Last week, Seattle Opera announced the results of its two-year quest to find a successor to Speight Jenkins, who has led the company with remarkable distinction and passion for the past 30 years. The new general director, who starts in September, 2014, is Aidan Lang, current head of New Zealand Opera.
The unconventional and risky choice was a surprise in many ways.
Such searches are normally very important times in the history of arts organizations, for they commence with a top-to-bottom examination of the company and its future directions. It’s not easy for the public to learn what this strategic review has produced, since the baton-passing always stresses continuity, especially when the retiring leader is as beloved as Jenkins has become both here and in the wider opera world. Nonetheless, some themes can be gleaned.
One member of the search committee told me that the committee understandably began “looking for a replica of Speight” but ended up, after its deep education in the state of opera today, looking for something different. The commitment to the company’s signature Ring cycle remains, as does the insistence on high artistic quality, particularly in the singers. But these are different times economically, and the opera has dug itself into some financial holes.
Accordingly, Aidan Lang spoke candidly about “a balance of ambition and financial reality,” adding that “not everything has to be done at the grandest level.” His experience with scrappy, smaller opera companies has trained him in this regard. "Maybe that's why I got the job," he says, with a smile, about his financial realism.
One indication of the new sobriety is in the job announcement circulated by the Toronto search firm, Genovese Vanderhoof & Associates. The first priority for the new general director, the announcement declares, is “leading the fiscal transformation of the company.” That distress signal may have dampened the enthusiasm of some big-vision candidates. And it explains why the board selected a candidate with a long track record in opera management (Lang, 57, has been involved in opera companies for 30 years), as opposed to “the next hot thing” artistically.
But practicality is not the only skill Aidan Lang brings to the table — far from it. Lang is relatively unknown in America, and even so ardent a talent scout as Jenkins says he has "never seen a production of his." But Lang has a wide range of experience in Britain, Holland, and New Zealand. He comes up on the artistic side of the business, having been a freelance opera stage director (he has a theater background) and having run festivals known for contemporary music, baroque music, young artists and adventurous, small-budget opera productions. He has a genial, jolly and open disposition. He seems certain to push Seattle Opera in some welcome new directions.
Last week, I spent some time talking with Jenkins, Lang, and search committee chair John Nesholm. The outgoing and incoming general managers obviously like each other and have some key shared characteristics: deep knowledge of operas and opera production, articulateness, evangelism and a warm and effective way with donors and the public.
But they come out of different worlds. Jenkins is a confessed “child of the Met,” whose ideal of opera was formed in the traditional, grand-opera, big-budget, big-donor days of Rudolf Bing's Metropolitan Opera in the 1960s. Lang, 20 years younger, comes out of the smaller-budget, theater-based opera of the provinces, blending various influences and national cultures.
His early experience at Welsh National Opera and Britain's Glyndebourne Festival send a strong signal to opera buffs that he has been influenced by two companies who have led the way to more deeply theatrical, extensively rehearsed and strikingly fresh interpretations. If Jenkins' first priority has been singers, Lang's would appear to be dramatic impact.
Jenkins established strong artistic authority for himself, picking all the singers and closely watching all the details of each production. Lang too will have the full authority of a CEO, reporting only to the board, not sharing responsibilities with a business manager or an artistic director. But he is “pondering” whether to add a new senior position of music director, a move Jenkins always resisted but is relatively standard for large companies like Seattle's. I would guess that Lang will also broaden the repertoire of operas (particularly contemporary works and Handel) and widen the range of directorial styles — assuming the money can be found. Though an experienced stage director, Lang says he will not direct any Seattle Opera productions.
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