Hop Veteran Will Lead City Opera House

  • Joe Clifford

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/15/2017 12:17:18 AM
Modified: 2/15/2017 12:17:25 AM

Lebanon — For his last act as a civilian, Joe Clifford planned to go to the Lebanon Opera House on Tuesday night to watch former Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor spin tales — scant hours after the venue’s leadership announced Clifford’s hiring as the opera house’s new executive director.

“I’ll try to fly under the radar,” Clifford said with a chuckle on Tuesday afternoon, during a telephone interview from his office at Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center for the Arts. “I think the last show I saw there was (humorist) David Sedaris.”

Beginning in late March, Clifford, who has worked at the Hop for 17 years, will be deciding which performers to bring in — and when — to the 800-seat theater, mixing productions by community arts organizations ranging from City Center Ballet and Opera North to the Trumbull Hall Troupe and North Country Community Theatre.

With an annual budget just shy of $1 million, he’ll be working with two other full-time staff members and two part-timers. He also will monitor the venue’s agreement with the unionized stagehands of IATSE Local 919.

Clifford, a 44-year-old Plainfield resident, replaces Upper Valley native Heather Clow, who worked at the opera house for 15 years, the last eight as executive director, before moving in December to Ohio to run a performing-arts center in the university town of Findlay.

Clifford and Clow got to know each other in recent years while taking turns as president of the Arts Presenters of Northern New England consortium — a role that the opera house search committee noticed during its hunt for a new chief, as well as Clifford’s oversight of the Hop’s marketing and public relations.

“Joe’s wide-reaching experience coupled with his regional and national visibility make him an ideal leader to take LOH to the next level,” Kevin Lane Keller, chairman of the opera house board of directors, said in the news release announcing the hiring. “His talents and deep understanding of the Upper Valley region made him rise to the top of our candidate pool.”

The Hopkins Center’s longtime director of programming said she will miss his artistic, promotional and networking skills.

“I hired him to be our director of outreach and arts education when he first got here,” Margaret Lawrence said in a telephone interview. “He’s going to bring a lot of not only talent but a lot of wisdom to the position. He cares deeply for the community, for what the arts can bring to community development. He understands very deeply how those two connect.”

Clifford joined the Hop staff a few months after moving to the Upper Valley from Pittsburgh for his wife’s job. As director of outreach, Clifford annually planned some 200 residencies, during which visiting musicians, dancers and actors shared the tricks of their trades with Upper Valley schoolchildren as well as with college students.

“The aim with that position was to raise the nutritional content of youth programming,” Clifford recalled. “That work established a base for being in the community, establishing the kinds of relationships I’ll be making with the many organizations that use the opera house.”

Clifford added that he envisions filling the dates between community productions with the same kinds of musicians and performance artists whom Clow booked over the years. They have ranged from blues acts such as Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal and Americana performers such as Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams and Joan Osborne and folk-rocker Richard Thompson to comedians such as Paula Poundstone and Steven Wright and humorists in the vein of Keillor and Sedaris.

“It’s a testament to this region that we can have the opera house and the Hop within 5 miles of each other without it being an outright competition for audiences in the same genres,” Clifford said. “Each has its own niche, and has a sustainable model.”

Clifford added that he gained a new appreciation for the opera house’s support system in the course of interviewing for the job with leaders of the board of directors.

“People are really invested in this organization,” he said. “When this position opened, it didn’t take a lot of convincing once they made the offer.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.

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