The Opera Columbus leader is making the most snooty of art forms more inviting, more inclusive, more relevant and a lot more fun.

Editor’s note:  The coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of “The Poppea Project” in April. Opera Columbus hopes to reschedule, but no new date has been announced yet.

It’s 6 p.m. on a Wednesday evening, and the cast of Opera Columbus’ “The Barber of Seville” is rehearsing in the basement of the Ohio Theatre. Taped lines on the floor mark out the features of the planned set for the show, and props are scattered around the room: a plastic trophy, a roll of police tape, large inflatable pool toys in the shape of sharks and alligators. The music director conducts an invisible orchestra while a rehearsal pianist plays the score. Seated in folding chairs along one wall of the cavernous room are a dozen opera donors and supporters, watching attentively, plastic cups of chardonnay in hand. 

In the center of the room, two of the principals in this 19th-century opera, one of the most beautiful and familiar works in the canon, are rehearsing a scene: the first meeting of Dr. Bartolo, the guardian of the young and wealthy Rosina, whom he secretly hopes to marry, and Count Almaviva, who loves Rosina and is trying to enter the house to court her, disguised as a soldier. “Aren’t you—Dr. Fartalo?” sings Almaviva. “Not Fartalo, not Fartalo!” the enraged doctor returns. “Dr. Bartolo!” 

“Oh, I get it now—Dr. Fartyho!”

The patrons laugh, some tentatively, at the unexpectedly silly joke. Does a fart joke belong in that most hoity-toity of art forms, opera? Peggy Kriha Dye doesn’t seem to have any reservations. Dressed stylishly as always in a clingy, striped dress and tall, shiny boots, the glamorous former diva—and now the CEO of the company—cracks up freely as she watches from a chair behind the director. A few minutes later, when a cast member improvises with the yellow “Police Line—Do Not Cross” tape, using it to wrap up Bartolo like a mummy, Kriha Dye doubles over with laughter. “Isn’t it fun?” she says. “Opera is FUN!”

“How lucky am I?” she adds, still smiling. “This is like lotion to me”—she pantomimes stroking her arm—“after a long day. Especially when nothing is going wrong!”

Which is not to say that nothing would go wrong. Between that rehearsal and opening night, Kriha Dye would have to replace the music director (for reasons she declined to disclose), and the stage manager fell into the pit, breaking three ribs. But the show must, and did, go on, playing to packed and wildly appreciative audiences Valentine’s Day weekend.

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“The Barber of Seville,” written by Rossini and first performed in 1816, is a comic opera, so humor is expected in any presentation. But this February production ratcheted up the comedy considerably, as well as the work’s accessibility. The setting was relocated from Spain to the small town of Seville, Florida, in the 1990s, with characters dressed not in corsets and wigs but tracksuits and crop tops. It was sung in English—a new translation written by the director, Mary Birnbaum, a highly regarded opera professional who teaches at Juilliard. Birnbaum, who says she worked carefully to align the comedy with the original libretto, steeped herself in ’90s pop culture to create a translation studded with words like “wack” and “dope” and “buggin’” and references lifted from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Saved By the Bell. The pastel-colored, neon-lit set was a mashup of Miami Vice and Polly Pocket, and the dance moves were straight out of an ’Nsync MTV video. At intermission, the winners of a glitter beard contest were announced from the stage and a member of the crew shot T-shirts into the audience from a handheld cannon like the ones they use at Buckeyes or Columbus Crew games.

But for all the gimmicks and hilarity, the show was artistically solid, with the musicians of ProMusica Chamber Orchestra in the pit and an ensemble cast that included several emerging stars, thanks in part to a unique partnership Kriha Dye has created with Juilliard, where each year a promising student is guaranteed a leading Opera Columbus role. This year, that Juilliard performer was Wenzhou, China, native Xiaomeng Zhang, who played the barber and matchmaker Figaro with goofy abandon and fine vocal chops, while Miles Mykkanen, Opera Columbus’ visiting Juilliard artist a few years back and one of five winners last year of the Metropolitan Opera’s prestigious National Council Auditions, raised the roof with his gift for physical comedy and his gorgeous singing. 

Indeed, what was perhaps more nontraditional about the show than the ’90s translation, the slapstick humor, or even the halftime show (whoops, intermission) was the diversity of the cast and the gender makeup of the creative team. Two of the eight principal singers in the opera were African American, a third was Chinese. And the entire creative team, except for the lighting director and the props master, was female. That diversity reflected the goals that Kriha Dye has developed over the course of her eight years at Opera Columbus: to embrace and support emerging talent, to be inclusive and to put opera on the radar of a younger and more diverse audience.
“There’s a lot of times where women and people of color get hired to do operas about women and people of color,” says Birnbaum. “This is not that opera. This is a standard rep opera. It’s great to be hired to do something that’s not actually about being a woman.”

For Opera Columbus, “The Barber of Seville” was the latest in a string of successes. An upcoming production, “The Poppea Project” (an ambitious collaboration with the Columbus Museum of Art, BalletMet 2—a second company within BalletMet that focuses on community outreach—and Fashion Week Columbus) slated for April, is also getting a lot of buzz. And this winter, for the first time in memory, the company began putting away money at the Columbus Foundation to seed a rainy day fund. It’s a far cry from 2011, just before Kriha Dye arrived, when the organization canceled an entire season. For Opera Columbus today, as well as for its energetic CEO, things are going very, very right.

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Before she was the CEO of Opera Columbus, Peggy Kriha Dye, now 50, was a successful opera singer, performing with major orchestras and opera companies around the world. And before that, she was a girl from Brainerd, Minnesota. One of four daughters of a painter and an engineer, she grew up sporty: tennis, swimming, dance line, figure skating. She sang in the school choir and started an a capella group. It was a suburban, Midwestern youth that involved pickup trucks and beer, debate club, school dances and Catholic church services every morning before school. She studied music education at St. Cloud State University, and it was not until her senior year—quite late in the opera world—that she discovered her talent for opera. At a summer program in New York, she met a celebrated vocal teacher who encouraged Kriha Dye to move to the city to study with her. 

Kriha Dye auditioned and won a full scholarship to Manhattan School of Music, and from there earned an invitation to study at Juilliard. “I remember making my Carnegie Hall debut,” she says, “going to the Met for coaching sessions, and the pressure and the hunger to make great music and not let your professors and your parents down.”

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What followed was a 25-year performance career that included a fellowship with the San Francisco Opera Company, where she originated the role of Stella in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” written and conducted by Andre Previn, later reprising her performance with the Pittsburgh Symphony, as well as appearances at the Washington National Opera, the Royal Opera House of Versailles, the Shanghai Opera House and the Glimmerglass Festival. 

Mireille Asselin, a soprano from Toronto who was first mentored by Kriha Dye and then performed alongside her many times, says Kriha Dye was not only a great singer but a “magical” presence on the stage. Asselin, who will join Opera Columbus as Poppea in “The Poppea Project,” describes a 2017 performance in Versailles of Charpentier’s “Medea” in which Kriha Dye played the Greek enchantress and Asselin the princess who had won the heart of Medea’s lover. During their climactic confrontation, Asselin says, “I’m pleading for something and she … unleashes her anger. And knowing Peggy as this joyful, positive, giving, generous human being and then seeing that switch in her eyes … it felt like she turned into a different human. It was so shocking and visceral—it almost took me out of my own character, I was so much in awe of what she was doing in front of my eyes.” 

Kriha Dye and her then-husband Matthew Dye, a musician and minister, lived outside Manhattan, and she traveled often for roles, dialing back to a couple of shows a year when daughter Annie was born in 2000, followed by the arrival of Nick several years later. The children sometimes traveled with her. In 2006, Matthew’s job moved the family to Columbus. Both children are musical: Nick is a sophomore at Teays Valley High School, playing snare drum in the band; Annie is a freshman at the University of Louisville, where she is studying vocal performance. 

In 2011, Kriha Dye was performing the role of Elvira in a Toronto production of “Don Giovanni” when Opera Columbus hired the company, Opera Atelier, to bring the show to the Southern. Since she was local, Kriha Dye agreed to help round up a chorus for the production. 

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At the time, Opera Columbus was fighting for its life. Strapped for cash after years of declining revenue exacerbated by a recession that affected both gifts and ticket sales, the board earlier that year had let go the executive director and slashed the staff, canceled the planned fall season and taken shelter under the wings of CAPA, which agreed to provide space, management expertise and back-office operations, just as it had and still does for many other Central Ohio arts groups. Bill Conner, the much-admired CAPA director who died of cancer in 2016, was managing the opera himself.

It was not the only U.S. opera company that was struggling. The recession had wreaked havoc on the performing arts in America, with sponsorships drying up and anxious or broke consumers staying home in droves. According to a National Endowment for the Arts study, classical music audiences declined by nearly a third between 1980 and 2008, and dropped another 5 percent from 2008–2012. 

Amid all that, opera was, perhaps, uniquely challenged. Long the domain of wealthy elites in New York and a few other cities, it has a stuffy, traditionalist image; a style of singing that is unfamiliar to generations raised on pop music; a canon of works with archaic plots, sung in foreign languages; and extraordinarily high production costs.

Kriha Dye signed on with Opera Columbus at first to do education and community outreach. As Conner began to regroup, he sought her help in finding productions to bring to Columbus. Before long, she was named general manager, then artistic director, then general and artistic director. She continued to travel and perform periodically throughout that time, but last fall, Kriha Dye announced she was retiring from singing to devote her time to Opera Columbus. In January, she was named CEO.

“Once I was able to be the lead executive,” she says, “it gave me a lot of freedom to reshape the company into what I really wanted it to be.”

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What she wanted it to be, Kriha Dye says, was uniquely bound up with sea changes that were occurring in her own life. During that same period, she got divorced (she remains on good terms with her ex), grappled with and cast off a conservative religious bent and fell in love with an older African American man, Jordan Miller, the retired regional president of Fifth Third Bank, who moved her with stories about attending movies in segregated theaters in Columbus as a child and later, as a young professional, being mistaken for a chauffeur. She also learned that her daughter Annie is gay.

During a recent interview in the family living room, Annie talks easily about her coming-out moment. “I’ve watched my mom become a good listener.” She turns to her mother. “Not that you weren’t before—but on a deeper level. You want everyone to feel loved.”

“The biggest impact,” says Kriha Dye, “was learning how oblivious I was to what she needed. … I wish I could have been a good listener when she was 7. 

“Now I’m very aware that things are not what they appear. For everyone on earth.”

Annie sees the results of that awareness in her mother’s recent work. “You can go to Opera Columbus,” she says, “to feel loved.”

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Working with Doug McIntyre of Cult Marketing, Kriha Dye adopted a theme for the opera: “Make It Yours.” “For many generations, the drama, thrill, and exhilaration of opera has been the exclusive domain of too few,” runs the website copy. “At Opera Columbus … we are creating an open, innovative, fun, and unexpected form of entertainment that reflects the young, vibrant, and diverse city in which we live and play. Tweet, hoot, clap, and enjoy the show in your own personal way. … Go ahead, no one here will judge you. MAKE IT YOURS.” The changes were “not without friction,” says Kriha Dye, who acknowledges that the organization has lost board members who did not like the move away from traditional opera.

Kriha Dye does a “curtain speech” before each show, in which she encourages the audience to get comfortable and make noise. “One of the most terrible things at many performances,” says Christopher Purdy, classical music host at WOSU Radio, “is when someone comes out before the show and talks for 20 minutes. ‘Hi, welcome,’ and so on. Peggy does that for 10 minutes, and it’s wonderful. You want her to go on longer, because she’s so connected with enthusiasm to what she is doing. That in itself is a wonderful sales tool.”

“She’s magnetic,” says board president Bill Miller, who has been on the Opera Columbus board for 15 years. “She draws people to her—which is really important, in that role, to have someone with that energy level to inspire not just the board, but the staff and the fans.”

The 2014 season was the first time Opera Columbus produced all its shows locally, rather than bringing in touring productions. One notable event was the first “Twisted” production, an all-new work featuring performers from Opera Columbus, the Columbus Symphony and BalletMet. From a marketing perspective, it was a sound strategy that allowed the groups to tap one another’s audiences. But BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang says it was more than that. “I truly believe that we are all in the same conversation,” he says. “We serve at the pleasure of the city that we reside in. We belong to the community—the community that benefits and supports us. … So with that in mind, I think more is more. To be able to cross-pollinate with each other and not be in competition and not be in this mindset of feast or famine is amazing.” The successful collaboration was repeated in 2016 and 2019.

The seasons that followed featured a range of experiments and collaborations: a production of “Armide” with Kriha Dye herself in a leading role; an “Orphée et Euridice” featuring an aerialist who sang while dangling from the ceiling and a choir made up of volunteers around the world who videotaped themselves singing; flash mob performances at Easton, the North Market and the Refectory. They gave away buttons at their shows: “Opera doesn’t suck.” “I wanted opera to be seen as so much more than loud singing on a stage,” Kriha Dye says.

In 2018, Opera Columbus experienced another first: the premiere of a commissioned work, “The Flood,” created in collaboration with ProMusica and telling a story based in Columbus history. In it, four dramas spanning a century unfolded simultaneously on the stage, illustrating how pain and suffering can be passed down across generations and social classes in the wake of a trauma—the Franklinton flood of 1913. With music by local artist Korine Fujiwara and a libretto by Juilliard’s Stephen Wadsworth, the commission was a hugely ambitious undertaking, and perhaps more than anything else Opera Columbus had done, it made opera fans both locally and nationally take notice. The opera critic from The Wall Street Journal attended a performance and, in her review, called it “a remarkably sophisticated piece of storytelling.” In the wake of the production, Kriha Dye was named to the board of trustees of Opera America. Recently, the group chose her as one of three women to mentor female opera leaders across the U.S.

ProMusica CEO Janet Chen, who conceived “The Flood” with Kriha Dye over coffee almost four years before it premiered, calls the joint effort a uniquely rewarding project. “Peggy really shined,” she says. “She always made sure that she and I were making decisions together—and that’s really important in a leader, especially for something of this caliber. 

“This wouldn’t have happened without her grit and grace.” 

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For all the recent successes, Kriha Dye says the current season feels like Opera Columbus is really hitting its stride. The board, once filled with corporate leaders and traditional opera lovers, has been expanded to incorporate younger members who bring other diverse perspectives to the organization. The group’s community outreach programs are growing, including, this month, a performance at the Lincoln Theatre of “The Journey,” a musical history of the civil rights movement written by Opera Columbus’ education and outreach director, Destiny Coleman, and showcasing local choirs, dance groups, singers and spoken word artists. 

In the same spirit of community engagement, to accompany last fall’s presentation of “As One,” a contemporary opera about a transgender woman, Opera Columbus commissioned a short film about six transgender Columbus residents, which was presented after the show. The annual Opera Columbus Asks community luncheon was dedicated to a conversation about the question, “how can the arts make Columbus a more inclusive community?”, and proceeds were donated to Kaleidoscope, a drop-in center for LGBTQ youth. 

In June, Opera Columbus will present drag performer Nina West on the stage of the Southern. What kind of show will that be? “It’s a Nina West show. Thoroughly,” says Kriha Dye. “Nina has been honored by the city and so many organizations, and I feel like her image is used a lot. But she’s not featured a lot, and I thought, how better to show our support than to make this statement: an opera company is going to present you, with all the toys of the theater, in the glory of the Southern Theatre.”

Kriha Dye pauses. “I’m getting a little emosh,” she admits.

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This April, Kriha Dye will take on a new challenge: directing. The idea for “The Poppea Project” came to her during a trip to New York more than two years ago. With a free afternoon, Kriha Dye went to see “Sleep No More,” an immersive, off-Broadway show that takes place in a six-story space dubbed the “McKittrick Hotel.” The audience roams the site, watching scenes unfold and following actors from room to room. Kriha Dye was entranced.

“I was like, ‘How can we make this an opera?’” she recalls. She walked the streets of midtown Manhattan for a while, her mind churning, then went into a bar—she doesn’t even remember which one, she was so focused—and began to scribble. She stayed there for the rest of the afternoon and the evening, and a rough plan emerged.

Kriha Dye selected a baroque Italian opera, Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea.” It’s the story of Nero and his adulterous lover, Poppea, who ultimately triumphs and becomes empress. Traditional opera patrons, says Kriha Dye, are less unsettled by experimentation with older, less familiar works. The three-hour opera will be presented in an hour, with different sections performed simultaneously on all three floors of the Columbus Museum of Art’s Pizzuti Collection, which has signed on as a partner and is providing artworks Kriha Dye has selected to form a kind of backdrop. Couture costumes are being created by Gerardo Encinas of Columbus Fashion Week. Audience members, wearing masks, will be invited to construct their own experience, moving through the galleries in whatever order they choose while a ticker near the entrance announces events (“Murder in Gallery Three!”). Tickets for 10 performances (two per night) will be priced at $30.

“I’m overwhelmed; it’s a beast,” she says in an early March interview. “I’m a little anxious about being able to keep my head above water. But I always do.”

Last August, Kriha Dye held a planning workshop at the Pizzuti Collection. Ohio State drama students served as stand-ins for the performers, working out the timing of such actions as dragging a body from one room to the next while assistants with laptops listened to the music through headphones, delivering cues.

Near the end of the workshop, Kriha Dye grabbed some props that she had brought along. Eager to test how 
Poppea’s long train would work on the stairs of the Pizzuti Collection, Kriha Dye, carrying a bouquet and wearing a flowing veil over her sneakers and jeans, mounted the steps and ascended toward her coronation. 

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