Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Speight Jenkins talks about career highlights, the International Wagner Competition, and the horizon

© Rozarii Lynch
Speight Jenkins has had a remarkable run as general director of Seattle Opera, leading the company for the past 31 years with 1,200 performances and garnering praise from all corners of the opera world for his work. He will be retiring after this month, at age 77, and handing the reigns to Aidan Lang, former director of New Zealand Opera. There’s an excellent article by Melinda Bargreen in the Seattle Times that summaries much of his legacy in Seattle. But before he leaves, Jenkins will present the International Wagner Competition tomorrow night (Thursday, August 7th at 7 pm at McCaw Hall) will be honored at the Speight Celebration Concert on Saturday (August 9th at 6 pm at McCaw Hall) so it was high time for me to give him a call before he goes into legendary status. Here is part of our conversation.

What are some of the highlights of your time at Seattle Opera?

Jenkins: The highlights are the two “Ring Cycles” that we did. The “Ring” is the most difficult thing that you can do in opera, and we succeeded with both them. Overall, the operas that that have done since we opened McCaw Hall in 2003 are a high point. I wanted to do a higher level of performance because of the contribution of the public. Other highlights were Prokofiev’s “War and Peace” in 1990 and Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” in 1998. People came from all over the world to see “Tristan und Isolde,” and they loved it. But since 2003, we have been able to maintain a consistency in quality in so many ways that were difficult to maintain before.

The acoustic of McCaw is pretty darn good.

Jenkins: Yes. That turned out much better than I had expected.

How did you come up with the International Wagner Competition?

Jenkins: It was a funny thing. At the time, one of our the people in development, Rebecca Chawgo – she is now the director of development at Bellevue College – said to me “I’m so disappointed that we can’t do Wagner this summer. It’s unfortunately for our fundraising efforts.” We went back and forth with some ideas and one of us – I don’t remember which one exactly – came up with the idea of the competition. I like to give Rebecca the credit, but if she didn’t say it, our conversation made me think of it.

Then I did some research and found out that nowhere else in the world held such a competition. That made the idea more attractive to us. Ours is the only one, and it has remained that way. We did it in 2006 and 2008, and then the recession hit. So we haven’t done it again until this year. But no one else has done it. There are a lot of competitions for opera singers, but none of them are for Wagner competitions.

How does a singer get to participate in this competition?

Jenkins: Back in January of 2012, we sent out a notice to all of the opera companies that might possibly have done Wagner plus all of the major companies in Germany, North America, and England. We told them that we will be doing this competition, and it is open to anybody between the ages of 25 and 40, who has sung some dramatic repertoire but not a major Wagner role. So these are singers with a dramatic possibility but they haven’t gotten a big role. The Valkyries, for example, are not big roles. So, prospective singers send us a CD by June 30th. This year we received 65 of them. Then our director of artistic administration, Aren Der Hacopian, and I listened to all of those CDs.

Wow! That’s a lot!

Jenkins: It’s not all that much. Sometimes I listen to 30 auditions in a day. So we narrowed the 65 possible participants down to 26. Then we resolved to hear these 26 personally. We heard some of them here in Seattle, some in New York, and some in Munich and London. Then we narrowed that down to eight finalists and two alternates. In 2008, the finalists were mostly Europeans. This time, they are mostly from the United States. But we don’t care where they come from. We are just trying to get the best singers.

It’s sort of mind-boggling to think of how many individual voices you’ve heard over the years.

Jenkins: For years, I’ve done auditions in New York City, typically three or four days in a week and usually 30 people a day. Of course, I hear auditions here in Seattle, and I go to Europe twice a year. I hear a lot of auditions every year. But that’s just part of my job.

You were a music critic before you became the General Director of Seattle Opera. Can that type of thing happen today? Don’t general directors have to take specialized classes in how to administer an artistic organization?

Jenkins: There are very few general directors who have taken administration classes. So, what I did in ’83 would be as unusual now as it was then. There are no other music critics in the US who have become general directors, but there’s no reason that this couldn’t happen again. I don’t think that there are any classes for general directors. That’s a pity. I’d love to teach one!

The whole process of musical education is very poor in America. For years, my good friend Martin Bernheimer, who is a very knowledgeable person, taught a class in criticism at UCLA. That was really great, but then they dropped it. There’s no course that a person can take to be a music critic much less a general director.

The truth of the matter is that general directors everywhere do the same things with some variations. I have had a good situation in Seattle with what the board expects of me and what I do.

It seems that Regietheater, which is done quite a lot in Europe, is done only a bit here in the US.

Jenkins: Everything in opera starts in Europe and comes here slowly. People have seen some of this in New York and via HD broadcasts. I don’t think that HD is opera, but it is a good movie of opera. That’s an important decision to make. Opera has to be experienced in the theater where the energy passes between the stage and the audience and the audience and the stage.

On the other hand, I am very grateful for HD because it reaches places that do not offer live opera. There are places in Washington and Oregon where it is hard to get to Seattle or Portland to hear a live performance. So HD transmissions are wonderful. But it is important to realize what HD is.

I agree. The singers, for these performances, are wearing body microphones and there are area mics that pick up their voices for the broadcast.

Jenkins: Opera is one of the last places in the world where you can hear true, unamplified human voices. When I was a little boy, and my parents took me to New York, musicals were not wearing microphones. The miking started with musicals. I tend to think of it as ‘the snake appeared.” The first miking was done in 1954 with Julie Andrews in “The Boy Friend” off Broadway. It didn’t affect anything until 1955 or 1956 when “My Fair Lady” was done. They had to mike Rex Harrison, because he didn’t have a voice to sing with. Within four years, every Broadway musical was miked. Now it’s everywhere and totally ridiculous. I can’t go to musicals. It just drives me crazy. It’s so big, and it’s so ugly. Singers don’t really have to sing. I don’t want to be an old man just complaining about things. But when you go back to Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, they were great singers, who truly sang beautifully, and knew how to sing. Just from a medical point of view. People today wonder why Rock singers sing a short time and get nodes and have operations. It’s all because they don’t know how to sing. They are literally singing on the vocal chords, which is absolutely terrible. They are singing with their bodies. The may move around a lot and jump around, but they aren't really projecting. They don’t have to. They have a microphone right there.

Musicals are just terrible because there just a harshness in the voices. It might seem that I’m just an old man who is complaining about what has happened, but I can’t help that. I think that this is a great loss.

Returning back to the International Wagner Competition, how does the judging work?

Jenkins: We will have five judges: two general directors (not me), a stage director who used to be a singer, another stage director who is a teacher, and a singer. So it’s a good mix. The singers will perform an aria in the first half of the program and another aria in the second half of the program. The judges will write down their opinions. Then the judges meet and decide who is the two winners are, because there are two $25,000 prizes. We will also have a $5,000 prize that will be determined by the orchestra. The orchestra can’t see the singers as they perform, but they heard them. So that’s always interesting to find out who they voted for. The audience will also participate by voting and that will determine another $5,000 prizes that will be awarded. Audience members will go out in the lobby to cast their votes.

What is on your horizon?

Jenkins: I’ll be teaching a course on opera history at Stanford during the winter semester – as a lecturer in the Advanced Studies program there. Otherwise, I will be writing, and working on a lot of different things. I have a blog now. It’s on, and it’s called Opera Sleuth. I would like to keep lecturing, because I enjoy it so much.

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