Introducing Managing Director, Julia Benzinger

January 17, 2023
Author: PMW Team
Pacific MusicWorks’ Managing Director on opera, literature, travels, and coffee vs tea

Pacific MusicWorks is delighted to welcome Julia Benzinger as our new Managing Director! To help you get to know her better, we’re asking a few questions about her so you can learn more about her and her work. 

You are a native of the Pacific Northwest but have spent a lot of time in other countries and have experienced how other cultures relate to music both as a professional musician and as a manager. What are some things you have experienced abroad (apart from more government funding lol) that you’d like to bring to your work with Pacific MusicWorks?

I have been very fortunate to travel, work, and live around the world. Through those experiences, I have participated in dialogues, many ongoing, on the role of art, the expression and experience of it, in society. There are many similarities in the need and desire for art and many differences in the cultivation of the arts and artists within various societies.

Government funding is definitely a difference. 

In general, I have experienced much greater respect by the general public for artists and their craft in the other countries and cultures I have interacted with. In many places, being an artist is a legitimate career choice and artists and storytellers hold an important role in society. The societal contract of government subsidies for the arts is one reflection of this. 

One thing that seems to be universal is the desire to collaborate and communicate artistically and that is absolutely something I would like to bring to my work with Pacific MusicWorks. PMW has a long history of partnering with other organizations. I would love to continue partnerships with educational institutions, community associations, and community-minded corporations with the goal of bringing exciting and relevant programs to our region and beyond.

At home on Bainbridge Island Image: Lucas Brown

We’d love to hear about how you shifted into arts management from a successful career in opera as a mezzo-soprano. What made you want to get involved in producing art on the management end? How does being a musician inform your work as an administrator? What values inform your work? 

My values drive everything I do, from my own artistic endeavors, to my parenting, to how I aim to be of service to other artists and audiences. Collaboration, compassion, innovation, creativity, and transparency are the anchors of my work. 

I have had the great fortune of being a professional performer. The discipline of studying and practicing music has granted me a deep understanding and respect for what it takes to maintain a career as an artist. The transition to focusing on cultural management and leadership rose as a desire to help my fellow artists thrive in an industry that often commodifies an artist’s spirit and artistic identity. My hope as a leader in the industry is to always have the artists’ needs at the front of my priorities. Without the artists, we don’t have the art form.

As Erste Norn in Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung with Miami Music Festival

Tell us about your background as a performer.

My mom would probably tell you I’ve been performing since I was a toddler. I think my debut was in as an orphan in a school production of Annie and I was about 3 years old. Storytelling, theater, and music have always captivated me as a tool for communication and emotional exploration and expression. When I got to high school, I participated in several drama productions and, later, was introduced to opera thanks to Perry Lorenzo’s Seattle Opera outreach programs. That man had a special gift for getting teenagers excited about an art form that, on the surface, seemed unapproachable. He certainly led me to the medium and I’m grateful that many years later, we became friends and colleagues.

While music was always as important to me as eating or sleeping, I did not formally study music until college. Growing up, music was a hobby, not a career option. Getting into the game at a relatively late stage was a daunting undertaking, and for a long time I compared myself with peers who had been steeped in classical musical education since their early childhood. Once I was determined to make music, and specifically opera, my business, my path led me to Cornish College of the Arts, the Royal Northern College of Music, and the young artist programs of Seattle Opera, Sarasota Opera, and Britten-Pears Programme. Then, astonishingly, I found myself on the stage of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, looking out to a packed auditorium, with one of the greatest opera conductors of all-time, Michail Jurowski, standing on the podium, preparing to lead my professional debut as a featured soloist. 

To say I pinched myself before each performance at that opera house is not an exaggeration. One of my favorite memories is the time I lay onstage in a heap with 7 other women, each of us clad in black leather jumpsuits and big, teased, 80s-tastic wigs, hearing the opening notes to the third act of Die Walküre through the lowered house curtain. I thought to myself, “what the hell am I doing here? Me?!” I’d attended performances as an audience member of Die Walküre in Seattle, San Francisco, and London, and here I was, about to be a Valkyrie myself. In Berlin no less! I started giggling in disbelief and joy which set off a chain reaction of giggles from the other badass biker chicks from Valhalla. Thankfully, we pulled ourselves together in time to Hojotojo like the mighty warriors we were portraying. Later that night, as Greer Grimsley sang Wotan’s heartbreaking goodbye to his daughter and traversed the massive blazing pits of real fire, I stood in the wings, waiting for the curtain call and I found myself in tears. I was grateful, and still am, to have been part of such an incredible art form with so many incredible peers.

Over the years, I have had the tremendous honor of portraying humans, and creatures, from all walks of life and situations. Diving into and portraying another’s life experiences is a humbling opportunity that I take seriously. From impetuous little boys to entitled princes, sorceresses to goddesses, foxes to worms, condemned to crowned, destitute to aristocratic, I have explored a wealth of what life has to offer. It does not escape me that at each performance there is likely someone in the audience who has never attended an opera before, another person who relates to the character I’m portraying, and possibly another who has performed the very same role and who is mouthing every word along with me. Being as honest and courageous as I can with a character, being as consistent with my vocal technique as possible, and being an encouraging and engaging scene partner are hopefully ways I have, as a performer, invited an audience member’s empathy and emotional vulnerability during their experience of the show. 

As Rossweisse (2nd from R) in Götz Friedrich’s iconic production of Die Walküre at the Deutsche Oper Berlin

Tell us about a formative musical experience as an audience member. 

One?! How about two? When I was 18, my parents gifted me a ticket to see Luciano Pavarotti in concert. At that point, I didn’t know much about opera except for what I’d heard in commercials and movies. We did have one of his Christmas albums which I’d spent hours pouring over the liner notes, learning the lyrics to each song and aria. I couldn’t believe that a human could make such an incredibly emotive and refined sound. Seeing him and the power of his instrument was what threw me headfirst into a life dedicated to the craft of vocal performance and, specifically, opera. 

A few years before the Pavarotti performance, I had the life-changing experience of being front row for the David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails concert at the Tacoma Dome. That night, without a doubt, changed the trajectory of my life. Watching Bowie and Reznor, both experts in storytelling, songwriting, stagecraft, and audience engagement, was mesmerizing. I was only 16 and probably had no business going to a show like that at that age, especially standing up front being pushed against the barrier. When I think back on it, I have a good chuckle. A lanky teenager standing wide-eyed as two of the greatest rock stars did their thing just feet away. It was extraordinary. It was, absolutely, a formative musical experience.

Julia and her middle son at the Picasso Museum, Barcelona

What is your favorite baroque opera, and why? 

Ooof, that’s tough. For a single performance, The 2012 Opera National de Lorraine production of Vinci’s Artaserse is a triumph in every sense and captured my imagination the first time I saw it. It was my introduction to countertenor Franco Fagioli. I play his interpretation of “Va solcando un mar crudele” from the opera whenever I am wanting a serious pick-me-up. The production was visually stunning, moving, ridiculously tongue-in-cheek and a complete spectacle.

Handel’s Cesare is the opera that I can listen to on repeat, likely for nostalgic reasons. Studying in the UK, I was immersed in the musical language of Handel’s operas and oratorios as they are performed regularly at conservatories, and community and professional theatres. Over the years I have performed several of the roles from the opera, from college opera scenes to fully staged productions so it’s become a familiar balsam to listen to and sing along with.

You are currently enrolled in a Doctoral program in Communication, Humanities, and Education and your research area is in female arts managers/directors. Tell us a bit about what you’ve learned, why this subject fascinates you, and how you see your work at Pacific MusicWorks in light of some of the research you are conducting. 

The subject of leadership is one that I have explored for a while now, including in my recent Master’s thesis. I worked alongside two other women and we led with the questions: What is leadership? What are the qualities of a good leader? How has the concept of leadership been performed over the centuries? When we think of a leader, who do we envision? How has society historically determined who gets to be a leader? What have been the barriers to becoming a leader within institutional structures? Is our perception that women are underrepresented the reality?

When I proposed my PhD research topic, the state of representation of women music directors and general directors at the institutional level of European symphonies and opera houses was appalling. In 2020, only 4% of hired conductors at the major orchestras and opera houses were women. In 2017, only 5.5% of conductors on artist management rosters were women. Of the 80 opera houses in Germany, only 2 had women at the helm, and of the 78 men in charge, only 2 did not identify as white. The impact of an utter lack of diversity in leadership has led to some very unhealthy norms in the industry. Many of these accepted practices and behaviors have had lasting detrimental effects on the art form and the artists who spend years of their lives dedicated to the beauty of the craft. Let’s be frank about what these harmful norms have looked like. Sexual harassment; racism and misogyny and a general othering that manifest in the exclusion of brilliant artists and excusing of damaging caricatures we see paraded throughout many stories in opera; unfriendly working environments for freelance artists and working families; verbal and psychological abuse by many in positions of power; and a culture of silencing those who try to bring these issues to light. Careers have been thwarted, and artists have been under no illusion that speaking up usually means losing income and status within the industry. These things were so normalized that many in the industry would simply shrug their shoulders when the latest scandal hit the gossip circles or newspapers.

Thankfully, between the time my proposal was submitted and today, we have seen a vocal movement of artists and leaders actively making change. Today, women conductors with management are up to 11.2% of the field (yes, still a laughably small number but a positive trajectory). This reckoning is slow, and there is absolutely a ceiling for advancement for many. Thanks to the hard work of many, we’re welcoming an era in the arts where competency is not measured by gender, race, ethnicity, or the many other backgrounds that have historically shut a person out of the running for positions of leadership. More artists are participating in the conversation of what collaborative leadership can be and what the classical music industry should be.  

During my short time with PMW, I have already experienced many wonderful introductions and conversations with arts leaders in the Seattle area. Most of us have the same goal: create art and bring people together to experience it. Part of this means dismantling the systems of exclusion that have long been in place. The old thinking of classical music as being somehow elitist and irrelevant, something pretty that can sit up on a shelf and be experienced without immediacy and inclusion is done. I look forward to working with the artists of PMW and arts leaders throughout the region to continue the work of celebrating artists from the past and present whose stories bring meaning to our lives today. 

How has your perception of Seattle’s classical/early music scene changed since your student days? 

Oh, I’m old! This could easily become a “back in my day” and “get off my lawn” rant so I’ll do my best to look back without too much romanticizing. My student days were a long, long time ago and the Seattle arts scene, and Seattle itself, was very different than what I see now. The clearest differences are the population growth, the lack of affordability, the boom of technological advances, and the way the music business does its, well, business.  

Back in my day, ahem, Seattle was not a city that yearned to impress with shiny facades and talk of personal branding strategies. There was a scrappy energy of collaboration, interdisciplinary exploration, and a kind of naive sense that it didn’t matter that we weren’t artists from New York or London, our voices were still relevant. 

TikTok and company weren’t a thing. Heck, Napster hadn’t even experienced its rapid rise and fall, so self promotion looked more like hanging posters on streetlamp poles and coffee shop notice boards than potentially having a global audience for an online promo video published on YouTube. And self-branding really meant engaging with the local music community itself, trusting your own artistic voice, and showing up prepared. Attending as many shows as you could, meeting in dingy cafes and taverns to exchange creative ideas and talk about collaborations. I miss that Seattle and I also love the reality of today. The ease with which we can now communicate and create remotely is something I couldn’t have dreamed of when I was a student. Technology is allowing us to bring our performances to audiences who would never have the opportunity to travel to Seattle, and it is inspiring us to be as innovative as we can be when it comes to performance practices.

Hand-in-hand with the advancements in digital technologies is the desire by many to unplug. To sit in congregation with others for a defined period of time and experience a piece of acoustic music, performed live. An exchange of energy between performers and audience members that brings calm and allows for introspection. It is understood that the performance will never be repeated in the same way again, it is a fleeting moment and one that can be cherished with community. Then, back to technological advancements, we now have the ability to harness that energy and share it with those who, for whatever reason, cannot join in person and instead experience the performance from home. It’s an incredible time to be creating music and sharing it with others.

One thing that certainly hasn’t changed is that Seattle has a thriving community of music enthusiasts, professionals, and audiences. It amazes me how many ensembles thrive in this town and how spoiled we are on any given weekend for choices of performances to experience.

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