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Friday, August 15, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Speight Jenkins: Champion of the opera

Seattle Times music critic

As you approach Speight Jenkins' office, you wend your way through a complex of cubicles and an array of statuary from previous Seattle Opera productions. It's not a fancy office, not one of those plush affairs you'd associate with the general director of an internationally respected, $21-million-budget opera company. Jenkins, on the cusp of a 20-year anniversary with the company and having recently committed to another 10 years, is in his usual full-ahead mode, with the first show of the season (Wagner's "Parsifal") in production.

High culture and low culture rub shoulders in Jenkins' office. There's a gold-painted jackal from "Aida," and a couple of windup toys on the desk, with one of those plastic 8-balls that provides instant floating-triangle answers to your deep personal questions. Jenkins himself gets almost as excited discussing the Mariners' bullpen as he does the finer points of "Parsifal," an immense, deep sea of an opera that lasts five hours and poses more philosophical questions than it answers.

He's a fascinating study in contradictions: a former music critic who had never put on an opera when he came to run Seattle Opera 20 years ago. He endured some outrageous comments then, including a sneer from a Los Angeles critic who called him a "Dallas-born dilettante." Some dilettante: Now Jenkins is the toast of international critics, including an Aug. 5 New York Times piece that claimed Jenkins' company has "placed itself in the center of its city's cultural life."

Jenkins is a health-and-fitness buff — but he's scarcely ever seen to consume anything but Diet Coke and protein drinks that he mixes up in his office blender. He has been separated for 20 years from his wife, Linda (the couple have two grown children and an adorable granddaughter), but they're the best of friends. He reveres opera tradition but enthusiastically embraces the new and (occasionally) the weird.

Full of surprises

He's a Southerner who also is one of few opera impresarios to be genuinely color-blind, casting singers of color prominently across the whole spectrum of operas new and old. Halfway through his 60s and master of an age-old art form, Jenkins also is a high-level techie who drags his laptop across Europe in his tours of large and small opera houses, in search of great new talent. The more you discover about this guy, the more intriguing contradictions you encounter.

They all add up to a man who is passionate about what he does, and who does opera with an obsessive commitment that brings him to every rehearsal, every performance and even every post-performance, where he discusses the opera with every audience.

Because of Jenkins' hands-on involvement with everything, celebrated director Stephen Wadsworth (who directed the company's latest "Ring" production) calls him "the only real producer of opera, among all the directors around the country."

Robert Israel, the designer of the current "Parsifal," pops into Jenkins' office during our interview to declare, "This is the best company in the country. The atmosphere here is incredible."

"Speight is just the greatest fun to work for," says his assistant, Mary Brazeau. "He's so youthful — really like a big little kid, in the best possible way. He makes solving all the challenges so much fun."

Past and future

There's a lot of Texas still in Jenkins, who treats opera fans with Southern courtesy and is prone to occasional use of "ma'am." The remains of his Texas accent, however, are overlaid with a New York rapid-fire speech pattern reflecting his many years in that city, where he wrote for Opera News and The New York Post, and was a fixture on Texaco's "Live From the Met" telecasts.

Seattle Opera was two decades old when Jenkins was brought in to replace founding general director Glynn Ross. It's startling to realize that the second director has now been here as long as the first — and that Jenkins has just signed a new 10-year contract that will keep him here into his mid-70s. The 20-year milestone was celebrated Aug. 9, with a sold-out gala evening in the new McCaw Hall featuring several artists and opera buffs toasting Jenkins.

What's the view like from this vantage point, with two decades behind Jenkins and one ahead? His answer may surprise those who see him as just an opera fanatic.

"What am I proudest of, in those 20 years?" muses Jenkins from his office chair.

"Two things: the loyalty of our audience, and the support of the board. I know this sounds pro forma, but it's not. This is the most remarkable opera audience in the world in terms of enthusiasm, support, curiosity and sophistication. If they don't like a production, they're quite capable of telling us, but they keep on coming. Over the years we have brought in a lot of younger people, too. In our 3 million metropolitan area, we reach 1 percent of the community. Nobody else does this."

The board of trustees is "far stronger now" than 20 years ago, Jenkins says, but he has had the board's "absolute support" since the 1982-83 season.

"I'm also proud of our good relationship with the Seattle Symphony, which allows us to have a great orchestra in the pit; we also draw fine singers to the chorus. And I'm very fortunate that our staff has stayed with me. There's very little turnover: People mostly leave because of birth or death."

Most of all, singers love coming to Seattle Opera, praising Jenkins and the whole company for what diva Jane Eaglen has called "a real feeling of family" in the company. A lot of that comes from the top down; Jenkins gets ailing singers to the doctor, helps them find dentists and exercise gear and anything else they might need. He has done so ever since he went to the first rehearsals for "The Marriage of Figaro" in 1983, and, as he puts it, "had opinions. I'd been paid to have opinions for 15 years before that (as a critic). I had no idea it was unusual for a general director."

Expecting the unexpected

Over the years, Jenkins says one eternal verity has emerged: "You never quite exhaust the strange things that can happen." He has seen two top singers sidelined by bizarre exercise-equipment injuries, for instance. He has seen props fail and sets get stuck and cues misfire.

"My daughter says, 'Everything is a terrible crisis to you,' " he admits, "but the truth is that we just can't predict what the next crisis is going to be. Right now, the thing that scares me the most is the possible financial crises that might emerge in the first year of operating in Marion Oliver McCaw Hall. No matter how wonderful the hall is, you don't know what awaits you."

On the night before our interview, the crisis was small: a prop, the Holy Grail in the "Parsifal" production, just wasn't right. The producers had been through about 20 different grails, the central image of the show (the grail is the cup used by Christ in the Last Supper). None of them were the right size or design or color, and Israel was beginning to joke about the need for a trip to Grails R Us.

Putting on grand opera, with all its costly and complicated elements, is not easy. Over the years, "we've learned how to do opera, and how to be economical about it," as Jenkins puts it. "Our art exists only in a book, until we turn it into a production." The company's financial security is legendary, beginning in the reign of the late and much lamented administrative director, Kathy Magiera, and continuing on this season with her successor, Kelly Tweeddale. Seattle Opera carries no deficit, and in 2002-03 it played to houses that were 85 percent full (one of the highest percentages of all the city's major performing arts institutions).

All of this paves the way for the next decade, when Jenkins promises a new "Tannhäuser," at least one commissioned work (possibly two), a long-awaited production of Berg's "Wozzeck," and revivals of nearly all the major Wagnerian productions, as well as "the cutting edge" of the best new singers. What you won't see: crossover productions of musical theater or operetta, neither of which Jenkins considers the company's province.

Seattle Opera fans are betting Jenkins has inherited the longevity of his mother, Sara Baird Jenkins, who died a few years ago at an extremely alert 94.

"I'm willing joyfully to go forward as my health permits for the next 10 years," says her son, who has already planned out most of that span. And after that? Well, maybe the Mariners need a little help in the front office. You don't have to consult Jenkins' mystic 8-ball to know he'd do some great PR.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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