By Tim Page
In the five years he has been at the Kennedy Center, he has transformed the programming, and Washington is a more diverse, fertile, and altogether more interesting place for the arts than it has ever been.
Michael M. Kaiser doesn't do lunch. Kaiser, the president since 2001 of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.--and Musical America's first-ever Impresario of the Year--believes that business lunches and dinners are, if not a waste, then at least an inefficient use of time. "Let's face it, you can finish up the business portion of almost any meeting within 15 or 20 minutes," one of Kaiser's colleagues at the Kennedy Center explained. "Michael knows that, and he would generally prefer not to give another hour over to socializing. He wants to get back to work."
Such an attitude is positively heretical in the nation's capital, where the more typical ploy is to pretend that all such get-togethers are the joyful reunions of old and beloved friends--and oh-yes-there-is-that-one-tiny-little-matter. . . . Still, nobody holds Kaiser's expediency against him: In the five years he has been at the Kennedy Center, he has transformed the programming, and Washington is a more diverse, fertile, and altogether more interesting place for the arts than it has ever been.
Before Kaiser, the Kennedy Center was a collection of fiefdoms. There was the National Symphony Orchestra, of course, which has its own board of directors but has been under the financial protection of the Center for the past 20 years. There was the Washington Opera--now known as Washington National Opera--an ambitious, long-established company that presented virtually all of its productions at the Kennedy Center but remained an independent entity. There was the Washington Performing Arts Society, another outsider, which brought most of the visiting orchestras and soloists to town. The Kennedy Center's own offerings, or so it sometimes seemed, were an endless succession of touring Broadway shows--Andrew Lloyd Webber and the like, in their second or third casts after leaving New York--that brought in the tourists and filled some of the coffers but left a good deal to be desired in the way of intellectual interest.
Today, independent renting organizations are still welcome, but increasingly the Kennedy Center's own productions are a key draw. Since 2001, both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Kirov Opera and Ballet have been visiting every year, under Kennedy Center auspices. A 2002 Stephen Sondheim festival brought six of the master's music-theater works, inventively staged, to Washington for a sold-out run. In October 2005, there was a multi-disciplinary "Festival of China," and the first half of 2007 will be devoted to a "Shakespeare in Washington" festival with the participation of more than 30 arts organizations throughout the area.
Kaiser has brought other organizations into the fold--notably the Vocal Arts Society, which had been presenting venturesome recitals by leading singers since 1990 and now offers its programs in the 500-seat Terrace Theater. He has improved relations with Washington National Opera, which came close to walking out of the Kennedy Center ten years ago. He has worked to establish closer ties between the NSO and WPAS, so that the same pieces are not duplicated on successive programs. And, in an overdue bow to one of America’s great contributions to music, he has established the first on-site jazz club in the Kennedy Center's history.
Before coming to Washington, Kaiser was the executive director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the largest performing-arts organization in Great Britain. The hiring process was a simple one, Kaiser says: "I heard the job was open through an article in The New York Times, I sent a letter to the chairman asking to be considered, and I was asked to a series of interviews after which I was offered the job." There, he cut ticket prices, erased a company deficit of $30 million, and completed raising the funds for a $360 million renovation.
Other credits include the directorship of American Ballet Theater and the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. In each case, he was credited with reducing (and, in some cases, erasing) accumulated deficits and increasing private donations; he has brought these same talents to the Kennedy Center. "Five years ago, we received about $36 million from independent sources," he said one recent afternoon. "This year $60 million will come from private funds," he added with pardonable pride.
What drives him? "I love problems," he answers. "And I love solving them. Over the past five years, I think I've demonstrated to our donors that good programming is what it is all about--that presenting creative and exciting art is not only the right thing to do but that it makes sense financially as well."
If he might be described as somewhat parsimonious with his time, he is both affable and approachable and pays keen attention to visitors while they are in his presence. He listens carefully to questions, pauses briefly, and then answers them fully, candidly, and in complete paragraphs, often anticipating follow-up queries and taking care of them first time around. He cites three principal objectives for the Kennedy Center. "I want to improve the quality of the art that we present and curate, so that people come here specifically because they really want to see or hear something we are offering, not just because they happen to be in town."
"And then I want to create a truly meaningful education program--every education program sounds good on paper, but I want to make sure that we really have an impact." To this end, Kaiser has worked to establish free concerts and programs in the D.C. and suburban schools, in accordance with his belief that "we owe every child in this nation a chance to experience the joy of self-expression, the power of discipline, and the self-fulfillment of achievement that come from the performing arts."
"Finally, I want to build up our role internationally--both as an importer of the best of the world's arts to America but also to provide expertise, support, and a platform for our own work abroad. We were chartered as a national cultural center, and we are only starting to live up to that objective."
Kaiser is widely acknowledged to have been one of the key forces behind the National Symphony Orchestra's decision to end its association with Music Director Leonard Slatkin, who was informed two years ago that his contract would not be renewed after 2008. Kaiser refuses to comment on the matter, but admits that "for whatever reason, the Kennedy Center had been under-funding the NSO for years--not in the salaries it pays its musicians, but in the matter of visiting artists."
"I thought it was essential to bring in better vocal soloists and, above all, better guest conductors. If you want to create a great orchestra, you want a number of great musicians to conduct it. And so, in the past couple of years, we have had Gergiev, Masur, Dohnányi, Maazel come to town, and I think a lot of our listeners have been amazed at just what the NSO can do." He will not speculate as to who the next music director might be, but insists that such an appointment is "crucial" and that the job will eventually go to a single person. "Some responsibilities can't be shared," Kaiser said. "Somebody has to be in charge, listening every week, taking care of personnel matters, making sure things are working."
Michael M. Kaiser, Musical America's Impresario of the Year, knows whereof he speaks.
Tim Page won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1997 for his
writings about music for The Washington Post. He is the
author or editor of more than a dozen books, including Tim
Page on Music (Amadeus, 2002) and Dawn Powell: A Biography (Holt, 1998).