Of the hundreds of evenings Michael Kaiser has spent in a theater, opera house, or concert hall, one stands out. That was the night, he says, when his parents took four-year-old Michael and his older brother and sister to a performance of the Broadway hit The Music Man at the Majestic Theater on West 44th Street. Young Michael was mesmerized, especially during the first act when the character known as Marian the librarian—played by Barbara Cook in her first real hit—grows wistful on the porch of the modest home she shares with her mother in 1912 small-town Iowa.
“I would not be here today,” the Kennedy Center president told a Washington audience this year, “if she did not sing ‘Goodnight, My Someone’ and the scrim lit up behind her and I could see into the house. That was the most magical moment in the history of my life. And I decided I was going to spend my whole life getting behind that scrim.”
Now, more than half a century later, Kaiser controls a lot of scrims and more or less everything else that has gone up, down, or sideways on each of the Kennedy Center’s nine stages for the last decade.
As chief of Washington’s preeminent performance venue, the soft-spoken Kaiser arguably has a stronger role than anyone in setting Washington’s cultural agenda. His grip grew firmer July 1 when the fiscally faltering Washington National Opera came into the Kennedy Center’s firm embrace, as the National Symphony did in 1986.
With the departure of world-famous tenor Plácido Domingo as the opera’s general director and singular public image, Kaiser’s views will be reflected in even more of the Kennedy Center’s 2,000 performances a year. But planning and promotion in the white-marble box beside the Potomac, with its $180-million annual budget, has become only part of the Kaiser story. With his worldwide advocacy of “good art, well marketed,” Kaiser has become a figure on the world stage.
Kaiser, according to Philanthropedia, a guide to nonprofit institutions such as the Kennedy Center, is the official cultural ambassador for the State Department’s Cultural Connection Program. He has made tough-love visits all over this country and to others, from Argentina to Zimbabwe, meeting with arts leaders from more than 70 nations.
He flew to Cairo and the West Bank to stimulate artistic planning as well as to foster Kennedy Center cultural exchanges with the Arab world. He landed in Baghdad aboard a military plane with a ruptured fuel line—“I was in my little three-piece suit surrounded by soldiers,” he recalled for a South Dakota audience—but was soon at a chamber-music concert, with armed guards, in one of Saddam Hussein’s old palaces. “It was a bit surreal,” Kaiser says, “but it made the point that art is everywhere.” And it led to a joint performance by the National Symphony and the Iraqi National Symphony at the Kennedy Center.
Kaiser thinks his many travels enhance the center’s role as the national cultural crossroads envisioned in the 1958 act that established the performance complex, which became the “living” memorial to President John F. Kennedy after his assassination in 1963. The center opened in September 1971, transforming the performing arts in a then-stage-starved Washington.
Next: Kaiser doubles fundraising efforts