Speight Jenkins will be the first to tell you that there’s grand opera and then there are Richard Wagner’s operas, those massive, sprawling epics populated by feuding gods, warrior women sporting winged helmets, knights of the Grail and sexually frustrated lovers.
Wagner's “The Ride of the Valkyries” is one of the most famous operatic themes, featured in film scores and commercials. These “integrated works of art,” as he called them, are the ultimate challenge for any opera company, demanding forces that could populate a small town.
General director of Seattle Opera since 1983, Jenkins is a passionate advocate for Wagner’s music. Under his leadership, Seattle Opera has produced all 10 of Wagner’s works (including two different productions of the four-part Ring cycle), garnering an international reputation and big audiences. A prolific author, Jenkins has authored an audiobook series on enjoying Wagner’s Ring cycle, edited several operatic vocal scores and co-written a cookbook with his wife, Linda.
Jenkins will speak as part of the Opera Rap series Thursday at Music Hall, and when it comes to “Explaining Wagner” (as his “Rap” is called) there’s hardly anyone more uniquely qualified than the lanky, bespectacled Texan, who “started speaking on opera in 1968 and never stopped.”
The monumental proportions of Wagner’s works are surpassed only by audience reaction, with a polarity akin to Congressional politics: It’s rare to find middle ground. According to Jenkins, that’s precisely what Wagner aimed for.
“He set out to change his audience,” Jenkins says. "No composer ever did that before ... and he succeeded. He speaks in an emotional way that’s different from other music. It’s an intense experience, and some people don’t like to be messed with this way.”
But, he adds, there are just as many people who are grateful for “having a door opened.”
In June, Cincinnati Opera will open the curtain on its production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, which can overwhelm audiences with its sheer magnitude.
“It’s huge," Jenkins says.
But, Jenkins is quick to add, “the audience loves it, and when the forces come together it’s an amazing experience.”
Jenkins began his Wagnerian odyssey with a recording of “Die Walkure” when he was 7. Three years later, he saw his first Lohengrin at the Dallas Opera.
After graduating from the University of Texas in Austin, Jenkins flunked out of Cornell Medical School “because I couldn’t go to The Met and med school.” But law school was a better fit, and after receiving a law degree from Columbia (and a four-year stint in the army) Jenkins worked as an editor for Opera News, a freelance writer and critic for The New York Post and was a frequent panelist on the Metropolitan Opera’s Opera Quiz, as well as the host of PBS’s Live from the Met series for two years. (Jenkins takes pride in being the longest-serving panelist on Opera Quiz.)
He had no administrative experience when he took over Seattle Opera in 1983 but, fueled by his zeal for opera and artistic excellence, he forged alliances with leading singers, directors and artists such as dancer Mark Morris and glass artist Dale Chihuly. He also created education and performing initiatives. Subscriptions for Seattle Opera went from 7,000 in 1983 to more than 20,000 in recent years. Needless to say, the budget expanded in equal proportions.
“I had to learn everything, and I know I made mistakes along the way,” Jenkins says. “But I did know opera and I had a knack for hearing voices. You have to start off with good singers. If you don't have good singers, forget it. Nothing else will work. That's the gospel truth.”
Jenkins has never attended a Cincinnati Opera performance but has important connections to the city.
“When we began our Young Artists program in 1998,” he says, “we auditioned singers from all over the country. Without any favoritism on our part, we have taken more students from CCM than from any other music school in the country, and the pattern continues.”
CCM Opera Chair Robin Guarino directed two productions for Seattle Opera and calls Jenkins “one of my most important mentors. He is passionate, committed, insightful.” When Guarino was offered the CCM position, she immediately contacted Jenkins.
“He practically sprang up from his desk,” she recalls, “exclaiming, ‘Well, you have to take that job. It’s where the best singers come from!’”
(Guarino’s CCM colleague Stephen Goldstein is featured in the cast of Seattle Opera’s current production of Falstaff.)
Before Jenkins retires at the end of the 2014 season, he has plans to produce more Wagner listener guides on CD, a new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and countless more talks about his beloved artform, whose future is the one query that makes him pause before giving a characteristically forthright response.
“I often say that opera is a 19th century art form in the 21st century, but I get tired of hearing that opera is dying,” he says. “The majority of your audiences will be older because they have the time and the money to attend. But if you bring them in when they’re young, they’ll be back.”
Funding for opera, especially of Wagnerian proportions, will remain a major challenge, but Jenkins is confident that opera audiences can grasp the need and respond.
“Our people understand that we’re an expensive art form and that they have to give money,” he says. “Our greatest asset is the way people love opera.”
SPEIGHT JENKINS speaks on “Exploring Wagner,” part of Cincinnati Opera’s Opera Rap series, at 7 p.m. Thursday at Corbett Tower in Music Hall. Admission is $5 at the door. Get event and venue details here.