He is one of Seattle’s icons, and for opera lovers around the world, Speight Jenkins is both the face and the heart of Seattle Opera.
The tall, white-haired gentleman who customarily welcomes Seattle Opera patrons at the top of the stairs at McCaw Hall will end his tenure as general director at the end of this month.
Jenkins, 77, succeeded company founder Glynn Ross in 1983 as only the second general director in Seattle Opera’s 50 years. Since then, the opera’s milestones and accomplishments have piled up: Its multimillion-dollar budget has increased sevenfold; it has attracted patrons from around the globe to its rare, complete productions of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle; and, in 2003, it hosted the opening of one of the city’s arts jewels, Marion Oliver McCaw Hall.
Jenkins’ prodigious energy and authority has been behind every success. Other opera directors say he is unique in his profession because of his “hands-on” approach to presenting opera: He is ubiquitous, present at nearly every rehearsal, supportive and full of insightful ideas. He treats his singers well, recalling diva Birgit Nilsson’s famous observation that “Songbirds sing when they are happy.” If a singer needs a dentist, or an air conditioner, Jenkins will find one. If a temporary apartment has unclean sheets and unmade beds, he will rush over and help make the bed (as he once did for soprano Sheri Greenawald, now San Francisco Opera Center director).
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His peers in American opera companies regard him with considerable respect. Evans Mirageas, artistic director of Cincinnati Opera, has called him “one of the finest opera impresarios on this planet, and a real mentor. He has an appetite for work and for total involvement that is just astonishing. He’s my hero.”
Blessed with an incredible ear, honed from many years as a New York music critic and a lifetime of attending opera worldwide, Jenkins has been able to zero in on great talent. Completely colorblind when it comes to casting, he has presented an African-American tenor as an 18th-century Italian nobleman; a Caucasian soprano as Madame Butterfly; and a plus size mezzo-soprano as the sexpot Carmen. The radiance and the rightness of the voices trump all other issues for Jenkins. He is known particularly for giving great opportunities to black male singers, and Jenkins has been a major force in the careers of such singers as Vinson Cole, Lawrence Brownlee, Gordon Hawkins and Arthur Woodley.
Brownlee, now one of today’s most sought-after lyric tenors, said of Jenkins: “From the very beginning of my career during my days as a Young Artist at Seattle Opera, Speight has been the biggest supporter, adviser, mentor and friend. I am eternally grateful to him for having believed in my gift and giving me my professional start.”
“Speight is the single most involved general manager I have ever encountered,” says Stephanie Blythe, who has appeared many times in Seattle and is a regular at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. “He has an encyclopedic knowledge of opera and an incredible passion, and is one of the most supportive souls I have ever met.”
Crucial to his success in Seattle has been his relationships with administrators (Kelly Tweeddale and her predecessor Kathy Magiera) and audiences: After every performance, he leads a Q-and-A session with anyone who wants to stay (many do).
The list of Jenkins’ awards and honors is long. Here, The Seattle Times named Jenkins one of the 150 most influential people in Seattle/King County, and ArtsFund presented him with its Outstanding Achievement in the Arts award. Nationally, the National Endowment for the Arts gave him an Opera Honors Award in 2011, and Opera News has called him one of the 25 “most powerful” names in American opera.
All this is quite a leap for a man whose arrival at Seattle Opera in 1983 raised eyebrows around the opera world. Jenkins had never before staged or presented an opera. The Los Angeles Times called him a “Dallas-born opera dilettante.” The biweekly Arts Reporting Service predicted that Seattle Opera’s “ship” might “sink slowly in the harbor.”
There was no sinking, but Jenkins was indeed born in Dallas, where he first fell in love with opera as a 6-year-old when his mother told him about Valkyries riding through the air. After earning a law degree at Columbia University and completing military service, he worked as a music editor and critic, and hosted the “Live From the Met” broadcasts on television. When he came to Seattle to lecture during a production of Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle of operas, Seattle Opera board members were mesmerized by his expertise and passion. The board’s Beverly Brazeau asked Jenkins to address the committee searching for Glynn Ross’ successor — and then asked him to be that successor.
“Thank God it worked!” laughs Brazeau today. “At first he declined saying he was a ‘real New Yorker,’ but later that evening he raced across the lobby and said, ‘I know I can do it!’ The light went on. He was wonderful to work with, and he was meant to do this job. He’s just our miracle.”
Jenkins says, “I was shocked and amazed at the opportunity. Everything started clicking in my head: the ‘Ring,’ the ‘Ring’!”
There are regrets: productions that had to be canceled because of their expense. Jenkins wishes he could have presented “Wozzeck,” “La Gioconda,” “Die Frau Ohne Schatten” and “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” in addition to big Wagnerian productions that proved too costly. Recent retrenchments have suspended the Young Artists Program, reduced the number of annual performances, cut salaries and positions and instituted furloughs. (The company expects a surplus after the 2013-14 season.)
“But it’s been a great run,” Jenkins concludes, “and I’m handing over the company to my successor, Aidan Lang, in great shape. I like him very much. We get along extremely well.” Lang, previously director of New Zealand Opera, was hired in 2013.
Jenkins himself is also in great shape, exercising religiously, and planning post-retirement lecturing at Stanford’s continuing education program and elsewhere — plus consulting and the completion of a long-delayed book on great opera singers. He has changed his familiar seats at McCaw Hall to an undisclosed location, so he can slip in and out unseen.
“I don’t want to ‘hold court’ at the opera,” he says, “and be deluged with people asking me what I think. I want it to be Aidan’s job, his own thing.”
Then comes that impish smile.
“Besides, I have trouble convincingly lying if I didn’t like a production!”
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.