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Essential to Life

September 15, 2009
by Renate Stendhal
photograph of Robert Cole and a woman

Robert Cole reflects on 23 years at the helm of Cal Performances.

The 2006 season celebrated 100 years of Cal Performances—a proud fulfillment of the promise in its 1906 inaugural performance by Sarah Bernhardt in Racine’s Phèdre at the Greek Theatre. After the star-studded centenary celebration, Robert Cole announced he would step down as director at the end of the 2008–09 season. This season, for the last time, audiences will see Cole walk up and down the aisle before a new program or premiere, a slender man with the quiet, knowing smile of a magician who knows the spell that will be cast the moment the curtain goes up.

Under the 34-year direction of Betty Connors (whose service to the arts led to an award being named after her), by 1980 Cal Performances had grown from an arts committee into a nationally recognized program with an annual budget of $4 million for 45 yearly events. It is now one of today’s top-ranking arts presenters, with a $14 million budget, 130 performances, and a full-time staff of 64. Every year, it brings to Berkeley world-renowned artists, from musicians Ravi Shankar and Yo-Yo Ma to the dance troupes of Merce Cunningham and Alvin Ailey, as well as folk artists, opera divas, performance artists, theater companies, and a host of stars both rising and established.

Since 1986, this artistic cornucopia has been refilled every year by one person, Robert Cole. His ambition has been not only to offer a range of performances for everyone’s taste, but to help educate that taste, as well. Early on, he expanded Cal Performances’s arts education for schools. At the provost’s invitation, Cole extended his directorship to the Student Musical Activities program, sharing his expertise with the extracurricular music activities of the Cal Band, UC Jazz Ensemble, and UC Choral Ensembles. In 1990 Cole founded the Berkeley Festival and Exhibition of early music, and in 2003 he established the Berkeley Edge Fest for international new music.

In his passion for cultural education, Cole also has a knack for spotting nascent talent, and his willingness to take artistic risks has helped launch careers. He has commissioned new works that forged national and international alliances, allowing Cal Performances to produce events such as the yearly return of dancer and choreographer Mark Morris for his tongue-in-cheek version of the Nutcracker ballet, The Hard Nut. Small wonder ticket sales have grown tenfold since Cole took over.

I talked to Robert Cole about his 23 years with Cal Performances—his best and worst memories, and the future of the arts.

Renate Stendhal: What role did the University play in Cal Performances’s success?

Robert Cole: What we have been able to do here was enhanced in particular by our good relationship with the Department of Music. It allowed us to do terrific projects, like the 17th-century “horse ballet” in 2000, with music professor Kate van Orden. A very big deal. And most recently a faculty member, Davitt Moroney, conducted the lost 16th-century mass “Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno,” by Striggio. It was a huge success.

RS: Wasn’t there also a story about the math department?

RC: When pianist Christopher Taylor played all of the Ligeti études from memory, one or two guys who ran the Mathematical Institute and were very interested in music brought the entire department with them! Some years earlier we had Ligeti here in person and it was like a rock concert, because it was totally sold out here at Hertz Hall. Years later, Christopher played all the études, 12 by then, and as he had been a mathematician himself he followed the concert with a lecture at the Institute.

RS: Were you driven by a competition?

RC: It’s really more admiration—for Harvey Lichtenstein, for what he did at [Brooklyn Academy of Music]. I think he is this country’s number one arts presenter. I saw how he made something out of nothing. I mean, Brooklyn—nobody would go there. The Academy of Music was just a building and nobody went there. I watched him and I thought, “Yeah, I can do that, this is what I am trained in and what I understand and I have that kind of taste.” But his program is different.

There is no place else like Cal Performances, in New York or or even in Europe. I wanted to serve a very broad audience, no boundaries, all colors. I wanted to do recitals, concerts, world music, you name it—anything that is performance arts. The only thing we don’t do is Broadway musicals. Somebody else does that in San Francisco and we didn’t want to do what someone else was already doing better!

RS: Let’s talk about some of your discoveries. I think of Cecilia Bartoli: How did that happen?

RC: I always say if you want to be successful in this business you’ve got to be in the business. I went to see an opera and I was very friendly with the director, Terence [A. McEwen]. I was less busy then and did go to the opera.

I grew up in San Jose and as a teenager used to go the San Francisco Opera. So I got to know a number of people there, and one day someone introduced me to Jack Mastroianni, who was just starting out in his own business as a manager. He told me he had this young soprano and I said, “OK, let’s hear it.” He gave me a tape and I heard it and I called him immediately and said, “Let’s do it.”

RS: Mark Morris once said he was blown away by the fact that any great discoveries he was making, you had already made. How was that possible?

RC: (Laughs) We are very nimble, we can do it just for one night, not like an opera. We only need one day in one hall, so even within six months we can do it. You can be fast on your feet if you pay attention. Mark is pretty busy too, and now I have little time to travel. I work seven days a week, Saturday, Sunday—I am here. Because I have to, and I want to. But I also play tennis!

RS: You’re still doing it in your final season—with soprano Danielle de Niese, for example.

RC: We’ll see how she is doing, when she is a little older.… But you have to be interested or else it won’t happen. It comes from inside. You can’t go, “Oh I want to find a new singer!” No, I am interested in singing. I am a musician and played the violin, but I always felt that the musical sound comes first with the voice; the voice is the instrument it all starts with. You hear a sound, and you can create a sound. A singer has to have it in the ears first, and then it’s in my ears. I know what I want to hear and when I hear it—Oh my god, the difference of a voice that has color! If it’s monochromatic, forget it.

RS: How did you manage to always get artists when they were hottest—like Laurie Anderson, Sweet Honey in the Rock, William Forsythe, Robert Lepage…

RC: Laurie Anderson—I saw her at BAM, in the ’70s. Sweet Honey is also an old story by now—appearing this season with Alvin Ailey, that’s a huge success, all sold out. Bill Forsythe—there are two people I give a lot of credit to. One is Harvey [Lichtenstein], the other is Christopher Hunt at the Pepsico Festival. I first saw Bill Forsythe there when I was living in New York, early or mid-’80s. Pepsico gave them all the money and they didn’t have to worry about the box office, they could do what they wanted. That’s where I met a lot of artists. Christopher brought Mark Morris there. I had never heard of him.

RS: With many of the performers you built creative partnerships, commissioned world premieres, and even created whole traditions—like conducting The Hard Nut for Mark Morris year after year.

RC: That was an accident, someone had cancelled…. It was a nightmare, at first. I made a schedule that allowed for as few rehearsals as possible. This conductor had done it before, so I gave him a rehearsal, a stage rehearsal, and a dress rehearsal, just three rehearsals. It should have been OK, but now I had to do it! I had conducted the Nutcracker a hundred times, but you have to know the show, the tempos, the cues, which is very different from a concert performance. There I was—stuck with my three rehearsals! I couldn’t change now. We got through it, but it was a nightmare. Since then I must have done The Hard Nut about a hundred times, in New York and London, too.

RS: Did you ever imagine anything like this at the start of your tenure, in 1986?

RC: I had no idea. That’s one of the great gifts for me, being here, because things developed that I had no idea were possible. They only came to be because of circumstances. There was the fact, for example, that Mark only works with live orchestras, which is one of the things I liked about him. I had seen his Hard Nut in Brooklyn and I said to him right away, “You should bring it here!” But he said, “Oh no, the stage is too small!” It took me until 1997 to convince him that it could be worked out.

RS: Which moments at Cal Performances stand out for you after 23 years?

RC: Many things, but I guess when Yo-Yo Ma first got the idea of the Silk Road Project. I was invited to come to Tanglewood to see the first iterations of this, the first rehearsals, the first performance. Tanglewood is very important because I studied there as a conductor, in 1970. So, I saw it and he said, “Do you want to do this?” You don’t say no to Yo-Yo, it’s got to be something special if Yo-Yo does it. But the thing that made it really special was that Mark Morris was doing a ballet with him, Kolam. So we had this ballet and the concert. We did a two-week event with two great artists, a world premiere and the start of a world tour. All because when Yo-Yo asked “Do you want to do this?” I didn’t say, “Well, I’ll think about it.” It was YES! And it worked and the public loved it.

Also when we had John Adams and Peter Sellars here. Because even though I could not get Nixon in China, we premiered this little opera thing, I Was Looking at the Ceiling, and Then I Saw the Sky. We created it from the beginning, we rehearsed it at this Berkeley storefront with the cast and Peter, staging rehearsals. That was one of the high points for me, because this is a beautiful composition by John that will last.

RS: Can you tell us about any embarrassing moments?

RC: (Laughs) Artists that didn’t come through. Like one great singer who wasn’t prepared and sang with the score in front of his face… I won’t name him, and we haven’t seen him since. And another singer who really had vocal problems and I told her that I would be happy to tell the audience that she wasn’t well and she could be excused, and she agreed, which saved the day! She was going to go out and sing!

RS: After all the interviews, is there a question nobody has asked but that you would like to answer?

RC: Ah… I guess one thing that I feel really strongly about is this. I was born in this country, in this area, I went to the San Jose school of music, I saw my first opera and concert in San Francisco, I studied clarinet with someone from the San Francisco Symphony. I made my living as a jazz musician playing in bands and in clubs because I happened to have a single mother, my father had died. It was hard times, so in order to go to school and get an education I had to have a job. I was playing the saxophone and clarinet and conducting church choirs and doing anything you could do as a musician.

My concern is that American culture is so focused on irrelevant things, things that are not raising us up but bringing us down. What we are doing here at Cal Performances is raising us up, but I think just too many people are deprived of that opportunity because some people do not realize how important this is—that the arts are essential to life. As an educator—and I consider myself an educator—if I had a second life, that is what I would do.

RS: Do you have any advice for your successor?

RC: Don’t be too conservative, be visionary. (Laughs.) Think big and do what’s possible!

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