Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The 25 ways Seattle was changed because of Speight Jenkins.

By Seattle Opera Executive Director Kelly Tweeddale

On June 11, 2009 the Mayor’s Office of Arts & Culture announced its seventh annual Mayor’s Arts Awards naming Seattle Opera General Director Speight Jenkins of one of its five honorees. The award ceremony will take place at noon, Friday, Sept. 4 at Seattle Center's Northwest Court. The Mayor's Arts Awards are presented in partnership with Bumbershoot®: Seattle's Music & Arts Festival.

Last July, I paid tribute to Speight’s 25th Anniversary at the Seattle Opera Annual Meeting in a countdown “David Letterman” style I titled “The 25 ways Seattle was changed because of Speight Jenkins.” So as Speight’s 25th season comes to a close, here it is again for our online audience in reprise.

25. You can’t hear the words “It’s going to be a great show” without thinking about Seattle Opera and Speight. It was a promise he began making on Classical KING FM 98.1 when he arrived, and he hasn’t broken that commitment in the 25 seasons that he’s programmed.

24. At least five times out of the year, Saturday evenings in many Seattle homes are dedicated to listening to the Seattle Opera Broadcast (even more popular in Seattle than The Metropolitan Opera’s broadcasts). Since Speight’s arrival to Seattle Opera, broadcasts have reached approximately 1.3 million listeners throughout the region. That equals almost 4 million hours that Seattleites have listened to opera over the past 25 years. I think the ipod has some catching up to do.

23. Over the past 25 seasons the sighting of a white-haired individual in glasses has been enough to slow down grocery store express lanes as the discussion of opera ensued. Unofficially, Speight is responsible for creating the first ever impromptu opera “meet-up” right here in Seattle long before it became the latest internet trend.

22. OK – this one might get me in trouble in the same way it did the all-girl band the “Dixie Chicks”, but in Seattle when you ask: What do you get when you put together a Texas drawl with politics? Overwhelmingly Seattleites respond: Speight Jenkins. Now, moving from politics to the bible . . .

21. The way Seattle has been changed because of Speight Jenkins is in what he begat. So, here we go: Speight begat Director of Education Perry Lorenzo, who begat Education Artistic Administrator Jonathan Dean, who begat Education Associate Seneca Garber, and together this impressive team of opera orators has begat a far reaching life-long learning program that has touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, adults, and students over the past 25 years. And with that Seattle has begat the largest per capita opera attendance in the nation.

20 – 11. What else could take 10 places on the countdown list than the works of Richard Wagner. Over the past 25 years Speight has made Seattle the only place outside Bayreuth where the top ten operas of Wagner’s canon have been regularly presented with new, stimulating, and compelling productions, drawing audiences from all 50 states and more than 22 different countries. Including the Ring, Seattle Opera has sold over 400,000 tickets, just to Wagner operas, over the past 25 years.

10. For the past 25 seasons, Seattle has been forever changed by the caliber of artists that Speight has brought to our city. Encouraged by a welcoming environment, Seattle audiences have had the privilege of hearing top artists debuting new roles, new artists making their mark, and artists coming together to create iconic signature pieces that have traveled from Seattle to many other opera houses.

9. The Seattle landscape has been enhanced with the transformation of the Opera House into McCaw Hall. Although there were many heroes that made this spectacular building possible, Speight was an unrelentless advocate for the project, ensuring that premier acoustics ruled the stage, that there would be color to punctuate the public spaces, and that we would have a grand staircase whereby he eagerly greets audience members, whether it be a first-time opera attendee or a long-time patron.

8. During Speight’s 25 season tenure, he has changed the face of opera by introducing us to the young talent emerging in the field. By creating the Young Artists Program over 40% of the singers that have studied with us have gone on to credible careers in the opera field. Seattle has been the first to experience what an exciting future opera has with graduates such as Larry Brownlee, Sarah Colburn, just to name a few.

7. Seattle has been known as one of the top creative cities in the world, and no one more than Speight recognizes the synergy of creativity and excellence. Seattle Opera, under Speight’s direction is one of very few companies that house a full-service costume and crafts shop and a 36,000 sq. ft. scenic studio. Universal studio tour look out – when we consolidate under one roof in the future Opera Center at Mercer Arena, and that will be one attraction worth waiting for.

6. Miss Manners would have been proud for the impact Speight has had on business protocol. Over the past 25 years, he has set the Seattle standard by answering every email he is ever sent, personally responding to every patron that writes to give advice, praise, or on rare occasion to complain, and picking up the phone to immediately acknowledge, thank or discuss any issue. I love to think about how many people have been pleasantly surprised with Speight’s attention to the opera audience.

5. After a short period of experimentation, Speight showed Seattle that running a deficit-free arts organization was not only possible, but repeatable. And he did it all without denigrating the quality of art he put on the stage.

4. Seattle patrons have learned the art of fundraising from Speight Jenkins. Never crafty, obtuse, or indirect, over the past 25 seasons Speight has helped fund raise over a quarter of a billion dollars for opera and capital projects in this community. Shows you what a little enthusiasm can do!

3. 25 years is a quarter of a century and during this time Speight has shown Seattle that opera is theater, theater is drama, and drama is what life is made of. Nobody in Seattle expects or would tolerate a stand and sing opera company.

2. Although some in the Seattle community may think that the art of “process” has taken a foothold, Speight has led the effort in Seattle to evangelize the art of spontaneity. Since his arrival the phrases, “Let’s put on a show!” “Of course we can,” “Why not?” and “Anything is possible . . .” has become part of the company’s vocabulary. And for the non-spontaneous, a 12-step program is coming soon . . .

1. And finally, perhaps the most telling contribution that Speight Jenkins has made during his 25 seasons of planning has been his ability to see the extra-ordinary before others. It is his remarkable gift to hear the voice that will come-to-be in a young singer, see the potential in a director, designer, conductor before others are willing to take the risk, to invigorate donors, patrons, and board members to passionately participate in opera giving their lives new meaning, and to coax out the special talent of his staff before they even recognized it in themselves.

Speight, in being able to see the extraordinary in others, you in turn have become extraordinary.

Congratulations on your 25 seasons of producing opera.


  1. Hallo, Seatttleopera Bloggers!
    This is a very interesting and informative account of action and interaction!
    Allerachtung, besonders Speight-gegenueber!!

  2. Hello, again, Seattleopera Bloggers!
    I DO hope others also read this excellent summary of excellent contributions by an excellent Opern-Generalintendant!!!! It disturbs me that the only "comments" so far are by only one person!

    Anyway, I have again re-read this comprehensive paen of comprehensive comntributions -- and:
    Yes, your number 1 is really number one here, because of all the other Generalintendanten I have experienced in Germany and the US, the best discoverer of new talent IS Speight Jenkins!!
    In listing his contributions to the new McCaw in #9, you omitted what, for me, has been his greatest contribution in remodeling the building: the addition of "The Speight Jenkins Standing Room"!!!!
    Re: #22 (also #5), the more I think of it, with his unique ability to get the VERY BEST results from a tight budget, Speight Jenkins would make the ideal County Executive for King County!!! I know we need him as General Director of Seattle Opera, but then my political philosophy revolves around the principle "The greatest good for the greatest number" and though the McCaw is often full on opera nights, still, King County has many, many more residents than fit into the McCaw -- and no existing candidate is nearly as qualified to run our comp[lex county governmant as is Speight Jenkins!!! Also, he has amassed such a great team of people at Seattle Opera HQ that they should be able to continue achieving success, especially when Speight is no further than a phone call away from John St. SPEIGHT FOR COUNTY EXEC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!