DEBUG: cgb/block-vb-hero

Grethe Holby-Elgort and her children, Warren, Ansel and Sophie; all photographs by Arthur Elgort

DEBUG: cgb/block-vb-title

Mother's Day Issue

Grethe Holby-Elgort, Founder of Family Opera Initiative

DEBUG: core/paragraph

The Elgort household is a creative whirlpool. Dad is Arthur Elgort, the renowned lensman best known for his work with Vogue. Mom is Grethe Holby-Elgort, the producer, choreographer, stage director and dramaturge, who's busting the traditional confines of the opera world with her company, the Family Opera Initiative, and its nonprofit incubator Opera Out of Bounds, a.k.a. Ardea Arts. (Basketball opera, anyone?) You know their children, too. They're equally famous, both behind and in front of the camera: photographer Sophie, film director Warren and actor and singer Ansel. For this special Mother's Day issue, we sat down with the grande dame of the clan (and Iconic Focus model), Grethe, for an intimate peek inside their world…

DEBUG: cgb/block-vb-two-column-image

Grethe with her mother, Aase-Grethe Holby

Grethe with, from left, Sophie, Warren and Ansel

DEBUG: core/paragraph

What are your Mother's Day traditions?
The children make breakfast and I get a yearly collage of photos from Arther (see below). In the old days, they used to bring me breakfast in bed, but, to tell you the truth, I don't really enjoy it—it's just a mess. I'd rather have breakfast with them—pancakes, French toast or some nice bread with jam. The main thing they know I need is freshly squeezed orange juice.

DEBUG: core/paragraph

Best Mother's Day gift received?
The things I treasure are the photos from Arthur and their cards. You know, they express things in those cards that they don't necessarily tell you, especially the boys. One year Warren wrote, "Even though I sometimes say, 'Go away," but today I say 'Happy Mother's Day!"—that's very telling, isn't it? That's why I frame them. They're so beautiful and they really get to express themselves.

DEBUG: core/paragraph

Favorite family time?
Driving up to the ski slopes. I would go with the children every weekend when they were younger. Arther wouldn't come because he didn't like skiing, but I'd get in the car, head north and drive for five hours. We'd all start singing loudly, like songs by Raffi, and then we'd arrive at one o'clock in the morning. I'd carry them in, put them into bed. The next morning we're all on the slopes. Sunday night, we'd cook dinner, clean the place up, get back in the car and drive down. Those kind of family trips were wonderful.

DEBUG: cgb/block-vb-two-column-image

For Mother's Day every year, Arthur gifts Grethe a framed collage of family photos like this one...

A handwritten card from her son, Warren

DEBUG: core/paragraph

Tell us about your mom, Aase-Grethe—I've read incredible stories about her…
She was a strong, Norwegian woman. During the war, she joined the Underground and was taken by the Nazis. She kept saying she couldn't knit—if you did, you were never getting out. It was a lie, of course, because all Norwegian girls are taught to knit and sew from the time they're seven years old. They treated her badly but finally let her go. With help from the Underground, she got into the hills and over to Sweden, where she started working for the Norwegian government in exile. Then she was sent to work in England, then to America, where they asked her to start working for this new organization, the United Nations. She said no because she was getting married.

DEBUG: core/paragraph

Greatest lesson you learned from her?
Survival instinct. Just keep going. Be appreciative of what you have, and make it work.

DEBUG: core/paragraph

And what are the lessons you want to pass on to your own kids?
The main thing is to do what you love. You go out there and you either fail or don't fail, but if you do, then go on to the next thing. You find it yourself. Also, to have respect and honor people—make sure to actually thank and remember the people who helped you.

DEBUG: cgb/block-vb-hero

Elgort family portrait, from left: Ansel, Arthur, Warren, Grethe, Sophie and her husband, Eric Von Stroh, with their baby, Stella, in the middle

DEBUG: core/paragraph

Tell us about your work with the Family Opera Initiative
I used to be a dancer and choreographer. I started doing choreography for opera, then directing for opera. I didn't come from the opera world; I sort of fell into it. Coming from the dance world, where I had my own company, I was always making new work, new kinds of movement… But in opera, there was nothing really new going on. It wasn't that accessible. Where was, for instance, The Nutcracker for opera?
So I set out to make it. Under the Family Opera Initiative, which I founded in 1995, I developed Animal Tales, a children's opera, written by George Plimpton, about having the guts to go out and find and follow your dreams. It's absolutely extraordinary.
Right now, we're working on a basketball opera, Bounce. It's an Icarus story and takes place on an actual basketball court. We had a college production at the University of Kentucky, a basketball powerhouse, and were hoping to premiere in New York in the fall, but with coronavirus, we've had to postpone everything.

DEBUG: core/paragraph

Have you ever worked with your children?
My boys are my worst and best critics. Ansel came up to me and said the track we had for Bounce was too old-fashioned, so he made new tracks for us. We did a real contract—with his agents, lawyers, everything. The inspiration for Bounce actually came out of story times with my son, Warren. We would read Walter Dean Myers' basketball books, Slam! and Hoops, together. Oh, and Ansel played the frog once in Animal Tails. Sophie's more behind the camera—she's more of her father's daughter.

DEBUG: core/paragraph

What are your hacks to keeping work, family and personal ambition in balance and in check?
Being in the arts, you have a slightly different schedule. My career would have been a whole lot different if I hadn't raised three kids, but I'm sure glad I did. You make it work. We were lucky because we had a place where we could get away. Spending good family time, away from everything, is important.

DEBUG: core/paragraph

What do you love about motherhood?
I can't imagine not having children. It's the most beautiful thing in the world.

DEBUG: core/paragraph

Three words to describe life at your house…
Chaotic, exciting and loving.

DEBUG: cgb/block-vb-hero

Grethe and the kids with her mom, at right

DEBUG: cgb/block-vb-small-header

Discover More on VB Edit

DEBUG: cgb/block-vb-related