.Director’s Chair

The winds of change are blowing through downtown San Jose.

Earlier this month, the Poor House Bistro, wrapped in blue tarp, rolled down Montgomery to the beat of the St. Gabriel Brass Band, on its way to its new home in Little Italy. Just a few blocks east, on Santa Clara, brand new bars and clubs prepare to open, while in SoFA newly-complete buildings cast shadows over the nearly-complete Serpentine Pavilion, which itself looms over a swath of First Street destined for development.

Many of downtown San Jose’s arts organizations are likewise experiencing major change. This month, following periods of quick turnover and tectonic shift, both Opera San Jose and the Institute of Contemporary Art announced new directors, Crucially, both come at a time when the futures of their respective arts are under great debate.

“We have an exciting challenge on our hand: we are going to define the future of opera,” says Shawna Lucey, new general director at Opera San Jose.

Since its founding in the 1980s, Opera San Jose has played a significant role downtown. Created by renowned mezzo-soprano and San Jose native Irene Dalis, the company has kept a forward-thinking approach from the very beginning, passionately championing local talent and staging world premieres in the nearly 400-year-old art form.

When Dalis passed in 2014, directorship fell to Larry Hancock, who had long been busy behind the scenes at Opera San Jose. Hancock retired in 2019, and his successor, Khori Dastoor, announced in 2021 she had taken directorship at Houston Grand Opera. Earlier this month, Lucey, a 15-year veteran of the field, became the new director of the company once known locally as “Irene’s Opera.”

While the very word “opera” might strike some as stuffy or elitist, Lucey stresses that her vision centers around community.

“Music has the power to unite people, and this is a time in which we need music almost more than ever in human history,” Lucey says. “For me, the important future of opera is making sure that every person in our community feels that they belong.”

To get there, Lucey—who describes herself as a dedicated intersectional feminist—takes an all-encompassing approach.

“It’s about accessibility, it’s about representation and about bringing stories to the stage that reflect the experience of our community. It’s about Mozart, it’s about Verdi and really connecting on personal levels,” she says.

In addition to her role as company executive, Lucey also stage directs. She first came to Opera San Jose in 2018 as a guest director, helming a grandiose and celebrated production of Verdi’s La Traviata. She directs a legacy production of Tosca for San Francisco Opera, and continues to stage works with the New York Metropolitan Opera House, Kansas City’s Lyric Opera and elsewhere. Still, Opera San Jose made a lasting impression.

“I was really struck by my time at Opera San Jose,” she says. “It was a great highlight in my directing career, so [this] was the perfect match, a fantastic turn of events for me.”

Though its roots stretch back to 1978, Opera San Jose became official in 1984 and was paying performers by its 1985-86 season. In 1992, Dalis told the Mercury News the company’s “one purpose” was to give young, local talent career opportunities.

Nikola Printz joined Opera San Jose as a singer in residence last August. Their first performance with the company, however, was in 2014.

“I was only a year out of my undergrad,” Printz says.

Printz typifies Opera San Jose’s ongoing efforts to reflect the changing face of opera. The non-binary singer sometimes falls in the mezzo-soprano range, but say they reject the Fach system, which groups singers into roles based on vocal range.

“I like to be labelless,” they say. “I like to sing pieces of music that inspire me. Whatever you want to do, you should do.”

Next month, Printz plays the lead in Opera San Jose’s maximalist production of Carmen, easily the company’s biggest since returning to in-person performances last November. The show includes a large cast and chorus, flamenco dancers and a children’s choir—which, after almost two full years of livestreamed events and binged Hulu, sounds distinctly operatic.

“We live in dynamic, unprecedented times,” Lucey says. “Opera can be right at the center of community, because the stories we’re telling are so compelling.”


Just a few blocks south on First Street, the Institute of Contemporary Art has likewise been experiencing a period of major change after its longtime executive director retired in 2020.

Earlier this month, James Leventhal, former director of development at San Jose’s Museum of Art, stepped aboard as the new executive director at the ICA. With him, he brings an unconventional interpretation of the word “contemporary.”

“Artistic human production across time is perennially contemporary,” Levanthal says. “The issues that we’ve been grappling with across time and space remain relevant today.”

It may be a bold stance, but it reflects the ambitious goals of the small but inspired nonprofit museum. Originally opened in 1980—just a few years before Opera San Jose—recent years have seen consistent change at the gallery, including interior overhauls, staff shake-ups and exterior installations.

In 2020, the museum launched its Façade Project, installing a 50-foot mural by LA artist Amir H. Fallah above its entryway. Its current façade work, “A Chapter of Love” by Conrad Egyir, went up last October.

“I love the fact that there’s [now] external messaging and presence for the ICA, even when the doors might not be open,” Leventhal says.

Contemporary art is a wide field with a vast variety of movements and perspectives, but Leventhal identifies two major threads running throughout. The first is the rediscovery of overlooked talent, artists like Bay Area mixed-media artist and sculptor Mildred Howard, who Leventhal describes as “likely one of the most important alive today.” The second is the push into fully digital spaces, with works exploring virtual environments, social media and the dreaded NFT. If things go according to plan, one of the most artistic spaces in San Jose won’t be downtown at all—it’ll be on their website.

“I want to start working with media studies and really think how we can use this space online to push us to a place where we feel slightly uncomfortable and most human,” Leventhal says.

This spring, the museum hosts an immersive exhibit by sculptor/installation artist Soo Sunny Park, whose recent work Expanded Present currently frames the doorway of the Smithsonian’s Arts + Industries building in Washington, DC. Viewing Filter (Veil of Vision) opens in March, and comprises a hanging network of nylon, metal and reflective artworks that Leventhal says illustrates the concept of the “matrixial:” “the intersection of the feminine, technology and nature.”

And though opera and contemporary art may seem to be opposites almost by definition, both new directors agree on one thing: San Joseans will always need places to gather and experience art together.

“I feel like we are best as people when we gather,” Leventhal says.

“It is fundamentally a need of humans to gather and to tell stories,” Lucey says. “This is how we continue to have a life as a community.”

Live and Local

A sampling of what’s ahead on the cultural calendar

Looking for a new take on an old classic? Might we suggest Carmen, coming next month from Opera San José? Too classic? Get a taste of the choreography coming to Broadway next year when Camille A. Brown brings her dance troupe to the Hammer Theatre, also in February. Local culture lovers can find something to look forward to in the coming weeks, from literary events to theatrical productions, traditional ballet to multimedia extravaganzas, hardcore rock to soft chamber music. We’ve scoured the websites of local arts groups to come up with a host of highlights happening in winter and early spring, COVID be damned. But just in case, get your tickets early and watch for date changes, because things are still settling down after the holiday Omicron surge. Picks by Sharan Street and Mike Huguenor.

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