Editors' note: Each day during the holidays, Crosscut will revisit top stories from the last year in a specific category. Today's focus is on the arts. This article was originally published Aug. 23, 2012.
Two years hence, on Aug. 31, 2014, will come a very big day in Seattle’s cultural history. That’s the last day of work for Speight Jenkins, general director of Seattle Opera for the past 29 years. Jenkins, above all but hardly alone, has put Seattle on the national artistic map. His achievement, and it is very much the result of one man’s total commitment to a very difficult cause in such a smallish city, is extraordinary. He will be no easy person to replace.
The succession plan, long in the works, does not come at a propitious time. The recession continues. Opera companies around the nation are running scared, with good reason when you consider the costs of this extravagant, 400-year-old art form. Seattle Opera has plenty of financial challenges.
In Seattle, it’s a “Twilight of the Gods” period with major artistic successions at the Ballet, the Symphony, Intiman, Meany Hall, Seattle Art Museum, the Frye Art Museum, the Henry Art Gallery, ArtsFund, Seattle Rep, Cornish, Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs … you name it. All this challenges boards, donors, and audiences as they settle into new programming, new personalities.
None bigger, in my view, and none riskier than at the Opera. So here's a report on the succession, and a look at how Jenkins managed to create one of the leading opera companies in the world out of the crooked timber of Seattle’s musical scene.
Earlier this month, the New York Times published an article on the “saddening” landscape of American opera companies. The poster child of this distress, in the article, was Seattle Opera, whose situation was said to be “among the most acute.”
That’s probably an overstatement. But the Opera had somewhat asked for this kind of negative publicity when it went public with its problems about a month ago. It announced a rare deficit for the fiscal year just ending of a bit under $1 million. An expensive production of Wagner’s Meistersinger, which would have been Jenkins' farewell production, was canceled. The Young Artists program, training young singers in full productions, was put on indefinite hiatus. The 2013-14 season (Jenkins’ last season) will have one fewer production, as will 2014-15; and the current season will endure another 10 percent cut in costs.
Jenkins, in an interview, puts his usual positive spin on the situation. Rather than accumulate debt, as the Symphony has done for the past four years, the Opera will cut costs, raise more money, and hopefully retire the 2012 debt before Jenkins’ successor takes the reins in 2014. The plan is to name the new general director by next spring, so she or he can witness the rehearsals and performances of Seattle Opera’s touchstone production of Wagner’s Ring next summer.
After all, Jenkins reports, the Opera has had only one deficit year in the past 18, and that one, in 2005, was only $278,000 and it was repaid in a year. Opera has the advantage that it can twirl the dials of expenses – how many star singers, imported productions versus original shows, avoiding use of chorus, etc. – far more easily than other art forms. And, as the Times article reports, many opera companies are mounting more sure-fire, familiar fare, much as Seattle has done in the past few years, heavy on Verdi and Puccini.
Not to worry, then? Alas, looked at long term, one finds that Seattle Opera has not just one shortfall year to weather this year but chronic, structural problems that began seven years ago and extend, according to board chair John Nesholm, “a couple years” into the future.
The Opera’s board chairman, architect and philanthropist Nesholm, who is also chairing the search committee for the next director, explains that in 2005 the board realized that expenses were starting to rise faster than revenues. The company launched a "Campaign for Seattle Opera,” hoping to raise about $32 million to attack the structural problems. It went well, until it ran into the recession in 2008.
One fund, $10 million to augment artistic expenses, equally divided over five years (and now expended), did succeed. But the drive to turn the Mercer Arts Arena (a former hockey arena immediately east of McCaw Hall) into the Opera’s offices, scene shop, costume-shop, and other support services is stalled at about $3 million raised, with an estimated $40 million in project costs for the renovation. That new facility is expected to save the company money, avoiding current expenses for trucking scenery, for instance. Nor was much progress made in adding to the company’s modest $21.9 million endowment, which should be three times the annual budget, which is now $21.3 million.
Starting in 2006, the Opera has tightened its belt. Instead of the normal eight performances of five operas a year, it dropped to six performances for two of the productions this year (though 10 of the reliably popular Boheme). Speaking of performances, Jenkins says that the second Saturday performance draws the most adventuresome audience and is also the night that is broadcast, revving up the artists and getting the orchestra playing at its best level for the remainder of the run. Wednesday and Fridays are the cheapest tickets. The final performance draws the youngest crowd and often has some cast fireworks on stage.
Going forward, Nesholm predicts, “fewer grand operas will be done,” a grand opera being one with chorus, larger orchestras, and dance (such as the acclaimed Turandot just mounted). "NO musicals."
Two questions naturally arise from this scenario. One, posed by the Times reporter to Jenkins: Are these cutbacks "the new normal”? Jenkins answered in his patented, god-will-provide optimism: “No, I won’t accept that. As an American and as a general director, I can’t accept that.”
The other question, which I posed to Jenkins, his ace executive director, Kelly Tweeddale, and Nesholm, is whether the company, post-Jenkins, will have to find a new formula? Not surprisingly, that produced a rousing defense from Jenkins and Tweeddale of the current formula, and especially the importance of continuing to produce Wagner's Ring every four years. Nesholm was more circumspect but hardly pushing for significant change, if it can be avoided.
The Jenkins formula, remarkably consistent since he arrived as a very dark-horse and inexperienced choice for the position in 1983, is very well suited to Seattle, or at least the post-World's Fair Seattle of a rapid cultural advance on many fronts. It starts by treating singers like royalty, with volunteers catering to their every wish and settling them into lovely Seattle homes for their stay. Jenkins loves to quote the famous Birgit Nilsson line: “Songbirds sing when they are happy. When they aren’t, they don’t.”
In part this royal treatment is to compensate for Seattle's isolation. Singers in European opera houses, for instance, often dodge away from rehearsals to earn some money in a nearby city. That’s not an option here, with few nearby opera houses. The reward is a second part of the Jenkins formula: work very hard to form a musical team for each production, rather than a random assemblage of jet-setting stars and conductors. It pays off in coherent productions and the willingness of fine singers to trek all the way to Seattle repeatedly.
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