hen Ludovic Morlot stepped onstage for one of his final concerts this June, he got a partial standing ovation before he’d coaxed even a note from the Seattle Symphony. Though the conductor’s exit was the most performative—hair and baton going wild, Wagner blasting—he was not alone. Aidan Lang, Seattle Opera’s general director, and Kimerly Rorschach, Seattle Art Museum’s director and CEO, both stepped down this year. Fittingly for a city that’s grown absurdly in the last decade, three new leaders will guide their institutions into the next.
If there’s a single thread animating each of these new directors and their missions, it is that traditional art forms got to them young. Amada Cruz, who takes over SAM this September, emigrated from Cuba when she was nine months old, and as she grew up in Chicago and New York, her parents took her to operas and museums. Eventually that led Cruz to a college internship at the Guggenheim where she caught the career bug. By 2015, she became the director and CEO of Phoenix Art Museum. Her time there was tumultuous.
She calls that a “nice way” to characterize it. On one hand, she added bilingual signage exhibits in the 41 percent Latino city and brought in popular exhibits that reflected that community. The museum was running $1 million yearly deficits, which PAM claims Cruz helped right. Yet her methods—firings, culture shifts—had the Phoenix New Times claiming a “Nightmare at the Phoenix Art Museum.”
Cruz doesn’t worry about a repeat. “I was brought in to change things,” she says of PAM. Here she wasn’t. She wants to learn about Seattle and the museum before she comes up with concrete plans. At least from afar, she likes the course Rorschach has set, calling her “a model for museum directorship.” With the help of satellite locations like the Asian Art Museum, which reopens this fall after over two years of renovations, and the free-to-all Olympic Sculpture Park, SAM already reflects its city, Cruz says. The organization just needs to remain “nimble enough” to maintain that relationship as Seattle continues to change. “The tradition of art museums is that they’re closed off repositories of precious works of art,” she says. “How do we open ourselves up so that museums can become part of everybody’s daily life?”
It’s a question that also helps drive Christina Scheppelmann, Seattle Opera’s new general director. Part of her role, she thinks, is getting the company on “solid financial footing” (recent yearly budget shortfalls have ranged from $1 to $3 million). But ticket sales have grown, and one way to draw more operagoers is “stimulating curiosity.” Opera comes with perceived exclusion, an aura of old Eurocentric elitism.
Yet she thinks that reputation has less to do with inherent snootiness than with fear of the unknown. So what if an opera is 200 years old? So what if you don’t speak Italian? “Most of the time in rock and pop songs,” she says, “I also don’t understand the text very well.” She argues that even money doesn’t need to be a barrier for most: General tickets to this fall’s Cinderella (yes, 200 years old and, yes, Italian) start at $35.
It’s something Scheppelmann understands personally. Her love of opera has led her to director positions in Barcelona, Washington DC, and Muscat, Oman; to become one of two women leading major opera companies in the U.S.; to have Ruth Bader Ginsberg marry her and her wife in the justice’s chambers. But Scheppelmann didn’t come to her career from money. Born in Hamburg, Germany, she sang in the local children’s chorus. Then she and a friend decided to see an opera. “It was November 22, 1981. I saw Don Carlo,” she says. “I had a student ticket in the fifth row and I went, Wow.”
Thomas Dausgaard, the Seattle Symphony’s new musical director, had a similar revelation. He’d been playing in a rock band as a kid in Denmark. Then he heard Beethoven. “I felt I became alive in an overwhelming way in contact with his music,” he told me in an email. He left the band for the symphony.
Unlike Scheppelmann and Cruz, both new to Seattle, Dausgaard served as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor since 2014, so many have a sense of his flair with Nielsen and Brahms. This season begins with Nielsen and Rachmaninov and closes in June with the Beethoven Festival. The orchestra will perform all nine symphonies over three weeks, alongside pieces commissioned from local composers. The first and third symphonies, for instance, accompany Angelique Poteat’s new work for the Community Youth Chorus and Orchestra—a gesture to the ideals that underlie all these organizations, that are central to their survival and significance. To keep alive the art of old they must enrapture the young.