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In retrospect, Karyl Lynn Zietz and opera got off to a bad start. When Zietz was 8, her parents took her to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde—all five hours of it. “Apparently, I was very well-behaved,” she recalls. “But it had a very deep impression on me: I refused to go to the opera again until prep school, when I was forced to go. We went to see Madama Butterfly in Boston, and I promptly fell asleep.”
As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Zietz warmed to the art form. “I had a subscription to the Philadelphia Orchestra,” she says, “but after a couple of years I got tired of watching old men in tails playing instruments.” So she started going back to her native New York City on weekends to attend operas there.
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Zietz got a semester or two into her Columbia University course work for a biochemistry Ph.D., but she found herself spending more time at the Met than at the lab, so she walked away from academia. For a while, she worked as a producer and correspondent for German TV; she also made documentaries, winning an award for one film about the Amish.
But since 1989, Zietz—who’s now a Washingtonian—has toiled as a full-time opera journalist and author, a rarity in America. Zietz’s main outlets these days are all overseas: Opera Now of London, Orpheus of Berlin, Opera/Opera of Sydney. In a good year, Zietz will see 70 operas in 50 cities and two dozen countries. “I’m like a surfer,” she explains. “Instead of traveling the world searching for the perfect wave, I travel the world searching for the perfect opera.”
She always travels at her own expense, so to keep costs down, Zietz typically attends 10 operas in 10 days, or 30 in 40 days. In addition to writing freelance pieces on what she sees, Zietz uses these trips to research books. She’s now written four, with one or two more in the works. The most recent is Opera Companies and Houses of Western Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference (McFarland). The book, available primarily through online retailers, features histories, practical information, and photographs (taken by Zietz) of hundreds of opera houses and companies around the globe.
The latest book weighs in at 480 pages and took three years to complete. Compared with a previous book about U.S. opera houses, Zietz found this one a bear to research. Language was one obvious challenge. Zietz speaks fluent German and Italian and passable French, but she threw up her hands at many of the scholarly works she ran across. Some Italian volumes, she says, used such “highfalutin’” language that “90 percent of Italians had never seen such prose.”
Zietz says she’s most comfortable in Washington. “New York is overcrowded with opera people,” she says. “Opera in Washington was not that good until recently, but since Placido Domingo took over the Washington Opera, everyone’s gotten interested.” —Louis Jacobson