In Detroit, an Opera Leader Finishes With One Last Triumph

After Yuval Sharon became the artistic director of Michigan Opera Theater in 2020, the company renamed itself the Detroit Opera — perhaps the most visible among moves that have led to a remarkable streak of successes based on a new, ambitious approach.

The house has placed itself at the center of operatic conversation with productions like a drive-through “Götterdämmerung” and a virtual-reality “Walküre.” It has broken fund-raising records, drawn first-time ticket buyers by the thousands and collaborated more with companies elsewhere. Robert O’Hara’s staging of Anthony Davis’s “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” at the Metropolitan Opera last November, for instance, began life a year and a half earlier in Michigan; the Met asked Detroit if it could join the production, not the other way around.

Sharon receives most of the plaudits for the rise in Detroit’s fortunes, but little of its advance would have been possible without the courage and acumen of Wayne Brown. One of the few Black leaders in the field, Brown served as the Detroit Opera’s president and chief executive from 2014 until he retired at the end of 2023.

“Wayne has always been wonderful to deal with,” said Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met. “One doesn’t think necessarily of Detroit as a center of opera production or creativity, but by hiring Yuval he has accomplished that. He has changed that impression of Detroit.”

From left, Ethan Davidson, Yuval Sharon and Brown onstage at the Detroit Opera House.Credit…Austin Richey/Detroit Opera

Brown, 75, is a veteran executive with almost half a century of varied experience, from stints at regional symphony orchestras to a spell from 1997 to 2014 as the director of music and opera at the National Endowment for the Arts. Even upon his retirement, his enthusiasm for the process of putting on a show remains infectious.

“The fascination is about making sure that those connections can be made,” Brown said. “It’s not just about transaction; it’s about, how does one find that sweet spot where the art and the audiences align?”

Brown is widely admired in the field for being a leader different from the norm, and one reluctant to take the spotlight for himself.

“He’s been a uniter of people,” said Deborah Borda, the former head of the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, who has known Brown since the 1970s. “He has a very quiet strength. He has a kind word for all, which is quite unusual in our business. I think he’s regarded as somewhat Solomonic.”

Davóne Tines, the bass-baritone who served as an artist in residence at the Detroit Opera in 2021 and 2022, said that Brown’s support for creativity was an example, especially as “a young Black creator whose career began in arts administration.”

“Someone in the position of the C.E.O. or the top executive of an opera company, you may have presuppositions about what that sort of person might be,” Tines said. “He’s a man of incredible gravity and conducts himself with a dignity that’s very inspiring. It’s wonderful to see that balance with how genuinely curious he is.”

Davóne Tines, front center, in the title role of “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” at Detroit Opera in 2022.Credit…Micah Shumake/Detroit Opera

Brown’s musical life began with learning the violin in fourth grade, and later the cello. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, he joined the men’s glee club, and was its president. “Increasingly, it became not just performance” that mattered, he said, “but performance with context, the whole notion of making it work.”

Shortly before Brown graduated from college, the dean of the music school asked if he would be interested in a job with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which was looking for an assistant administrator. “I said sure,” he recalled. “I mean, I didn’t know what it was.” He was quickly promoted to assistant manager, and embarked on a career working for orchestras that later included tenures as executive director of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in Massachusetts and, for a decade, the Louisville Orchestra.

Brown also briefly worked as a producer for the Cultural Olympiad that took place during the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996, a remit that included jazz, opera, chamber music and more. “Those were interesting opportunities,” he said, smiling.

Borda recalled the tact with which Brown later convened the expert panels that advised the National Endowment for the Arts on its grants. “You had to go to Washington, D.C., for four days, you had to review literally a hundred applications, and listen to them, to do a good job,” she said. Brown made a burdensome process more meaningful. “When Wayne was there, I think he asked me almost every year, and I would go. After Wayne, I didn’t do it anymore.”

Brown speaks fondly of the opportunity for public service that the N.E.A. afforded him, and he took useful lessons from the opportunity it gave him to see the field as a whole. “You can’t necessarily apply a scenario that’s taking place in one community to another,” he said. “Innovation is a relative term. Something can be innovative but be perceived as just a marginal difference in a larger setting.”

At Detroit Opera, Brown said, “We wanted to make sure that we could convey a message of openness, inclusiveness, and a level of engagement.”Credit…Nick Hagen for The New York Times

Context certainly counted in Brown’s decision to return to Detroit to run Michigan Opera Theater in 2014. Going back to the city where his career had begun, Brown was determined to secure what the downtown house’s longtime leader, David DiChiera, had achieved after founding the company in 1971, four years after the 1967 race riots in the city.

“If I could play a role in a place that I cared about, a place that inspired me, I could not imagine at the time any other role that would have been of interest,” Brown said. “We wanted to make sure that we could convey a message of openness, inclusiveness, and a level of engagement.”

Marc Scorca, the president of Opera America, believes that Brown was the ideal person to manage the house’s transformation after DiChiera’s retirement. “It was Wayne’s extraordinary diplomacy that enabled that transition to happen with respect and dignity,” Scorca said.

Hiring Sharon in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic was something of a tribute to the theater’s founding mission. DiChiera, Brown said, “had an interest in making sure that what was taking place in Detroit could resonate broadly.” Yet the theater was nothing if it was not rooted in its city.

Sharon entered the job promising not only to make the house the most progressive in America, but also to embed it still more deeply in its community, even asking that it change its name when he arrived. Brown urged restraint, so that they could do the patient work necessary to build consensus.

“My approach was very impulsive,” Sharon said. “Wayne’s more analytic and thoughtful approach, and his calm way of thinking through these things, made it so that when we ultimately took the vote on it, it had complete board support.”

“I really saw the value,” Sharon added, “of what it means to not necessarily go into things like a bull in a china shop.”

Sharon singled out the co-production of “X” as Brown’s other major achievement during their time working together in Michigan. “It really was so out of the realm of what the company has ever done in terms of its scale,” Sharon said. Almost half of the sold-out crowd that attended the run in Detroit was visiting the company for the first time.

“The art form spans centuries; it’s not stopping,” Brown said of opera. “It’s about moving forward and being bold about it, and there’s no better time to do so than now.”

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