongside Jenkins as general director designate.

In town this week for the big announcement, in a suite high up in the Grand Hyatt, Lang came across as gregarious and energetic.

Born in London in 1957, he studied clarinet from age 8 and began going to operas at about age 12.

It was only at the University of Birmingham, where he encountered the work of Welsh National Opera (WNO), that his path in music became clear. He was studying English and drama at the time, and WNO’s productions, with their emphasis on opera-as-theater, appealed to him so much that he went to work for the company, where he could blend his love of opera with his theater skills.

That combination, says Seattle Opera Board Chairman John Nesholm, was key in offering Lang the job: “He has a great sense of the theater and a great sense of music.”

Lang went on to direct operas around the world while moving into leadership roles with artistic organizations in England, including the adventurous, respected Glyndebourne Festival Opera, known for nurturing young singers and outstanding educational programs.

He was the inaugural artistic director of Opera Zuid in the Netherlands, which began as a small, provincial project and grew to a fully government-funded company, producing familiar and unfamiliar works with a “mission to make opera for everybody.”

The peak of his directorial career may have been a production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle in Manaus, Brazil — the first time it was staged in that country. The “Ring” also played a role in luring him to Seattle Opera, which is renowned for its productions of the four-part Wagnerian cycle. (Performances begin in Seattle on Aug. 4.)

New Zealand Opera is a relatively new organization, created in 2000 by the merger of opera companies in Auckland and Wellington. In August, Christchurch’s Southern Opera, on hiatus since 2010 because of earthquake damage, will merge with NZO and become its third home base.

Running and building up New Zealand Opera as a national company, Lang emphasizes, has meant being hands-on with every department. That experience, he hopes, has prepared him for taking over a larger company that presents an entirely different institutional picture.

While most big international arts companies rely heavily on government aid, American organizations depend on ticket sales, grants and donations. The Opera’s heavy reliance on private fundraising doesn’t daunt him: “Actually, I really enjoy it because you’re talking with people who are passionate about it. No one’s going to be a donor if they’re not at least interested in hearing what you have to say.”

Jenkins has already planned the Opera’s 2014-15 season. Lang will work with him in planning 2015-16, and will be in sole charge of 2016-17 program planning. So far, Lang has found few “important operas by important composers” that haven’t been staged here over the past 50 years. One exception may be Benjamin Britten’s operas, which he feels have been underrepresented.

“They are tremendous pieces of theater,” he says, “and that’s very much where I come from — giving a wonderful theatrical experience to the audiences.”

“Theatrical,” to Lang, can also mean projects with a sense of humor. He’s acquainted with Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords through McKenzie’s mother, Deirdre Tarrant, a prominent New Zealand dancer. New Zealand Opera, at one point, hoped to get the Conchords to collaborate on a project titled “Rugaletto” (“trying to combine rugby and opera”), but the duo was “just too busy.”

Maybe in Seattle?

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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