Field Finds His Pasture

After 26 years at Oberlin, innovative director Jonathon Field trades higher ed for Mister Ed.

March 3, 2023

Jarrett Hoffman

Jonathon Field.
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

You know the song from Rent that asks how to measure a year of life? Well, steering clear of doing the math for “525,600 minutes” times 26, how do you measure a career lasting over a quarter-century?

After joining the faculty of Oberlin Conservatory in 1997 and heading up the opera program for 26 years—in addition to directing productions with leading professional organizations nationally and internationally, and serving for six years as artistic director of Lyric Opera Cleveland—Jonathon Field will retire at the end of the academic year.

That leaves time for one more show: Field will direct Oberlin Opera Theater in four performances of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide from Thursday, March 9, through Sunday, March 12, at Hall Auditorium. The English-language operetta, based on the novella by Voltaire, will be performed with supertitles, and Raphael Jiménez will lead the Oberlin Chamber Orchestra.

It marks the end of an era, no doubt—and of course, there are numerous ways to reflect on it.

How about the most memorable productions of Field’s tenure? Like the opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed that Line to Freedom, by Oberlin alumna Nkeiru Okoye ’92, which Field led on a tour of churches across Northeast Ohio? Or delivering Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas to the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires? Or what about Field’s signature moments stylistically—hilarious and wonderfully bizarre touches that hook into your memory and don’t let go, like the curious collection of rabbit characters he introduced in Mozart’s La finta giardiniera?

During a recent conversation, Field touched on his early years on the job, what makes him most proud as a director and teacher, those signature moments from productions past, the choice of Candide to finish out his Oberlin run, and how horses figure prominently in the next chapter of his career.

Twenty-six years. What comes to mind when you think back to your early days at Oberlin?

First of all, when I got here, all the operas were performed in English, so my big change was to get them performed in the original language. The first production I did was Carmen, which is in French. The next year we did Romeo and Juliet, also in French. And we did Così fan tutte in Italian.

What was it like for the students to make that change?

It was initially challenging. They had certainly done scenes in the original language for our Opera Scenes program, but the level of memorization required for full-length roles really upped their game. Those first years, we got Rhiannon Giddens ’00, Limmie Pulliam ’98—a lot of first-rate students who, I think because of that challenge, really saw what they could accomplish onstage.

Speaking of working with students: What would you say you’re most proud of having embodied as a director and teacher?

I like to think that by having productions of a certain level of creativity, I’ve inspired the students to also be creative and push themselves to new levels, beyond what they thought they were capable of. I really try to open up their minds with the idea that you can invent yourself—you can become what you want to be through diligent application.

Over the years, you’ve done all kinds of operas in all different ways. But perhaps you also have a bit of a signature: this amazing penchant for the silly and the bizarre. Would you agree?

Absolutely! My father was British, and I think the silliness comes from that British tradition, like Monty Python. I think it’s also how I grew up. I went to the same high school as Jimi Hendrix, in Seattle, and it was quite an unusual school—people were taught to be creative. And this was back in the late ’60s, which was an unusual time. The atmosphere in the town at that point was, “We don’t care how they do it in other cities—we’re in the Pacific Northwest, and we’re going to do it our own way.” I think that really rubbed off on me.

Four opera performers on a darkened stage.
Field's 2015 production of La finta giardiniera featured a double cast and a multitude of rabbits. (Photo by Yevhen Gulenko)

One of those “signature” moments that comes to mind is from your 2015 production of La finta giardiniera—the rabbits. Are there any other little touches like that that are particularly memorable for you?

Well, we did a production of Massenet’s Cendrillon, which is the Cinderella story. And it just seemed to me that a character like that, mistreated by others, would live in a fantasy world. So we gave her these invisible friends; she would talk to them, sing to them, and tell them her problems, and they would understand. They were these sort of creatures that our costume designer, Chris Flaharty, put together. And the great thing is that at the end of the opera, when she and the prince finally got together—he saw them too.

There’s certainly some quirkiness inherent in the Bernstein. [Note: Field has at least one zany moment up his sleeve.] But you tell me: Why Candide as your final production?

Because my wife wanted it. My dear wife Tracey wanted to see Candide, so I said, “Well, sure, why not?”

It’s a favorite of hers?

She’s very moved by it. The ending is really special: It’s a great piece to go out with. And it exemplifies so much about what’s good about this country. You have a composer in Leonard Bernstein—the son of immigrant parents—who’s this natural genius. And within the context of this country at the time, he finds a place for his genius to grow and flower.

And of course, Candide ends with “Make Our Garden Grow.”

Yes—it’s very inspirational.

The music in general is beloved, both instrumental and vocal. What stands out to you most about it?

Lenny’s music just has such joy and depth of emotion, and it’s brilliantly orchestrated. Plus, there’s the versatility he had as a composer. He writes a tango, a Viennese waltz, a French waltz, a sailor song—the breadth of styles that he was able to write in is absolutely phenomenal. I think I admire that because I also try to work in a variety of different styles. I’ve always admired creative people who aren’t locked into one specific way of doing something all the time.

Looking beyond Candide and beyond this year, what’s next for you? I know you’re also a certified equine massage therapist.

That’s going to be my new full-time occupation. One thing I’ve learned from horses is that they need a job to do: They really operate best when they have structure and a very clear idea of what’s expected of them. And I think people are kind of the same way. I know that when I retire from teaching at Oberlin Conservatory, I’m going to need something whereby I can make myself of service to other people, and to horses. So I’m going to be pursuing that full time, and hopefully making a lot of horses in Northeast Ohio happy.

Last thoughts about your Oberlin career?

Well, I’ve worked with a really great group of people here: designers, teachers, technicians, production assistants. And the students have been uniformly great. Interesting and challenging, as the Oberlin student is supposed to be.

Jarrett Hoffman ’14 is a freelance writer and clarinetist based in New York.

Candide performances are at 8 p.m Thursday, March 9 through Saturday, March 11 and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 12. Tickets are $10; $8 for students available online and through Oberlin Central Ticket Service.

You may also like…