General Director of Opera Memphis in a set of his own design.
Whether directing an opera or rescuing dying plants, Ned Canty’s life and office are as expressive and colorful as an aria from one of his favorite shows, such as Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Donizetti’s Elixir of Love, or The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan. Though Canty is the top of the food chain when it comes to Memphis opera, this native New Yorker wasn’t always a fan. “If you’d told me at 21 I’d [end up] running an opera company I’d have thought you were nuts. I saw an opera at 18 and didn’t really like it. For years I didn’t go to another one. Then at 26, I got asked to work on one as an assistant director, and after I hemmed and hawed I kind of got blackmailed into doing it. I fell in love with the art form. I went in expecting it to be boring and stuffy, and I was completely wrong. The people were fantastic, the art form was broader, more interesting, funnier, and more engaging than I’d imagined.”
Canty graduated summa cum laude with a major in drama and classical philosophy from Catholic University of America, and he has a passion for sharing his love of opera with others. “There are none more righteous than the newly converted. That’s why I enjoy converting people because I shared most of the misconceptions people have about opera. So I know what you have to do to break through.”
1. Wall of plants: Affectionately known as “the nursery,” an entire wall of Canty’s workspace looks more like a greenhouse than a director’s office. It fits his personality perfectly, but he claims it was purely a happy coincidence that stemmed from lack of sunlight in his yard. “It’s a great way to keep me from leaving stacks of papers everywhere, and you can really feel the oxygen levels increase when you walk in,” says Canty, an avid gardener. “Lowe’s does this thing where they sell dying plants for like 75 percent off, and I’m slowly nursing them back to life. My wife rescues dogs and I rescue plants.”
2. Lightning bolt of Jupiter signed by cast: From a production of Orpheus in the Underworld Canty directed at Julliard in 2002 that became very personal. “The day we opened, the fella who was playing Jupiter got sick. We thought, ‘Fine, he has an understudy,’ but the understudy learned all of the music and none of the dialogue. So, I ended up having to go on since I knew the dialogue, and the understudy sang from the side of the stage.”
3. Mikado set model: “In 2007, I directed The Mikado in St. Louis, and this was the model from the original production. This was one of the most enjoyable shows I ever worked on. It was a great cast, a great atmosphere, and a great opera company [Opera Theatre of St. Louis]. As the show was done, they broke the model apart and sold bits and pieces, and I’ve actually been able to buy back most of it. So, next year we’re going to put the show back together.” The show was so well received that it made the cover of Europe’s Opera magazine, and after a 12-year-old girl saw a student matinee she decided to have her birthday there.
4. Quote: “This one’s not very [visually] exciting, but I keep it on my desk. In Memphis, so many of my colleagues were doing this amazing work, and there are times you think, ‘Why am I at the same table?’ because we put on shows and we’re entertainment, etc. I expressed this to Jan Young, of the Assisi Foundation of Memhis, and the response was that all of my colleagues rallied to the defense of the arts.” Canty explains that their defense was that they’re saving people’s lives, but without the arts or entertainment it would be for nothing. Arts are crucial to the enjoyment of life.
5. Twitter roll from “30 Days of Opera”: “It was a program that we launched last fall and we’re doing again this fall, which is basically 30 days of free performances throughout the city.” For the event there was a hashtag on Twitter to help the community understand why people were “On the corner of Sam Cooper and Parkway singing opera,” Canty says. “We took screen shots and when it was over we taped them all together into one 214-foot roll of tweets. This was just a way to show how big the conversation was and how engaged people were.”
6. Picture of his wife, Karen: “This was right after we got married and this party was for our wedding and my parent’s 40th wedding anniversary. I keep it there because I love it and think my wife looks beautiful, and it reminds me that I was a lot skinnier before I moved to Memphis.”
7. Jack of hearts playing card: Canty directed the first New York revival of A Month in the Country by American composer Lee Hoiby. “He came to one of the performances, well into his 80s at that point. There’s a scene where people are playing cards, so I had him sign it since I’m very sentimental about objects. He signed it, ‘Lee Hoiby, happy composer.’ I loved it; making a composer happy — you don’t get to hear that from Mozart or Puccini, ya know, because usually they’re dead. And ‘Jack of Hearts Productions’ was a company I started in college, and we did various improv and children’s theater.”
8. Tiffany Parker pen: Other than theater- or opera-related jobs, the only other job Canty ever had was selling and engraving Parker pens at Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s. “I sold so many pens that the guy who ran the stationery department thought that I was stealing them, but I really love the pens. So, this was a gift from my supervisor at Parker, and I use it to sign contracts and checks and anything important, even though it doesn’t have a cap anymore. Theater people are very superstitious, so if you sign it with a better pen it will have a better outcome.”