Opera, theatre and the live arts are Nancy Hitzig’s passion, and she leads an active cultural life in pursuit of new opportunities to experience and explore the best Toronto has to offer. A dedicated and tireless arts community “connector”, Nancy was formerly the manager of education and marketing at Opera Atelier, where she developed the keen project management skills that she applies as General Manager of Against the Grain Theatre. She currently works in development for the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, and is actively involved in the Toronto arts community as an often-sought volunteer and performer.
Near the end of this month Against the Grain will open their updated version of Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro, namely Figaro’s Wedding. In anticipation, I ask Hitzig ten questions: five about herself, and five more about being an operatic Wedding planner.
1) Are you more like your father or your mother?
Outwardly, I have my mother’s communications skills and mannerisms. On the inside, I like to think I have my father’s determination and integrity. The older I get the more I realize I’m turning into my mother and that I’m okay with it. She’s a pretty remarkable woman.
The Hitzigs are very much a team. My parents have been self-employed for 30+ years. I remember being a little girl and helping pack shipments for my dad in his warehouse with my mom. We often joke that we’re a sales family but each of us have a different style. My mother is the soft seller, my father the hard seller and I’m somewhere in between.
2) What is the best thing or worst thing about being the manager of a company presenting opera “against the grain”?
Best thing: The feeling of community. The speed of our growth is thanks to the strength of our partnerships. I love that artists, patrons and volunteers leave our shows feeling inspired and end up talking about the experience of “AtG” long after the show is done. What a great feeling!
Worst thing — or, rather, most challenging — ensuring we keep our ethos and remaining “against the grain”. That we don’t “sell out.” Everyone conforms, for a variety of smart reasons. Risk and innovation are exciting but also extremely stressful. It takes a huge amount of energy to be truly different. The reward is often greater than the work, but it continues to be a challenge.
On a personal level, as an arts administrator — or producer, or general manager or whatever you want to call me — sometimes you do a lot of work for very little glory. People don’t understand that AtG is a collective, that it is a company that belongs to six people, six artists/administrators. Often the buck stops with Joel and Topher, who deserve their success and kudos, but never quite gets to Caitlin, our communications impresaria, and Cecily, our outreach advisor. I find people don’t get that we’re a team that accomplishes unbelievable results versus one person’s company. It’s a common tendency in the arts to believe that the artistic director IS the company. At AtG, WE are the company, along with the numerous incredible artists who work with us. It’s why we love what we’ve created; because each one of us breathes life into every project and aren’t labelled “administration” versus “artistic”.
Oh, and money. We have no operational funding. Every show is a huge risk. Figaro’s Wedding is the most ambitious thing we’ve ever done. Receiving donations are a pleasure, but soliciting them can be a challenge. I am a fundraiser by day and I love my work, but you have to be very persistent. There are a lot of start-up companies in Toronto, which is great for the artistic landscape of our city. But it also presents stiff competition, and we’re constantly struggling to stay afloat and to do our best work. One of the strongest parts of the AtG mandate is to pay artists fairly, and we hope that being an equitable employer of emerging artists and a truly DIFFERENT producer of great theatre will motivate donors.
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
I love classical music but I listen to early jazz the most. Every day I listen to WWOZ.org — the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage station —for their traditional jazz show. Somehow it seems to know exactly what I need to hear at that moment.
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
The ability to fly. Or to be in two places at once. I often find things all happen on the same nights in Toronto and I wish I could make it to multiple events in a night. Although, friends sometimes comment that they think time moves differently for me. My boss and mentor at the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, Gillian Smith, is often referred to as “a 48 hour woman in a 24 hour day”. I like to think of myself in the same way.
5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
My friends tease me because I can’t sit idle very long. I love to cook. I find it extremely relaxing. I often will start a meal, text some friends and invite them for an impromptu dinner. I am the forever hostess.
Five more questions about going ‘Against the Grain‘ at Figaro’s Wedding.
1) How does being the General Manager of Against the Grain Theatre challenge you?
I love live theatre. I believe it’s transformative.
AtG challenges me because I’m constantly learning — how to run a company, what is required for dressing rooms, how to get a piano in a salvage shop, etc. It never stops and it’s always something new.
Also, I love ensuring the Front of House (FOH) experience is as good as it can be. People don’t remember good FOH, but they certainly remember bad or disorganized experiences. I strive for us to be finessed, and I think about the audience member’s experience from the moment they walk in the venue.
It’s also a challenge to juggle this on top of my day job. We don’t pay ourselves at AtG, so it’s truly a labour of love. Keeping on top of a million details for an upcoming show is a task that keeps us on our toes in our non-working hours; for example, Cait and I often conduct meetings and touch points on our cell phones while working out at the gym, grocery shopping, and tending to the other things that help us remain functional members of society!
2) What do you love about presenting operas in Toronto?
The Toronto arts community is incredible. Whether it is helping us source a bed for The Turn of the Screw or cross-promoting shows, we are extremely supported. I also love the reception we receive, and the utter magic that’s created in the room for each show. I always tell people about our 7 Deadly Sins show at Gallery 345 where Toph and Daniel Pesca were hammering out John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction. There was this moment of silence and then everyone leaped to their feet. That is the power of live theatre. The entire team is important in that moment, because we put those people in that room. It’s an honour and a privilege to be a part of that.
Toronto is also great because we never lack for interesting venues, inspiring collaborators or a great neighbourhood pub to take over after the show!
3) Out of the complex planning and development cycle, what’s your favourite moment when you mount an opera?
That silence I mentioned, right before applause. You can almost see the audience registering what they have just seen and reacting to it. It’s a pretty powerful moment.
There’s also a vino verde drinking tradition shared with the AtG girls before every show that marks the “letting go” moment – we’ve done everything we can do by the time that bottle is uncorked!
4) How do you relate to the opera community as a 21st century woman?
Well, I am certainly a strong motivated woman. I am my mother’s daughter after all! I like to think I have a fearless attitude that makes me a perfect fit in opera. My energy and passion are boundless and I love talking about the artform to people of all ages. At times, I think people feel intimidated coming to the opera, but even when I was running workshops for school kids at Opera Atelier I used to always tell them, opera is about compelling storytelling. If you understand human emotion, there is nothing to be afraid of.
AtG gives us the opportunity to present exciting works in innovative ways that include and inspire our audience, rather than isolate or alienate them. It makes them feel like a part of team. And I think that’s a new thing for opera in the 21st century – inclusivity.
5) Is there a teacher, singer, or an influence that you especially admire?
I am fortunate enough to work full time as the Development Officer at the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, which was co-founded by Adrienne Clarkson. I spend a lot of time talking to her about the arts and culture scene in Canada.
I find her passion and commitment to the arts tremendously inspiring. I really perceive her as one of the most vocal champions for the arts in Canada. Her love of opera specifically resonates with me. She told me one story about how the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera was the first thing she felt she discovered on the radio without the aid of her parents as a young child and it had a huge influence on her
Don’t miss Figaro’s Wedding May 29-June 2 from Against the Grain Theatre.
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