Seattle Opera's Jenkins Looks Back At His Legacy, Including Making 'Colorblind’ Opera

Jul 28, 2014

Speight Jenkins is stepping down as general director of Seattle Opera after 31 years. And among the things he’s most proud of are the productions of two successful Ring cycles, surviving the economic recession by not resorting to just producing popular operas and advancing the opportunities for African-American men.

'I Was Convinced That Opera Should Be Colorblind'

“When Leontyne Price came to the Met Opera in 1961, it ended the problem of black women in opera. But it didn’t end the problem for black men,” Jenkins said. “When I came to Seattle, it was still the case of black men with great voices not appearing. I think people were afraid, and I was convinced that opera should be colorblind.”

Jenkins says he takes satisfaction in bringing talented African-American and Asian-American singers to local audiences over the past three decades. And he’s proud of the role the opera has had in grooming young talent. One of the most notable examples is tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who came through Seattle Opera's  Young Artists Program.

Jenkins says he never heard a single complaint from Seattle audiences about his casting decisions. And he predicts the ranks will continue to become increasingly racially diverse with a wave of talent coming from China.

Imagining Life After Retirement

Jenkins plans to stay in Seattle after his retirement. He’d like to play a role in scouting for new talent. He’ll still be going to Seattle Opera performances, but he plans on being as invisible as possible — a dramatic turn from how visibly available he was at concerts. He’d spend about 30 minutes every night at the top of the stairs inside McCaw Hall greeting patrons.

“When I made my farewells [at the final performance of “The Tales of Hoffman” in May], I counted that I had put on 1,227 performances of opera here. I think I missed six,” he says.

He always sat in the same place: on the right side, 13th row. He always handwrote cards that said, “Break a leg” in whatever language the opera was. The cards were left in the singers’ dressing room with a single red rose.

“It’s what I’ve always done. I appreciate their work. After all, without them, I don’t exist," he said.

Falling In Love With Opera At The Tender Age Of 9 

Jenkins fell hard for opera as a boy growing up in Texas. He was 7 years old when he heard his first broadcast, “Aida." He was 9 when the Metropolitan Opera toured Dallas.

“Verdi’s 'Rigoletto.' I remember afterwards when I went home I was completely enthralled by it. And I went outside to water the plants and I thought, ‘This is my life.’ And I never changed.”

Through college,  law school and the U.S. Army, his passion for opera only increased. He became a music journalist, critic and popular speaker. It was while on a speaking engagement in Seattle when the board asked to meet him. He later realized he was, in fact, interviewing for the general director job.

From Fan To Director Overnight

When Jenkins was hired to lead the Seattle Opera in 1983, it was a bit of a shock. He knew a lot about the art form, but he had never led a group or produced a single opera before.

“There were a lot of people in the business that thought they [the Seattle Opera board members] were crazy, that they were choosing a music critic and somebody who had never done anything on the stage. I mean, it was a very radical choice,” Jenkins recalls.

Now the Seattle Opera is one of the leading opera companies in the country, with admiration from all corners of the world.

“I had a good feeling about Seattle,” Jenkins said. “I didn’t think opera stopped at the Hudson River. I knew it was a major regional company with an international reputation at the time from doing ‘The Ring.’ But I hope we’ve raised the level and the standing. Now I can say that I think the opera we do here can stand up with opera that’s done anywhere.”

Jenkins will be celebrated at a farewell concert Aug. 9. Aidan Lang, who served as general director of New Zealand Opera since 2006, will take over the helm at Seattle Opera.