Kaiser rules Kennedy Center

Enigmatic topper built reputation as arts org Dr. Fixit

WASHINGTON — An invigorating breeze of change has just blown wide the doors of the John F. Kennedy Center here, and it will soon be felt by audiences, performers, producers and arts managers. The agent of change is the Center’s ambitious and energetic new president, Michael M. Kaiser.

Even before he officially arrived here Feb. 1, Kaiser was calling some shots from his perch as director of London’s Royal Opera House. He took charge of selecting aspects of the Center’s 2001-2002 theater season. He arranged for appearances by the Kirov Ballet and Opera. He explored fundraising and marketing opportunities. And like any good performer, he began preparing for his entrance.

And what an entrance! Kaiser had been on the job merely one week when he called a press conference to announce a gift of $50 million — the largest single grant ever given to the facility — from arts philanthropist Alberto Vilar. It will create a new institute to train people to become better impresarios, managers and board members of arts orgs. The gift will also fund an annual visit by the Kirov for the next decade, and enhance co-productions with the Washington and Los Angeles Operas.

The grant was Kaiser’s idea, and his close connection with Vilar made it possible.

Kaiser, 48, has built a reputation as the performing arts’ peripatetic Dr. Fixit, able to nurse ailing arts orgs back to fiscal fitness before moving to the next patient. Past projects have included the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, the Washington Opera and the Detroit Symphony. His recent turn at the famously beleaguered Royal Opera House received rave reviews.

What is Kaiser’s magic panacea? “I concentrate all available resources on artistic initiatives and marketing,” he says — the precise areas that struggling facilities typically sacrifice. “But the art must be good to succeed,” he adds.

Kaiser’s arrival at the Kennedy Center is a bit of a departure for him: For once he’s at the helm of a healthy organization. “It’s fantastic to wake up in the morning and know there won’t be vendors at the door,” he says. That allows Kaiser the freedom to focus on building the quality of the Center’s artistic presentations and educational programming. “I also want the Kennedy Center to become more of a destination for people,” says Kaiser, who clearly doesn’t envision a short-term engagement here.

Kennedy Center brass aren’t saying how many people were considered for the vacancy, which became available when former prez Lawrence Wilker announced plans to ankle last year, but word is that Kaiser was the only serious candidate. He is viewed as an adroit and seasoned manager — smart, organized and personable. He can raise money like nobody’s business. And he is passionate about the arts, displaying a zeal not seen here since founder Roger L. Stevens.

Although he reports to chairman James A. Johnson and the Center’s board of directors, he has been given a relatively free hand. And considering his impressive debut performance, Kaiser is likely to enjoy a honeymoon period that President George W. Bush may soon envy.

His tastes are distinctly highbrow. Opera and ballet reportedly rank tops on his list, followed by the symphony, vintage musicals and theater. His management style is low-key. He’s no table-pounding autocrat, but rather a quietly confident executive who knows what he wants and commands respect.

The Center’s upcoming season, announced last week, demonstrates his style. For starters, it is the first time in the Center’s history that the entire panoply of offerings has been unveiled on a single occasion (it was also presented live on the Internet).

Highlight of the theater season will be a 15-week presentation of six fully mounted Stephen Sondheim musicals in repertory, under the artistic direction of Eric D. Schaeffer, artistic director of Arlington, Va.’s Signature Theater, under the musical direction of Kay Cameron. The presentation, slated for May-August 2002, will be budgeted at between $7 million and $10 million.

The Sondheim selections will be the first musicals ever produced entirely by the Center, and they are also the first theatrical productions of any kind produced by the Center in 12 years. Many more are to come, promises Kaiser, who intends to jettison the Center’s reputation as purely a road house. Following in Stevens’ footsteps, the new boss says he’ll personally produce theatrical works for the institution.

“And I’ll also be off raising money all over the world to pay for it,” he says.

Some of Kaiser’s other proposed initiatives:

  • An expansion of the Center with two new buildings that would house a national museum for the performing arts, offices and rehearsal space for the Washington Opera. The buildings would frame a new plaza to be built over a nearby freeway.

  • Co-productions with organizations large and small, and a new era of cooperation with regional arts centers. Example: The Center will collaborate with London’s tiny Random Dance Co. as part of the upcoming U.K. festival.

  • Festivals and other activities that combine different art forms. For example, a composer such as Stravinsky could be celebrated in ballet, opera, symphony, chamber music and songs.

  • A Kennedy Center-based ballet company.

  • Higher quality productions on the Millennium Stage, its free daily performances for the tourists that often showcases new acts.

It is also clear that the new chieftain takes seriously the Kennedy Center’s Congressional charter as the National Center for the Performing Arts. He wants it to truly become the performing arts center of the country, presenting the full spectrum of art.

Kaiser concedes that the mission is grand and the challenges are daunting. “In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve learned the exhausting, exhilarating truth about the place. It is unique in its scope, size and potential,” he says. It houses “a world class symphony and opera company, thriving dance and theater programs, an incredible education and outreach program, all under one roof,” he says.

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