Speight Jenkins recalls 31 years of Seattle Opera highs, lows
You can’t run an opera company without a few mishaps and a lot of memorable moments. Seattle Opera’s retiring general director, Speight Jenkins, shares a few of each from his 31 years in the job.
Special to The Seattle Times
Seattle Opera’s raison d’être has been the Wagnerian repertoire, in which almost everything is huge: the voices, the orchestra, the demands on the presenters, the mythic scale of the plots.
And the potential for things going epically amok.
Here, drawn from interviews and from Speight Jenkins’ own writings, are some of the high points ... and a few of the episodes that could give any company’s general director a Wagnerian-sized migraine.
The Star with the Disappearing Voice: In August 1984 — Jenkins’ first shot at presenting the four-opera epic “Ring” — the curtain went up on Scene II of the first of the operas, “Das Rheingold.” Cast as the leading bass-baritone, Wotan, was Roger Roloff, who stood to deliver his mighty opening statement ... in a sort of half-whisper, instead of the resonant voice everyone was expecting.
“The 150 minutes of that ‘Das Rheingold’ count among the longest of my life,” Jenkins later remembered. “Roloff gallantly sang on but with only a suggestion of sound, and I remained in my seat ... constantly visualizing the whole cycle and my nascent career crashing all at the same time.”
Fortunately, Jenkins had the phone number of a veteran Wotan, Thomas Stewart, and phoned him in Santa Fe, N.M., the next morning. Stewart hopped a plane, arriving to save that night’s show (and subsequent ones).
Fistfights, tomatoes and the Antichrist: After Seattle’s traditional first “Ring” production, a mighty uproar greeted the first appearance of the 1985 postmodern “Ring II”: a plastic fawn, a cluttered workshop, flying fiberglass horses ridden by airborne Valkyries, a hefty soprano taking a flying leap out of a tower (while attached to a wavering pulley). The audience cheered and booed; tomatoes and flowers both were tossed toward the stage during curtain calls; at least two fights broke out at cocktail parties. “The negative letters, written by those I have always afterwards called Shiite Wagnerians, denounced me in language that was so extreme as to be comical,” Jenkins recalls. “We were after all only producing opera, but I was called by some of the writers the Antichrist. The positive letters, many thoughtfully critical and some outright enthusiastic, were wonderful.”
The Rhine that Wouldn’t Rise: The first scene in the “Ring” takes place underwater, and in this production the Rhine was represented by a vast blue cloth that covered the whole stage (and the props for the next scene). The “Rhine” was supposed to fly upward at the conclusion of the scene. But on opening night in 1986, it got stuck a few feet above the stage on a large piece of scenery, and stayed put until the heroic props master, Petrude Olds, darted up a ladder to free it. There was no time to dart back down, so he had to lie flat on top of the scenery throughout the 45 minutes of Scene II, earning Jenkins’ undying gratitude.
We’ve Got Crab Legs: “I thought that if the dragon (battled by Siegfried in the ‘Ring’) were larger than the opera house and that we saw only its claws, it might really be frightening,” Jenkins says of the 1986 production. “We never had the rehearsal time necessary to make the claws work properly, and on opening night they were risible. The audience did laugh, and almost immediately afterwards they were dubbed ‘crab legs.’ The production was thunderously booed. Many again applauded, but the boos were huge. I was worried.”
An epic “Tristan”: One of Seattle Opera’s most memorable productions was the 1998 “Tristan und Isolde,” starring two great singers in their first performances of these roles, Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner. Ten great sold-out performances; rapturous international press. Jenkins later noted: “Because ‘Tristan’ to me stands at the top of the operatic mountain along with ‘Don Giovanni,’ ‘Otello,’ ‘Norma’ and ‘Carmen,’ the satisfaction of presenting the opera this way will stay with me all my life.”
“War and Peace” and glasnost: The 1990 production of Prokofiev’s huge “War and Peace,” with Bolshoi and Kirov Theatre singers whom Jenkins scouted in the former Soviet Union, was immensely powerful. Director Francesca Zambello later cited the emotional impact of “watching the Soviet Union fall while doing a piece that had so many political ramifications.” Jenkins notes happily, “People leaped up to cheer before the curtain was down.”
Triumph of the “Green Ring”: All three cycles of the four-opera “Ring” sold out a year before the first performance in 2001. In the midst of the first cycle, however, disaster struck: the Siegfried (Alan Woodrow) tripped and split all four of his quadriceps muscles. Siegfried couldn’t walk — but he could sing, from the side of the stage in ensuing performances, while the backup singer, Richard Berkeley-Steele, acted the role. Despite having already heard and reviewed the “Green Ring,” when it was revived for a fourth and presumably last go-round in 2013, critics from around the world came back to hear it again — just because it was wonderful.
The Rise of McCaw Hall: One of the great thrills of the Jenkins era was the completion of Marion Oliver McCaw Hall in 2003, for which he had tirelessly campaigned, planned and plotted. In the first production there, “Parsifal,” Jenkins noted: “The acousticians had achieved more than I had dreamed. We had the finest orchestral sound that we had ever heard. When the singers started singing, we knew that we had hit a grand slam ... we had the combination of clear vocal sound and more sound from the orchestra than ever before.” The new hall’s possibilities greatly enhanced Jenkins’ last decade as general director.
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING-FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.