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Best of 2012: The Speight Age (and after) at Seattle Opera

Speight Jenkins, general director of Seattle Opera. Credit: Seattle Opera

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.

Similarly, Jenkins says, he takes pride in the "mood" of the whole company, all very focused on teamwork and musical excellence. A great deal of credit for the Opera's success also goes to Tweeddale, a highly admired administrator, and her beloved predecessor, Kathy Magiera, who died in 2002. These two rescued Jenkins from his inexperience in business matters in the early years, and they free him up to devote so much time to artistic production.

Jenkins alone picks all the singers, and he fiercely guards that prerogative.  He’s very good at this, and one opera veteran considers him “a genius for casting and picking singers.” Some think he puts more emphasis on singers than on the other parts of the artistic triumvirate, the conductor and the stage director. Jenkins has built several artistic teams, such as the Stephen Wadsworth, Thomas Lynch team that designed the current Ring, and he often gives them a lot of creative room.

As for repertoire, Jenkins grew up in the world of the Metropolitan Opera in the 1970s, “an extraordinarily conservative” period for the great company in the view of one opera expert. The Seattle record is also quite conservative, and not just in the relatively few modern or contemporary operas but also in avoiding Handel and any forays into the musical stage (aside from Porgy and Bess). Some of this is to be expected, since the Opera has to fill up a big hall and draw a big audience from a relatively small base. That's a formula for traditionalism.

The other aspect of the Met Opera formula Jenkins imported was to focus on very rich donors, not shying away from expensive ticket prices. That fundraising approach has always been a challenge in Seattle, which has little multi-generational family giving of this sort, and whose new economy is producing great wealth with tenuous connections to the fine arts. Jenkins is an indefatigable schmoozer of these patrons; again, that may be a hard act to follow with a new person.

A more unusual aspect of the Jenkins formula is how many artistic reins he holds in his hand. He picks the opera, assembles the creative team, casts and picks the singers, gets very involved in rehearsals – and is also a master fundraiser, lecturer (what he was doing before this job), and publicist. Jenkins admits it's unusual for a company this size to have a general director working that closely on productions, with San Francisco, Dallas, and Chicago as some of the few other examples.

Why not have a music director or chief conductor to carry some of the load? There is a superb principal guest conductor, Asher Fisch, who is finally having a big season this coming year – Turandot, Fidelio (next opera up in this season), and next summer’s Ring (with already 90 percent of its funding in hand) – but he has been curiously under-used and will likely not be as frequent a conductor in the future, owing to his new positions.

Nesholm gives another reason for not having a separate music director: this opera company does not have an orchestra of its own for such a person to rehearse and define. It uses the Seattle Symphony, a great boon compared to fielding an orchestra of freelancers. This arrangement somewhat distorts the Symphony’s season, since when an opera is on, drawing off many Symphony players, the Symphony must make do with smaller-orchestra programs. It is a huge advantage to Seattle Opera to have such fine, year-round musicians, and one of the big reasons its Wagner and Strauss productions are so admired musically.

Keeping the Ring every four years is “essential,” says Jenkins, who can’t imagine kicking away a signature event that makes Seattle and Seattle Opera known across the globe. "It gives Seattle Opera a brand, a rare thing for any company," says Jenkins. Wagner's four-opera cycle is a kind of season unto itself, with most ticket buyers required to make donations, and it has a budget and a full rehearsal schedule well beyond the normal season fare.  Wagner is a sacred calling for Jenkins, and his ability to create two new Rings (each quadrennial production is normally repeated twice) has probably been a big factor in keeping such a talented opera manager here for three decades. The questions rarely asked: Does this draw off too much funding from the regular productions? And are there now too many Rings in the world, even if the Ring-nuts are passionately loyal to the work and Seattle's versions?

Does this Wagner focus also this mandate more Rings for Jenkins’ successor? The work is so central that the Seattle Opera MIssion Statement says, "By continuing our emphasis on the work of Richard Wagner and by achieving national and international recognition for the quality of all our programmings, Seattle Opera commits itself to advancing the cultural life of the Pacific Northwest through education and performance." It also calls for "textually concerned directors and designers," a slap at strained European productions that often wander far from the libretto's text.

Wagner forever? “We’ll see,” says the cautious Nesholm, worrying about finances. He also says that the Jenkins model of a general manager who does everything is the model they are using in the search, “at this time.” 

Nesholm’s search committee has been at work for the past year. It has just hired a search firm, Genovese Vanderhoof & Associates of Toronto, which might suggest even looking at European candidates, despite Seattle Opera’s long resistance to the far-out, director-driven productions from that continent.

The list of “key attributes” for the new general director mirrors Jenkins’ do-it-all approach. It involves assembling artistic teams, strong communication skills, active fundraising, outreach, and (last) “interest and ability to commission, develop, produce, and promote new work.”  Whether they can find such a combination is another matter, and the list gives no sense of priorities. In these searches, the "opera establishment" normally suggests its preferred choice. So it did in 1983, but the search committee instead went for a very risky, very eloquent novice in opera management, Speight Jenkins of Texas and New York City, who had never run an opera company.

The current search committee has some long-time supporters and fans of Jenkins, such as Bill Gerberding, Jerry Grinstein, Lenore Hanauer, and Susan Detweiler; former board chairs Russ Tousley and Steve Phelps; the current board president, Bill Weyerhaeuser; and boardmembers Jonathan Caves, Diana Gale, Laura Lundgren, and Maryanne Tagney-Jones.  Chairman Nesholm is a master of consensus building and probably also a voice for financial realism and caution.

All this emphasis on continuity is perfectly understandable, both as a tribute to Speight Jenkins and as a natural feeling that when you have outsized success like this, don't tamper with the formula. As part of that calculation is the fact of very large audiences for Jenkins’ productions: for 20 years Seattle ranks near the top in attendance, per capita, of any opera company in America, a tribute to Jenkins' tireless efforts at promoting opera in every place that will have him. The Opera's budget size puts it sixth or seventh in the nation.

The case for continuity is strong, but it is also be risky. Following a long-tenured legend with a similar person invites difficult comparisons. It may be that the company with its very large operations (the website lists 41 people, mostly for short time periods, in costumes and makeup and hair alone) has grown to where it needs a triumvirate not a triune god?

Then there is the concern that Seattle audiences and tastes are changing, as the region gets younger, more tech-employed, and  more MTV-oriented in its demand for spectacle. (Turandot was an example of splashy, Cirque-de-Soleil-influenced spectacle, and it went over big.) Both the Ballet and the Symphony, as they have changed the guard, are pushing in quite different directions from their long-serving predecessors.

There are not a lot of indications that the Opera is on the hunt for significant change. On the other hand, the economics of this “sacred monster” of an art form may well drive the new person in new directions. Some of the trends in other companies: more unusual repertoire, lower ticket prices, a feeling of contemporary-ness, new takes on great musicals, multicultural and crossover approaches, performances in some smaller venues, live telecasts (as the Met is doing in movie theaters).

Consider the nearby houses. Seattle in the season just opened will do Turandot, Fidelio, Boheme, Cinderella, and one non-familiar work, Poulenc's La Voix Humaine (paired with the third Puccini of the season, Suor Angelica). At Portland, with a much smaller budget and mostly imported shows from other companies, there will be Don Giovanni, Tosca, Falstaff, Handel's Rinaldo, and a "Big Night" of singers with orchestra. Vancouver offers Boheme, Magic Flute, Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance, and a new work byTan Dun, Tea: a Mirror of Soul.

Whether the Opera chooses or is forced into some striking new directions or goes with the present formula, either will be a tribute to the company that Jenkins (and his predecessor, Glynn Ross) have been able to build up since 1963. Few cities of this size have been able to do it. Even more remarkable is pulling this off it in the competitive context of Seattle's ambitions for symphony, art museum, ballet, and theater. One can only imagine the deserved and prolonged Bravos! that will bid farewell to Jenkins when he takes his farewell bows from the McCaw Hall stage he has built and peopled with such distinction.

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