Director's diverse talents help turn Columbia arts festival into a winner Stage experience serves Nemeth well

June 11, 1993|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

Five years ago, Lynne Nemeth reluctantly left the footlights for the wings.

Giving up a career as a classically trained singer, she took a job as managing director of the fledgling Columbia Festival of the Arts.

"To make a long story short, I turned 30, realized I wasn't going to the Met and decided to get a full-time job," she says.

Associates say it is that kind of pragmatism blended with performance experience that has made her particularly effective director of the festival, which opens next Friday.

"We knew that Lynne would understand both the artist's perspective and the management's perspective," said Jean Moon, president of the festival's board of trustees. "For some people, working with artists is extremely difficult. She's much more understanding of what's important to them."

Since the festival opened in 1989, Ms. Nemeth's job has grown more challenging.

The program has expanded from three to 10 days; the budget from $200,000 to $500,000; and the number of volunteers from 100 to 300.

She expects a total of about 25,000 people to attend this month. The program will include more than 50 performances, rehearsals, workshops and readings by actors, dancers, musicians, poets and jugglers.

Last week, Ms. Nemeth sat in a cramped office, piled high with boxes of plastic cups and peanut butter crackers, and explained her job.

Wearing a flowered sun dress, an off-white linen jacket, short-cropped hair and sneakers, she looked the part of the peripatetic arts manager.

In her five years with the festival, she has done almost everything except hang lights. On a typical day before the opening, she will track down a lost express-mail package, drive to Annapolis for a radio interview and return to Columbia to proofread the program.

During shows, she will attend to such details as backstage food for vegetarian performers and onstage air temperature for dancers.

"That's what I like doing," she says, "pulling all the pieces together."

Blessed with a keen memory, she says she forgoes a notebook and stores most of the details -- including the festival's list of more than 100 contributors -- in her head. But with the program's expansion, those days may be numbered.

This year, she says, she forgot something significant for the first time.

"I had a radio interview scheduled," she said. "I was really shocked."

Ms. Nemeth, 36, grew up on a farm at the end of a dirt road in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Her father, William, a first-generation American from Hungary, helped design bridges for Bethlehem Steel Co. Her mother, Irene, sang with local big bands in the 1940s.

The farm was a child's delight populated by sheep, ducks, geese, chickens, dogs, cows, a house-trained rabbit and 24 cats who lived in the barn.

"It was a total zoo," she said. "It was fabulous."

Along with animals, music was a constant presence at home. Ms. Nemeth and her mother spent Saturday afternoons listening to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on public radio.

Evenings and weekends, they sang standards such as "My Funny Valentine" and "Sentimental Journey," a cappella.

By the end of high school, Ms. Nemeth was divided between studying animals and music.

A role in the musical "Godspell" was a turning point, said her mother.

"She was given a solo, and she enjoyed the clapping and the recognition so much," Irene Nemeth said.

In her senior year, Ms. Nemeth turned down an opportunity to study primates at the University of Pennsylvania for a degree in voice performance at the Catholic University of America in Washington.

After college, Ms. Nemeth went to the University of Maryland for a master's degree in voice and then on to a stage career.

Ms. Nemeth, who is single and lives in Ellicott City with a cat, seems pleased with her decision to leave behind the stage fright and uncertainty of the performer's world.

"That was a difficult decision to make," she says. "[But] I like this kind of work. I get to use what I know."

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