A Conversation with the NEA's Outgoing Opera Chief

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Earlier this year, in Washington D.C., I had the opportunity to speak with Wayne S. Brown, the director of music and opera at the National Endowment for the Arts. I had been saving the contents of this interview for a longer article but, when I learned recently that Mr. Brown will be leaving his position in January to become the President and CEO of the Michigan Opera Theater in Detroit, I decided to include portions of it here. Having spent 16 years in his job, Brown has a unique view of the American opera scene and the NEA’s role in fostering the art form. 

I should mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that while we had never met or spoken before, we knew of one another's work. His, of course, is well-known to everyone in the American parts of Planet Opera. I had done work at the NEA for his predecessor in the 1990s as a site inspector. This involved being sent by the NEA to visit companies (in my case, in the Midwest and Western states) to observe their operations, interview chief executives along with singers, orchestra and chorus musicians, and members of the boards. I attended rehearsals, performances and school events. Through conversations, I got a sense of an opera company’s status in its community. I had the opportunity to scrutinize artist contracts, budgets and financial statements.

It was required, of course, that I keep the details of what I saw and read fully confidential, and I always have. For the NEA, I was expected to write a detailed report from the scene about each company’s strengths and weaknesses and to propose, as objectively as possible, how certain changes might make each company more viable and relevant to its audience. I loved this work, in part because it gave me a clear sense of the variety of opera in our nation but also because I became quite aware that the NEA was doing a superb job, at very low cost, of using what public monies were available to bring opera to places where it had never been and to encourage the creation of new American works.

When I met with Brown and Georgianna Paul, the NEA’s opera specialist, he began by acknowledging my on-site visit reports, which served as a resource for our peer-review panels. Although I certainly did not need to be persuaded of opera’s value, Brown, in our conversation, spoke diplomatically but emphatically about opera in this article to reach an audience that would, inevitably, include those readers who gainsay the merits of spending even a small amount of public funds on supporting the arts. "The opera art form is both multi-dimensional and innovative. This distinction creates opportunities for creativity that is frequently embraced by other art forms.” This could include stagecraft, creation of new technologies or approaches to education and audience development. Although these innovations are intended for opera, they find broader applications.

The music and opera program of the NEA likes to support initiatives to create new operas, according to Brown, not only in "extraordinary edifices, but also through street opera, festival opera, and in unusual settings such as the lighthouse of the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. We believe that opera companies are increasingly becoming more nimble in their approach to production. As such, the Arts Endowment encourages organizations to think more broadly about the art form and not to be limited by traditional definitions of opera.”

He continued, "I see the Arts Endowment's role as curatorial in nature. The NEA, through its peer-review panels, makes investments in projects that demonstrate the potential to resonate with artists and audiences alike." In assembling panels, “we include singers, producers, composers, general directors—both current and emeritus—to offer a longer-term perspective, as well as innovators in the field to offer fresh perspectives.”

“Our investment in opera reflects an interest in newly-created works. These operas do not necessarily require American themes, but are stories that reflect our time and are created for the  benefit of American audiences.”

While, understandably, Brown did not want to be too specific about what kind of applicant for NEA support would be successful, he remarked, “We try to engage applicants to tell their story and invest in the articulation of that story what happens on the stage.” It is helpful if they “take the extra step to convey their process and ideas.”

Paul, the NEA's opera specialist, mentioned that, at the end of the application review process, "We provide feedback to all applicants."

I think it is important to point out that—in all fields—not everything that is attempted succeeds, whether we are speaking of artistic endeavor, medical research, government policy and, let’s not forget, corporate and entrepreneurial initiatives intended to make money. But, to invoke a bromide that is as relevant as it is familiar, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Brown said, “it gives us delight when subsequent recognition comes for a project the NEA helped support. It is a validation of the perspective registered by our peer-review panelists who recognized the potential of a project.” He cited Ken Puts's opera Silent Night, which had successful runs in Minnesota and Philadelphia, won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music, had a telecast on PBS on Dec. 13 (with a repeat scheduled on New York’s Channel 13 on Dec. 24) and upcoming runs at the opera companies of Ft. Worth, Cincinnati and Calgary.

Gabriel Preisser, William Burden and Craig Irvin in the Minnesota Opera production of Silent Night (Michal Daniel)

Brown also cited an initiative called Great American Voices, a program that has brought young artists to 41 military installations.

He noted that the NEA Music and Opera program has many forms of information and outreach to the larger opera community, including those who work in the field but also audiences. "We invest in our website—the calling card of the agency—and, in an effort to be sure it is not static, we continue to invest in this platform all the time.” 

Regular visits to the site are essential for anyone who works in opera. It is an ideal place for news and knowledge, such as a recent study about how much opera contributes to the economy. 

Brown is passionate about opera but also quite circumspect about his role in keeping it vibrant. But the evidence of his work is palpable just about every time a curtain rises at an American opera company. We are all better off because of his leadership.