SFOpera - Carrie-Ann Matheson and Markus Beam Lead San Francisco Opera Center Into a New Year

Carrie-Ann Matheson and Markus Beam Lead San Francisco Opera Center Into a New Year

“What?!” Carrie-Ann Matheson’s hands are in the air. It’s mid-December, mere weeks before the celebrated pianist and vocal coach is set to take over as artistic director of the San Francisco Opera Center, and she’s just discovered something shocking about the man scheduled to lead alongside her.

Carrie-Ann Matheson

Markus Beam

Markus Beam — a baritone whose credits include performances at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center — got his start singing the hit Michael Jackson song “Beat It.” 

Between laughs, the story comes out. “‘Beat It’ is literally what I sang in my kindergarten talent show, complete with coffee grinders”— a breakdancing move where one leg spins outstretched beneath you — “and somersaults.”

It’s another moment of discovery for two artistic leaders about to work in concert, steering one of the foremost training centers for young artists in the country.

Beam, recently a vice president and artist manager at IMG Artists, is set to assume the role of general manager at the Opera Center, an organization founded in 1982 to provide a springboard for the next generation of opera star. 

Matheson will share the helm as artistic director, conducting performances and working closely with the center’s Adler Fellows, a hand-picked group of residents artists. Alumni include luminaries like singers Deborah Voigt and Patricia Racette.

Matheson and Beam fill a vacancy left by outgoing Opera Center director Sheri Greenawald, who retired in December after 18 years in the role. But in doing so, they assume power at a time when opera’s future is more uncertain than ever — a time when the coronavirus pandemic prevents them from even sharing a room with young artists they hope to train. 

Still, they’re upbeat. They’ve already had one group meeting with the Adler Fellows over Zoom, and they’ve just begun meeting with each one individually.

“We're very passionate about giving them individualized training,” Matheson says. “Next week, I'll start doing musical coachings with them, which I'm really tremendously looking forward to.”

For Matheson, it’s another milestone in a starry career that includes staff positions at the Metropolitan Opera and, most recently, the Zürich Opera house. But it all started with childhood piano lessons in her hometown of Charlottetown, Canada.

Her grandparents had promised their piano to the first child in the family to knuckle down for their piano lessons. And Matheson soon discovered that she loved spending time in the cozy surroundings of the neighborhood piano teacher’s house.

But as Matheson grew older — and her skills as a pianist started earning her acclaim — she began to realize that a solo career didn’t interest her as much as the act of collaboration.

“The life of a solo pianist is very solitary. You have to really sit in a room for 10, 12 hours a day, sitting alone with your instrument. That was not so interesting for me. I love to share energy with others,” she says. By the time she started university, she had shifted her focus to music education and collaborative piano. 

“I don't want to be on stage by myself. I don't like doing it. I do it really under extreme duress. But when I'm on stage with a singer or another musician, wow. It's so rewarding,” she explains.

“I take so much enjoyment and so much strength from watching other people step into their own greatness. It’s so unbelievably rewarding for me to see someone achieve something — a goal that they had set for themselves or learn a new skill or develop a new color in their voice.”

That same passion for teamwork drives Beam. It stems from his earliest days — well before he was spinning and flipping to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” 

Beam grew up at the base of the Appalachian mountains, in the rolling hills between Charlotte and Asheville, North Carolina. There, his mother was a lead singer in a band, with a gig lined up nearly every weekend.

“Some of my earliest memories, musically, are sitting at the kitchen table. She would give me her lyric sheets, and she'd be learning a new Bonnie Raitt song or something. And she would have me quiz her on her lyrics,” Beam says. When the concert venues were kid-friendly, Beam would tag along, sitting at the back of the stage, arranging her lyrics. It sparked in Beam an enduring love of music.

But despite his enthusiasm, Beam’s mother initially hesitated to sign him up for voice lessons. “She felt very strongly that she wanted me to develop my own unique voice before anyone came in and started giving me any instruction,” he explains. “She didn't want me to end up like a Little Orphan Annie-voiced kid.”

Ultimately, though, his parents would drive two hours each way so he could start his training in classical voice. But his mother’s concern stuck with him. Both he and Matheson say they are committed to helping young artists find their own voices, rather than pushing them toward a platonic ideal.

“It’s easy to get stuck in the mode of, ‘Okay, just tell me what to do and I'll do it. Tell me how to be. What is marketable? How do I become the thing that people want to hire?’ As if that were one cookie-cutter thing,” Beam says. 

He adds that if he had to speak to his past self — as contestants do on one of his favorite TV shows, RuPaul’s Drag Race — he would advise engaging less with the “shoulds” thrown at artists.

“As in: You should sing this. You should apply for this program. You should go there. And on and on and on,” he says. He places more value in searching for one’s unique artistic stamp, and Matheson agrees: “Everyone has an opinion, but the opinion that matters most is yours.”

The curriculum they’re designing for the Opera Center is based on a holistic training model, tailored not only to building artistic skills but also maintaining mental, physical, and financial health. Those facets of the opera industry are often not addressed in traditional training models, they say.

Beam hopes to grow financial literacy among young artists — who might be impressed to receive their first big check, only to realize later that the money they’re offered has to cover agent fees, taxes, voice lessons, and other costs associated with traveling and training.

And for Matheson, the need to speak to mental health issues is personal. She herself contends with performance anxiety. “I have played on most of the great stages in the world, and I have worried on most of the great stages of the world,” she explains. 

That anxiety reached a tipping point one day ahead of a performance she was scheduled to conduct. “I was dreading it so much that I actually thought, ‘If you were ever going to get hit by a tram, today is the day to have it happen,’” she says. “Then I thought, ‘I can’t continue like this. I need to figure out what is causing this.’”

That process required Matheson to confront what was driving her as a performer — and assess what her goals really were. She emerged from that period of introspection with a clearer sense of what she was “in service of.” It helps her stay focused and manage the anxiety. “If I can be a part of helping other people discover that freedom, that’s where I want to be.”

Matheson says developing that personal resilience is crucial, especially now, with the unprecedented challenges the opera industry is facing. Even before the pandemic forced the closure of theaters around the globe, the field was evolving rapidly.

Opera singers nowadays “are asked to be Hollywood-level actors. They're asked to be world-class musicians. They're asked to be their own financial planners. They're asked to be family people. They're asked to be social media geniuses. The demands are very, very high for any young musician coming into the business right now,” Matheson says.

And yet, Beam points out that there’s reason to be optimistic. Today’s social media allows young singers to reach audiences their predecessors could never dream of. “Some recitals are getting thousands of views, that would normally attract maybe an audience of a hundred, because it's a small recital of a young artist on a Thursday evening.”

One of the biggest hurdles on their agenda is answering the call for greater diversity in the opera field. “The call for more inclusion, more equity, is long overdue,” Beam says. “The world is watching.” 

Matheson says the solution is simple: Engage new faculty. Bring in new singers. Do what you say you’re going to do, and follow through with your ideals.

Beam, meanwhile, mentions he and Matheson are looking to expand the Opera Center’s recruitment efforts: “What will an audition tour look like? What are the universities that historically aren't getting the attention that the Juilliards and the Curtises of the world are getting?”

For all their shared ideals, it may come as a surprise that Matheson and Beam are a relatively new team. “This is where we extol the genius of Greg Henkel,” Beam quips. Henkel, the managing director of San Francisco Opera’s artistic department, recruited the two to transform the Opera Center. Until then, Matheson and Beam had been relative strangers to one another.

“I can remember hearing Markus’s name, like 20 years ago from friends,” Matheson laughs. “But somehow we never actually met.” That changed in 2020 with a Zoom meeting Henkel arranged.

Shortly before Henkel brought them together, Beam watched the 2007 documentary The Audition on a plane ride to Los Angeles. The film follows the young contestants at the Metropolitan Opera's National Council Auditions — and Matheson plays a featured role as one of their coaches. 

“The things she would say, I thought, ‘Wow, this person, we are really aligned. We should have a conversation at some point.’ It was literally a month later that Greg spoke to me about all of this.” 

Though their leadership of the Opera Center starts this January, the two have had to delay their arrival in San Francisco — and their long-awaited meet-up — due to coronavirus restrictions.

Matheson, her husband and three cats recently moved from Zürich to Toronto on their way to San Francisco. But while she waits to take the final leg of that trip, her piano sits in storage, waiting for her in Oakland. She will arrive sight unseen: Matheson has never visited San Francisco before. 

Beam too is making a “slow migration west.” After years living in Philadelphia, he and his partner currently find themselves in Colorado. Next stop? The Bay Area, once it’s safe to do so.

But he considers his trip here a homecoming. Beam was part of the first class the outgoing Opera Center director, Sheri Greenawald, ever taught at San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program.

“I had such a wonderful experience there. I took so many of the tools I learned during my summer there into the world,” he says. That’s exactly the kind of experience he and Matheson hope their students take away from their time under the new Opera Center leadership.

 

To get to know more about Carrie-Ann Matheson, please visit her website or follow her on social media. You can also learn more about Markus Beam by visiting his webpage.

In Memoriam 2020