It’s the early 1970s, and Robert G. Engel, a J.P. Morgan executive, is in charge of getting his 10-year-old son, Rob, and his pals to ice hockey practice. Every Saturday, the boys pile into the Engels’ Volvo station wagon, Mr. Engel rolls down the window, lights a cigar and turns on some music. And what do you suppose is blaring from the eight-track tape deck – Sinatra? Springsteen?
Actually, it’s Puccini.
“My first exposure to opera was in that car,” Rob Engel says. “All the kids from my carpool still remember my dad blasting opera every week.”
Mary Tabor grew up in Memphis in an equally musical family. When Rob, Wells Fargo Securities’ head of investment banking and capital markets, began dating Mary – in Manhattan after both graduated from Princeton – he often took her to hear live music.
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Today the Engels live with their four busy teenagers in a Myers Park home filled with music. All the Engel children – daughter, Currie, 17; and sons Robert, 19; Owen, 15 and Hunter, 13 – play piano. The family has two pianos to accommodate everyone.
The Engels have been attending opera for years. “We order six season tickets,” says Mary. Always avid supporters, the Engels are taking their involvement to a new level this year as board chairs. They are the first co-chairs in Opera Carolina’s 66-year history.
The job will be shared equally. “It’s a great way for us to work together,” says Rob of the partnership. “We can provide different forms of advice and counsel. Hopefully, we’re a good two-for-one deal.”
While opera is an art form, there’s a business side to it, too. Rob brings business acumen to an organization that’s already in solid financial shape. “Rob’s background is in mergers and acquisitions,” says Mary. “He’s creative about making the most of the assets you have.”
Mary’s goals are to increase Opera Carolina’s education and community outreach. A former New York Times reporter, Mary is passionate about education. She now teaches newswriting at Queens University.
Both Engels say James Meena, Opera Carolina’s general director and principal conductor since 2000, is one of the company’s – and Charlotte’s – greatest assets. Mary marvels, “He conducts without a score!”
“Jim Meena is great at finding and nurturing talent,” adds Rob. And noting that many other opera companies across the country didn’t fare as well during the recession, he adds, “He is also adept with the numbers and does a very effective job financing and managing all aspects of Opera Carolina.”
The Engels credit Meena with developing a smart business model. A season contains just three shows – not an overwhelming commitment for season ticketholders. Opera Carolina’s current season includes Verdi’s Nabucco, Puccini’s Turandot and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
The Engels' first event as board chairs will be Art Poetry Music, on Sept. 13 at the Knight Theater. The second annual event is a fusion of visual art, spoken word, opera arias and Korean and Chinese music. Five of the Engels will attend; Robert is away at Middlebury College for his freshman year.
Not only does a love of music run in the family; community service does, too. Currie Engel co-chaired Opera Carolina’s Ma Mere et Moi (My Mother and Me) program when she was in eighth grade. The program, designed to cultivate an early interest in opera, is for middle- and high-school girls who, along with their mothers (and often, grandmothers), attend brunch with Maestro Meena before a Sunday afternoon matinee.
Early exposure helped Rob and Mary fall in love with opera, yet they realize not every kid is raised on opera – and that it may seem daunting to the uninitiated. But they have a ready answer. “I tell people: ‘Just lean back and listen. Let the music take you wherever it takes you,’” Rob says.
“People may look at opera and think it’s high-brow and serious,” says Mary. “But it’s universal; it’s for everybody.”
Opera doesn’t have to move you to tears, Mary says. She mentions the scene in Pretty Woman where Vivian attends her first opera and weeps at the similarities between her life and that of La Traviata’s tragic heroine.
“You don’t have to be Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman,” she laughs. You can feel opera’s power without being overcome.
Who knows? You may even feel it while listening to a soundtrack in carpool. As Rob Engel proves, a young ice hockey player is not immune to the power of Puccini. Opera has the potential to transport us – if we just lean back and listen.
Learn more about Opera Carolina at www.operacarolina.org.