For 3 1/2 years, Michael Heaston, 37, has been an artistic power behind the throne at the Washington National Opera, running the Domingo-Cafritz program and the American Opera Initiative, and providing input on coaching and musical decisions throughout the company as adviser to the artistic director, Francesca Zambello. He’s also played the same role at Glimmerglass, where he has worked for the past 11 seasons, having gone straight from participating in the company’s young-artist program to running it.
This week comes the unexpected but not surprising news that Heaston is making the leap to an even larger arena: As of this month, he has started in an advisory capacity as executive director of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, and will take over the position full time Aug. 29, when this year’s Glimmerglass Festival is over.
“This was an extremely difficult decision,” Heaston said by phone from the Kennedy Center on Friday afternoon, “probably the most I’ve agonized over a career decision.”
On some level, of course, there’s no contest. Heaston will be going to run the young-artist program of the largest opera company in America, working closely with James Levine, who, as the Met’s music director emeritus, remains the music director of the program he started in 1980, and will continue to take an active role.
“He and I had a fantastic meeting a couple of weeks ago,” Heaston says, “about two hours in length. A great conversation about many things, music and artists and the future of how we train young artists. It was awe-inspiring.”
But in Washington and Glimmerglass, Heaston has worked closely with Zambello, whom he considers “a mentor and friend, first and foremost,” and whom he also calls “visionary” and “inspiring.” He’s also been able to keep his hands in most of the company’s musical pies. “I’ve been lucky,” he says, “to have had such a breadth of opportunity here.”
The job came together within a few weeks, Heaston says. Brian Zeger, who has been running the program, will be taking on an additional role at Juilliard, which partners with the Lindemann program and which will continue to collaborate with the Lindemann artists on one major production a year. Zeger’s move, which will involve interdisciplinary work with other Juilliard departments, freed up the spot for Heaston, although, he says, “Brian and I will continue to collaborate closely.”
Born in Nebraska and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, Heaston was originally drawn to Broadway but found in college that his sight-reading skills brought him into the orbit of voice students and into a career path as a coach. In addition to his work at Glimmerglass and Washington, he was head of the music staff at the Dallas Opera for six seasons, consulted with the Met’s Live in HD series, and has judged various vocal competitions.
The news comes at a good time for Heaston – his partner is finishing up his degree as a clinical psychologist in August and eager to pursue opportunities in New York – but a hard time for the WNO, which is in the middle of its remarkable “Ring” cycle but will have to scramble to find Heaston’s replacement. The search process, he says, is just beginning.
At the moment, Heaston is finalizing plans for next year’s Domingo-Cafritz season (“I want there to be continuity for returning artists”), planning the 2017 season at Glimmerglass, and talking to the Met’s team every day.
“A lot of it right now,” he says, “is me asking a lot of questions from the brilliant team about what has already been planned, and what interesting innovative things we can already start to dream of.”