Martin Feinstein, at The Center of It All
Monday, February 6, 2006; Page C01
Martin Feinstein, who helped build the Kennedy Center into a significant artistic institution in the 1970s and then put the Washington Opera on the map in the 1980s and '90s, was an irrepressible entertainer.
In public, he was an impresario who could triumphantly match performing talent with its audience. In private, he was an exuberant storyteller with a huge repertoire of tales from the worlds of opera, music and ballet, as well as the newest joke on the circuit. And though born in Brooklyn and a longtime New Yorker -- his always-retrievable memories of opera went back 70 years to performances heard as a teenage libretto seller in the old Metropolitan Opera House -- Martin loved Washington beyond all other places. He died yesterday at his home in Potomac at age 84.
He loved the city's male clubbiness, loved setting up ceremonial visits to performances for presidents and first ladies, loved playing poker with Supreme Court justices, and being decorated by ambassadors thanking him for presenting their countries' artists, and lunching with retired directors of the CIA, think tank executives, chiefs of the Library of Congress. For many years, when he was executive director for performing arts at the Kennedy Center, he especially enjoyed his annual appearance conducting the singalong of the "Hallelujah" Chorus from Handel's "Messiah."
The formative influence in Martin's life was Sol Hurok, a Russian immigrant who risked his own money to bring concert artists and ballet companies on U.S. tours that he organized, booked and marketed. Think Ballets Russes, Arthur Rubinstein, Isaac Stern, Emil Gilels, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim, Mstislav Rostropovich (whom Martin would later recruit to conduct the National Symphony). Martin went to work for Hurok upon his return from the Army in 1946 and stayed 23 years. Referring to him, even many years later, Martin always spoke of "Mr. Hurok."
Martin described himself as Hurok's "press agent," but the truth was that from the early days and with increasing confidence Hurok gave Martin both artistic and operational authority. He rearranged the order of the numbers in the tattoo imported from the Edinburgh Festival, changed the sequence of folk dances in the Moiseyev Ballet programs and chose the plays Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud would perform on their American visits (Martin learned French for the purpose). Overcoming Hurok's doubts, he triumphantly imported the previously unknown Stuttgart Ballet. And he priced out the costs of all aspects of union contracts, a talent he later used to rescue the Kennedy Center after its initial leadership had signed disastrously unequal treaties with stagehands and musicians.
In 1970, Roger Stevens, chairman of the new Kennedy Center, approached Martin to become its executive director for performing arts. Looking at the plans for the Kennedy Center, Martin had seen no possible business for Hurok, especially in the Opera House, with only 2,200 seats (as opposed to 3,800 at the Met). By failing to offer a venue large enough to lure the great European opera companies, Martin said, the Kennedy Center was losing its chance to do something transformational in the capital.
He solved the center's problem, in part, by cultivating the ambassadors from the countries that had the world's leading performing institutions (and the leaders of those institutions, all of whom he knew) and obtaining subsidies that would make their performances at the center feasible.
Consider cultural life in Washington before the Kennedy Center -- great museums for the tourists, little of artistic interest for the natives. An evaluation as "second-rate" would have flattered the National Symphony Orchestra. The little Opera Society had no resources. The Metropolitan Opera visited for a week every year, and touring companies played Broadway shows. The Ford Foundation kept Arena Stage afloat. But most of the time, Washington rolled up the sidewalks at night.
Then the Kennedy Center opened, offering attractions sophisticated people would travel to see. La Scala of Milan, the Vienna Opera, the Berlin Opera, the Paris Opera, the Bolshoi Ballet, the Royal Ballet, the Stuttgart Ballet all came to Washington. For the normally inactive months of June and September, Martin invented festivals based on a composer or a musical tradition or a Shakespearean subject.
In 1979, the Kennedy Center was abruptly reorganized to absorb the Opera Society and Martin became general director of a new Washington Opera and also general manager of the National Symphony. After a couple of years he dropped the orchestra, for which Rostropovich was selling tickets, and reveled in his discovery at age 60 of his true metier, as an opera manager.
A successful opera manager without much money (at no time did he have as much as half the budget Placido Domingo now spends on the same company) must have a gift for finding first-class singers just starting their careers. The list of now-prominent artists who got a big break in Washington is quite long: Jerry Hadley, Hei-Kyung Hong, Ruth Ann Swenson, Elizabeth Futral, Eric Halfvarson, Patricia Racette are merely a sample. He gave them and his directors and conductors much new repertoire to perform in the acoustically flattering Opera House, and he guaranteed them efficient rehearsals, which he supervised. He had to endure musicians' strikes to prevent the promoters of the musical comedies that also used the Opera House from saddling the opera with ruinously expensive contracts, but otherwise the Washington Opera was a happy place to work: Martin, after all, brought to his job years of seeing the world from an artist's perspective.
Retiring from the Washington Opera at age 75, which he thought a little too soon, he and his wife, Marcia, became antiques dealers, and he hugely enjoyed becoming expert on Chinese porcelain and Federal period furniture. Martin kept up to date with both art and gossip by visiting opera houses in cities where the antique shows were. He remained an inspector and consultant for the National Endowment for the Arts. All three of his children and his six grandchildren live in Washington.
He was a good friend for more than 50 years. Our children are the same age, and grew up together in summer houses a quarter of a mile apart. We played a lot of tennis and swapped a lot of stories. He was one of very few artists I, as a critic, could have as a friend: When I gave his company a negative review, he told me quite bluntly and once only that I was wrong, but he wouldn't be hurt. For me -- indeed, for many -- the world will be a less friendly as well as a less amusing place without him.