Home on the Road: Elise Sandell

Home on the Road is a series in which I interview opera professionals about how they survive their nomadic lives. You can find previous interviews here.

Photo by Johnny Knight
It's my great pleasure to present to you Elise Sandell, stage director, better known in these pages as The New Oregonian. Elise is an incredibly creative, brave director and the person who taught me how to be a good assistant director back when I didn't really know what one did. She is unfailingly positive and sunny, brilliant, and universally loved. It is no surprise that in this interview alone she manages to fit in at least three profound, thought-provoking truths.

Elise has been on the road for nine years straight, and is currently (temporarily) a true homeless nomad, living out of a storage space and suitcases. She has directed and assisted all over the country, and right now she's in the midst of her first international gig, in Florence, Italy (where we were lucky enough to visit her and hear her speaking Italian, which she does frighteningly well).

LMB: Do you have any stuff that you always bring with you when you travel to make your temporary home feel more like a real one? Or any special routines to help you acclimate quickly in a new place?

ES: I like to bring photos of my friends and family and a few treasured knickknacks to make my place more cozy. Sadly, I didn't bring any of these things to Florence, because there wasn't room in the suitcase. I would be lost without my computer. The first thing I like to do when I arrive in a new place is to take a nap, and then go grocery shopping. It always feels much more like home if I know I have cereal and coffee ready for breakfast tomorrow. I really prefer to arrive in a new place around noon, so that I have time to "set up house" and get unpacked in a leisurely manner before I go to bed on the first night. To get to know a new city, I love to get lost in it. One learns much finding one's way back from being lost.

LMB: Since you fly to each job, you're forced to pack light. This is an art I am far from mastering. Any advice from a seasoned traveler?

ES: I used to carry two large suitcases everywhere, and then they started charging for luggage, so I don't do that any more. Here's my system: I have a roll-aboard that is carry-on size. In there go all the shoes, denim, jewelry, books, and anything else heavy that I can think of. Then the lighter clothing can go in the larger checked suitcase. My "personal item" is really a carry-on shoulder bag large enough to fit my laptop, two opera scores, and several books. It's a little bit of a stretch, but no airline has complained yet. (I find that an airline will let you get away with a lot if you ask with a smile on your face.) I always get completely packed, and then force myself to "jettison" five items…I'm fairly skilled at knowing what a 48-pound suitcase feels like.  If it's a longer gig, I usually ship a box as well…I should buy stock in UPS, considering how many hundreds I spend every year in shipping.

I'm also often a bike commuter, and once even brought my bike from home to Houston with me.  I don't recommend traveling with your bike on the airplane; it's so expensive, and then you have to wrestle it along with your luggage.  You'll do much better shipping it through UPS, or, better yet, renting a bike once you arrive.

LMB: You're currently in the midst of your first European gig, working in Florence. How is settling into a temporary home in a foreign country different than what you've experienced before? Are you particularly homesick for any American things or foods?

ES: Settling in here in Florence has felt a little different, for sure. I'm still working hard to be proficient in the language, so even errands like the grocery store and the post office take a little more effort. That said, it's also FUN to get to know a new country and to realize I CAN communicate in another language, even if I'm not always perfect at it. The food is great here in Florence, of course, but I would give anything for a big ol' 20 oz. coffee to take to rehearsal with me. I would probably even buy an American coffee maker, if I could find one. Don't judge. In the meantime, I drink 3 Italian coffees before I show up to rehearsal.

LMB: You first got nicknamed The New Oregonian because you had recently moved to Portland, Oregon, after a long time of having no home base at all. What brought you there, and how has it worked for you as a home base? Is it true you're moving to Chicago soon? What prompted that decision?

ES: Portland, Oregon is an amazing city, and I'm horribly homesick for them, and heartbroken to be moving away. At the time I moved there, I was assisting on two shows a year at Portland Opera, so it looked at the the time like I would get to "work at home" plenty. Additionally, I have many friends in the city, so it was a perfect fit. It works beautifully as a home base when I'm doing shorter engagements. At this time, however, I've taken another full season of work as an assistant at Lyric Opera of Chicago, so I'll be there for many months. I guess you could say I'm making the choice to "settle down" a little bit. I'm 36 years old, and I have never owned a couch, and I would like to own one. I am also hoping not to remain single for the rest of my life, and all the moving around doesn't seem to be helping in that department, either. So I'm moving to Chicago to try living and working in the same place. It's sort of an experiment.

LMB: In order to have the career that you have, you have to be willing to be away from home a lot of the time. What makes it worthwhile for you?

ES: I love making opera. There's VERY little I'd rather be doing. For me, all the traveling is wrapped up with the opera making. (I don't know what this means for my "moving to Chicago" experiment…I guess we'll see.) When the traveling gets tough, I try to remind myself to think of it as an adventure. And when I miss my friends and family, I remind myself to use the resources at hand: phone, e-mail, Skype, and Facebook. The truth is that I'm always far away from someone I love and miss, no matter where I am. I guess I'm lucky to have this many people to love.

LMB: Any other advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out? Or advice that you did get that has been helpful to you?

ES: I'm always glad when someone reminds me: "It's not all about you."

Many thanks to Elise! You can find out lots more about her on her website.

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