TIME IN with Opera Philadelphia's David Devan: Baking LEGO Cake, Camping, Listening to Vinyl

Aug 25, 2020

As leader of the internationally acclaimed Opera Philadelphia, David Devan is accustomed to an incredibly busy schedule with frequent travel and hosting cast parties, donor events, and other large gatherings in his Philadelphia loft.

In this TIME IN interview, David talks about how life has changed now that so much of his world is shut down.

If I ever decide to try camping (for real) I want to bring David, who in addition to running Opera Philadelphia, is an expert wilderness camper. I would also want him to bring his cookbooks, his bike, boxing gloves, and his husband, the Reverend David Dubbeldam, a hospice chaplain who is also a LEGO artist, who believes in the importance of play. Time spent with 'the Davids,' as they're known to many, would be both spiritually uplifting and really fun.

David (the opera guy) is thoughtful, and cheerfully animated, even when we're talking about how life has changed dramatically during this pandemic. At the end of July, he spoke with me on Zoom from his Philadelphia loft.

Watch our TIME IN interview: 

Here are some edited excerpts from the interview, and some fun photos:

So, how are you and where were you when this all began?

I'm in our loft in Philadelphia in Center City. We live in an old dress factory just across the road, almost from the old Philadelphia Inquirer building. So we're right in the middle of the city and that's where we started this journey, [self quarantining] on March 9th. My husband, a hospice chaplain, continues to be with patients. And so we've been very careful from the very beginning.

We're both doing well. We're both healthy and safe, and full of gratitude for those things. We've gone through the grieving process to accept the roles that we both have in the world today, trying to find some joy in our work and in our lives together.

Last year I traveled 85,000 miles on American Airlines, running an opera company that's become an international sort of festival thing. And this year I have traveled 4,000 miles. We've owned this home for seven years and it actually is the first time I've spent a lot of time in our home. I have become a little resident Julia Child. So I'm kind of loving that part of it.

Watch David prepare his Chicken Dijonnaise: 

Is cooking something that you always did?

Yes. My mother was a career woman, when that was not a thing that many women did. And she decided that her sons were not going to be helpless men. So I remember cooking dinner for my mom when I was 14 and I just took to it, like a little Italian grandmother, maybe more than Julia Child. Like on Wednesday, I think, "Oh, I'll roast a chicken because I need stock for my polenta on Friday."

What's your favorite kind of food to cook?

I cook largely Italian and French, and I tend to lean into Italian in the summer and French in the winter. I like braising; my coq au vin is kind of fantastic, and I love butter roasted chicken with tarragon. But all that French stuff takes ovens.

In the summer where we have all these fresh things, I love the fact that we can have pronounced individual tastes of things in Italian cooking, but that are complimentary and contrast with other flavors. I've also really perfected my polenta, and Corrado [Rovaris], our music director who comes from the part of Italy where they invented polenta, said that my polenta was very good, Michelin star-level polenta; I thought I'd arrived!

What have you made recently?

Gluten-free chocolate cake with buttercream and red fondant for Rev. Dubbeldam's LEGO-inspired birthday. All from scratch.

My husband, whose birthday was [recently], is an insane LEGO engineer and creator. We have over 200,000 LEGO bricks in our loft. We have a LEGO studio corner and he just makes all these crazy things.  It's fantastic. So, I made him a LEGO block, gluten-free cake, cause he's also allergic to gluten. 

So how do you make a Lego cake? 

I took cake and cut it. I measured the dimensions of a LEGO brick,with eight studs and then cut cake in the exact same relationship; stacked it, so it had the same relationship; covered it in buttercream and then covered it in red fondant, so it's all smooth. And then I made studs or like these little pucks out of the cake with wrapped in the front end, put them on top. So it looked like a LEGO brick, but it was cake.

The buttercream and cake was the best part.

He was pretty impressed. I wanted to surprise him, but we live in an open loft and it literally took me 10 hours to make this cake, so there was no way I could secretly do it. 

He sounds pretty serious about LEGOs. Do you ever do it with him? 

No, it's his thing.  I appreciate it.

Last year he did the Jersey shore. It was eight feet long by four feet wide. He made all that of LEGOs; the waves, the shops along the boardwalk, the people. He would change the scenes overnight; there was this constant story going. It brings him real joy.

Last summer’s LEGO project designed and built by Rev. Dubbeldam

His work requires a lot of effort; he believes everybody should have play in their life and that this actually can be a spiritual center.

So, I also know that you like physical activity. The last time we spoke, I think you were headed to a boxing lesson. I've also seen pictures on Facebook of your camping trip recently. You've been getting outside?

Yes, we have a rooftop deck that's a community space, and so actually yesterday I was doing a little boxing workout up there.

Getting ready for boxing lesson.

I've also got a new bike: a one-speed, fixed-gear kind of hipster bike, and so I've been out riding it as well, when it's not 105 degrees out!

And then camping is a really big thing in our lives. We are clearly urban people, but we are as committed to living in the wilderness as we are living in the city. So it's sort of very extreme. In other years we've gone to Northern Canada; we've bush-planed into wilderness area, dropped in the middle of nowhere and then peddled out for seven days.

This year we went to Worlds End State Park in PA, which has a lot of hiking trails. You can go up like 2000 feet and we just had a fantastic week, living in the wilderness there, no cell service. Awesome.

So one of the ways that we've dealt with the containment that has become our regular life is to be outside, and be in the wilderness and live amongst trees as much as we can, cooking fantastically along the way.

Campsite staple, cast iron pan in action.

So this year has not been as remote as we usually prefer, but it has been very rewarding and lovely.

What does camping do for you during this time in particular?

We both observed that we felt less isolated living in a forest, just the two of us, than we did being at home, the two of us, because our loft, our opera, our work in hospice—our entire life—is configured around gathering people and having people around us, even our physical space. We bought this loft so that we could host big dinner parties and have lots of people.

Opera donors come over all the time; the cast parties for all the operas happened in this loft. Our life is built around others; and so not being with others feels deeply isolating.

Whereas when we make a choice to go out in the wilderness, it's not about others, it was never about others. It's about us communing with nature. We felt less isolated in that isolated situation. And so what's so beautiful about camping, because there's no other noise, other than chipmunks running around, (and like last week, a bear coming through the campsite!) you get to be reflective and in that reflection, there are insights.

That kind of thinking, almost meditation, can only happen when you get outside of your life, and nothing beats getting outside of your life, as not having a roof or walls around you.

And then there's just something absolutely just beautiful and almost musical about being in the forest, because of the soundscape and the dappled light; there's a theater about it.

It sounds as if the activities you describe have always been a part of your life. Have they taken on a different dimension since the pandemic? Certain activities create the illusion that things are normal.

Yes. Although I'm not on a quest for things to be normal. I am on a quest to accept things for what they are now, to embrace those things and to make my way and help others make their way to it. But I don't want to pretend things are normal. It's not normal.

There is just something absolutely beautiful and almost musical about being in the forest. There is a theater about it.-David Devan

There's just no way we can have a world that is locked up like this, and not be different on the other side of it. It won't be desperate all the time, but it will be different. And if we can find the joy in that difference, as we come out of the terrible part, which is now, I think that, I think that's a better outcome than being in waiting period for things to go back to normal.

On a personal level, is there anything new that you've started doing that you are going to continue after this?

I think staying home more, I'm going to continue. I think being really thoughtful about how I spend time with others I'm going to want to make it count. In David's work, he's seen, and he has portrayed to me, that in the loss that people are going through, you see the love. Love is laid bare in loss. There's just an honesty and an authenticity, that we're all having to engage in. And I don't know what the recipe is for that once we get all mobile again, but I certainly don't want to lose it.

Have you had any favorite movies or TV or has there been any go to music in terms of helping you?

I'm a big early Baroque/early music fan and I also like contemporary music. There's one particular recording of Ariodante [by Handel] which is just like beauty personified.

We've been enjoying some movies lately that I've been going back to. like movies that are 20 years old or that I think stand up.

David had never seen Almost Famous, so we watched it this past week. It's so good!

The Davids scouting LPs in New Jersey before the pandemic.

I also have a not insubstantial vinyl collection and a music setup: a 1972 turntable, and a Marshall amp that's made out of wood. I have largely jazz and '70s [music]. Strangely, I don't own any classical music on vinyl. I find that the digital stuff I have sounds great, and I really do find the differences in the vinyl are more pronounced in jazz and studio rock.

I also have some mono recordings that I came into a couple of years ago: Coltrane, mono recordings from the late forties that have been repressed. Listening to those are kind of a revelation, because not everything benefited from stereophonic recording activity and these particular recordings are particularly, beautifully pure.

And you've also been really busy at work. You've reinvented the whole season coming up for opera Philadelphia. Has there been synergy between your work life and your personal life?

Absolutely. You do what I do for a living and the line between personal and professional is pretty blurry. A  lot of your tastes, because it's art, come into play. But this idea of being authentic and honest, that's really come through. David's work has really informed my work at the opera company. What can we authentically do? How can we bring joy into the world?