By Stephanie Chase
Guest Columnist
New York, NY, USA

Being handed the reins of a beloved and long-established music festival might seem daunting, but for Pamela Pantos, the Executive Director of the Newport Music Festival since 2017, it is a feather in a cap already brimming with feathers. Her background as an internationally-successful opera singer, combined with an education in business administration and finance, makes her an ideal leader as the Festival enters its 51st year.

STEPHANIE CHASE: How were you first introduced to music?

PAMELA PANTOS: Interesting question, Stephanie. My mother loved to play the piano, so at home, I heard Beethoven and Chopin, which were her favorites. I started piano lessons when I was six and studied for ten years.

But we had a family business, which meant that I spent a great deal of time with my grandparents. So, at their home, I heard a lot of Greek folk music, which introduced me to complex rhythms – though I did not realize this at the time, of course!

STEPHANIE CHASE: My husband is now writing a book about the history of keyboard instruments which includes a section on historic tuning temperaments, and it seems that in addition to its rhythmic complexity, Greek folk music maintains these ancient tuning systems.

PAMELA PANTOS: I also took ballet lessons from the age of 4, so that introduced me to the classics in that genre, as well. Also, I was fortunate that my elementary school had instrument lessons after school, and I was tall, so I was assigned the cello.

However, my great love was singing, and I was lucky to be accepted to Youth Pro Musica in Boston, led by a phenomenal musician named Roberta Hume.

So, now that I look back, I was very fortunate to be able to experience music on so many levels early in life.

STEPHANIE CHASE: When did you realize that you wanted to pursue singing professionally?

PAMELA PANTOS: Ha! Always! As I mentioned, I started in a children’s choir quite early and took every opportunity offered to me. I had an unwieldy and loud instrument, so I was often made an alto so that I would not stick out. I took voice lessons during high school at the New England Conservatory Extension Division and in college sang in three musical groups until I was offered the opportunity to be a soloist.

STEPHANIE CHASE: You must have an exceptional talent, because you also lived for a number of years in Germany to study voice as a mezzo soprano, and you remained there as your career blossomed.

PAMELA PANTOS: I won a Watson Scholarship to study art song – pretty esoteric, I know. But I was fascinated with how poetry and language were elevated by the work of the great composers.

Carmen - Premier Acte No. 4 Habanera - Pamela Pantos

So, I was very fortunate to get into the Hamburg Hochschule (for Music) and received degrees in both Musicology and Performance. I ended up becoming an opera major as I realized that I could never support myself as a recitalist. I was tall, dark and thin, quite the opposite of most German women, so I had lots of chances to sing terrific roles; the meaty mezzo stuff, like Carmen, Preziosilla, Cenerentola.

I ended up staying there for 18 years and not only singing in Germany, but all over Europe. It was a very exciting time.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Why did you return to the United States?

PAMELA PANTOS: I had children, twins! And realized that I wanted to raise my children in the states. I love Europe, but it does not have the feeling of expansiveness and possibilities that the US does. In America, you can switch gears at school or in your life and, with tenacity and hard work, do very well.

STEPHANIE CHASE: What led you to pursue a postgraduate degree in business administration?

PAMELA PANTOS: That was a combination of factors, but the most important one was that when I had my children, I decided to stop singing. I had contracts and was on the roster of Columbia Artists, so that was a major decision. However, as a performing singer I had lived like an Olympic athlete – I was very isolated, and I did not go out to the movies or malls as I was afraid of getting a cold. I did not speak on the day of a performance. I felt that I owed it to my audience to give them my very best.

So, I left my career and came back to the states. I spoke five languages, but there was not a great deal of need for those skills in Boston, where my family lived. I wanted my children to have an extended family, so my location was non-negotiable. Every time I looked in the paper or online, I realized that my skills were not applicable.

STEPHANIE CHASE: This is surprising.

PAMELA PANTOS: In today’s world, business skills are needed for many stable jobs, so I went to a career counselor who told me that the best thing that I could do was get an MBA. I was a double major at Wellesley in Economics and Music, so I thought at least I had some idea of what I was getting into. Babson gave me a full scholarship for which I am eternally grateful, and it was next door to Newton, where I was living, so the set up was perfect. I went to school during the day, picked my children up from my mom’s house and spent the late afternoon and evening with them. Then went to bed and got up at 2 am to study, then got my children up and took them to either my mom’s or to daycare. The system worked very well.

Pamela Pantos - Newport Music Festival

STEPHANIE CHASE: Clearly, you don’t need much sleep and you have amazing discipline! In view of all your obligations at home, how was this experience?

PAMELA PANTOS: At school, many of the subjects required common sense and life experience, so I did pretty well, as I was the oldest woman in my class. The first time I took a finance class, I realized that I had found my niche. I loved how the numbers directed you to outcomes that were often unexpected.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Musicians and economics are not usually a good mix, but I for one love the magic of some proportions and numbers, such as the golden section and the related Fibonacci additive series.

Following this program, you were hired to work at W.R. Grace.

PAMELA PANTOS: I took a job a W.R. Grace as part of a new initiative a “Finance Leadership Program.” It was a remarkable opportunity as I got to experience many different sides of the finance spectrum. There were several amazing projects that I was elected to lead.

I stayed there for 2 ½ years, but in the end, it was difficult for me as a woman to work in a construction company. One of my bosses judged commitment by how late one was willing to stay, rather than one’s accomplishments, and I was a mother of two small children.

STEPHANIE CHASE: My husband refers to these strivers as “world beaters” – often they don’t seem to have commitments other than work and their expensive toys.

PAMELA PANTOS: But I was lucky to be able to apply the financial theories that I had studied through my MBA program.

STEPHANIE CHASE: You’ve had such an interesting and diverse career path, and in 2008, you left the corporate world to become the Executive Director of Opera North, so please tell me about that.

PAMELA PANTOS: At that time, Opera North was a small opera company that needed to become a business, so I applied all of my learnings from corporate finance and my MBA and righted that ship in terms of its business functions. I was there for six years, and we grew both in terms of revenues and in the quality of the artistic product.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Speaking for myself, this is the antithesis of most musicians’ career plans, and yet we would benefit immensely from understanding marketing and branding, and being able to adjust to changing trends.

Aside from the tax status, what are some of the principal differences between the corporate and non-profit worlds?

PAMELA PANTOS: I think that my double major of music and economics in college – and I was almost a math major – encourages a right-left brain functionality that is an advantage when running a non-profit. Non-profits are first and foremost businesses and need to keep that in mind. A company that is under-resourced cannot achieve its potential in terms of its programming and social good. If all of the energy of the staff is spent trying to keep the lights on; then we cannot possibly accomplish our mission.

Alternatively, I would say that most artists would benefit from a year of business courses. Nothing too elaborate or in-depth, but mainly to understand the mechanisms that direct the companies which hire them and to understand how they can best demonstrate their capabilities – and talents – in a low-cost but highly effective manner.

In the corporate world, there are stakeholders and shareholders who must be kept happy with financial rewards. In the nonprofit world, the success of our short-term goals fulfills a long-term vision, which is to better our communities and society.

STEPHANIE CHASE:  In 2014, you became Vice President of the Arts Consulting Group. What is this organization and its goals?

PAMELA PANTOS: Like its name states, ACG is an arts consulting company. As the Vice President of Executive Search, I was part of the company’s revenue expansion. We completed a large number of highly successful executive placements in the two years that I was at the firm. Every consultant is involved in all areas of nonprofit consulting, so my understanding of the nonprofit world as a macrocosm truly expanded.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Then in 2017, you were hired as Executive Director of the Newport Music Festival (NMF) as it approached its fiftieth year. What did you view as its strengths and weaknesses, and what has been your strategy to strengthen and improve the Festival, financially and artistically?

PAMELA PANTOS: As you know, Stephanie, the company has had a terrific trajectory over its history. In preparation for the golden anniversary, the Board and I worked very closely to set goals for that important year, but also for the next era of the company.

We focused on creating the best customer experience possible. So, that meant implementing reserved seating, at-home printing of tickets and free programs.
The Board wanted to thank the community for its support for the past 50 years, so we began the 50th anniversary season with a free Fourth of July concert and implemented free concerts on the lawn of the art museum. Those events have become new traditions. NMF also began its first Education and Outreach program to offer musical opportunities to children, youth and adults in the Newport community. We are working with several social service nonprofits to bring musical experience to those who otherwise would not have the opportunities to hear and make music themselves.

I believe that the artists are the Festival. So, they have begun addressing the audience [from the concert stage] and sharing their own life and musical experiences, which has been a huge success.

Newport Music Festival

STEPHANIE CHASE: Although speaking to the audience requires a fairly intimate concert venue, I find that it works extremely well in the Festival’s settings, and it does help to draw in the audience and enhance their experience.

PAMELA PANTOS: Yes, and we also want to be part of the tapestry of this wonderful community, so for the past two years, we have brought concerts to Newport during the fall, winter and spring. The concerts all sell out, which speaks to the desire of Newport residents for year-round arts opportunities to enrich their lives.

STEPHANIE CHASE: It’s always interesting to see the summer resorts off-season, without the crowds. Newport’s year-round residents must be so pleased to have these added concerts.

Let’s talk about your concert venues. The Festival uses some of Newport’s famed “cottages” – such as The Breakers – for a number of its concerts. Are these venues a part of the draw for the audiences? As a musician, I love “going to work” in a mansion, but what are some of the issues that the Festival faces in using what are essentially museums versus a concert hall?

PAMELA PANTOS: The Festival “creates” a concert hall each year for the period of time when we are in the Mansions. This means bringing in the staging, lights, seats and everything else that is needed. The Preservation Society and NMF have been partners for decades. The Society loves the music, the life and the audiences we bring to their properties.

The artists are very understanding as they are used to having a green room and ample rehearsal time on stage. The properties are living museums, so we need to be mindful of their rules. However, I think that as you know, the experience for all parties outweighs any adjustments that need to be made.

Newport Music Festival

STEPHANIE CHASE: The “backstage” at The Breakers, which is the billiard room, is especially fun, as is warming up in the historic basement kitchen of The Elms. And I think it’s a great experience for the audiences to experience these grand houses with a bit more depth than a visitor’s tour.

In addition to planning programs, artists, budget, fundraising and probably dozens of additional challenges, you are creating a young artist program at the Festival. How is this structured and what are your goals?

PAMELA PANTOS: The Festival is a complicated organism with many moving parts, and you have mentioned several of them. The Young Professional Artist Program is designed to give talented musicians the opportunity to perform with world-class artists and begin their professional careers. We have so many unbelievably gifted young musicians graduating from Master’s Degree programs with nowhere to hone their craft. This initiative will allow these artists to work side-by-side with seasoned professionals, like yourself, and simultaneously be mentored. The Festival has a long history of featuring artists in their North American debuts, so this is an opportunity for our audiences to hear and see the professionals of the future.

I am so grateful to the Festival artists, like yourself, who are willing to guide these young professionals and give them a chance to shine.

STEPHANIE CHASE:  It’s my pleasure to work with them and offer whatever experience and advice I can, and I think it’s a great opportunity for them as well.

In one of our conversations last summer, you mentioned, rather nonchalantly, that the CIA once contacted you to persuade you to join their forces! How did this come about, and did you ever consider it?

PAMELA PANTOS: I was contacted because the Agency believed that the transient international life of an international opera singer was a great cover. I was flattered to be considered, but had to gratefully decline.

STEPHANIE CHASE:  I think you would have made a very effective spy! I imagine that their approach to you must have been pretty indirect, out of necessity.

PAMELA PANTOS: Actually, they just picked up the phone and called me!

STEPHANIE CHASE: That must have been a surprise – but they probably already knew a lot about you.

In view of your background and experience, what advice would you give young, aspiring musicians?

PAMELA PANTOS: Well, as you know, in this business we work closely together in intense periods of rehearsal and performance. At the Festival, I hire musicians who are the best in the industry, but who are also thoughtful, caring and interesting people. So, I would say go the extra mile to be the best that you can be, but make sure to stop and look around. We live in a face-paced world, so if you do not take the time to enjoy where you are in any given moment, you may have missed a beautiful moment.

STEPHANIE CHASE: That’s one of the best elements of playing a concert – we have to be in the moment and in cooperation with our colleagues, who also inspire us. I have to add that the musicians of the Festival are, as you say, accomplished players who are also extremely collegial, generous and often very humorous individuals.

You are one of the most active people I know, but what do you do for relaxation?

PAMELA PANTOS:  For me, running the Newport Music Festival is a joy. Yes, it is a great deal of hard work, but I am surrounded by an incredible supportive Board who let me do my job, a terrific staff who are consummate professionals and world-class musicians who want to be in Newport to bring glorious chamber music to our wonderful audiences. For me, this is a dream job and it doesn’t feel like work – at least most of the time.

My children are two people who I am fortunate enough to share my life with. They teach me about what it means to do good in this world every day. So, my relaxation right now is sitting at an NMF concert and hearing our great artists play. That is reward and relaxation enough.

STEPHANIE CHASE: I am so grateful for my opportunities at the Festival and look forward to my third year this summer. The 2019 Festival runs from July 4 through the 28th, and its website is at, where visitors can read details about the concerts, music and artists, and also buy tickets. And it’s not all classical music – there are some lighter events featuring music from Broadway and other popular songbooks.

Thank you, Pamela, for so generously sharing your story with Stay Thirsty.

Pamela Pantos       

Stephanie Chase      


Stephanie Chase is internationally recognized as “one of the violin greats of our era” (Newhouse Newspapers) through solo appearances with over 170 orchestras that include the New York and Hong Kong Philharmonics and the Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta and London Symphony Orchestras. Her interpretations are acclaimed for their “elegance, dexterity, rhythmic vitality and great imagination” (Boston Globe), “stunning power” (Louisville Courier-Journal), “matchless technique” (BBC Music Magazine), and “virtuosity galore” (Gramophone), and she is a top medalist of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. In the Summer of 2018 she was featured at music festivals in Newport, RI, Mt. Desert, ME, and Martha's Vineyard, MA, and made her debut in Vietnam, where she performed in Hi Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.