A Conversation with the NEA's Outgoing Opera Chief

Wayne S. Brown Looks Back on Role of Opera at the NEA

Friday, December 20, 2013 - 01:00 PM

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.

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Comments [7]

Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Dear far flung editor, Duck, what in the world is wrong with my statement? The fact that U.S. Government money could be used to help display a glass filled with human urine with a crucifix in it is disgusting to all but the lunatic fringe. I hope you are not part of that fringe dear sir?
Even most principled atheists, and there are some, would find this disgusting.
I could only imagine the response if a Quran was displayed in a glass of human urine. I am sure the present occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington D.C. would have something to say about that, while turning a blind eye to treatment of Christians throughout the Middle East.
While many European countries have a tradition of Government support for the Arts, the United States does no share this tradition.
In much the same way as once mans treasure is another mans trash, art should stand on its own, and the artist should prosper or fail based on the value individuals place on their work.
However DO NO EVEN FOR ONE MOMENT think that I am equating the urine display with ANY ART what so ever. It is just one on many examples of how our Government can cross the line between its legitimate role and that of sponsoring trash.
Soon I will not be able to get a 32 ounce soda when I visit New York City, Oh, I almost forgot your Nanny City Mayor already mandated that as law, I guess God gave New Yorkers two hands to hold two separate 16 ounce sodas rather than on 32 ounce drink.
Will Government ever learn it place and stay out of individual lives so long as ones actions do not physically harm another. The NEA should be abolished, there are hundreds of private foundations that support the arts without having liberal cadres of no nothing bureaucrats dicate artistic value .God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Dec. 27 2013 10:28 AM

CF: "What moron decided this to be art worthy of U.S. Government funding."

DD: I'm guessing that was a question? For someone who self-promotes his accomplishments, you need to step away from the keyboard -- take a deep breath -- read -- edit -- and THEN tap the POST COMMENT radio button.

Do yourself a favor and present yourself in the best light.

Deity Speed, DD~~

Dec. 26 2013 10:39 PM
Peter Davis from San Francisco

Whatever your views about the NEA, which has a mixed record, we should all be thankful that Fred Plotkin continues to be a forceful presence on the opera scene. His is an independent, thoughtful, and valuable voice which serves the opera community well. Peter Davis

Dec. 24 2013 07:56 AM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

LOGE, this post deals with political issues of public funding for the arts. This is also a forum on a PUBLIC RADIO STATION. I know there are many out there who would censor a persons opinion they do not agree with, most coming from radical circles where they feel a small minority can control a majority.
The NEA takes it onto itself and a few elite Board Members to define ART. That is something no person can or should do, it is up to the public market place to decide what is art, how much an artist should be compensated for his/her work, and to management and development personnel to seek funding from private foundations who support the arts. In much the same way as I am quite sure you would be offended by having your tax dollars go for a cause you cannot support, I feel the exact same way.
I do not know if you are employed, or retired or looking for employment, however I believe that there may be job openings for the political police, and censors on The A&E Channel, which has recently banned a "talent" under contract to them for quoting ( although not totally correctly ) a Biblical passage.
It must be nice to think you have the power to dictate the written word, next cometh the though police. Regardless of your political position you are in my prayers for a meaningful Christmas and wonderful New Year.
With a resume as large and varied as Mr. Plotkin's I am quite sure as a public figure he is use to criticism and has like myself developed a thick skin, something lacking in many people. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Dec. 22 2013 07:37 PM
Loge from New York

This blog is no place for anyone's politics. Also, there is no need to be nasty to Fred Plotkin, who has devoted himself to music, especially opera, and who has the experience to know whereof he speaks. You do not have to agree with his opinions, but the personal snide remarks are simply out of line. It is quite shameful.

Dec. 22 2013 12:01 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Great resume update Fred. The NEA should be abolished, remember this is the same NEA which in 1987 helped to pay for an exhibit called "Piss Art" a winner of the South Eastern Contemporary Arts Award partially paid for by the NEA, A U.S. Government Agency.
To refresh your memory sir, this was an exhibit where a glass filled with human urine had a gold plated crucifix placed it it and ways displayed.
What moron decided this to be art worthy of U.S. Government funding.
While I feel the Government might possibly play a small role in Art's education in local schools with community control, Washington has NO right to dictate what is art and what is not.
We have a market place economy here in the United States, and Orchestras, Opera Companies, Museums, etc have plenty of funding available from major philanthropic foundations without begging to Washington for support.
It is also interesting that virtually every post you publish usually deals first with your personal involvement in a story rather than simply stating the facts at hand. Where, by the way does the Government get off scrutinizing talent contracts? I guess there is just no end to liberals thinking they can control everything from defining art, to controlling how much artists get paid in the so called private sector which is now being slowly whittled away by Washington.
I wish the departing NEA Director best of luck in his new job in promoting Opera in Detroit, he must be a very brave man just to move there. While I support the Arts and especially Opera strongly, one might question if using tax payer dollars in Detroit, which is bankrupt, for Opera is the best placement of public funds. Detroit still is home to some of this countries largest corporations and they should be the ones to support the local Opera Company, not the U.S. taxpayers. But with a former NEA Director going there we know his begging cup will be pointed directly East to Washington, D.C.
Fred, don't you ever get tired of self promoting?, I guess I already know the answer to that.
However have a Happy Holiday, a successful trip to your personal photographer for updated publicity photographs, and a healthy New Year. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Dec. 21 2013 11:38 AM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

The issue of government support of opera in particular,and the arts in general,has been a subject of wildly divergent opinions since the days of the Medici,whose support of the arts counted as both governmental and private.There is no "one size fits all" approach,as shown by the degree of government support given to the MET,and to European houses.It is to be hoped that all instances of government support here and internationally will be subject to the degree of research and study indicated in this blog.

Dec. 20 2013 02:59 PM

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