Born in Brighton, England, Perryn Leech succeeded Anthony Freud as the Houston Grand Opera’s managing director in 2011. Freud recruited Leech from the Welsh National Opera (where they had worked together previously) in 2006 to become the HGO’s technical and production manager. Over the course of his 28-year career, Leech has also worked with the English National Opera, the Edinburgh International Festival, and the Glyndebourne Festival. At the HGO, Leech has overseen the creation of a new strategic plan and launched a $165 million fundraising campaign that is scheduled to be completed by the end of next year.
Houstonia: How did you get involved in opera?
Perryn Leech: When I was at boarding school we had a very good school theater, and a lot of touring productions used to come through there. We were the unpaid stagehands. I was lucky to work with some of the real greats of British comedy—Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry…they all came through our school. I knew I wanted to do technical theater, so I told my parents I wanted to go to drama school to do a technical theater course. My dad tried to persuade me that was a bad idea—he’s a doctor, and at that point he wanted me to have a proper job. But I went off to drama school, and in the second year of my technical theater course I got the opportunity to get work experience at the Royal Academy of Music at an opera called The Coronation of Poppea. I had never heard of the opera. On that show I met a guy who was one of the stage managers at Glyndebourne, and Glyndebourne is one of the big festivals in the UK. He said I should come down to Glyndebourne and interview for a job. So I did that, and it wasn’t an interview at all—it was like, “you’ll start on August 3.” So I took the job and did the best I could. And once you’re in the opera world in the UK, it’s a pretty small world.
Had you always been interested in opera?
No, not at all. Coronation of Poppea was my first opera. My mom and dad liked musical theater, so I knew Andrew Lloyd Webber’s scores for Evita and Jesus Christ, Superstar, but never opera.
Had you ever taken a classical music course?
Nope, absolutely not. I learned to follow a score at Glyndebourne. During one opera there was a three-and-a-half-minute storm sequence, and during that sequence there were 140 cues in the score. I went over to my friend Laura’s home and we sat at her kitchen table practicing cues. She basically talked me through those three and a half minutes. So I can follow a score, but I’m not a music reader. I’m not one of those wonderful people who can look at a score and hear the music in their head.
How did you work your way up the ranks?
I got a job working for Opera 80 as a theater electrician, which is really what my passion was and what I really enjoyed doing at school. So I did that for a couple of years, in addition to doing other freelance work. Like I said, the opera world is very small, so I kept getting more and more jobs. I was bitten. So I carried on doing that for a while, and then 16 years ago my first child was born, and unfortunately she had complications at birth, so she’s disabled. I needed to stop touring and doing festival work and enjoying myself all the time, so I took a full-time job at the English National Opera [as senior production manger] and was there for four and a half years.
Talk a bit about your management style.
Tough but fair is how I like to see myself. I don’t suffer fools gladly, but I’m fair. And I’ll always try to do it with a sense of humor, because nobody likes to be made to feel stupid. It’s very easy to get scared of making decisions. That’s truly the biggest waste of time and resources. When you sit a crew around while you’re making a decision, that’s $2,000–3,000 an hour in some cases. It may be the wrong call, but you need to make one. And you’re always there to be judged by the decisions you make.
Why did you come to Houston?
Anthony Freud had just accepted a job in Houston [as general manager of the Houston Grand Opera], and he told me he really wanted me to come out because he wasn’t going to get on with the technical director here. At first I said no, and then nine months later [in 2006] I was asked again, so I came out here for the first time. I realized that this was something I possibly could do, so I ran back and told my wife that it was at least worth a trip out there for us to see the city. So we went in November and came back, and we were doing our pros and cons list, and suddenly my wife just comes out and says “This is something you really want to do, isn’t it?” And I said it was. So she said, “Let’s just do this.”
Other than Freud being here, what appealed to you about the job?
I had stayed at the English National Opera for four years; I was coming up on four years at the Welsh National Opera. The excitement and professional challenge of doing it somewhere else was definitely there. It wasn’t just moving to another company in the UK, it was doing it on another continent. And my working relationship with Anthony was fantastic, because there was trust there. The first show we did, there was a huge, big deal incident. I went and sorted it out and got it finished and taken care of. That’s what I do—I just take care of stuff.