Grethe Barrett Holby is an opera and stage director, choreographer, producer, dancer, architect, and visual designer who wears many hats. Her four-decade operatic career has been lauded, and she is credited with popularizing the opera industry in North America. She founded the ‘American Opera Projects,’ ‘Family Opera Initiative,’ and ‘Ardea Arts Incorporated,’ and has been at the forefront of the operatic scene in the United States. Her professional career took off when she was chosen as a danseuse by the Laura Dean and Dance Company to perform in the world premiere of Steve Reich’s ‘Drumming’ at the age of 26. After two years, she was cast in the main cast of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s ‘Einstein on the Beach,’ which premiered at Avignon’s annual arts festival. She founded the ‘Grethe Holby and Dancers’ dance ensemble, which went on to perform Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music.’ She began her operatic career in the 1970s as an assistant designer, laying up sets for operas performed on Broadway, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and at the Wexford Festival Opera. She progressed to directing and choreographing opera for a number of prestigious production organizations. As an opera director, choreographer, and producer, she has worked with notable contemporary composers such as Lisa Bielawa, Kitty Brazelton, Vincent Persichetti, and Leonard Bernstein.
Childhood and Adolescence
Grethe Holby was born on April 26, 1948, in New Rochelle, Westchester County, New York, and grew up in Larchmont Village, which is part of Westchester County. Warren Barrett Holby, her father, co-founded and controlled Merritt & Holby, a house construction company, and Aase Grethe Hall, her mother, was of Norwegian heritage. She attended Michigan’s Interlochen Arts Academy and graduated from Mamaroneck High School in 1966.
For her academic education, she enrolled at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, and later transferred her credits to Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1971, she graduated from MIT with a bachelor’s degree in ‘Art and Design,’ and two years later, she acquired a master’s degree in architecture from the same institution.
She enrolled in a set design course at Harvard University under the direction of Franco Colavecchia while studying architecture at MIT.
Early on in your career
Grethe Holby began her professional career as a danseuse in 1974, when she joined Laura Dean & Dance Company. She appeared in shows in Connecticut, Washington, D.C., and New York. She later joined the cast of Robert Wilson and Phillip Glass’ ‘Einstein on the Beach,’ starring as a dancer, singer, and actress at the yearly arts festival in Avignon, France.
She went on tour with the cast to Hamburg, Rotterdam, Brussels, Venice, Belgrade, and Paris, as well as performing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City in November 1976.
Grethe wrote ‘Beta Hookups,’ a dance performance based on Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music,’ and performed it in the Merce Cunningham Studio, which was videotaped by the latter.
‘Grethe Holby and Dancers,’ a dance company she founded, devised choreographic sequences set to music by Glenn Branca, David Byrne, and Brian Eno.
On two occasions, she trained and rehearsed dancers for the opera ‘Daughter of the Regiment.’
Grethe Holby and Dancers’ performed in a number of important New York City venues, including performances at ‘The Kitchen,’ a diverse performing arts facility, and the ‘Dance Theater Workshop.’
Grethe Holby had her operatic debut in the United States in the 1970s, when she was chosen to assist (as an assistant designer) Franco Colavecchia, who designed sets for the Wexford Festival, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Broadway production of Scott Joplin’s ‘Treemonisha.’
She gradually progressed to choreographing, directing, and producing operas for other companies. She choreographed the operas ‘Summer Snow’ and ‘Regina’ for Michigan Opera Theater in 1976. She then worked at the Houston Grand Opera as a choreographer and associate director.
Holby worked as an associate director and choreographer with Gotz Friedrich (‘Wozzeck’), Jean Pierre Ponelle (‘Pagliacci’), and Nathaniel Merrill (‘The Tales of Hoffman’) during her time with Houston Grand Opera. She worked under Peter Shifter, who directed the debut of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘A Quiet Place,’ a work written by the renowned American composer and conductor.
She also directed and choreographed ‘A Quiet Place’ when it was performed in its full at Milan’s ‘La Scala’ opera venue, and again at the Washington Opera in 1984.
Grethe Holby choreographed Gian Carlo Menotti’s ‘A Bride from Pluto’ for its world premiere in 1983. She choreographed and co-directed the premiere performance of Michael Kaye’s production of Jacques Offenbach’s ‘Tales of Hoffmann’ at the Los Angeles Music Center Opera in 1988.
Holby went on to direct and choreograph standardized repertory for a number of opera companies, including the Indianapolis Opera, Opera Memphis, and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, among others. She directed operas for the Pennsylvania Opera Theater, the Minnesota Theater, the Wolf Trap Opera Company, the Toledo Opera, the Opera Company of North Carolina, the Lake George Opera, and the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.
Valerie Vasilevski and Eric Salzman’s ‘The True Last Words of Dutch Schultz,’ directed by Holby, is one of her latest notable productions. In 2007, the opera had its world debut at the Symphony Space in New York City. She also directed Erik Satie’s ‘Socrate,’ which premiered at The Flea Theater in New York City in 2012.
American Opera Projects’ Founder and Director
Grethe Holby founded ‘American Opera Projects’ in 1988 with the overriding goal of catapulting the opera industry (as a performing arts discipline) in the United States to new heights. Grethe has created and directed more than 25 operas since the opera company’s foundation. She directed the first performances of Vivian Fine’s ‘Memoirs of Uliana Rooney’ (1996) and Richard Peaslee’s ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ (1997) as an opera director (2001).
Family Opera Initiative’s creator
In 1995, Grethe Holby launched the Family Opera Initiative, which first operated as a part of AOP (America Opera Projects). The mission of the Family Opera Initiative is to create opera works for middle-class American families. With Holby at the head, Family Opera Initiative became a stand-alone organization in 2001.
Under Holby’s guidance, the Family Opera Initiative oversaw the development of various opera productions, including ‘Flurry Tale,’ ‘Fireworks!,’ and ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knights.’ Holby steered the premiere of Kitty Brazelton and George Plimpton’s opera musical ‘Cat’ at New York City’s Central Park Zoo in 2010 under the auspices of Family Opera Initiative. In 2006, Holby founded Ardea Arts Inc, and FOI became a division of Ardea Arts.
Since 2016, Holby has been working on an opera named “The Three Astronauts,” based on an illustrating book for children by Eugenio Carmi and Umberto Eco, under the aegis of Ardea Arts. Several composers and authors from the United States, China, and Russia are working on this space opera, which Grethe conceived in 2007.
Personal Experiences of Grethe Barrett Holby
Grethe Holby is currently residing in New York City with her photographer husband, Arthur Elgort. They have three children: Ansel Elgort (actor and DJ), Warren Elgort (filmmaker), and Sophie Elgort (photography).
Estimated Net Worth
Grethe is one of the wealthiest directors, as well as one of the most popular. Grethe Barrett Holby’s net worth is estimated to be $1.5 million, according to Wikipedia, Forbes, and Business Insider.