Seattle Opera Director Speight Jenkins Takes A Bow | KUOW News and Information

Seattle Opera Director Speight Jenkins Takes A Bow

Aug 7, 2014

Speight Jenkins.
Credit Courtesy of Seattle Opera/Brandon Patoc

Speight. That's the name that conjures Seattle Opera for tens of thousands of fans.

His full name is Speight Jenkins, but most people know the Opera's longtime general director simply as Speight (rhymes with eight). Like the soccer player Pele, or Icelandic singer Bjork, sometimes one name says it all.

"It used to fascinate my son when he'd walk along with me," he says, laughs.

People would wave at the lanky Texan, and shout out, "Hello Speight!" Jenkins' son would ask who was greeting his father so familiarly; usually Jenkins had no idea.

"That's just what they know, and that's fine with me," he says.

Jenkins has built his formidable reputation over more than 30 years at the helm of Seattle Opera.

As general director, he oversees everything from the company's artistic season, to its program notes, to selection of the performers.

Unlike other big arts organizations that run with a dual leadership structure of artistic director and managing director, Seattle Opera's top dog is its general director. Everything the company does reflects Jenkins' tastes, his preferences, and most of all, his love for the German composer Richard Wagner.

As a young boy in Texas, Jenkins asked his mother for a book about Wagner's epic four-opera Ring Cycle. He was hooked after he listened to the operas on a live radio broadcast.

By the time Jenkins was seven, he'd expanded his  tastes to include other opera composers: Verdi, Bizet, Mozart. His first live opera performance, at the age of 8, cemented his passion for the art form.

"I remember coming home afterwards," Jenkins recalls, "and being sent outside to water the flowers. And I remember, just as though it was yesterday, that I said to myself,  'This is my life.'"

The young boy didn't want to be a singer, a musician, or even a stage director. He didn't know what he wanted to do, just that it had to be about opera. But, although he enjoyed the art form for many years, Jenkins didn't transform his avocation into a career until after he'd finished a stint in the Army and a law degree from Columbia University.

Speight Jenkins
Credit Courtesy of Seattle Opera/Alan Alabastro

As a student in New York City, Jenkins had access to America's largest and most famous company, the Metropolitan Opera.

Jenkins never practiced law. Instead, he wrote about the art form he loved so much. He became a respected opera critic and historian and a regular guest on the live Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturday afternoons. Ultimately, it was his love of Wagner's Ring Cycle that landed him the job he's held for three decades.

Jenkins had come to Seattle Opera to deliver a series of lectures about Wagner. Unbeknownst to him, the young opera company was on the hunt for a new leader. An influential patron heard Jenkins lecture, and invited him to come talk to the members of the search committee. Jenkins swears to this day he had no idea they were considering hiring him for the job.

"They started asking me questions, and I answered questions for well over an hour, maybe two hours," he recalls. "By that time I knew there was a general director search going on. It never occurred to me they were looking at me."

By the end of the afternoon, Jenkins was invited to throw his name into the hat; he flew back to New York to consider what he'd done, and to consult with the one person who could give him solid advice: James Levine, at the time the Metropolitan Opera's music director.

"I'll never forget. I went into his dressing room and said, what do you think? And he said, 'You were never meant to be a critic; you were born to do this.'"

Thirty-one years later, Jenkins has overseen the growth of his company from a regionally respected organization to an international destination for operaphiles. He's proud that over his tenure, his company has only failed to balance its budget twice. He's even more proud of Seattle Opera's regular productions of Wagner's Ring Cycle -- and of the German composer's other major works.

And now, it's time to let go of the 24-hour demands of the job. Jenkins' successor, Aidan Lang, has been on the job since March. He brings his own love of Wagner, along with experience as a stage director, something Jenkins never attempted. With his company on a solid footing, it's time for Jenkins to hand over the reins.

Jenkins doesn't plan to take it easy in retirement. At 77, he's still going strong. He'll lecture at Stanford University this fall, and he hopes to build a new career as a casting consultant for other opera companies. And although he doesn't plan to write criticism for other publications, he plans to start a blog. It'll be called -- what else?

This segment originally aired May 12, 2014.