A Fiendish Conversation with Seattle Opera's Speight Jenkins
The opera's longtime general director preps to oversee his final performance.
After 31 years as Seattle Opera's general director, Speight Jenkins is preparing for the final curtain. He laid out his retirement plans in 2005, and now the fateful final days draw near. Over the course of three decades, he's helped Seattle Opera hit artistic highs—like the full productions of Wagner's epic Ring cycle—while remaining a financially healthy cultural institution. Jenkins will get a proper sendoff in August with the Speight Celebration concert featuring some of his favorite singers and songs, but the upcoming The Tales of Hoffmann (May 3–17) will be the final opera staged under his tenure.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Jenkins about childhood love of opera, some of the highlights from his time with Seattle Opera, and his future plans.
What excites you about the upcoming production of The Tales of Hoffman?
The first thing to be said is I think I have the best cast I’ve put together for The Tales of Hoffmann. I think all the singers are great, and the conductor is one of the most, if not the most, distinguished interpreter of (The Tales of Hoffmann composer) Offenbach in the world. He’s made a career of doing Offenbach so it’s very exciting to have him here. The other thing about it is the fact that this is just the most fantastic production we ever did. Fantastic—not using it in the colloquial sense—I mean actually fantasy. It is just a fantastic show and it’s wonderful to get back to it because it’s so much fun.
How did you decide now would be a good time to retire?
In 2005 I told them that I ought to retire now because I felt that at 77, and I had no idea what I would feel like at 77, that I shouldn’t have the responsibility for so many people. And that’s basically it. As it is, I happen to be in very good health—thank goodness—and I have no problems at all. I don’t take much medicine of anything (laughs), except for vitamins. So there we are. But I thought it was the right thing to do, and I still kind of do. I mean, I think that I could continue, and, in actual fact, if this job were only putting operas together, I could do it until I dropped. But there’s a lot of other stuff. The last five years have been rough for everybody. The sheer money problem; we’ve come through it and we’ve come through it in good shape. But it’s been hard.
How would you categorize the current general state and financial health of the opera?
I think we’re in very good shape. In the last 22 years we’ve only had two deficits and we’ve paid those off. That’s very unusual for any opera company in America. We have a strong subscription. We’ve come back from the worst of the recession when the subscription did drop, of course, as it did for everybody. We seem to be doing well. In my opinion, I’m handing the company over to my successor—Aidan Lang—in excellent condition. I have the best staff in the world, and I’m not just being hyperbolic. I have as good a staff as exists in opera today, as smooth a working staff. So I’m handing it over to them. And we have a good relationship with managers and with singers and everything and so that’s the way it is.
How has Seattle Opera changed most dramatically since you started?
When I started, the opera was world famous because it did The Ring, but it was still a regional company. In the way it did The Ring, it was a regional company. And we have become an international company, recognized internationally for what we do with Wagner and The Ring and with other things too. Our budget is a lot bigger, but that’s natural. The world has changed so much. Of course it’s bigger, if it were the same as it was then, we’d be nothing.
Do you feel like the audience has changed at all?
I’d like to say that it’s a bit younger, not a lot, but a bit younger. The audience is a lot larger than when I came in. When I came we had, even though they were doing a lot of performances, the audience had dropped and we’ve added to it a great deal. At one point we were up to 16,000 subscribers. Now we’re in the 13,000 area because we went lower in the recession and now we’re building back up again. One of the big things is we’re doing a lot more with the community and trying to get young people interested in the opera.
It’s a wonderful audience. It’s been a joy to work with this audience all these years. They come. They’re excited. We have a very, very responsive audience. That was true almost from the beginning when I started, and it’s even more so now. In Seattle, we never had to fight as hard to get away from the notion that opera’s for rich people. Seattle always had an audience that represented every part of the community. There is only one thing that is probably necessary for opera, and that’s education, certainly not money. We fortunately have people who are wealthy because opera all over the world now, or all over the United States at least, lives on individual donations. So that’s very important. But we have a very strong grassroots support, I think that’s the best way to say it.
Over the course of more than three decades at the opera, are there any accomplishments that you’re particularly proud about?
I wanted to do a Ring that had worldwide recognition, and we’ve done that twice. I wanted to present a lot of Wagner, and we’ve presented all of the standard works. I wanted to have a very high level of singing quality here, which I think we’ve maintained.
There’s one thing that I’m particularly proud of and this is kind of complicated to explain, but this was something that was a part of my career long before I came here. I felt that the black male singer had not broken through. Leontyne Price, who was a very great singer, broke the female black singer into the highest levels of world opera. But in America, the black male singer had not really made it. And I’ve worked hard on that since I’ve been here and now that is fait accompli. I think in general, the black male singer is accepted anywhere and I think opera as an art form in America, oddly enough only in America, is now pretty—I hate to say generally because there’s always work to do—colorblind. Funnily enough, not in Europe, but here is very much colorblind. I really wanted this. I never hired a black male because of this reason; I hired them because of talent. My problem was there were lots of black males who were talented who were not getting the jobs. And that’s something I’m very proud of, and we were a leader in this. Nobody ever wanted to admit that they weren’t doing this, obviously, but they weren’t.
The other thing, I would say, is that I’m very proud of having a staff on the artistic side that has been with me for over 20 years; that I’ve kept extremely talented people here working for that period of time and they’re happy working here. The important thing for the image of a company is to have an artistic side that works smoothly and my people here have worked for me and worked for the company for, in practically every case, over 20 years. And I’m very proud that they have felt that their talents were being rewarded so that they would do that.
Since you are retiring while still in good health, what’s next for you?
Well I don’t know completely. I know I’d love to do speaking on opera. I’m going to teach a course. I’m going to be a lecturer in continued studies at Stanford University next winter. The winter quarter for three years. And I’d like to do more teaching in schools and I’d like to do consulting and speaking. And then, of course, I am a writer. That’s what I started out doing, and I intend to do more writing. And I started a blog, which I never dreamt of doing, but I’m doing it now because I was told that’s what I should do.
What’s the blogs name?
Straight From Speight. I didn’t think that up actually, but I thought that was cute.
If you hadn’t had a career in opera was there any other line of work that you think you might’ve pursued?
No. I fell in love with opera when I was 7, and when I was 9, I made up my mind. I remember the day I did it, I remember after the performance I did it—I said, “This is my life.” And I sought to do it from then on. This is exactly what I wanted to do and nothing else.
And what was that performance?
Rigoletto. It was the Metropolitan Opera in Dallas. I saw it and I came home, and I had seen some operas before that, but I remember sitting outside to water the garden and I said to myself, “This is my life.” And I never changed.
The Tales of Hoffmann
May 3–17, McCaw Hall, $15–$243