Grethe Barrett Holby is one luminary who wears many hats as an opera and stage director, choreographer, producer, dancer, architect, and visual designer. She has been hailed for her operatic career spanning over four decades and is credited with popularizing the opera industry in North America. She has been at the forefront of the operatic scenario in the US, having established the ‘American Opera Projects’, ‘Family Opera Initiative’ and ‘Ardea Arts Incorporated’. Her professional career took off at the age of 26 when she was selected as a danseuse by the Laura Dean and Dance Company to perform at the worldwide premiere of ‘Drumming’ composed by Steve Reich. After two years, she was included in the main cast of Robert Wilson’s and Philip Glass’s ‘Einstein on the Beach’ when the opera premiered at the annual arts festival of Avignon, France. She instituted a dancing troupe, ‘Grethe Holby and Dancers’ that went on to stage ‘Metal Machine Music’ by Lou Reed. She began making forays in the operatic arena from the 1970s, starting out as an assistant designer, laying out sets for operas staged at Broadway, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Wexford Festival Opera. Gradually, she graduated to directing and choreographing opera for several celebrated production companies. She has collaborated with renowned contemporary composers like Lisa Bielawa, Kitty Brazelton, Vincent Persichetti, and Leonard Bernstein as an opera director, choreographer, and producer.
Childhood & Early Life
Grethe Holby was born on 26 April 1948 in New Rochelle in Westchester County, New York, and spent her early years in Larchmont village under Westchester. Her father was Warren Barrett Holby who co-founded and operated a housing development company, Merritt & Holby, and Aase Grethe Hall, her mother, was of Norwegian descent. She went to Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan and completed her high school from Mamaroneck High School in 1966.
She took admission in Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, for her higher studies and later on transferred her credits to Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She earned a bachelor’s degree in ‘Art and Design’ from MIT in 1971, and two years, she received a masters’ degree in architecture from the same university.
While studying architecture at MIT, she also enrolled for a set designing course at Harvard University under the mentorship of Franco Colavecchia.
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Grethe Holby commenced her professional career when she joined Laura Dean and Dance Company as a danseuse in 1974, and performed at shows staged in Connecticut, Washington D.C., and New York. Later on, she signed up as a cast member of Robert Wilson’s and Phillip Glass’s ‘Einstein on the Beach’, performing as a dancer, singer, and actor at the annual arts festival held at Avignon City in France.
She accompanied the cast on tours to Hamburg, Rotterdam, Brussels, Venice, Belgrade, Paris, and performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City in November of 1976.
Grethe composed a dancing number, ‘Beta Hookups’ based on ‘Metal Machine Music’ by Lou Reed and followed it up with a rendition at the ‘Merce Cunningham Studio’ that was videotaped by the latter.
She established a dancing group, ‘Grethe Holby and Dancers’ and created choreographic sequences set to music by Glenn Branca, David Byrne, and Brian Eno.
She instructed and rehearsed dancers for the opera, ‘Daughter of the Regiment’ on two occasions.
’Grethe Holby and Dancers’ performed in several prominent locations in New York City, notable amongst these being performances at the ‘The Kitchen’—a multidisciplinary performing arts center—and the ‘Dance Theater Workshop’.
As Opera Director & Choreographer
Grethe Holby debuted on the operatic arena in the US in the 1970s when she was selected to assist (as an assistant designed) Franco Colavecchia who designed sets for the Wexford Festival, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and for the Broadway show, ‘Treemonisha’ composed by Scott Joplin.
Gradually, she moved on to choreographing, directing, and producing operas on behalf of production companies. The year 1976 saw her choreographing operas titled ‘Summer Snow’ and ‘Regina’ for Michigan Opera Theater. Thereafter, she served as a choreographer and assistant director at the Houston Grand Opera.
Holby, during her stint with Houston Grand Opera, also collaborated with Gotz Friedrich (‘Wozzeck’), Jean Pierre Ponelle (‘Pagliacci’), and Nathaniel Merrill (‘The Tales of Hoffman’) as an assistant director and choreographer. She worked for Peter Shifter who directed the premiere of ‘A Quiet Place’ composed by the renowned American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein.
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She also directed and choreographed ‘A Quiet Place’ when the piece was staged in its entirety at the ‘La Scala’ opera house in Milan and thereafter at Washington Opera in 1984.
Grethe Holby was responsible for choreographing the 1983 debut staging of ‘A Bride from Pluto’ by Gian Carlo Menotti. The first performance of Michael Kaye’s adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s ‘Tales of Hoffmann’ in 1988 at Los Angeles Music Center Opera was choreographed and co-directed by her.
Holby in due course moved on to directing and choreographing standardized repertoire for an array of opera production houses including, but not limited, to Indianapolis Opera, Opera Memphis, and Opera Company of Philadelphia. She was at the helm directing operas for Pennsylvania Opera Theater, Minnesota Theater, Wolf Trap Opera Company, Toledo Opera, Opera Company of North Carolina, Lake George Opera, and the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.
Her noteworthy projects in the recent years include Valerie Vasilevski and Eric Salzman’s ‘The True Last Words of Dutch Schultz’ which was directed by Holby. The opera premiered at the Symphony Space in NYC in 2007. She also directed ‘Socrate’ by Erik Satie that was first staged at The Flea Theater in New York City in 2012.
Founder-Director of American Opera Projects
Grethe Holby instituted ‘American Opera Projects’ in 1988 with the overarching objective of taking the opera industry (as a discipline of performing arts) in USA to dizzy heights. Since the inception of the opera company, Grethe has conceptualized and directed more than 25 operas. As an opera director, she has overseen the first shows of Vivian Fine’s ‘Memoirs of Uliana Rooney’ (1996) and Richard Peaslee’s ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ (2001).
Creator of Family Opera Initiative
Grethe Holby founded the Family Opera Initiative in 1995 which functioned as a subdivision of AOP (America Opera Projects) in the initial years. Family Opera Initiative was formed chiefly to create opera works for the middle-class American families. In 2001, Family Opera Initiative became a standalone organization with Holby at its helm.
Family Opera Initiative, under the direction of Holby, oversaw the development of several opera projects like ‘Flurry Tale’, ‘Fireworks!’, and ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knights’. Holby, under the aegis of Family Opera Initiative steered the premiering of Kitty Brazelton and George Plimpton’s opera musical ‘Cat’ at New York City’s Central Park Zoo in 2010. Holby formed Ardea Arts Inc in 2006 and FOI subsequently became a section of Ardea Arts.
Holby, under the banner of Ardea Arts has been working on an opera work titled ‘The Three Astronauts’ which is based on an illustrative book for children by Eugenio Carmi and Umberto Eco since 2016. Numerous composers and writers from US, China, and Russia are collaborating on this space-based opera ideated by Grethe way back in 2007.
Grethe Holby currently stays in New York City with her husband Arthur Elgort who is a photographer by profession. They have three children: two sons, Ansel Elgort (actor & DJ) and Warren Elgort (filmmaker), and a daughter Sophie Elgort, a photographer.