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Video Published: 19 Oct 2022

An Oral History with Wayne Brown

On August 25th, 2022, arts administrator Wayne Brown sat down with OPERA America's President/CEO Marc A. Scorca for a conversation about opera and their life. 

This interview was originally recorded on August 25th, 2022. 
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. 

Wayne S. Brown, arts administrator

Since 2014, Wayne S. Brown has served as president and CEO of Detroit Opera. Before that, he was director of music and opera for the National Endowment for the Arts, where he managed NEA grants for music and opera projects and directed the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowships. His previous roles include executive director of the Louisville Orchestra and assistant manager of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Brown is an emeritus board member of OPERA America.

Oral History Project

Discover the full collection of oral histories at the link below.


Marc A. Scorca: Wayne Brown, welcome. Thank you so much for taking time from your busy day in Detroit to be with us today. Thank you.

Wayne Brown: Well, I'm delighted, Marc. Thank you ever so much. It's always a pleasure to have time with you.

Marc A. Scorca: We are trying to capture interviews with people who've had a really important impact on American opera over the last 50 years. And I would say that you've had profound impact on American opera over the last 25 - I won't give you credit for 50 - but your impact has been so important to us over the last 25 or so, that I really wanted to make sure that we heard from you. Now, even though you're generous with your time today, I'm not gonna spare you. I'm gonna ask you who brought you to your first opera?

Wayne Brown: When I think about my first encounter with the opera art form, in terms of a real performance, that was in a role that I played as a supernumerary. As a high school senior, when The Metropolitan Opera was on tour in Detroit, (they were performing) Barbiere di Siviglia, for which I received $20 after I walked off the stage. The production featured Roberta Peters as Rosina and George Shirley as Count Almaviva, conducted by Thomas Schippers. And I happened to go back to that program and make sure that I was clear, because at an earlier time I thought it was something else, but no, it goes back specifically to an earlier period.

Marc A. Scorca: So your impact on opera has extended over 50 years.

Wayne Brown: Who would've known?

Marc A. Scorca: You were the best supernumerary ever.

Wayne Brown: It was really an experience, Marc.

Marc A. Scorca: How did that experience come to be that you were asked to be a super at The Met in Detroit?

Wayne Brown: It goes back to those who've influenced one's life through the years, and in this particular case, it was my high school choral director, who happened to be (at an earlier time) a high school choral director for George Shirley. And, as it happens, the year that The Met was on tour in Detroit, that featured George as part of the reduction, George came to our high school for a particular assembly, to do a work that was to be performed in an evening program. And that's when I met George Shirley. And, so he wanted to know who's been singing this role for all the receptions. I raised my hand. And so I had to do that and that same week it said, "Come on down to The Met and join us as a supernumerary". So, there we are.

Marc A. Scorca: What a great story that is. And to be able to see those legendary performers on stage, as part of the extended cast. What a great experience.

Wayne Brown: It was the 'wow' factor far beyond I could have imagined. And I think that was a trigger. It did not necessarily suggest, "Oh, this is something that I want to do going forward", but it had such an impact that I just tucked it away, and who would've known that I would make reference to that experience later in life.

Marc A. Scorca: Well, what was it that propelled you to consider arts administration for a career?

Wayne Brown: Well, actually when I started, arts administration - if you will - was not necessarily a career path that one would ordinarily consider an option, but my interest in instruments, my interest in the voice, my interest in putting productions together: I guess one grew after the other, whether or not it was in high school as a member of the choral ensemble, whether or not it had to do with early training relative to instruments...Studied with the violin, switched to 'cello; vocal music was level of curiosity. And it all just kind of evolved over time.

Marc A. Scorca: Your first job though, was in the symphony world... your first several jobs, but it was at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra that you had your first administrative job.

Wayne Brown: That's true. And prior to that, I was involved with the Michigan Men's Glee Club. And during that role, I was the vice president, I was the business manager, I was the assistant conductor, choral director. And then I also had the opportunity to serve as the student representative for the School of Music's annual gala. And so the combination of experiences... Of course, as a result of that, I was asked to run the summer opera program at the University of Michigan, because the then assistant dean had just accepted a new position. And so the dean of the school knew of my involvement with the Michigan Men's Glee Club and also with the concert choir, et cetera, et cetera. So he asked if I would be willing to take on that role for the summer, and I did. There was Scarlatti, Cimarosa, and audience exceeded expectation, with more cash than expenses at the end of the run. At the end of the day, he said, "Would you like to consider a career in arts management?" "What is that?" And at the time the head of the Detroit Symphony happened to be in touch with the Dean. He said, "I'm looking for an administrative assistant", one led to the other. I went in for an interview. He offered me the position on the spot. I said, "Thank you very much, but I have to take the Michigan Men's Glee Club on tour to the west coast first". And three weeks later he said, "Come back", and the rest is history.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow. And in reading your bio, of course, you climbed the ladder some at the Detroit Symphony and you went on to leadership positions in Springfield, Massachusetts, and then in Louisville, Kentucky. And hearing you talk about your college work, you really climbed the ladder. You worked your way up the ladder, gaining expertise, gaining perspective, and you must have advice for young people that climbing the ladder and taking the time to learn as you go is a really important part of career development.

Wayne Brown: Well, I did not necessarily think of what I was going through, with necessarily climbing the ladder. However, it's a fair description. In every step of my journey that continues, I sought to cultivate relationships with those, (from) whom I might learn, whether it was the Dean of the School, Dean Britton; whether it was Marshall Turpin, my first boss in the symphonic world. David DiChiera, or Bill Ivey at the NEA or Dana Gioia. I mean, in all of those cases, the question is what can I learn from these individuals? How does that support my interest and what can I learn? And to what do I aspire? What are the attributes that I admire? What are, if you will, the lessons learned? So, if I were in a similar role as, as they may have been, might I have addressed an issue or a challenge or a circumstance differently? And for that, I found it invaluable. So in short, I would say, there are no shortcuts. You have to be really very focused on what you wish to pursue, and how much you can learn from the relationships that you enjoy, whether that's a reporting relationship - you learn something from someone that you report to - or if you learn something from a colleague or someone who reports to you, it's all from evolution. And I think that there's nothing short of being able to being open to see how much more you can embrace, learn from, and act upon.

Marc A. Scorca: Great advice there. And you can learn so much about what to do in a circumstance, or even what not to do if you're just smart enough to observe

Wayne Brown: And don't undervalue that lesson of learning what not to do.

Marc A. Scorca: Absolutely. I'm fascinated in your career. Your stint with the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. And we know that arts activity in conjunction with Olympics was at the root of the founding of Los Angeles Opera when the Royal Opera of Covent Garden toured to LA during the 1984 Olympics, it galvanized opera enthusiasm in LA. And here you were with the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta - what kinds of things did you produce as part of the Olympic Festival?

Wayne Brown: Well, it was an unexpected opportunity to join then Jeffrey Babcock, who was the president of the Cultural Olympiad arts component for the Olympic Games. And in essence, my role as music producer, was to make sure that all of the artists - the contracts, the hospitality was addressed; making sure there were no train wrecks. It's the called Olympiad. It's really a $10 million operation that goes out of business in 120 days. So, everything is clockwork. You have orchestras and chamber ensembles, and don't discount all of the audience members from around the world who show up for the Olympics and the artists themselves. Perhaps I should point out something that may not be clearly known, and that has to do with the Olympics has been part of our experience globally, going back to the Greeks, and there's always been a companion initiative called the Cultural Olympiad. So one could attend the Games in the evening and go to performances in the afternoon or vice versa. So it was the opportunity to make sure that this global stage for the arts platform would enable all of the visitors to have the experience of arts activity throughout the day. I recall a particular moment when we had, quite frankly, more performances than we had audience. Now, how do we manage that? In fact, there were two performances of a particular world class orchestra, with a world class conductor, and part of my role was to say, "Maestro, we were anxious to have you here on this world stage, and there are two performances scheduled. Of course, one of the programs features your work, and that will indeed be core to what we would want to do in terms of preserving an activity, but we're only able to do one performance. And I hope that we can work together, find ways in which two performances can be condensed to one program and that your work will be at the core of that offering. So, those are the kinds of unexpected curves that came about in such a thing. But it was absolutely a fascination to see people go to world hockey, and then go to a chamber music concert, or go to a lacrosse game and go to an opera that night. So it was great. (I had) the opportunity to perhaps be part of the games in Australia four years later, but I maintained once was a great experience, and once was enough.

Marc A. Scorca: I can imagine, with 120 packed days. Some people might view the combination of Olympic sports and arts as an odd combination, but there is something about the virtuosity of both athletes and artists that it really does go together, doesn't it?

Wayne Brown: I think you're absolutely right. When I think of that particular reference, whether I think of the opportunity that Rossini provided, and I think it was Cecilia Bartoli in terms of having the ability to articulate, to master the demands of so many works. When I think of just any number of opportunities that require that sense of preparation, focus, agility, and magic...

Marc A. Scorca: And teamwork....you mentioned lacrosse...

Wayne Brown: ...and teamwork. One cannot discount that at all. You clearly can see the really meaningful connection.

Marc A. Scorca: What a great experience. And then from the Olympics to the National Endowment for the Arts. And I don't have any analogy to connect those two. But clearly the scope of your portfolio in terms of music and opera, you had an enormous scope at the Olympics, your incredible gift as a diplomat all around, I'm sure served you. I can imagine that your time at the NEA really opened your eyes to what is going on across the nation at organizations, large and small. And I'm wondering whether you had any realizations or things that made you artistically patriotic, as you looked at your broad portfolio.

Wayne Brown: Well, my time with the National Endowment for the Arts was fascinating. I expected that I would take on the role for three or four years. I stepped down just shy of 17. As I try to share with so many young people: Do as I say, not as I do". But I would say that on so many levels, it was great. Number one, I wish that more people had the opportunity to be part of, in their work-life cycle, that public service can be a part of that experience. The opportunity for me to learn more about the opera field was triggered significantly by the...in those early years of my role with the Arts Endowment. I was the director of music and opera, before the portfolio embraced opera, symphonic, chamber music, choral music, festivals and life. And I was so pleased to pass the torch and enable space for my successor to really step forward and to move the needle. But the opportunity to have that interaction with legends in the opera field, Roberta Peters, Speight Jenkins and Mary Costa, all served as members of the Council. The role with panelists was the opportunity to benefit from the perspectives of various artists in the field, their taste, but their perspectives on work. I remember notable moments with in-person panels, where I learned the value of chair positions around the table. I had the good fortune of working with people that I'd heard about, but had never met, whether it was Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart, or ??????? or Plato Karayanis and Eve Queler. I mean, it goes on and on and on. But it was the opportunity to see these legends, and their perspectives on work that was being created nationwide and their role as a panelist to interact with their fellow panelists to support the important work taking place for opera companies throughout the country. It was truly magnificent. Critically, there were significant points of accomplishment I thought that took great pride. And that is that combination, when composers were at the table and an artist was at the table, and the general director was at the table and a lay panelist. That energy, how they responded as a group in that in-person moment to a particular project, to a particular aria, to a particular indication of libretto. To see how the energy might rise or fall in accordance with a given project. And that was wonderful to observe. It was almost like a performance in itself, and we see that happen time and time again. And for that reason, I believe that in-person time, whether or not it's like our work experience today, people working remotely or working in the same space, that in-space moment matters. It creates an energy unlike anything we can imagine that can't be accomplished on the screen.

Marc A. Scorca: Yeah, so true. And as we slowly come back out of Covid, and rediscover in-person meetings, we are reminded of how powerful they are when people are face to face. At the NEA, you had to strike a balance between some of the great achievements of major institutions who are setting historic standards for excellence, and smaller organizations where the value of the work may be community based, may be about access in small towns. And did you come to an understanding of the way, the greatest art in urban cities versus the community art in smaller communities - what the interplay was between those, and how you came to appreciate that interplay?

Wayne Brown: It was an ongoing observance. It was an ongoing opportunity to balance what the NEA describes, in terms of criteria, of artistic excellence and artistic merit. It all comes down to context and setting. It comes down to what is the nature of the work being produced by the organization, within the community that it resides. And some of the best work was not necessarily limited to the largest cities or the largest organizations, Fascinatingly remarkable creation and execution was, and continues to take place and unexpected cases of organizations, and that is what I believe is so valuable about art making in our country, the art experience in our country. And again that importance of audience and artists, how they interact one with each other to complete, if you will remember, we are the performing arts. So it's about that connection between artists and audience that helps to make it work. And I'm reminded of that very issue of Hamilton. You might be surprised to hear me make reference to Hamilton, but I had a board member, because we had an occasion to attend as a group, (the) Hamilton production. And the particular board member called me immediately following to say, "Do you believe Hamilton is an opera?" And I'll give you the short version. My reply was that there's much that we can learn from the production and respond accordingly, perhaps it could be. And I think it's about the work. It's about the artistry. It's about the experience of our time. It's about context. It's about where we are and our moment. I think it's one thing about the artist being ready for a performance and our audience being ready. I maintain that every time we have an opera production, unlike a symphonic work, in a way it's its own world premier. It's the first time there is that assemblage of a particular cast for an opera production, and the energy that takes place within that group of people is unlike any other moment. And if I go to a performance on one day - and I had one board member who said, "I'd like to come back to the last performance to see how it's changed". And because the way in which an audience approaches a performance, whether or not they were distracted before getting to the hall, whether or not they were inspired before getting to the hall all affects the totality of that interplay for the performance, whatever it may end up being. So it's about really paying attention to the moment. And whereas a symphonic work - you might hear a Beethoven symphony every year, the body of work, at least the body of work that's being performed is clearly not the same scale in opera, but that world premier experience that that moment cannot be underestimated. The outcome that could be unexpectedly surprising.

Marc A. Scorca: You raise a topic here, because you are one of the few people who has such insight into both the symphonic world and into the opera world. And I think there are a lot of people who stand outside the arts and just think that it all must be the same: Symphony, an opera company, ballet company, they all must be the same. And yet we inside the arts, know what subtle but profound differences there are. And I think you were just getting there where, anytime you do an opera production whether you do four titles a year, five titles a year, it's an event. You have pulled together all of these forces and there the curtain goes up and you get to see whether it all comes together, musically, dramatically, scenically. In the symphony world, where there are subscription concerts every week, and it is the same wonderful body of talented musicians each week, and the program is two or two and a quarter hours each week, it is a little bit more routine week to week, as opposed to this event of opening the production. Are there other differences you would highlight between symphony and opera?

Wayne Brown: I think you've addressed the core, but I think that, apart from going from full bodied symphonic works or more chamber scale, there's issue of color; there's issue of space; there's issue of timing. There's an issue of venue. It's a totality. It's the multidimensional aspect of the opera art form that offers so many possibilities, including the important symphonic orchestral component that is brought to bear. I'm reminded, in terms of venue, how years ago, I remember the Philadelphia Orchestra were the first to use screens or to test the whole notion of screens in the hall. And there were those who took exception and what will it mean? That will be disruptive, et cetera. And now it's almost expected in a hall. When I think about the venue, a non-traditional venue, such as a parking center, as we experienced in Detroit with Yuval Sharon as our artistic director, it's about finding unexpected and acting on it, and finding ways to engage audiences beyond traditional settings. And I think that's an absolutely fascinating notion that's presented before us.

Marc A. Scorca: Again, you've had such a varied career, have you had role models, and whether they knew they were mentors or not, whether you just thought about what they might do in that particular situation, are there role models or people who you referred to when you were thinking about what to do next?

Wayne Brown: Oh, absolutely. There's a whole, pretty significant list; you're among them, and it has to do with those - and we touched on this a little earlier - those who perhaps that I've admired, or who I've learned the specific lessons, or just an overall style. And I think that it's not necessarily the moment, but it was a totality of that encounter. And in a similar fashion, taking careful notes about a situation that I found, perhaps - not necessarily distasteful, but it didn't resonate with me positively. And so I had to determine if I was faced with a similar situation, how I will act, how I will address the situation. And I think that I have many names along that line of experiences, that I can refer to when I see or experience or find myself in a place that triggers a light. "Oh, that comes out of column A; that comes out of column C, and I think it's an ongoing process for all of us. Constantly observing, constantly seeing how those experiences factor into how we act.

Marc A. Scorca: For sure. I agree with that. And it isn't necessarily about how would that decision have been made, but what's the style? The stylistic reference, I think, is a really important point. Recently after almost 50 years, Michigan Opera Theatre changed the name to Detroit Opera. I know what a thoughtful process that was. It would be great if you could share the impetus for that. Why did you make the change?

Wayne Brown: Within the time that we have available, I'll say that I can attribute it specifically to one of your points of reference, Marc, and that's life cycles. And at the time we, here in Detroit, were faced with the decision to identify and engage new artistic leadership. There was, at that time, someone who was making incredible progress - highly experienced on the global stage. Someone who, quite frankly, I met through you during the National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honors initiative. Just to comment on that for a moment. And that is to say, the NEA Opera Honors, which ran for about four years was the brainchild of a group of individuals, yourself included, Dana Gioia, the then chair of the National Endowment of the Arts, Plato Karayanis, and there were a number of people who were part of that early conversation. The nature of the NEA's role in supporting specific initiatives is to work in collaboration with organizations. So we had the great honor, I couldn't think of any other organization with whom we would advance this notion than OPERA America. So we had the good fortune of working with you, and your really talented team at OPERA America to, if you will, mount an appropriate initiative to implement this program and to bring about an awareness of the significant accomplishments of artists and patrons and general directors and composers to this conversation about significant recognition to be observed, and you brought onboard Yuval Sharon, who became the producer for the initiative. And we were extremely pleased with that encounter. That's the first time I met Yuval, and subsequently there was the connection with the VOX program with New York City Opera, focused on new work, and that was all a part of Yuval's portfolio. That was his signature at that time. As it turns out, even though I was very much aware of the work that Yuval was doing in terms of site specific work throughout not only throughout Los Angeles, but throughout various parts of the country, and then the globe. And I was always a big admirer of what was being accomplished in the various places he would find himself. I never imagined that there could be a Yuval Sharon and then, Michigan Opera Theatre association, and it was with regard to an opportunity for a site specific visit, to see one of his projects take place in Los Angeles and one of our board members suggested that I reach out and see if we could make a site visit. And as it turned out, that became the beginning of the pandemic. And so Yuval was scheduled to be on sabbatical. And I said, "Why don't you come Detroit, and make one of your site specific works take place with us?" Gary Wasserman and the then head of our search committee spent a bit of time with Yuval, and I described our organization. We operate in a mid-size city. We operate a company that's been led by a legend in the opera field for many years - perhaps a tenure that lasted most longer than most, almost 45-46 years. And we have a parking center. We have also our own venue, and we operate in downtown Detroit. And so, we're looking for someone who'd be committed, not only to the organization, but to the community. And Yuval responded in short order and said, "That would be fascinating'. And he said, "Tell me about your parking center". I explained it -downtown across from Comerica Park where the Detroit Tigers has its own. He said, "Wow, Twilight: Gods". I wasn't quite sure where he was going with that. But in essence, our parking center became the latest downtown performing arts venue, and it aligned with his first project with us - and the rest is history. And so much has happened in the last two and a half years. We are so fortunate to benefit from the collaboration and the community's response, in ways that none of us could have possibly imagined.

Marc A. Scorca: And I know that in changing the name of the company to Detroit Opera, there is embedded in that, an appreciation of the richness of Detroit's culture and an opportunity to connect opera, the opera company, the opera house to all that Detroit has to offer.

Wayne Brown: That is so true. Yuval's initial reaction to the charge is taken very seriously. And for that reason, it was Yuval who said, "Let's change the name. Let's make sure that the work that's taking place in Detroit is recognized locally, that it's taking place in Detroit, and can be shared beyond". And granted, when you talk about changing a name, that's a pretty profound statement, but it was clear that it was beyond just the marquee. It was designed to convey a message that we believe in the community. We believe in the artistry, that's come out of the community, whether of a musical form, or in terms of a composer or librettist or theater or graphic. And I think we've seen evidence in every step of the way of how he has attempted to embrace those elements in what defines our work and the ability to see how results can be shared, broadly long term. That's part of our new life cycle. It's a focus on our city. It's a focus on our corridor, focus about making opera in Greater Detroit happen, and that may it have a life beyond our borders.

Marc A. Scorca: It's very exciting. Now, when you brought it up, you are a rare company that owns its own venue. There are only about 14 or 15 companies in the United States where they own their own venue. You also own a parking garage, as you've been talking about. In your venue, you do opera, you present ballet, you rent to Broadway producers. Your facility is a prime gorgeous wedding site, and you can actually look into the baseball stadium from the roof of the building. And I'm wondering whether this incredible complex set of businesses is an ideal for opera companies in terms of balancing business models, or is it just a bigger challenge than anyone ever can imagine? Probably a combination of both, but what is it like to have so many different businesses going on within the umbrella of Detroit Opera?

Wayne Brown: Well, what time is it? It's fascinating, and it is indeed complex. But it's the combination that works for Detroit. It's a combination that enables the opera company to perhaps have a higher profile than it might otherwise. The opportunity to experience in what we now refer to as the David DiChiera Center for the Performing Arts, a place where opera and more can occur. We have an agreement with the American Theater Group for presenting musical theater in our hall. We have weddings, which occupy a great deal of time. I believe we're the third or fourth most popular site for weddings. And some of them are booked out three years in advance. I never knew that weddings can be so modest or extravagant, and all of that happens in our space. Our biggest challenge is that our priorities in terms of the producing opera has its requirements. Our facility has requirements for presenting dance. And then, when you talk about 8 to 10 weeks of musical theater, then all of a sudden, we've occupied quite a few weekends in the course of the year. So finding that right balance is a very important factor for us. But beyond the issue of events, it's a place where the community can embrace. That's our goal: to embrace what Detroit Opera can mean to its community. It's obligation to provide also a learning center; it's obligation to be a resource that can convey a sense of pride and ownership, and for those who are shy of taking on such an opportunity to probably stay away, but it's a great opportunity for the art form, and for the community.

Marc A. Scorca: Wayne, I think you've touched on it a few times through this conversation, but certainly rising arts administrators, whether it's over in Ann Arbor, where you are a frequent visitor, where you went to school in Detroit, I'm sure you're asked all the time for advice about having a career in arts management. What's at the core of Wayne Brown's advice to aspiring leaders?

Wayne Brown: Try to be clear about what matters to you I think, short, long term. Be willing to take the long road - the shortcuts may present themselves. You have to decide if that works for you. Be aware of life cycles and the importance of observing those cycles and remain open to new ideas, new approaches, new influences, and do as I say, not necessarily as I do.

Marc A. Scorca: Now, I want to know if at some point in your leadership career, you will, once again, serve as supernumerary in an opera on the stage of Detroit Opera.

Wayne Brown: I do not think so, but I encourage those who had that experience to do it again. And for those who have not had the experience, call your local opera company and find out whether or not there's an opportunity that you can do the same thing, because whether or not you are a high school student, or whether or not you're in college, whether you are mature in years, there's a role for all. We all have a role to play, I think, in this art form and how lucky I am to have had the opportunity that's been given to me, and it's something that is very special. And I appreciate the opportunity to share a few moments with you, Marc, as OPERA America reflects on, and continues its role in engaging audiences, engaging artists, engaging trustees, volunteers, and individual artists, to be part of this incredible journey. As we think about opera of our time, and operas that we continue to celebrate and opera going forward, it's a great experience.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow. Wayne, thank you for those words.