Special Reports

MA 30 Profiles in Courage: Nicole Paiement

December 2, 2014 | By Georgia Rowe

Founder and Artistic Director
Opera Parallèle

Launching an opera company is always risky business, but dedicating one to to contemporary work takes exceptional courage. When Nicole Paiement started Opera Parallèle in 2007, naysayers didn’t expect it to last out the year. Today, 30 world premieres, 20 commissions, 134 performances, and 14 recordings later, it is a unique and treasured presence on the San Francisco music scene.

Paiement, a native of France, gained a Bay Area reputation through her teaching posts at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and University of California, Santa Cruz. She directed new music groups Ensemble Parallèle and Blueprint, of which Opera Parallèle was a natural outgrowth. Paiement, who often collaborates with her husband, stage director Brian Staufenbiel, has said that she wanted to explore obscure corners of the repertoire. The idea was to work "in parallèle" with other organizations and art forms, producing operas that would enhance and expand audiences’ perceptions of multiple disciplines.

She’s cast a wide net. Working in various intimate venues around San Francisco—productions have been staged at the 900-seat Herbst Theatre, the 500-seat Marines Memorial, and the 700-seat Yerba Buena Center for the Arts—Paiement has delivered eye-opening productions of Lou Harrison’s Young Caesar, Philip Glass’s Orphée, Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, and Dante de Silva’s Gesualdo, Prince of Madness, among others.

Yet her greatest—and bravest—coup was the company’s June 2014 production of Adam Gorb’s Anya 17. The British composer’s opera, which incorporates a ripped-from-the-headlines libretto by Ben Kaye, examines international sex trafficking in a searing work for contemporary audiences, and Paiement conducted it with exceptional commitment and fervor. Anya 17 was a cultural event as well as a musical one; Paiement mounted it in conjunction with victim advocacy groups, who were present in the theater lobby to dispense information at each performance. The result was a production of uncommon impact and relevance.

Throughout her tenure with Opera Parallèle, Paiement’s reputation has grown. Earlier this year, she was named principal guest conductor of the Dallas Opera after conducting Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers; next month, she’ll return to Dallas to conduct the world premiere of Joby Talbot’s Everest. Working in a profession that often leaves women scandalously underrepresented, Paiement has established stellar credentials, and her work in San Francisco appears to be just the beginning.

Michael Pastreich




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