Chapter 4 – Imposter Syndrome

For context on this post, go here.

I took over as General Director of Wolf Trap Opera in 1997. When my predecessor was planning to leave to run the young artist program at the Met, he mentioned that I might want to look into taking this job. I said, “What are you, nuts?” (Well, actually I used another adjective, but this is a professional blog:)

A few months later, the job wasn’t filled yet, so I applied. My kids were both in school, and the itinerant musician hours were (as many of you no doubt know) a spectacularly bad fit with my children’s school hours. I actually got passed over for the job the first time, but was offered it after the first choice applicant decided not to take it.

Nice set-up for Imposter Syndrome. I’ve had it all my life – as a musician, as an administrator, as a parent. But the summer of 1998, it was in full bloom.

The fall 1997 audition store unearthed some nice Mozart and Rossini talent, and my first WTOC season behind a desk was fairly conservative: Così, Abduction, and Barber. (I still my first irate patron letter, entitled “Lack of Imagination.”) In retrospect, there was much to be proud of in my maiden outing as an administrator, but at the time I was convinced I’d be exposed as a complete imposter and dragged out of the theatre by my hair.

This was my visual Così. As a coach, I had been more involved in the dramaturgical and character-based aspects of opera than a lot of my musician colleagues. But design? Talk about culture shock. The first few years of my administrative life were spent educating myself on the side of the business that I had largely avoided as a coach – the visual side. Costumes, sets, lights. Damn.

I think I got into the whole multiple intelligence thing because I was frustrated with the way so much of our culture is visually-based. Voice teachers, coaches, even my therapist colleagues back in the day – they were all so fond of using visual imagination as a springboard to relaxation, imagination, and discovery. But here’s the rub. I never really learned how to see.

Somehow I see with my subconscious. I must notice things, for I rely on so many cues that can only be gleaned by seeing. But I have a serious lack of ability to call on my visual intelligence in any predictable or helpful way. Wanna see me break into a sweat? Open a ground plan on my desk. Just the thought of it makes me need to breathe deeply.

Over time, I’ve convinced myself that this flaw isn’t fatal. Complete knowledge and disclosure goes a long way. And I continue to educate my eye. I try to hire people I trust to make the technical theatre decisions. And lately, I’m learning that my instincts are really not all that bad. It’s just that I have trouble articulating them.

Up next, the final chapter (for now): Let Me Tell You a Story.

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