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Steward for the Long Term: An Interview with Keith Leonard

Expanded Interview with Keith Leonard from BRAVO 59

By Tom Lady

In June 2021, LA Opera’s Board of Directors elected Keith Leonard as its new Board Chair after Marc Stern stepped aside after 20 years to become Honorary Chair.

Keith has been an active LA Opera board member since 2015, and I recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with him about his passion for opera and his vision and goals for LAO.

BRAVO: Keith, you first joined the LA Opera board in 2015. However, prior to that, you were a donor to the Ring Cycle [in 2010] and other productions. Have you always been a fan of opera?
Keith Leonard: I’ve been a fan of opera since high school. Later, I was fortunate enough to study opera at UCLA as part of my undergraduate curriculum. I did a year’s worth of courses on the history of opera while pursuing my degree as an engineer. Arts and humanities classes were required in addition to engineering subjects. So I got a chance to do a year of opera study in the School of Music. My senior project was to design and construct a small version of a set for the beginning of Act 2 of Fidelio, the dungeon scene. It was a little diorama with lighting and everything.

My father was a classical music and opera lover. I sang in church choir until my mid-20s. There was always tension in the household because he was a bass and I was a tenor. I grew up in Baldwin Park, east of Los Angeles. A very modest neighborhood. I grew up in a house where classical music was always present, and especially opera. My father introduced it to me and also how to listen, especially to opera. He would lie on the floor in front of our console stereo with a pillow under his head and his eyes closed. When I was really young, I thought he was sleeping there, but he said, “No, you focus on the music, and you will not go to sleep.” He taught me that this music was not background, but very foreground, and if you eliminate other distractions, just be perfectly still and close your eyes and you will be sucked into the music.

I never went to an opera with my father. He was always listening to recorded opera, that is what we could do and that is how I learned about opera.

My sisters, who I brought to the season opener, and I consider it such a gift to have been raised in the house that we were because we had this father who was super passionate about classical music and opera.

BRAVO: Do you have a favorite composer and opera?
KL: My answers won’t be terribly surprising on the composer side. I love Mozart’s operas and I love Wagner. I love Verdi, too.

Favorite operas -- I could just go down the list, but I love Fidelio, of course. There is a small opera that I would love to see us do some day, which is Carl Maria Von Weber’s Der Freischutz. I’ve never seen it staged, but I’ve listened to it many times. I’ve seen some stagings on YouTube, but I’ve never seen it live.

Right now, The Marriage of Figaro is up there, because I’ve been involved with it more recently and seen more productions. My Apple has a counter on it that tracks how many times you have listened to something, and I went to The Marriage of Figaro and the version that I have on my phone. It shows that I have listened to it 45 times. So, I really do get sucked in. Often, I listen while in the car. I love listening to an opera while driving.

BRAVO: Did you ever think you would step into Marc Stern’s shoes in just six years?
KL [laughing]: Holy cow, no. No, no, no.

BRAVO: What have been your main challenges as chair so far?
KL: It’s a really significant time commitment, and frankly, it’s hard to follow someone like Marc who did such an incredible job. It is like a second job, but a really enjoyable one. No difficulties so far. It’s been an incredible pleasure, actually.

BRAVO: What do you hope to bring to the opera board?
KL: I was thinking about that on the ride over here -- the role of the board and the board chair vis-à-vis the professional staff of the opera company. The word leadership gets thrown around a lot, but I actually think stewardship is the more appropriate term for the chair and the board in general. Stewardship for the long-term growth of the company. I have a responsibility to be a leader within the board, and to help create a culture of making people feel included and welcome at the board. Of course, the leadership of the company is always a board responsibility. Whether you have to make changes or have to fill a gap. We are so blessed to have [CEO] Christopher [Koelsch] and [Executive Vice President and Chief Strategic Officer] John [Nuckols] and [CFO] Kathleen [Ruiz] and [Vice President, Labor Relations and Human Resources] Jill [Boyd], and the talent that Christopher is recruiting is really spectacular.

I’ve been an operator in companies most of my life. To be comfortable in a stewardship role means you have to have tremendous confidence in the management team actually running the opera. I think the entire board has that confidence, which Christopher has earned over so many years. He is really a special, unique human, and we’re so lucky to have him. You just don’t find people like him very often.

The chair and the board are also there to support the staff. For example, our role isn’t to do the marketing department’s job for them, though we may have fun ideas, but we do think about how we can bring more people into the opera house and how to make them feel welcome. Stewardship also involves financial support – and thankfully, we’re in a good position now -- but we won’t necessarily stay there unless we build from success to success.

BRAVO: If you could prioritize your list of things to do at LA Opera, what would be number one on your list?
KL: Number one would be to support Christopher and his team, both psychologically and financially. And then, let them do their job. That’s absolutely number one.

BRAVO: What is your vision for opera in Los Angeles and Southern California?
KL: Because I love the art form so much, I have a kind of evangelical side to me. I love introducing new people to the opera. I love to see that happening with the company at large, whether it’s through the Opera League, whether it’s through community outreach programs within the opera company itself, or whether it’s through the repertory we do. It’s important who we get to come into the building and how they feel when they’re there. I think those are critical factors if we’re going to be expansive and inclusive and genuinely engage our broader community. We can’t afford to continue the stereotype of opera being the exclusive domain of predominately “rich white people,” especially when we live in a diverse, 50% Latino community. Being advocates for the art form and bringing the powerful and uplifting experience of opera to a broader community is a key part of what we must do. And that’s something I’m passionate about.

By the way, The Music Center’s mission aligns with what I am talking about. There is a real effort to have the whole Music Center area emerge as an important yet approachable cultural district. The re-design of the Jerry Moss Plaza, the programming in Grand Park and The Music Center's four theaters, along with the Broad Museum, MOCA and the Colburn School must work together so that it feels like a welcoming place, not an elite place. I think that’s important. And to do this, we’re going to have to be clever, creative, and copy good ideas where they already exist. I think that’s something important for the arts in general.

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Author: Thomas Lady
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