Perhaps it’s fitting that, mere weeks before Lyric Opera of Kansas City opens The Marriage of Figaro, its final performance in the Lyric Theatre before moving into the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts this fall, the company’s general director, Evan Luskin, announced his retirement, effective at the end of the 2011—2012 season.
In a wide-ranging phone interview recently, Luskin talked about the company, which he joined in 1986 as managing director, and about a career spent in opera.
“I really didn’t see much opera until I was in college,” Luskin admits. Originally from Philadelphia, where his parents were big classical music fans, he happened to attend a New York Metropolitan Opera touring presentation to which his father had been given tickets. “…the next day I subscribed to the opera company of Philadelphia—it was just, like, instant,” he says.
Later, with a masters degree in history, Luskin got into the Musicology program at the University of Pennsylvania, but says he “found I just did not like being a scholar—it hadn’t worked for me in history and it wasn’t working for me in musicology…And I just couldn’t figure out how I could have a career that somehow involved opera.”
Eventually, he learned of an MBA program with a specialization in arts management, and thought “‘You know, that’s what I could do.’ I could work for and opera company in administration, and it had never occurred to me there was such a profession…”
That program was with the State University of New York in Binghamton, which offered a semester internship. Luskin took his internship with the New York City Opera, where he immersed himself in the art form, often attending six or seven performances a week.
After graduating, he landed a position with the Tulsa Opera in Oklahoma, which, at the time, “was booming—they had all the oil money.” After two years there, Luskin moved to the Chattanooga Opera in Tennessee, then to Detroit, where he served as finance director for the Michigan Opera. Then, in 1986, a managing director position became available with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.
Serving in that position until 1998, Luskin then became the general director. His first important action was to bring in an artistic director, Ward Holmquist, who serves in that position to this day. Now, with the company set to move into the spectacular new surroundings of the Kauffman Center, Luskin is excited with the possibilities the venue brings.
First up, in October, will be a new production of Puccini’s Turandot built especially for the Kauffman stage. Starring in the production will be opera megastar Sam Ramey, whom Luskin saw perform in the opera Hamlet last spring in Washington D.C.
During the performance, Luskin remembers thinking “He (Ramey) is from Kansas, he never sang with the Lyric Opera, this is a crazy idea, but is it possible he would come out and sing? And we contacted his agent and amazingly he said yes.”
In addition to that highlight, the 2011-2012 season also includes one of the modern era’s most popular works, John Adams’ Nixon in China, in a grand production that would never be possible in the tight confines of the Lyric Theatre. In fact, that production will be so well designed that it will subsequently be moved to one of the world’s great opera companies when it finishes its run in Kansas City.
“When it finishes here, the sets and the costumes, they’re all being loaded onto trucks and being shipped out to San Francisco—they’re going to be on the San Francisco Opera stage. It’s the sort of thing we could never have done…the building has held us back…And we are speaking to other large companies about joint productions.”
So, it’s clear that Luskin will leave the Lyric Opera here in good condition, but what does he see for the future of the company once a new director is chosen? “I feel I’m not going to be here,” Luskin demurs when asked this question, “and they [the board of directors] have to find the person who will have the right vision for this community…
“…now that you have the Kauffman Center, now that you can really go the whole enhanced direction, this was the time to bring someone into this, younger than me, that could really be here for ten or 15 years, and carry forward the next vision. It’s an appropriate time for the company to do this.”