Seattle Opera Hits High Notes as Director Learns the Score : Music: Former critic runs the show. Now, even the budget works for him. Company has been in the black for three years and is retiring its long-term debt as well.


A lot was on the line when Speight Jenkins went to the bank one day late in 1990 to save the Seattle Opera payroll.

He was seven years into the job as general director, the nation’s only ex-critic to head a major opera company in the United States, but without a shred of stage, pit or front-office experience.

His approach had been: Act now, find a way to pay later.

He had acted, all right. A $2.4-million summer staging of Sergey Prokofiev’s “War and Peace” had been a smashing success. Next summer there would be Richard Wagner’s four-part “Der Ring des Niebelungen,” the toughest challenge in opera, Seattle Opera’s signature production--the reason Jenkins had been hired.


Now it was time to pay, and he had a banker to convince.

Jenkins’ infectious enthusiasm and unabashed adoration of the artistry of the human voice had made him a persuasive fund-raiser, staff motivator and talent scout. Now he turned it on the banker.

“I went to him and explained what we were doing, explained we were trying to raise money and explained we needed to extend our line of credit in order for us to do this, to get some more.

“He looked at me with the cold eyes that have gone down in history, in my personal history books, and he said, ‘If you were a small business, we would have closed you down a long time ago. How do you think you can get another loan from us?’ ”


“I said, ‘Well, we’re not a small business. We’re the Seattle Opera, and we won’t be closed down.’ ”

He wasn’t. He got the loan, and, shaken, the message.

Jenkins knew he had to learn, he said, “how to make a budget work for me, how to attain quality, or, said another way, how to keep high quality and not bust the budget.”

“I spent the money I did because I couldn’t quite grasp what was going on, moneywise,” he said. “When I understand what’s going on with the money, I don’t spend more than I have.”

“And I walked out of that office and I swore on everything that I hold dear, I’ll never be in the hands of the banks again.”

Since adopting a clearer budgeting system, the company has balanced its books for three years and is reducing a $1.6-million accumulated deficit by at least $250,000 a year.

Seattle Opera ranks in a tier below the nation’s three largest houses--the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Lyric Opera in Chicago and the San Francisco Opera. Artistic peers include the Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York City operas and the Houston Grand Opera, with which Seattle has collaborated several times.

“I love to work with Speight because of that dogged enthusiasm he has for everything, that wide-eyed excitement,” said David Gockley, general director in Houston.


Founded in 1964 by Glynn Ross, Seattle Opera was the first in America to perform the entire Ring cycle within a week, as Wagner intended. Annual German and English cycles began in 1975.

In 1982 Ross left. He now heads the Arizona Opera, which is presenting a Ring cycle at the Grand Canyon. Jenkins, a Wagnerian scholar and popular lecturer, replaced him in Seattle.

Jenkins commissioned a Victorian-style Ring that cost $2.3 million to develop, dropped the light-selling English cycle after 1984 and switched to an every-four-years schedule after 1987.

Annual budgets rose from $3.9 million in 1983-84 to $12.1 million this season, including Ring costs of $750,000 in 1983 and $3.7 million for three nearly sold-out cycles of “Das Rheingold,” “Die Walkure,” “Siegfried” and “Gotterdammerung” that began Aug. 6 and conclude today.

To cover the gap between box-office receipts and costs, the company raised $1.2 million in advance, $200,000 more than the target.

“Seattle Opera plans everything very carefully now,” Jenkins said.

In four years, the company plans to mount a new “Walkure,” followed by a whole new cycle in 2003.

“I can tell you without any question that when we go into this Ring, we will know [the cost],” Jenkins said. “Last time we didn’t know. This time we will.”


Inside as well as outside the Ring, the company is a versatile launch pad for world-class singers.

Met diva Carol Vaness came to Seattle to sing her first “Manon” in 1985, her first Desdemona in “Otello” in 1987, her first Leonora in “Il Trovatore” in 1989. Renee Fleming sang the title role in “Rusalka” in 1991, Ben Heppner had the lead in “Die Meistersinger” in 1989 and Vladimir Chernov was a sensation as Prince Andrei in “War and Peace.”

“People come here to work and not to play the games of the star ego,” Ring director Francois Rochaix said.


Marc A. Scorca, executive vice president of Opera America, a professional association based in Washington, D.C., praised “Seattle Opera’s attention to theatricality in all its productions . . . a terrific model of what an opera company can accomplish by paying attention to all the theater arts.”

Jenkins works 60 hours a week, more during the three months before a Ring. He attends practically every rehearsal and performance and travels frequently to recruit talent overseas.

In 1993 he signed a 10-year contract for $170,000 a year, less than the heads of some smaller companies, though he does the work normally done by two people. Seattle Opera is the only one of the top 10 without an artistic administrator.

Jenkins is the scion of a family of Texas philanthropists whose peculiar passion gave his parents fits for years.

He took to opera at age 6 in Dallas when he heard a “Walkure” on the Met’s radio show. “I have no idea why Wagner hit me at that age, but it connected to me instantly,” Jenkins recalled.

He saw his first operas, “Aida” and “Faust,” at age 7 in 1944. Starting in 1946, touring Met productions visited Dallas four or five times a year.

“Those performances were the total highlight of my year. That was what I lived to do and I loved to do, and I was completely hooked on opera from that early point and never have strayed,” he said.

“Did I know what I wanted to do with opera? No, and I drove my family crazy, because I obviously wanted to do it but I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

He made Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Texas, flunked out of Cornell University Medical School in New York [“I had spent my time at the Metropolitan . . . great season”], took up law at Columbia University and graduated with an undistinguished record.

He was drafted, served as an Army lawyer in Iran (where he also was host of an Army classical radio show) and later at Ft. Hood, Tex. He was mustered out in 1966, won admission to Harvard and Stanford to study music history, then decided instead to take his father’s suggestion and try his hand as a critic.

For the next 17 years his work appeared in Opera News, the New York Post, the New York Times, Saturday Review and other publications, and for two years he was host of the Metropolitan Opera’s TV presentations on PBS.

Shortly after moving to New York, he got married. He and his wife, Linda, legally separated since he moved to Seattle, have two children, Speight III, who operated the dragon in the Ring in 1991, and Linda Leonie of San Francisco, who is named for soprano Leonie Rysanek.


Dumb luck and a gift of gab landed him the Seattle job.

A couple dozen San Jose, Calif., opera lovers retained him as lecturer for the Ring in 1981. He made such an impression on the Seattle Opera staff that he was then hired as company lecturer for the next summer.

When he returned, a search committee was seeking a successor to Ross.

Beverly C. Brazeau, now executive vice president of the opera board, attended his “Walkure” lecture and wound up inviting Jenkins to a committee meeting.

“She said, ‘We just want you to talk about opera,’ ” Jenkins recalled.

“I was really so ignorant, I didn’t know what the search committee was for,” he said. After three hours, he knew the score. As they drove away, Brazeau asked if he would consider the job.

Initially stunned, he warmed to the idea by the time he returned to New York.

“I talked to several people there,” Jenkins said. The most important was his longtime friend, James Levine, Met artistic director.

“Jimmy said to me, ‘You were always designed to do this,’ ” Jenkins recalled. “ ‘You were never designed to be a critic. You must do it.’ ”