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MA Top 30 Professional of the Year: Ashley Magnus
By Clive Paget
December 3, 2019
Now in its 45th season, Chicago Opera Theater (COT) appointed Ashley Magnus as its general director in January 2019. She works alongside Music Director Lidiya Yankovskaya, making COT one of the few major American opera companies led by women at both the artistic and executive levels. In her previous position as the company’s general manager of strategy and development, Magnus is credited with a successful multimillion-dollar capital campaign, tripling planned gifts, and growing core annual fundraising by 28 percent.
Born in Oakland, CA, Magnus grew up in southern Indiana where she started piano lessons from an early age. While she sang at school and church, she didn’t really come to opera until her undergrad days at the University of Evansville. Taking up an internship with Utah Symphony | Utah Opera, she went on to earn an MBA from the University of Utah, where she focused on business strategy, project management, and building constructive community, individual, and institutional partnerships.
It was the lure of the new that led her to COT. “I had always wanted to be at a company with a focus on unusual and contemporary repertoire,” she says. “This organization is unique and exciting in its vision and in the freedom to take risks, particularly within this community and in this Golden Age of American opera.”
With its emphasis on new operas for 21st-century audiences, COT operates with a core staff of 15, plus six resident young artists and several production, education, and artistic contractors. The company presents three mainstage operas each season with additional workshops of new pieces. Launched in the spring of 2018, its Vanguard Initiative mentors two emerging composers, which ensures there’s an additional commissioned one-act opera each year.
In her time at COT, Magnus has overseen implementation of a new strategic plan as well as staff and policy restructuring. She cites the recent staging of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick, the largest production in the organization’s history, as a highlight. “My larger objectives are for COT to be a destination organization for rarely produced and contemporary works,” Magnus says, “for Chicago to be on the forefront of new opera, and for COT to be a sustainable model for the future of opera.”
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