Interview: Speight Jenkins, General Director, Seattle Opera


In September, after three decades of wowing Seattle audiences with amazing opera productions, award-winning Seattle Opera legend Speight Jenkins will step down as the General Director. I got a chance to sit down with him and gain some insight into his role as General Director, what he does, how he got there, his best advice for teens looking into arts careers, and some great advice for first-time opera goers.

Katelyn H. You are the General Director of the Opera. What does that mean?

Speight Jenkins Well, in business it would be a CEO. It means really that I have control of everything. I choose the operas. I choose the singers. I’m responsible for everything connected with the opera. Opera, I believe, is the only art form that still has one person, ordinarily one person, at the top. Theatre splits it; the symphony splits it; a lot of people split it, but not the opera.

K.H. What is a typical workday like for you?

S.J. Well really, I don’t have a typical workday. I have a peculiar schedule. I like to work at night, and I don’t come in early in the morning. I’d rather walk my dogs, and I read the paper, and then I come in. The diversity of the General Director’s work is such that there is no typical day. Some days I mainly work on email. When we’re doing an opera, I would come in and work on letters, maybe work on some email, and then go down to a rehearsal for an hour or so. And then I could have committee meetings. I could spend a whole day on the telephone with managers planning another season, choosing singers, because I know who I want. Then you have to call managers, and you arrange with the manager whether you get the singer, and you bargain for the money you’re going to pay. When we are doing a performance and we’re working at our office, I try to go downstairs to the rehearsal room, probably at least twice a day. In the summertime, I don’t have any board committee meetings. I’m really able to concentrate on the opera. It’s usually a big opera, such as a Wagner opera, or certainly with the Ring. I don’t take any other responsibility, except going down and being in the rehearsals, working on that. So, it really is a complex kind of job, and every General Director decides what he or she is going to do with the job. And then there’s fundraising. And many times I have to go to lunch for fundraising. Sometimes I have to spend time on the telephone fundraising, or sometimes I have to call other donors for other reasons. There are just a thousand things you do. And my door is always open, so I can have staff members at any point come in to ask me questions and talk about things.

Speight Jenkins by Rozarii Lynch

Speight Jenkins conducts an audience Q&A. Photo by Rozarii Lynch.

K.H. I read you have a law degree from Columbia.

S.J. Yes, I do.

K.H. How did you end up becoming a General Director?

S.J. Well, opera was always what I was interested in. I was pressured very much to be a professional person, because my whole family had been professionals. They were either doctors, lawyers, or preachers. And so I went to law school because my mother and father wanted me to have a profession. I didn’t want to be a singer, and I didn’t want to be a director, and I didn’t want to be a conductor. I wanted to be in opera, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So, it was very frustrating to my family, because they said "You’ve got to have a job. You have to do something." What I wanted to do is what I do, but I couldn’t articulate that. Nobody, well virtually nobody, could say, “I want to be a General Director.” In those days, it would have been crazy to say that. So, I went to law school in New York, because I could go the Met all the time. I had previously gone to medical school for a year, and I went to the Met all the time, and I flunked out of medical school. I’d made nothing but A’s in college, so it was rather strange to flunk out of that. But mainly because all I wanted to do was go to the Met. I could do law school and go to the Met, because that was more in my area.

"I went to law school in New York, because I could go to the Met all the time."

K.H. What advice would you give to teens who want to become a General Director?

S.J. I think there is no one route at all. David Gockley [General Director of San Francisco Opera], who has been a General Director longer than I have, started out as an accountant, and he knew about music. Peter Gelb, with the Metropolitan, was a publicity man. I think the most sensible route for anybody wanting to get into the arts might be to try to be an assistant stage director and then become a stage manager. Learn that side of it or start working for an opera company and work in development; work as an intern and then go into development and learn about fundraising; then try to transfer into marketing and learn all of that. But learning about opera is the most important thing. All I knew when I took this job was I knew opera. I didn’t know how the stage worked, really. I didn’t know a thing about development. I didn’t know anything about marketing. I didn’t know anything about any of the technical stuff that makes up my life. What I knew was opera. I’d been going to opera since I was seven years old. I was 45 at that time, and I’d gone to hundreds of performances in New York, Europe and everywhere else, so I was very knowledgeable; I really knew the repertoire. I knew a lot of singers, and I knew a lot of people in the business. That’s how I came in. I had to learn everything else on the job. So, it isn’t the best way to go. I’m kind of unique. I don’t know anybody else that came in this way. I know in Europe, it is not uncommon for a music critic to come in as General Director. That’s what I was, a music critic. In America, it’s very unusual. I’m the only one who ever did it, as far as I know.

K.H. One of the things that TeenTix does is try to teach teens about all the different kinds of careers that are available in the arts. When most teens think about careers in opera, they probably think about the singers. But, besides singing, what other careers are offered in opera, and are there any training programs at the Seattle Opera?

S.J. Well, there’s the stage management, which is not a lot of money, but it could be fun to do. You could be in marketing and development. You could be in production. You can work on the production side, which normally you get into being an assistant stage manager, and you move up to being a stage manager, and then maybe you move up to where you’re working over more people in development, depending on the size of the company. And there is education. If you are a lecturer, then that’s a way to move into education. If you’re a good writer, most opera companies have magazines, as we do. So, there are all sorts of ways to move into opera. The ideal thing would be for a person to volunteer as an intern and work in different areas of the company, decide what he or she wants to do most.

"The ideal thing would be for a person to volunteer as an intern and work in different areas of the company, decide what he or she wants to do most."

We don’t have a training program, but as an intern, you’re put to work doing a lot of things. We always have some interns. They come in and they work for one person for six months and then work for somebody else. You don’t make money at it, but they work and they learn the business that way and they learn more how an opera company works.

Die Walkure by Elise Bakketun

Speight's favorite opera, Die Walküre. Photo by Elise Bakketun.

K.H. What is your favorite opera, and why?

S.J. Well, let me say first that an opera director… You can’t be a good opera director if you’re not eclectic. There are very few operas or composers that I don’t like or don’t want to work with. When I came here, I was brought in because I wanted to work on The Ring and because I’m a Wagnerian, because Wagner was always the thing I liked most. So, if you ask me what my favorite opera is, I would say Die Walküre. I mean, Tristan [und Isolde] is also there, but Die Walküre is the one that I’ve loved since I was a child, and I’ve always loved it most. It’s so hard to talk about that because I love Otello and Don Giovanni and all these works. I can get very involved in all them. But, nothing quite means to me what Die Walküre does, for all sorts of reasons, and I think Tristan certainly means other things to me that are also important.

"...I love Otello and Don Giovanni and all these works. I can get very involved in them. But, nothing quite means to me what Die Walküre does..."

K.H. Are there any operas that you think are particularly good for first-timers?

S.J. It depends on the person. I do not think that Mozart comedies are the best. I don’t think comedies generally are the best, because the comedy in an opera is not like modern comedy. Normally, what I would say to people is Tosca, you know. Puccini is a wonderful way to get into opera. Tosca is like what many of them see on television. I think that the only Mozart opera that is really great for children is The Magic Flute, because it has so much in it that is pretty, and it is interesting to watch. Rigoletto can get any number of people, because it’s so immediate, and it’s wonderful in terms of its music.

K.H. How can a teen make the most of their first opera experience and really understand what’s going on?

S.J. I think that for the first opera experience, you want to read a good synopsis of the story. It’s like anything else in music, if you can hear a recording, you’re going to like it better because when you hear music for the first time, it’s very hard to grasp, and an opera has so many elements on the stage. I remember my daughter’s boyfriend had never been to an opera and came to me for [La] Bohème. At the end of the first intermission, I said, “Well, what do you think?” He said, “Well, I don’t know. I’ve never been hit with so many stimuli at one time.” I really think that’s what opera does if we’re not used it. I think that’s why we’ve been more successful with young people over the last 15 years, the MTV generation, because we do hit with stimuli the way MTV does in different ways. But for anybody, if you hear the music first, the whole show is going to mean more to you. Opera is a matter of education. I have said this many times about opera. Opera is not a rich person’s art form at all. We have rows and rows of people that save to come here. The one thing that we need is education, because if you don’t have any education, a lot of it’s going to be lost on you, because it just isn’t going to make any sense.

"...we do hit with stimuli the way MTV does..."

K.H. I know that a lot of teens are really into theatre. What does opera have to offer teens who are fascinated by music or theatre but haven’t yet tried opera? To put it another way, how is seeing an opera similar to attending a concert or a play, and how is it different?

S.J. Well, we are more and more theatrical. It used to be that we were a joke with theatre people. They didn’t like us because there wasn’t much acting in opera when I was young. People made fun of it until the last 20 years. But nowadays, with the kind of directors that work and what we do, anybody coming to the Ring will be seeing theatre just like theatre is done. The only difference with us is that music controls us, and we aren’t as free as you are in theatre. But with what we put on here, anybody that’s involved in theatre should connect to us now. I don’t think that was the truth years ago, but I think now that it’s quite plausible that they could do that. What we haven’t talked about is contemporary opera, opera that is being written now. That works well with young people. It doesn’t work well with people that are older, because they are used to a different kind of thing. But, young people coming to contemporary opera, the difference is that the music doesn’t bother them at all because they’re not used to anything. If it’s well-acted, they can be involved in it.

K.H. How would you say that opera has evolved to include more modern technology?

S.J. It’s evolved a lot because of the use of computers, the use of projections, all of that. It’s been part of the whole theatrical system. Opera used to be a very staid art form without much acting in it; and therefore, you didn’t use a lot of modern things. But nowadays, we do everything the theatre does. It’s lighting; it’s projections; it’s working on the stage in this way; it’s doing tricks on the stage; it’s doing all sorts of things that one would find in the theatre. One must do this with audiences, not because of the theatre, but because of television. Not enough people go, unfortunately, to legitimate theatre anymore, but they do all watch television. If we don’t adapt, then we fail.

Norah Amsellem (Gilda) with Kim Josephson (Rigoletto) in Seattle Opera's 2004 production of Rigoletto. Photo by Rozarii Lynch

Norah Amsellem (Gilda) with Kim Josephson (Rigoletto) in Seattle Opera's 2004 production of Rigoletto.
Photo by Rozarii Lynch

K.H. Why would you say that opera has stood the test of time?

S.J. Because opera raises us above ourselves. It speaks to us internally. A lot of operas speak to us in very deep emotions, because it raises us out of ourselves. The important thing about opera is not just hearing the pretty music; it’s the fact that the combination of words and music can explore the emotions that affect people. The emotional effect of opera is what makes it work. The emotional effect of a great voice singing can have an enormous effect on people. I think the sad thing about young people in America today is that so many of them don’t realize that we are the only acoustic art form left. We do not mic anything, and so what you really hear is the way a voice sounds. The humanity, the emotion that can be conveyed by a voice is why opera lasts. It’s not because of the stories; it’s not really even because of the music. It’s the combination of things. That’s why the most important single development of opera in the last 50 years was titles. When titles came along, opera became much more approachable than it had ever been before. If you read a synopsis of an opera, it’s very easy to say this is ridiculous, it’s conflated, too many things happen too quickly, it’s coincidental or it doesn’t make any sense. When you see the words in English with the singer singing them, in whatever language, no longer do people make fun of the texts, because the texts in opera only make sense when they are heard with the music. And that’s the big thing that super titles have done for us.

"A lot of operas speak to us in very deep emotions...The humanity, the emotion that can be conveyed by a voice is why opera lasts."

K.H. Yes, I found it very helpful to understand the story at my first opera, because otherwise, I would have been lost.

S.J. Opera was, of course, originally a theatre form, because people did it in Italian if they were in Italy, and they did Italian operas in French in France, and they did Italian operas in German in Germany. Why don’t we do that? Theatres in Europe are small. There are one or two theaters that seat 2000. That’s as far as it goes, generally. But in America, because of the number of people we have or because of the tradition here, our theatres are huge. These are big theatres, and you’re not going to understand if they sing these operas in English. When they do sing operas in English, and there was a time when there were more operas translated, you couldn’t hear them. Also, when sopranos sing, when they go above the staff, it’s very hard to articulate the words where you can hear them. You can articulate the sounds; the words are there, but they’re hard to understand.

K.H. What is in your future?

S.J. I’d like to do some consulting on voices. I’d like to do some more writing. I am a writer. That’s what I was originally, and I like to write. I would like to do some teaching and speaking, because I love to speak on opera. That’s what I hope to do. We’ll see.

After the interview, I got a chance to tour the backstage and see the sets for the upcoming Ring production. The sets were amazing, complete with a gigantic fire-breathing dragon, affectionately nicknamed “Fluffy.” It was clear from my experience that the people involved with opera, from the musicians in the orchestra pit to the stage and behind the scenes, are extremely passionate and dedicated to their art.

If you have never been to an opera, I would suggest going to this season’s production of Rigoletto. It was my first opera, and I was hooked from the start. There is a little bit of everything in this opera. You will be amazed by the sets, awed by the costumes, wowed by the special effects, intrigued by the story, and swept away by the music. Opera truly is a sensory overload.

Seattle Opera's Ring Cycle runs now through August 25th.

The Ring is NOT TeenTix eligible, however, $20 standing room tickets may be available on August 12 and 20 starting at 9:00 AM. Visit Seattle Opera's Ring FAQ page for more info. To purchase regular tickets to The Ring, visit Seattle Opera's main Ring page.

Katie's recommendation for first-timers, Rigoletto, runs January 11 - 25, 2014 and is TeenTix eligible, as are all of the operas in Seattle Opera's regular season. Go here for more info on using your TeenTix pass to attend the Opera. If you are 21 or over, we also encourage you to check out Seattle Opera's Bravo! Club for young opera-goers.

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