up close and personal with Stephen Llewellyn, aka Operaman, two-time #Operaplot winner

Opera blogger extraordinaire Stephen Llewellyn

Editor’s Note: Opera Bloggers’ Month on Operatoonity would not be complete without this classic repost about Portland Opera’s blogger of record!

It would be absolutely insufficient to call Stephen Llewellyn, aka “Operaman,” merely an opera blogger. Stephen is an Internet luminary, barely contained by the cyber-seams constraining you and me. His posts as the longtime blogger of record for Portland Opera bristle with good humor, unparalleled opera savvy, and compassion. He is the picture of joie de vivre–just look it up in the Glossary of French Expressions Most Americans Butcher,  and you will see his photograph there.

He also happens to be a two-time #Operaplot winner–my hero!–who very graciously gave his hard-won grand prize to a D. C. schoolteacher the first time he won the Twitter competition, which you can read all about here.

In case you are wondering whether you have the talent to compete with the best plotters in #Operaplot 2011, take a look at Stephen’s two prize-winning Tweets:

2009 #Operaplot Grand Prize winner:

There was a young lady called Fricka Who…who…*snore* “Wake up & it’s over.” It’s good, I just wish it were quicka. [The Ring Cycle.  Yep, all of it!]

#Operaplot Honorable Mention:

 Kissed the girls and made them cry. Stabbed one’s dad and watched him die. Offered chances to repent,he opted to be Hades sent. Men! (Don Giovanni) 

So, Stephen! So nice to have you join us. A hearty “Operatoonity” welcome and all that.

Operaman in his younger days

When you began blogging in 2007, how did you get the job? You were a barrister and formerly sang opera. How was it decided you were the Operaman for the job?
I am English and I spent my professional life as a barrister: the whole wig and gown thing.  Think “Rumpole of The Bailey,” but I’m not as good looking as Leo McKern. From 1978 until 1996 I ran my practice from Hong Kong but in 1996, shortly before the hand-over of Hong Kong to the Chinese government I left Asia and settled in Northern California. I had decided that after 32 years, my legal career had run its course, and I had my mind set on drinking a lot of Californian chardonnays and watching birds from my beach house on Bodega Bay. Divorce put the kibosh on those plans, but that’s another story your readers really can do without hearing.

I moved up here to Portland in 2004.  Some friends of mine who had lived here for many years had waxed lyrical to me about it’s sub-tropical climate; Portland is a city, they said, where every garden had a mango tree and the traditional cocktail is the Mai Tai. Like Rick who had gone to Casablanca for the waters, it transpired that I was “mis-informed.”  Portland’s only similarity to the tropics is that it rains all the damn time. And forget Mai Tais – the traditional cocktail here is Double Bastard Ale from the Stone Brewing Company!

One day, the General Director brought the Board of Directors into the room and said, “I want you to meet Stephen Llewellyn. He knows more about opera than anyone else in this building.”  I thought, Um, shouldn’t that person be  you, dude? But I smiled in an aw-shucks kind of way and carried on with what I was doing. A few days later, the Director of Marketing came to me and said they were thinking of trying an experiment with “this new blogging thing” (well, it was new to him!) and would I be interested in scribbling a few words for a week or two.

This week will be my 223rd consecutive weekly blog under the soubriquet Operaman. I left Portland Opera in 2007, but the blogging continues. Somehow they have never got around to firing my ass!

How has your blog grown or changed in past four years, assuming it has? I would like to tell you that during the four and a bit years I have been Operaman, I have grown and matured as a writer and that there is now a witty sophistication to my blog that was not evident originally; a result that only hours of tireless self-editing can successfully produce. Yes, I really would like to be able to tell you that….but it wouldn’t bear a scintilla of truth, which is that from the beginning, Operaman’s Blog has been a mish-mash of gossip from the opera world, personal recollections, and a heavy reliance on YouTube.

How have you changed as a result of your blogging?
Changed? I’ve not. It has been of the utmost importance to me that fame and fortune on a scale you quotidian scribes can only dream of, should not in any way change my inherent narcissism, arrogance and ability to bore the pants off anyone who I can get to listen to my endless recounting of my memories of Benjamin Britten. Speaking of which, did I tell you about that time we were doing Noye’s Fludde and …What?  Another time?  Oh, very well. I would certainly be open to change if I thought there was any room in my life for personal growth or character improvement and, you may believe it or not, people are for ever making suggestions to me on this very topic but somehow those suggestions never manage to quite resonate with me. No, I think I am a very good example of  “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Since you began blogging before Facebook and Twitter caught fire, how has social media impacting your ability to grow the audience for your blog? For opera?
Well, obviously, if, as I am lucky enough to have,  you have a few hundred followers or more on Twitter, then posting a link to my blog each week means that there is a reasonable chance that a decent proportion of those followers will click on the link and take a look. Similarly with Facebook friends.  Both on Facebook and Twitter my friends are nearly all connected with music in one way or another so that helps grow the blog readership. Over four years my readership has increased almost tenfold and we expect to be in double figures before the decade’s out.

Who is your audience for Operaman today? It is no surprise that when Operaman was first sprung on an unsuspecting public, the readership was largely local to Portland and the surrounding area.  Now, I have readers throughout the United States and quite a few in Europe – even some in Australia. I try to see that each week there is something that will appeal to opera lovers whereever they may be.  Obviously, if there is something going on in the opera world in Portland I write about that but, by and large, Portland Opera is pretty good about letting me write about what ever I think will interest  the readers. It need not even be about opera, though I try to see there is some connection there, however tenuous. I think the readership falls into a number of categories: those who are Portland Opera attenders who like to keep in touch, general opera fans, whereever they may be, who like a blog that’s not too heavy on queenly criticism, written by someone who doesn’t think the continuum of opera came to a grinding halt in 1960 when Jussi Björling handed in his dinner pail. And, of course, my Mum — who doesn’t have a computer but likes to read the blog in hard copy when I think to send it to her.

Now, after seven years of living here, like every other long-time resident of the Pacific North West my tailor is The North Face, and I am developing webbed feet. In 2004, I got a job with Portland Opera, in their Patron Services department. I have a long background in opera, so I was delighted to be able to swap the legal milieu for a job in the performing arts. On paper I was really just a telemarketer, selling subscriptions and garnering donations but in reality it was a wonderful job for me.  I got to spend all day chatting with patrons about opera – not just our productions but singers of the past, great recordings, whereever our conversation took us.  And because this translated into great sales figures, I was given very free rein.

Publicity shot for the TV Times in England (June 1971) when Stephen had his own special on BBC2

How has your blogging impacted Portland Opera visibility and audiences?
Let’s not get carried away here. When people hear the words Portland Opera, they think “Ah, a terrific regional opera company that manages to get some first-rate talent!” and not “Oh, they’re the ones who have Operaman!”  That having been said, I think the press ink that Priscilla’s Great Adventure got throughout the United States, did bring Portland Opera to the attention of many people who had never heard of it before.  Do I think it has grown the audience?  I very much doubt it, but I think those who do read Operaman’s Blog as well as attend our performances feel a little closer to the action.  Certainly, that is what they tell me.

Why don’t more companies host a blog the caliber of Portland’s?
Oh, that’s an easy one, Gale.  It’s because writers who manage to combine  the lack of literary talent and depth of ignorance I display on a weekly basis are hard to come by. Most companies are happy to be producing blogs of a much higher calibre than mine.

Believe me, if any of Portland Opera management were ever to read another opera company’s blog my gig would be over in a heart-beat! Fortunately, thus far, I have been able to persuade them that they are on the cutting edge of the social media scene and that we are the only opera company in the land to host a blog.  You and I know different.  I would ask you to keep this to yourself.  I have a really good deal going here!

What are some of your greatest challenges to regular blogging?
Again, let’s not get carried away. ‘Operaman’s Blog’ and ‘greatest challenges’ are not phrases that really belong in the same paragraph, let alone sentence.  Each week I sit at my computer, pull up the notes or links to articles I have gathered over the past seven days and cobble together a few paragraphs.  Recently, I heard Philip Glass talking about Bach. Glass said “I think Bach just wrote what was in his head.  I don’t believe he ever composed anything in his life!”  So, it would seem that JSB and I share this creational technique — just write what’s in your head.  The difference between us is that in my case, it bloody shows! I suspect that, like many bloggers, my biggest challenge is getting people to comment.  I wish there were something I could say or do that would make the readers understand how much better the experience would be if it were a conversation and not the sound of one hand clapping.  I am interested — does your reader ever comment?

Any other intangible perks (besides the wonderful #Operaplot prize story)?
Yes, there is one and I am going to be wholly serious while I tell you what it is. With some regularity, at Portland Opera performances and at the Met HD movie shows, people come up to me with broad smiles and exclaim “Operaman!” and go on to tell me how much they enjoy reading my blog.  That, naturally, is a delightful thing to hear.  But then they will go on to say how a particular blog or a part of the blog, has made them see opera in a different light, or has made them go to listen to an opera they had never before considered – that kind of thing. And then I take a huge pride in knowing that, if in only a limited way, I have done something to increase an individual’s pleasure in an art form I truly love. I am not being flippant when I tell you that moments like that make me feel it is a real privilege for me to have the avenue I do to express that love.

Operaman making pasta and singing 'Ah, mes amis' from La Fille du Regiment. Can't you just hear those nine top C's?

Has blogging helped you realize any personal or professional goals?
If you mean did I grow up saying to myself “One day I want to write largely inconsequential nonsense in exchange for almost no monetary gain,” then, no, not really. Sometimes my blog has realised a personal goal I didn’t know I had.  For instance, just this week a nice lady emailed me saying “I just peaked at your blog…” I emailed back “Seriously? Either a) you meant ‘peeked’ or b) Brava!”  I mean, how many opera blogs are going to give you that kind of bang for your buck? (That was wholly true. You can’t make this stuff up.)

What would be your dream opera experience — work/cast/venue, etc.?
Back in about 1972 I sang in a performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at Snape Maltings with Janet Baker and the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Ben Britten.  I’m not sure that, for me, dream opera experiences get any better than that.

Paul Potts and Rebecca Black in Turandot might run it a close second.

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Follow Stephen on Twitter @leboyfriend and on Facebook. And, of course, you’ll want to check out his blog “Operaman” on the Portland Opera website.



1 Comment

Filed under Classic Opera, Contests, Interviews, North American Opera, Opera and humor, profiles

One Response to up close and personal with Stephen Llewellyn, aka Operaman, two-time #Operaplot winner

  1. Let me be the first to leave a comment–although, I am surprised that no one else has. Reading this interview with Operaman was a true delight. I’m a neophyte to the opera world, but I’m truly looking forward to reading his blog posts from now on. And I’ll strive to comment. It’s totally true; you can’t get a reader to comment unless you pay them to–and even then they ask how much!

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