Michael Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, stepped out from behind the scenes and took center stage this past weekend when he married his partner, John Roberts. The wedding—already special for being held at the Kennedy Center, and for the 200-strong guest list that included billionaire arts patrons Jacqueline Mars and David Rubenstein—was made even more special because of the officiant: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, herself a devoted arts supporter. With the Kaiser-Roberts ceremony, Ginsburg became the first Supreme Court justice to perform a same-sex marriage. Ginsburg, who describes Kaiser as “a friend and someone I much admire,” is scheduled to officiate a second same-sex marriage, the September 22 wedding of Washington Post food writer David Hagedorn and Michael Widomski. She says she has no plans to retire, but this could become a trending sidelight.
The Kaiser-Roberts wedding occurred in the center’s atrium. Other guests included singers Renée Fleming, Harolyn Blackwell, and Barbara Cook and actor Ron Raines.
Kaiser has helmed the Kennedy Center since January 2001, overseeing some notable presentations of symphony, opera, dance, theater, and global culture, including the works of Stephen Sondheim, the Bolshoi and New York City ballets, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the Washington National Opera, as well as guiding it through the Great Recession and putting to excellent use the involvement of Rubenstein, who has been chairman of the board since May 2010. Kaiser’s role as president ends next year, when he becomes head of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, which is based at the center and trains individuals for roles as leaders of arts institutions.
Most newlyweds would be on their honeymoon four days after they tied the knot, but Kaiser was at work on Wednesday, allowing us to catch up with him about love and work.
When and where did you become engaged?
August 2012. We got engaged in an airplane. We were flying to Rome and I asked John to marry me, and he said yes. It seemed like a nice way to start the vacation.
Did you unbuckle your seatbelt and get down on one knee?
How did Justice Ginsburg come to be the person who would marry you?
I thought it would be wonderful if she would, and I asked her and she said yes. That was this summer, after we set the wedding date. She’s been a great judge, and she’s been so engaged with the work of the opera here. I couldn’t imagine anyone who would be more wonderful. You start at the top.
Did you know in advance whether she’d say yes?
I had no idea.
Can there be a honeymoon for someone as busy as you with a new season about to begin?
A nice trip during the Christmas holidays.
Tell us something about your husband, John Roberts.
You probably don’t know much about him because he’s a quiet person. He’s very smart. He used to play the trumpet. He’s an economist. He’s incredibly kind. He loves to come to performances with me. We have a very warm and happy existence together.
Does he attend every Kennedy Center function with you?
No, no, no; he’s got a life of his own. But he comes to many with me. He has developed a real interest in dance. I introduced him to that. He loves theater and symphonic music. I also introduced him to opera, and he enjoys that a lot as well.
Your contract is up next year when you will transition into a new role. What does that mean to you?
The nature of the job will shift. I will no longer be working for the whole Kennedy Center, only a small piece of it. There will be an emotional shift as well. I’ll be giving to someone else the wonderful job I’ve had.
How has it been, trying to navigate an arts organization through the Great Recession?
It’s been a real challenge. It’s obviously been a very, very difficult time for this field. Unfortunately there’s been a lot of misunderstanding of how to best navigate challenging economic times, and a lot of arts organizations have made it more challenging for themselves rather than less so.
In the season ahead, are you permitted to play favorites? Is there something you can’t wait for?
My word, I’m extremely excited about the project we’re doing with Renée Fleming this autumn. It was her idea. She brought it to me. It’s a week of looking at various styles of American singing, and we’re going to have a lot of major artists performing—Sutton Foster, Kim Burrell, Kurt Elling, Josh Groban, Alison Krauss, Norm Lewis, Eric Owens, Dianne Reeves. Some will teach master classes, and all are performing together in one concert with the National Symphony.
What about the building itself? David Rubenstein has funded an interesting bit of work. What’s the status of all that?
David gave the lead gift for a project to build out on the south part of our property to build a garden, an education center, a video wall, a bridge to the river. All of that is now in design and will need to go through a series of approvals. We’ll have a groundbreaking during my tenure, but my successor will enjoy the actual building process of the new facility.