Arizona Opera opens enterprising RED Series with Frank Lloyd Wright production

September 26, 2019

By Matt Ellsworth

The Arizona Opera has conducted rehearsals for “Shining Brow,” set to premiere September 27, in the Roma and Raymond Wittcoff Black Box studio at its central Phoenix headquarters.

By Julie Anderson
Flinn Foundation

Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home until his death in 1959, was one of eight of the iconic architect’s buildings named UNESCO World Heritage sites in July.

And now, two months later, Arizona Opera is set to premiere a new, “Taliesin West” version of the opera “Shining Brow” for Arizona audiences, chronicling the rise of a young Wright.

“What incredible timing, right?” says Joseph Specter, president and general director of the Arizona Opera. “I didn’t engineer that part. But I would have! UNESCO didn’t call me up and say, Hey, Joe, what are you guys doing? Can we can we help you out?’”

This renewed version of the 1990s opera “Shining Brow” will premiere on Sept. 27 at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix, with additional performances on Sept. 28 and 29. The opera will also be performed at the Temple of Music and Art in Tucson Oct. 5 and 6.

“I was intrigued because of the Frank Lloyd Wright influence architecturally here, and I had this sort-of natural curiosity,” Specter says of the decision to pursue a new version of the opera.

The music for “Shining Brow,” which is the English translation of the Welsh “Taliesin,” was originally composed by Daron Hagen, with a libretto by the poet Paul Muldoon, in 1993 for Wisconsin’s Madison Opera, which is near Wright’s Taliesin estate. Specter said Arizona Opera worked with Hagen to create the “Taliesin West” version, which will be performed as part of the company’s annual McDougall RED Series.

The RED Series

The McDougall RED Series, which occurs in the fall, is a two-show series that Specter calls “a very experimental and exciting space for us.” Specter’s idea for those that attend a McDougall RED Series show is that the audience will experience a sense of adventure and shared risk-taking with the performers.

The shows are shorter than a traditional opera and performed on a smaller stage with a smaller orchestra.

 “It’s about breaking down every single barrier, making people feel welcome to come to the show, no matter what. And so, one of those barriers is time,” Specter says. “We felt like, from a brand standpoint, that a piece like ‘Shining Brow’ was really more spiritually connected to this exploration of growing our opera audience in that sort-of more edgy, enterprising way.”

Joseph Specter, President and General Director, Arizona Opera

Specter had a career as an opera singer himself. He was a professional baritone who performed more than 20 opera and musical theater roles and sang in the extra chorus of the Metropolitan Opera before moving into administrative leadership positions. Before joining Arizona Opera in 2016, Specter served as general director of Austin Opera from April 2012 through May 2016, and director of institutional relations at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Following “Shining Brow,” this fall’s other opera in the McDougall RED Series will be “Fellow Travelers,” a story about the Lavender Scare, or crackdown on gay federal government employees during the 1950s. It will be performed in November.

The Flinn Foundation in 2018 provided a two-year, $100,000 grant to Arizona Opera to support the series as part of its Initiative for Financial and Creative Health, which is designed to strengthen alignment between the organization’s creative products and financial capitalization.

A company for Arizona

In the winter and spring, Arizona Opera performs three operas, including well-known classics, at two larger venues—Symphony Hall in Phoenix and Tucson Music Hall. The company, which was originally founded as the Tucson Opera Company in 1971, performs its shows in two cities, which is rare for an opera company. The headquarters are now in Phoenix in the Central Arts District, with an office in Tucson opening as well.

The spirit of collaboration is a virtue that Specter hopes to foster through Arizona Opera’s work with other organizations.

“In general, I would say collaboration is a very core and comfortable principle for this company. We’re always looking for opportunities to figure out how we can rise the tide and lift all boats,” Specter says.

This includes collaborating with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which preserves Taliesin West in Scottsdale and Taliesin, near Spring Green, Wis., acts as a steward of Wright’s legacy to foster new innovations, and uses principles of organic architecture to advance STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) education programming.

Taliesin West, a National Historic Landmark in addition to its new UNESCO World Heritage List designation, is located in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains and is home to both the foundation and The School of Architecture at Taliesin, which trains architects.

Specter believes that “Shining Brow” is an important piece for Arizonans to see.

“We curate the season based on what we hope holistically will be important for all Arizonans,” Specter says. “‘Shining Brow,’ by virtue of the fact that it is a world premiere of a new version of the piece—that it’s a new production, that it has this state connection—I do think that there are certainly a lot of reasons that Arizonans might find it really exciting to come to a show like this.”

Learn more about the 2019-2020 season and the Arizona Opera at

Arizona Opera 2019-2020 Season


Shining Brow

Sept. 27-29: Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix
Oct 5-6: Temple of Music and Art, Tucson

From 1903 to 1914, the early life of visionary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was anything but conventional. In fact, it was tumultuous. Shining Brow, the translation of the Welsh “Taliesin,” was the name that Wright gave to his homes in Wisconsin and Arizona, and where his life took a unique turn. An affair with a client’s wife, complicated relationships, murders and a devastating fire at Taliesin drove Wright’s passion and determination to rebuild his life in this compelling and surprising tale.

Fellow Travelers

Nov 8-10: Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix
Nov 16-17: Temple of Music and Art, Tucson

During the McCarthy-era Lavender Scare, communists weren’t the only government targets. Hostility directed toward abolishing “homosexual tendencies” in the government created a world of fear and shame. In Fellow Travelers, a chance encounter between an ambitious college graduate, Timothy Laughlin, and a handsome US State Department official, Hawkins Fuller, results in Laughlin’s first job— and his first love affair. Drawn into a maelstrom of passion and deceit, he struggles to reconcile his political convictions and his “forbidden” love for Fuller. The powerfully compelling production is an ode to the importance of being one’s self and the bravery it takes to stand up to oppression. This moving tale is based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon. 

La Bohème

January 24-26: Symphony Hall, Phoenix
February 1-2: Tucson Music Hall

To be an aspiring artist in 1830s Paris was to be poor—but happy. When Mimì enters the poet Rodolfo’s apartment in search of a flame to light her candle, the pair ignite a romance that burns brilliantly through the ages. The passion and struggle of Rodolfo and his fellow bohemians come to life in Puccini’s timeless masterpiece, one of opera’s most popular and engaging stories. La Bohème will thrill you with its sweeping melodies and its dramatic love story.

Riders of the Purple Sage

February 28 – March 1: Symphony Hall, Phoenix
March 7-8: Tucson Music Hall

Arizona Opera’s first commission, which made its world-premiere to sold-out crowds in 2017, is making its hugely-anticipated return. Riders of the Purple Sage, an adaptation of Zane Grey’s classic of the same name, tells a powerful story of strength and redemption through love, loss, conflict and adventure across breathtaking Southwest vistas that are brought magnificently to life by world-renowned Arizona artist, Ed Mell. 

Ariadne auf Naxos

April 3-5: Symphony Hall
April 11-12: Tucson Music Hall

A wealthy patron has commissioned two pieces of entertainment for a private dinner party: an opera based on the myth of Ariadne in exile, and a capering troupe of clowns for comic relief. The catch: the two acts must perform simultaneously! The result is a delightful comedy of errors, as Ariadne auf Naxos delivers a deliciously theatrical mix of humor and exceptionally beautiful music, bringing surprise and delight at every possible turn.