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Meet Diana Farrell of Lyric Opera of Orange County

Today we’d like to introduce you to Diana Farrell.

Diana, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
When my husband and I first moved to California I was excited that I’d finally started booking some professional opera work with relative consistency. I was aging out of the Young Artist Training programs, was unmanaged, and had no intent of moving to Germany to pursue a career (common career tracks for young opera singers). I put myself out there and was offered some small roles at regional companies and was excited to continue growing my resume. But, while we were mentally prepared for the cost of living in South California, we didn’t realize how other factors like that infamous traffic and long highway commutes would impact my ability to perform. There was no way I could work my brand new 9-6 job in Orange County and be in Pasadena by 7pm for a rehearsal and I was unable to take time off for rehearsals during business hours.

Like many classical singers, I’d already been through the experience of building up student loan debt and putting audition fees and travel expenses on a credit card; I intimately knew the dangers of singing myself into debt. I had to turn down offers and it broke my heart. Ultimately, I tried to make peace with the idea that maybe I wouldn’t have music in my life – not the way I’d always hoped, at least. I spent the next few years sporadically traveling out of state for gigs and roles when I had available vacation time and looking for local professional opportunities for an unmanaged emerging artist, which are certainly few and far between.

During that time I met some amazing singers who, like myself, were not living in the heart of LA, and had the same obstacles for finding regional work in and around Orange County. Simultaneously, I was meeting folks who were looking to experience opera for the first time. These curious soon-to-be-opera-fans were not yet sold on the idea of high priced tickets and the long haul out to San Diego or LA to see works in the major opera houses. There were also lots of people who, because of these barriers, saw opera as stuffy and elite, yet had never experienced the actual music live. Early on, some singers and I did a sort of surprise concert preview. We were performing for mostly families and young professionals who were out enjoying a festival and were not expecting to be serenaded.

While we were singing, I noticed one woman in the back rapidly wiping tears from her face. Afterward, I walked towards her and she was nervously laughing, still crying. A friend asked her if she was alright, and she said that she was “completely unprepared for the music to hit her like that.” It was a visceral reaction. Everyone knows what opera is, but until you feel the sound resonating in a live room you don’t know what it is for you. It quite literally gets under your skin. The human voice can be powerful and when it’s unleashed to its fullest potential the message is so raw that it will simply invade your body.

That experience stayed with me. It’s about so much more than me getting to sing – which I still do when I can – but it’s that connection that convinced me it was time to take on a back-stage role and go all-in on building an opera company. Producing an opera is about so much more than one diva getting the spotlight. Providing that stage for others to share themselves with an audience, keeping an art form alive and relevant, and making people feel something they weren’t prepared for… that’s what makes me excited. What these last few years have shown me is I’m not alone in that desire, and we’re ready to build something special with Lyric Opera of Orange County.

Has it been a smooth road?
When this started it was very easy to manage while working full time. I have a young son and was able to find the time for planning and fundraising from my computer while my husband was on bedtime duty, or on a lunch break at work. As we planned productions and booked concert events, Lyric Opera OC quickly started requiring a level of care and attention that I simply could not do alone. As we grow and start looking to plan full seasons, instead of thinking project to project, it has taken on a life of its own. Now that we are an official 501.c.3, I’m so grateful to have a Board of Directors lead by passionate people, and a reliable and enthusiastic group of volunteers helping take us to the next level as a business. We have had immeasurable support from local community groups, like The Festival Singers of Orange County, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Rancho Santa Margarita, and Emerging Arts Leaders of Orange County, who have selflessly fought for our success. Of course there have been things that don’t go to plan, but that’s quite literally “show business”, and we’ve always been overly conscious of having contingency plans in place. My biggest disappointment to date has probably been the delay of our current season. I say delay because our timeline was thrown off by about three months.

The good news is that the delay was simply because we were overwhelmed with options and decided to take the time to really think about what was going to help us become established in the area (venues, cast size, production titles), and not just jumping on an opportunity because we’re anxious to create art. This year we’re planning to produce a fundraising opera cabaret night as a season opener; then a double bill of Debussy’s The Prodigal Son and Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors during the holiday season; Pauline Viardot’s Cinderella will go up in early 2020; and we will finish the season with Mozart’s The Magic Flute! This is a huge undertaking for a company in their 2nd full year of existence, but I know this is a dream of many people in the area, and it allows so many more opportunities for both musicians and audiences.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with Lyric Opera of Orange County – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of and what sets you apart from others.
From the beginning, I’ve wanted to use Lyric Opera OC to demonstrate the ability of music to connect people. No matter the era or mother tongue, music can reach people and provide new perspective in a completely different way than the spoken word. We’ve specifically laid out a plan to begin with family-friendly productions, sung in English, to grow our audience and entice folks who are afraid of not understanding the stories. You can’t connect with people if you don’t get them in the door! Not only are we focused on bringing characters to life on the opera stage, but in celebrating the unique voices and stories of singers themselves. We hope to create opportunities for singers to show off their ever-evolving skills; to display the craft they’ve worked tirelessly to master and fine-tune, and give new life as time goes by.

Musicians are paid for their time and talent, the same way any other skilled worker would be. As you may know, that is not always the norm in this industry. We were not able to pay chorus members in our first few productions, but we’re growing and making it a priority. We’ve also hosted two competition style concerts, our “High Note Vote”, where the audience gets to vote for local singers who win cash prizes. Our audiences have loved being a part of the action in that way, and it helps people to be involved on so many levels! By valuing our artists, we teach our community to value art, and we are so proud to have support from local businesses who choose to invest in music. It really proves what the values of a community are. I think Orange County is hungry for growth when it comes to arts and culture and we can see specific efforts being made throughout the county to celebrate local creativity.

Let’s touch on your thoughts about our city – what do you like the most and least?
We are surrounded by culture down here! At any moment there is the opportunity to experience something new. You can be in a downtown setting surrounded by live music, local art, fine food, and history, or you can take a 20-minute drive and be hiking in the mountains or relaxing at the beach. Everyday can be completely different and exhilarating in a new way. I think one of the hardest parts about living in Southern California is that often you get so stuck in the grind that you can easily burn out and feel stuck, like there’s simply no time to break loose from the routine. Sometimes you have to make yourself do it, and that effort is always richly rewarded in experience.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Diana Farrell candid portrait by Wendy Kathleen Photography

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