An unexpected choice to head Seattle Opera

How the Opera found a successor to the revered Speight Jenkins, and what Aidan Lang will bring to the table.
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Aidan Lang will lead Seattle Opera

How the Opera found a successor to the revered Speight Jenkins, and what Aidan Lang will bring to the table.

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.

The dramatic rise of Seattle Opera under Jenkins is perhaps the most inspiring story in the history of Seattle arts. He arrived here in 1983 with absolutely no experience in producing opera or in arts management; he was a music critic and broadcaster in New York City. Jenkins got the job by brimming with self-confidence and high standards. He inherited a 20-year-old company founded by Glynn Ross, a master of using bootstrap budgets to produce ambitious but highly uneven shows.

Jenkins recalled to me how he “spent recklessly” in those first eight years of on-the-job training. "That “turned out to be the best thing I could have done, for it changed entirely the status of the company,” which came to believe — and to convince the local audiences — that Seattle Opera could do work at a very high level.

Jenkins was also one of the first American opera directors to stress "the complete singer," one who could act as well as sing with emotional power. He remained a traditionalist in the sense of honoring “the composer’s expectation” and holding closely to the text — “I am a word person; music comes out of the words” — as opposed to strained interpretations that modernize at the expense of a work’s core meaning.

Also, Jenkins’ internationally acclaimed two Richard Wagner Ring cycles, mounted each four summers, gave the company what Lang calls “an amazing international calling card.” (The current production of Wagner’s Ring, which debuted in 2001, is running this summer, featuring a don't-miss, first-rank Wagnerian conductor, Asher Fisch; information and tickets here.)

But Jenkins’ amazing first decade produced a $2.6 million accumulated deficit. That forced Jenkins to delegate business matters to some excellent executive directors, the late Kathy Magiera and (the current one) Kelly Tweeddale. John Nesholm, a local architect and philanthropist who came on the board as president in 1993 and still serves as chair of the board, has been Jenkins’s steadfast friend and a wise force for fiscal prudence. It's worth noting that John and Laurel Nesholm have become the dominant donors and shapers of Seattle’s musical culture, with Mrs. Nesholm playing a key role in the transformation of the Seattle Symphony under its new conductor, Ludovic Morlot.

With managerial and artistic excellence, as well as steady leadership at the board and CEO levels, Seattle Opera has soared. The recession, however, has taken a toll. Recent years have curtailed productions Jenkins dearly wanted to do, scaled back yearly productions from five to four, put on ice the Young Artists Program (training young singers), and delayed plans to convert the Mercer Arts Arena, adjoining McCaw Hall, into an administrative support facility for the Opera. As for the list of the operas Jenkins most wishes he could have done? He gave me five: Berg’s ”Wozzeck” (all planned and cast for this year but dropped), Strauss’s “Die Frau ohne Schatten,” Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” a new “Tannhauser,” and “La Gioconda.”

The opera’s 2011-12 year produced a rare shortfall of nearly $1 million that is still being cured. More seriously, the company has had, for the past seven years, a built-in structural deficit each year of about $2 million on an annual budget currently at $22 million. (By comparison, the budget of Aidan Lang's New Zealand Opera is $12.5 million in American dollars.) Various short term steps have dealt with the Opera's structural deficit, but a "fiscal transformation" is clearly needed.

The path forward, aside from more cost controls, is a major fund drive for an enlarged endowment (the Opera's endowment is about $20 million, or about one third of what it ought to be), money for the Key Arena project (which will save rental and scenery-trucking costs) and some new initiatives Lang may propose. The difficulty is that it normally takes a new general director a few years to find his footing and to instill confidence in donors. The waiting period may be somewhat longer in the case of Lang since he has not worked in America and his companies have largely relied on government funding. Another worry: The Opera board is a little thin on very generous patrons.

Wait those 2-3 years, however, and the Opera will find itself trailing campaigns by the Symphony, the Art Museum, ACT, the University of Washington and many more organizations that are all lined up to go at the first real sign of a post-recession economy. Most Seattle majors have run up deficits and debts during the recession and so are eager to launch major fund drives to restore their fiscal health. The Seattle Symphony, for instance, has an accumulated deficit of $11 million.

This context helps explain why the board chose Lang, said by one search committee member to have been “by far the best” of the final four candidates. Lang has shown himself adept at getting struggling organizations back on their feet, artistically and financially. The other three finalists, according to sources, were an artistic director from a major American opera company (with little management experience) and two general directors from middling-reputation companies in mid-sized heartland American cities.

The search committee received 42 applications from seven countries. It narrowed that group to 12 who were given phone interviews, and then to the final four, each of whom came to Seattle for three days of meetings with the entire staff and board of the Opera. At the end of the three days, each candidate met again with the search committee, reported what they had learned and shared their visions for the Opera going forward.

Lang, who arrived jet-lagged from New Zealand, made a mixed first impression, but was said to have been very thoughtful and articulate at the final session, fully swaying the committee to his side.

Lang is an intriguing choice with a varied and inventive musical life. He was born in London and educated at Birmingham University where he studied theater. He drifted into opera jobs at Welsh National Opera (an adventurous company) and was a staff producer in the 1980s for various companies. He served as principal associate director at Glyndebourne, (1990-99), a greatly admired summer festival with a smaller house in a bucolic countryside setting in Britain's Sussex County. Also during that period, Lang was the inaugural artistic director of Opera Zuid in Maasstricht, Holland, which produced and toured modern, baroque and other opera productions.

Lang revived the Buxton Summer Festival (1999-06), in central England, a festival of opera, music and books that specializes in rarely produced operas by major composers. During these years, Lang was also a freelance opera director. One of his adventures was directing a Ring cycle in remote Brazil, an almost comic venture with a very low budget and such setbacks as a soprano being bitten onstage by a nasty tropical spider.

In 2006, Lang went to Auckland, New Zealand to head a recently merged New Zealand Opera, which was in the process of figuring out how to serve several cities in New Zealand and how to cobble together quite admired productions that serve several cities with different orchestras and choruses. The current season shows a lot of ambition: "Madama Butterfly," "Don Giovanni," and Wagner's "Flying Dutchman," plus special events such as an "Acis and Galatea" (by Handel) staged on a country estate and Britten’s "Noye’s Fludde" with school children.

Critics I have managed to find give the Lang era in New Zealand very high marks, noting his infectious enthusiasm and good humor. One summary, lamenting his departure to Seattle, noted "a remarkable range of lively opera productions. All of them have been of a very high standard. All have been dramatically credible, wonderfully well sung and superbly staged." Also praised: his ability to reach out to new audiences and new cities.

That’s a wide palette, and talking to Lang I was stuck by how open he is to doing new things. He loves Benjamin Britten and John Adams, two composers spurned by Jenkins (in Adams’s case because he has some parts using microphones, which Jenkins deplores). Lang “adores” musical comedy — his wife sings some of it in sophisticated productions — and “reveres” Stephen Sondheim. He has a lot of experience in partnership with other companies, explaining that New Zealand is often sought as a partner because of its lower wages and favorable exchange rate. He has a passionate fondness for baroque music, particularly Handel, that Jenkins does not share; this might fit well in Seattle with its very strong early-music scene.

The clearest signal artistically is his theater background and his desire to “deliver the heart of the piece” by dramatic clarity. In talking with him about operas, his first instinct is to talk about dramatic issues — how for instance to make Britten’s "Peter Grimes" into a compelling central character and why “Billy Budd” makes more sense on stage. I can imagine his doing operas that audiences might resist because of unfamiliar music but that nevertheless succeed because of compelling theatricality.

But if there are intriguing new directions lurking in this choice, there is also a lot of continuity. Lang clearly intends to keep the Wagner Ring cycles going. Building a new Ring, Jenkins says, would take six-seven years, so the current Ring, now in its third revival, might be repeated in 2017 or dropped while a new one is built. Jenkins is famous for treating singers as royalty, making them want to return, and Lang is said to have developed this same skill in getting singers to voyage all the way to Auckland. Like Jenkins, he will be deeply involved in selecting singers, directors and conductors and in overseeing lots of the details during rehearsals. And he shares Jenkins’ optimism and irrepressible love of opera, and talking, talking, talking about it.

All these traits echo the way other Seattle fine-arts organizations are entering significantly new chapters. You can think of the history of Seattle arts in terms of three generations. The first, right after the 1962 World’s Fair, were the bold pioneers: Milton Katims as conductor of the Seattle Symphony, Glynn Ross at the Opera, Greg Falls at ACT, Richard Fuller at SAM. Then came a long-lived generation who had much higher standards and often built new performance halls: Jenkins at the Opera, Gerard Schwarz at the Symphony, Dan Sullivan at the Repertory Theater, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell at the Ballet, Bart Scher at Intiman, Matt Krashan at Meany, Gordon Edelstein and Kurt Beattie at ACT, Mimi Gates at SAM. All are notable for their artistic ambitions and unusually long tenures.

Now comes the third generation: Peter Boal at the Ballet, Ludovic Morlot and Simon Woods at the SSO,  Michelle Witt at Meany, Kimerly Rorschach at SAM, Wier Harman at Town Hall. These new leaders bring a greater openness, informality and youthfulness to Seattle arts, which may have become too traditionalist and too repetitive under the long tenures of the second generation. While most of the second-generation directors came from New York, with its big-production, big-splash traditions, the third generation hails from places like France (Morlot), Edinburgh (Woods), Duke (Rorschach), the Bay Area (Witt) and Glyndebourne/Maastricht/Auckland (Lang).  

It’s as if Seattle has come to understand that many of the energies of art come not from the more stodgy metropolitan capitals such as New York and London but from the upstart provincial capitals that are open to new influences, lie at the borderlands, and whose economics allow more adventuresome programming. In no longer slavishly wanting to be like New York, we have begun finding our own distinctive voices.

That’s one of the reasons I find the appointment of Aidan Lang such an exciting and promising choice. Good work, searchers!




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