First Person Singular: Wolf Trap Opera Company director Kim Pensinger Witman

Kim Pensinger Witman; Director of Wolf Trap Opera
Name: Kim Pensinger Witman
Occupation: Wolf Trap Opera Company director
Home: Vienna | Age: 52 (Benjamin C. Tankersley)
  Enlarge Photo    
Sunday, March 21, 2010

Unlike most people in this business, I didn't grow up in it. I grew up in a tiny, tiny, little town in Pennsylvania. No public radio station. No community theater. No opera, for sure. But I'd played piano all my life -- that was accessible. I majored in music therapy and was working as a therapist at a hospital when my husband, a music educator, and I decided we wanted to go to graduate school. When we got to Catholic University, the person who was supposed to play piano for the graduate opera program didn't show up at the last minute. So, as you can only do when in your 20s, I said, "Sure, I can do it." I had very few of the technical skills one should have had and a lot of chutzpah. I could read almost anything anyone put in front of me, knew Italian and French, and they were offering full tuition, so I just went for it. I had never been to a single opera -- they didn't ask, and I wasn't about to tell them. The first opera I saw was the first opera I worked on, and I saw it from behind the stage.

Coming from the outside is a big part of who I am in this business, because I still can and often do feel intimidated and shut out by it. This business can feel like a closed culture, like a private club. When I got my first job, I was close to 30 years old, and I was working with people who'd been listening to the Met since they were 5. That's why my driving force has been to make sure people get the fact that this can be your thing if you want it to be.

In trying to demystify opera, it's all about taking away barriers. And knowing that it's still not going to be for everybody -- and neither is wrestling or gourmet cooking. But it's stupid to put up barriers that don't let people discover which ones are for them. The other argument is that anything worth doing this well should have that level of insider cult. It's like comic books or baseball stats. So many opera people are like that. We're not trying to take that away. When we try to make it for everyone, then it becomes nothing. Look, it's not a sitcom, so why put it on the side of the bus? Tell it like it is; let people choose. Let it be crazy. Let it be eccentric. Let it be: Oh, my God, I've never seen anything like this before.

Interview by Amanda Long

© 2010 The Washington Post Company