David Horn and Bill O’Donnell Q &A: Starry Nights

staff | July 20, 2012

This month, THIRTEEN’s Great Performances series brings you starry summer music specials from around the world. Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Summer Night Concert 2012 (Fri 31st, 9 p.m.; pictured on the cover), filmed in the magnificent gardens of Austria’s Imperial Schönbrunn Palace. Closer to home, we’re pleased to present Tanglewood 75th Anniversary Celebration (Fri 10th, 9 p.m.) and  Music of the Movies (Sat 11th, 7:30 p.m.), young singing sensation Jackie Evancho’s new special. And opera fans won’t want to miss Manon (Thu 9th, 8:30 p.m.) and La Traviata (Thu 23rd, 9 p.m.) on Great Performances at the Met.

David Horn
THIRTEEN spoke with Executive Producer David Horn and Series Producer Bill O’Donnell to get an inside look at the long-running performing arts series.

Great Performances is currently enjoying its 39th year on public television.  What was it like to produce the series in the ‘70s and ‘80s compared to now?

DAVID HORN: I think the biggest difference is that we’ve expanded the definition of performing arts programming on public television. In its early years, it consisted primarily of opera, symphonic music, classical music, drama, and dance. Today, we include classic American Songbook, musical theater, popular music, classic rock, and crossover artists like Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli, and 12-year-old musical prodigy Jackie Evancho.

Bill O’Donnell
BILL O’DONNELL: What hasn’t changed is that we continue to bring viewers programs they truly won’t find anywhere else. The networks and cable have pretty much abandoned everything but mainstream music programming. We’re the place where performers of all kinds can do what they do best in a long-form format.

David, you’re directing the new Jackie Evancho special. How do you transform a show from a live stage experience into a compelling TV broadcast?

DH: One of the most important things we do is to create an environment for the program. Andrea Bocelli’s new special is going to showcase Mediterranean love songs, so what better place to be than Portofino, Italy? For Jackie Evancho’s new special of movie music, which premieres during our August membership drive, we chose the Orpheum Theatre, an old, beautifully restored vaudeville palace in downtown L.A. The theater has an incredibly rich history and is located in an area where there used to be tons of movie palaces, so in a way it’s the star of the program too, and it provides the perfect backdrop for the gorgeous movie songs Jackie performs.

We also look for ways to set the pacing by bringing in guest artists to help keep things moving along, and we look at how the show’s star interacts with the guest artists and audience. But the first step really is the logistics. Whether the show is set in Portofino or Central Park, it’s one huge logistical chore at first. You’re doing everything. You’re the conceptual artist, you’re the stage director, you’re the person who’s getting all the permits and building the scenes. Then you focus on directing the television show, which primarily involves planning camera positions. That’s especially important with an environmental show like Andrea in Portofino where we want to capture the beauty of the location.

Andrea Bocelli and Julie Andrews are among the celebrated artists who have appeared on Great Performances programs many times over the years. Why do performers keep returning to the series?

DH: One of the reasons is that we involve them in the creative process and provide a positive, encouraging work environment. At commercial networks, producers tell artists what to do whereas we ask artists for their input and let them know their talent and vision are appreciated. This really makes a lasting impression on them, and it’s deeply gratifying when we get the call that they want to come back and work with us again.

BO’D: I completely agree and would add that many of the artists who have appeared on GP ultimately become supporters of public television. After they work on one of our programs, they really appreciate what we’re able to do with them and fully understand the power of public television. The icing on the cake is that they’re reaching people doing the things they want to do and want to say.

What is it like working with artists you admire? Do you have a favorite personal memory of working on Great Performances?

DH: It’s been wonderful to work with and meet people like Dame Julie Andrews, Beverly Sills, Walter Cronkite, Garrison Keillor, Harry Connick, Jr., and Sir Patrick Stewart.  But one of my favorite memories involves a show we did with Luciano Pavarotti in the mid-80s. It was a show about Neapolitan song, filmed in Naples, and due to a mishap, Luciano and I ended up traveling to the shooting locations on a houseboat called “The Love Boat,” complete with disco ball. The crew had no idea we were delayed and while they were frantic with worry, Luciano and I were on the roof of the boat in lawn chairs, singing Sinatra songs.

BO’D: I guess my career high – although it wasn’t Great Performances – was when I got to be the FCC guy in Make ‘Em Laugh, a documentary series we produced on American comedy, and had to lock up Billy Crystal in jail with the other groundbreakers of comedy. He complimented me on my acting, which pretty much made my day.

What does it mean to you that Great Performances has inspired so many people to pursue the arts?

BO’D: Robert Battle, artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, recently came to the studio to tape a promo for THIRTEEN’s upcoming 50th anniversary, and he spoke quite passionately and poetically about the experience of seeing the Ailey company on public television when he was a teen growing up in an inner city near Miami.

DH: Battle was completely mesmerized by the program, which was narrated by former Ailey star and artistic director Judith Jamison. He said the experience of watching it and hearing Jamison talk about Ailey’s choreography and artistic vision inspired him profoundly. Stories like that speak volumes as one of our goals is to provide a platform for great artists and organizations and bring their work to people whose geography or circumstances may prevent them from having access to the performing arts. Ten thousand people may see a performance during the course of a show’s run in a theater, but one million people or more see it when it airs on Great Performances. We’re providing a service, and as Robert Battle’s story illustrates, it’s a service that can dramatically change people’s lives.

Who is on your Great Performances wish list?

DH: There have been many Broadway productions we wanted to do, but which fell through due to finances, legalities, or other reasons.  But we have our Broadway success stories, as well. This season we aired the enormously popular Memphis, and next season we’re very excited to have Stephen Sondheim’s Company starring Neil Patrick Harris, Patti LuPone, and Stephen Colbert.  As for our wish list, we’re producing a great big gala special as a fundraiser for THIRTEEN’s 50th anniversary, which begins in September 2012. Our wish is to have as many of our illustrious alumni as possible in that special, so tune in to find out who they are.

Great Performances is produced for PBS by THIRTEEN for WNET, and is funded by the Irene Diamond Fund, The National Endowment for the Arts, Vivian Milstein, The Starr Foundation, public television viewers, and PBS. Major series funding is also provided by the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Arts Fund, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, The Agnes Varis Trust, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, the Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, the Filomen M. D’Agostino Foundation, Annaliese Soros, Jody and John Arnhold, Victor and Sono Elmaleh and Vera von Kuffner Eberstadt.