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The Kennedy Center’s Turnaround Artist
Comments () | Published November 9, 2011

Kaiser’s job, it’s often observed, is his life. He gets up at 4 am to read newspapers, work on e-mail, and run five miles on a treadmill: “I hate it, but it’s good for me.” He tries to get to bed by 8 a couple of nights a week, but if he attends a performance, 10:30 or 11 is more likely.

He walks from his apartment in DC’s West End to the Kennedy Center and is ready for a daily 7 am meeting with another early riser, marketing chief David Kitto, who came to Washington from New York’s Carnegie Hall. They discuss strategy for getting the word out, including advertising campaigns, for every program on the center’s schedule.

How Kaiser came to the arts may shed light on why the concept of “family” crops up often in his discussion of operational staff and performers at the Kennedy Center and elsewhere. There’s not only the story of his family’s long ago visit to The Music Man, where he was inspired to spend his life “getting behind that scrim.”

Kaiser says his parents, who ran a lumber business in New York, were “middle middle class” but interested in the arts from childhood—his mother in Berlin and his father in Breslau, then in Germany but now the Polish city of Wroclaw. His parents, who still live in suburban New York, left Germany after the rise of the Nazis. His paternal grandfather refused to emigrate and died in the Holocaust.

His paternal grandmother married a violinist in the New York Philharmonic and sometimes took her grandson to Saturday rehearsals. At age three, he began lessons on a quarter-size violin. “It had a profound effect on me,” Kaiser recalls. “To this day, when I hear a piece of classical music, standard repertoire, I can sing you virtually the whole thing from beginning to end. But I can’t always tell you if it’s Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony or Fourth Symphony.”

Kaiser attended Philharmonic rehearsals in the heyday of music director Leonard Bernstein. “My first dog”—a standard dachshund—“was named Lenny,” he recalls.

Performing came naturally to Kaiser. He was the captain in a third-grade production of H.M.S. Pinafore. His father made epaulets and sewed then onto Kaiser’s blazer. “We still have it,” Kaiser says. As junior cantor at Temple Israel in New Rochelle, he played King Ahasuerus. “My father made the costume—a big crown. We still have that, too.” During the only performance, Kaiser dropped Queen Esther’s crown. “It was a very big blow to my ego that I had been so clumsy.”

The summer before his senior year in high school, Kaiser attended music camp at Interlochen, Michigan. Back in suburban New York, Kaiser’s father drove him on Saturdays to classes at the Manhattan School of Music.

Kaiser was accepted for vocal training in several college-level programs, auditioning with “Quia fecit mihi magna,” from Bach’s Magnificat.

“I decided at the last minute that I really wasn’t ready for them,” Kaiser says. He began college at MIT, where the choral director “recognized I had some modest amount of talent.” In the choral program at the Tanglewood Festival, he studied voice with opera soprano Phyllis Curtin.

Kaiser auditioned for the college-level program at the Manhattan School of Music but wasn’t accepted. “It turns out they had no spaces,” Kaiser says. “Still, it was a devastating blow. I decided if I wasn’t good enough to get into the Manhattan School of Music, I wasn’t good enough to have a career. I was 19.”

Kaiser graduated magna cum laude from Brandeis with a degree in economics and a minor in music. He has a master’s from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, where his thesis was a study of the then-infrequent sharing of opera productions by regional companies. “I knew I wanted to run an opera company,” he says.

A person who has worked with Kaiser says he isn’t a screamer but “can get a little louder and more intense.” A 2000 article in London’s Independent called Kaiser “too thin-skinned,” which he later conceded. In London sometimes, he has said, “I would go home and have a good cry.” That’s what comes from getting pummeled in the press and by the public. After a performance for schoolchildren was canceled—at what Kaiser calls the lowest point of his London tenure—a teacher assigned students an essay on “why we hate the Royal Opera House.” One began, “Dear Mr. Kaiser, we wish you were dead.”

Along the way he was in analysis, but now, he exclaims with mock drama, “I’m cured!”

Kaiser’s time in London, where he joined the revolving door of chiefs for the Royal Opera House, came amid the costly rebuilding of its storied home in Covent Garden. He left earlier than most had expected but turned around not only the accumulated $30-million deficit but also some carping politicians and journalists.

Kaiser’s association with the arts here goes back three decades. While running his own Washington-based management consultancy in the early 1980s, he was invited to join the board of directors of what was then the Washington Opera. (“National” was officially added in 2004.)

“I became the worst board member in the history of the world because I really wanted to be a staff person,” Kaiser said at the Aspen Institute. “I was very young and very callow and very obnoxious. . . . It’s come full circle. . . . So now I’m finally back running the WNO, which is something I’ve wanted to do since 1983.”

Although the KenCen/WNO agreement was described as an “affiliation” when it was announced in January, Kaiser leaves no doubt as to how he sees his expanded kingdom. Who is head of the NSO and WNO? “I am,” he replies crisply.

The opera’s deal was resisted initially by some WNO board members but was a no-brainer to other supporters. “It is something that I thought made a great deal of sense for many years,” says Christine Hunter, a former WNO board chief. She believes the WNO is “in very good hands. I think he’ll be a marvelous overseer.”

To a New York Times blogger, WNO president Kenneth R. Feinberg called the move “a godsend.” He predicted that Kaiser’s tenure would result in more operas over a longer season.

Virtually no aspect of the WNO’s current season, which began in September with one of the biggest chestnuts of all, Tosca, can be considered daring. And Tosca is the newest of the five operas in the 2011–12 run, having premiered in 1900. Plus, Kaiser notes of this season, “there’s nothing American in it; it’s all European. So I would like to see a more diverse season—absolutely.”

About a month before the merger took effect, Kaiser and the WNO named a leading US stage director, Francesca Zambello, as the WNO’s artistic adviser, a new post. She has known Kaiser since working on productions at London’s Royal Opera House. “What we’re looking at is how to expand the role of opera at the Kennedy Center,” Zambello says. That’s likely to include musicals.

Zambello is the brains behind a production of Wagner’s massive, four-opera Der Ring des Nibelungen that was to be shared by the San Francisco Opera and the WNO. San Francisco presented three cycles of the Ring in June and July, but the WNO ran short of money and canceled not only the full cycles but also the staged version of the final work in the tetralogy, Götterdämmerung.

“There will be a Ring cycle,” Kaiser says during an interview in his office in the upper reaches of the Kennedy Center, but he won’t specify dates. “It will not be in my tenure,” he says—but he could raise the funding as something of a parting gift. Die Walküre is his favorite of the four Ring operas.

The Kennedy Center’s annual gala in April, a celebration of Kaiser’s decade at its helm, featured a string of tributes, including a video from Britain’s Prince Charles, who expressed gratitude to Kaiser for his “single-handed management and rescue of the Royal Opera House” and his “remarkable genius in sorting things out.”

As much as Kaiser talks about management of the arts, he can also talk about the emotions involved. For this year’s gala, he asked Barbara Cook, who still performs regularly in her eighties, to sing “Goodnight, My Someone,” which had electrified him in The Music Man all those years ago. She declined, saying she no longer sings it in public; but she did do another of her heart-stopping ballads, “This Nearly Was Mine,” from South Pacific.

In September, the center announced that Cook—finally, in the view of some of her fans—had been selected as one of this year’s recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors. A center spokesman said Kaiser had no official role in selecting the honorees. Cook is already on the Kennedy Center schedule for back-to-back performances next June, when she’ll be 84.

At the center gala last spring, Cook was unsatisfied with her sometimes raspy performance. She looked toward Kaiser in his box seat and said, “I’m sorry, Michael—I’m here but the voice is not.” Later in his onstage thank-yous, Kaiser recalled the time he first saw Cook at the Majestic in New York:

“The magic of the theater took hold of me that night and has never let go.”

This article appears in the November 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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