Faculty Spotlight: Director of Opera Hank Hammett on Collaboration, Being Bold, and How He Got to SMU

SMU Opera Director
Scene from Meadows Opera’s ‘Elixir of Love’

Professor Hank Hammett is the Director of Opera at Meadows School of the Arts. Having received his Bachelor’s and Master’s of Music at the University of Texas at Austin as well as having studied at Music Academy of the West, Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies, and New York’s MTB Studio; he is no stranger to the entertainment industry. He has performed both on and off broadway, in television, film, and of course opera.

Professor Hammett has worked at the The Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, The Glimmerglass Festival, Boston Lyric Opera,  L’Opéra de Montréal, Gran Teatre del Liceu (Barcelona) and De Nederlandse Opera (Amsterdam) just to name a few. His recognitions include First Prize in the Liederkranz Competition in New York and the Grand Prix in the Concours International d’Oratorio et de Lied in France. In addition to the stage, Hammett has acted as an artistic director, stage director, music director, vocal coach, and also maintained a privately owned studio. More recently, Professor Hank directed Meadows Arts’ opera “Elixir of Love.”

What brought you to SMU?

In 2003 we moved from New York City to Austin.  One day at the beginning of the summer, I got a phone call from our good friend Virginia Dupuy asking if I’d be interested in filling in for one year for the vocal coach position, which had suddenly been vacated.

Although I had never thought about working in academia, I took the interim job, and commuted for that year from Austin to Dallas. One thing lead to another, and Dale and I both ended up joining the faculty on a permanent basis and moving to Dallas in 2005.  Three years into my time at Meadows, our opera director left suddenly. I was asked to be the Director of Opera. I’m a big believer in taking risks and walking through the doors that open right in front of you–even if you’re scared to death!

You have performed all around the world, where is your favorite place to perform?

The best opera companies, at least in my experience, are the ones where you feel like you’re a part of a wonderful, fun-loving, supportive group of friends and family:  The Met, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Barcelona are a few of them.  I love any working environment where people are caring, thoughtful, have a great sense of humor and are kind to everyone.

How has your extensive performance career influenced your directing and teaching career?

I learned that there isn’t any one approach to singing or one approach to acting that brings any given result or success. Everyone has a different path, a unique way of processing and of working and that this is something to embrace and celebrate! I learned the joys of collaborating with other artists to get a product that will surely be so much more beautiful and fantastic that anything any of us could create on our own. I learned the importance of balancing the artistic with the practical and just getting down to the bottom line of what I need to do to make something work.

Do you have a personal favorite performance you have worked on and why?

I can’t pick out just one, but my favorite performances are those given by our students. They continue to amaze me, particularly with the remarkable level of commitment, imagination, specificity and organic storytelling that they bring to the stage. The singing actors from the Division of Music, and the incredibly gifted young designers from the Division of Theatre are awesome and inspiring!

What should a student signing up for one of your classes anticipate?

Our Meadows Opera Theatre motto is Be bold, be fearless, be joyful, be yourself!  This continues to be my ongoing challenge to each of my students.  And, above all, to be caring, encouraging, respectful and immensely kind to each other and very thankful for each other.  We’re awfully fortunate.

Note Theatre

SMU Theatre’s Benard Cummings Talks Challenges, Favorite Shows, and the Path that Led Him to SMU

Photo by Kim Leeson

By Allison Barta

Benard Cummings is an Assistant Professor for the Meadows School of the Arts Division of Theatre. He received his B.F.A in Theatre here at Meadows in 1987. He went on to the Yale School of Drama and later moved to New York City. He starred in the film Raw Nerve in 1999 and the television series New York Undercover in 1996.

He has performed extensively in Off-Broadway productions such as “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, and has also tried his hand at playwriting. This fall he will be directing Normalcy by Bennett Windheim, off-broadway, for Theatre East.

What brought you to SMU Meadows?

I was born and raised in East Texas.  I’ve lived in NYC since the early 90s.  I am also a graduate of SMU Theater.  To be honest, my mom wasn’t in good health.  I was spending time going back and forth from NYC to Texas for a couple of months to help in looking after her, which was absolutely no burden.

I received an email asking me if I would consider applying for the teaching position at SMU.  All in the timing, I guess one could say. I applied so that it would allow me to be home for a while. Fortunately, I was offered the position. For the last 6 years, I have been able to be home, teach some great kids, work in one of the best theater departments in the country, and be near family. It has been very fortuitous, as I’ve been home for the passing of many close relatives. The old saying goes: “you are where you need to be.”  After many years of working in NYC and across the country in regional theaters, it was time to be home.  Time to say “goodbye” to some very close loved ones.

SMU has been remarkable.  The art, if you will, has totally balanced with the family life.  And I love teaching these wonderful kids selected to matriculate in our theatre department.

Do you have a favorite show you have either directed or performed in?

I love directing in academia.  I’ve done so at SUNY Purchase in NY and at the NYU/Stella Adler Studio.  So far, I’ve directed three shows on the main stage of SMU.

I also direct the incoming grad students in a rehearsal project in their first semester of graduate school.  But the most challenging directing project was with Dallas’ African-American Repertory Theater.  I was directing a production of August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” for the Elevator Series at the Dallas Theater Center in 2015.  On the last day of tech rehearsals, one of the actors became very ill and had to be hospitalized.  I was also slated to return home to NYC (I still have an apartment there) and begin classes at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey right after Opening Night.  But I could not leave this production in a lurch.  The cast was really strong and had been working very hard to bring this play to life.  So I decided to stay and take on the role.  It was the wildest experience I’ve ever had on stage. It was like walking a tight rope.  But I found myself having to go from director to actor in a matter of minutes during tech.  I loved every minute of that nerve-wracking experience.

How has your performance and directing career influenced your teaching career?

To quote “Hamlet,” The Play’s the thing.  Everything begins with the written words on the page.  I have learned over the years that careful attention must be paid to the world that has been created on that paper.  As a director or actor, I am now very aware that the beginning process must be painstakingly observed.   Young actors are anxious to act without having thoroughly examined the Given Circumstances of the play.

They act an idea of a scene rather than experiencing the life of the characters they are portraying. My acting and directing have taught me to teach my students to slow down, read carefully and thoroughly, and take notice of everything about the character they are portraying.  They must expand on this knowledge by building the world with the information the playwright has given.  Assume nothing!  Act only from what is given by the playwright.  Their play, the world they have created, is the thing.  Without a rich understanding of a character’s world (and how they operate in it) an actor is merely behaving rather than living. 

What is one piece of information you learned in School of Drama that you have carried out in your life and/or instruction?

Get to know the world of the character, make choices, and play fearlessly. 

I must go to the world of the character, not bring the character to my world with all of my prejudices and hang ups.  Sometimes an actor may play a role that may be considered “unsavory.”  If I bring the character to my world in order to make the character less “unsavory,” I may overload him with my prejudices.  Thus, I must carry myself to the world of the character and be of service to how this person lives in their world.  Judgment can actually close an actor from totally enveloping a role.

What should a student signing up for one of your classes anticipate?

Let go.  Give it up. Characters in the modern realism plays I teach from are not safe.  The playwrights have captured them in some very dire circumstances.  Their lives are large, and you must fill that life with equal largeness. I love the heightened realism of Chekhov, O’Neill, Williams, Wilson. I love characters with heightened emotional stakes, where they are desperate to live as they are surrounded by dire circumstances. I am going to inspire the actors in my class to be bold, to be brave, to be larger than the life they live, and to be fearless.

Journalism Music Photos We Love

Photos We Love from the 2017 SMU Meadows Spring Semester

At the close of ‘The Tempest,’ a groundbreaking community engagement and participatory theater project designed to deliberately blur the line between professional artists and Dallas community members

This semester has been nothing short of groundbreaking. Early in March, the Dallas Theater Center and SMU Meadows’ Ignite Arts Dallas, in association with the AT&T Performing Arts Center, presented a musical theatre production of Shakespeare’s The TempestIt was a participatory theatre project unlike anything the city has ever seen.

Just a few of the events of the events to follow include the Meadows Chamber Music Recital, The Meadows Opera’s The Elixir of Love, Regina Taylor’s Magnolia, the Temerlin Advertising and Division of Journalism “Collaboration Room,” and the August Wilson Monologue Competition.

Here are just a few of our favorite photos from the fantastic semester so far:

Photographer Kim Leeson captured the groundbreaking, participatory theater project of ‘The Tempest’ (Photo by Kim Leeson)
Meadows Opera Theatre performed “Elixir of Love,” directed by Hank Hammett. (Photo by Kim Leeson)
Scene from a   recital held in Caruth Hall. The Chamber Music Honors Concert is on May 6.
Former student Ace Anderson shot this teaser for the SMU Senior Dance Concert. (by Ace Anderson)
Meadows student Alissa Roca, behind the scenes of ‘Elixir of Love’ (Photo by Kim Leeson)
Fearless leader of Ignite Arts Dallas, Clyde Valentin, hugs one of the actors from The Tempest (Photo by Kim Leeson)
Art History’s Dr. Langin-Hooper and her Grad Seminar take behind-the-scenes look at ancient cylinder seals in vault of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.
The Collaboration Room is the new facility within the Temerlin Advertising Institute. This is a scene from Willie Baronet’s, Stan Richards Professor in Creative Advertising, class in the creative advertising program.







Regina Taylor, Meadows alum and award-winning actress and playwright, led a workshop of “Magnolia.”
Meadows hosts the 2017 August Wilson Monologue Competition for the second year in a row.
The 2017 Meadows at the Meyerson gala (Photo by Kim Leeson)