Not-so-Flyover Country

Q&A with Kathleen Smith Belcher

When someone mentions the Met, what image springs to mind? Tuxedoed gentlemen and ladies in formal attire attending opening night? Lush scenery, augmented by even richer arias? A stage director commuting back and forth from Lincoln Center to Liberty, Mo.? If the third doesn’t immediately strike the consciousness, think again: We have among us one of the Metropolitan Opera’s own. Kathleen Smith Belcher, who lives in Liberty with her daughter and husband, Grammy-winning opera singer Daniel Belcher, has spent the past dozen years as a stage director for one of opera’s most venerable institutions. Spaces caught up with Belcher to see just how she does it.

Spaces: First, we’ve got to know—how did you get from the Met to here, or vice versa?

Kathleen Smith Belcher: I met my husband when we were working at the San Francisco Opera. When we decided to get married, we decided to come to Liberty because he grew in St. Joseph, and he went to school at William-Jewell. My family had moved around a lot. I didn’t necessarily want to end up where my parents were living at the time because I didn’t have any roots there.

I was working primarily in San Francisco and New York, and we couldn’t afford to live in either of those places in the manner that we had grown accustomed to living. So we said, “Let’s go to Kansas City!” It’s smack-dab in the middle. He had lots of friends and family. And it was a nice place to settle down.

We have a 9-year-old daughter. Initially we thought, “Well, maybe we should move to New York so Mom can be home a little more.” But we just wanted to stay here because the school system is so good. It’s just a happier way to grow up. Everything is harder there.

Rehearsal of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, directed by Kathleen Smith Belcher. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

S: Except working at the Met—what’s that like?

KSB: The Met is an amazing place on so many levels. I said something about the Met casually to a lighting designer friend of mine. He said, “Kathleen, that’s the country’s biggest, most amazing theater!” I said, “You’re right, it is, isn’t it?” I sort of take it for granted sometimes, but I get to walk into the building and hear a world-class orchestra and amazing singers every day. It’s a really great place to go to work.

S: How do you handle all the travel?

KSB: I generally work 20 to 25 weeks at the Met. Then I usually do one or two other shorter jobs that are about three weeks long at a time. The schedule organization is complicated. We take jobs based on who’s working and not working. We’re really lucky we have a great support system. Both Danny’s parents and my mother are willing to come in and take care of our daughter if we overlap. It takes a village in our family. We’re lucky that we have people who can help.

S: What does an opera stage director do, exactly?

KSB: It’s essentially what a film director or theater director would do. You have an artistic vision about what story you want to tell. The nice thing about opera, some of it has been around so long that you can take a fresh look at how to tell the story, using music to inform what’s going on on the stage. So I work closely with the set and costume designers to create a world that we want these characters to live in. And then I work with the singers to develop the characters, always using the music. The composer is generally trying to help you out. You just have to listen to what the music’s telling you dramatically and be true to that.

S: What would you say to those intimidated by opera?

KSB: Don’t be afraid to give opera a try. The Kauffman is a great theater; they’ve got a fantastic translation system. If the opera’s in a different language, the translation is right there. You’ll know what’s going on. It’s not an elitist art form. It is one that was born for the people, of the people, really. If you just give it a chance, you might surprise yourself and find something that you really enjoy.