One moment, one experience, one sublime afternoon can tilt your destiny. For David Humphrey, it was a sixth-grade field trip to a soon-to-be-demolished movie house, where 100 St. Petersburg Symphony musicians inspired the awestruck child to pursue a lifelong career in the performing arts.
You could say he accomplished something along those lines—that is, if you count serving in leadership and consulting roles at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, New York City Opera, Corcoran Museum of Art, Museum of Performance & Design, California Center for the Arts in Escondido, and Washington Bach Consort. Or founding arts organizations such as the AlphaCentauri Production Group and Weird Web Radio. Or being commissioned by the White House and National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts to direct and produce the annual Salute to the Presidential Scholars Show—for 25 years in a row.
After earning his bachelor of music education and certificate in flute at Florida State University, Humphrey hit turbo boost. He went on to complete a master of music education and educational administration the next year, swiftly followed by a PhD in opera production/music education.
And what does a chap like Humphrey do straight out of grad school? Why, he creates a music department at the University of Houston at Victoria. He launches a community education program. He starts the community’s first orchestra. Oh, and then he putters on back to Florida, where he becomes founding dean at the Florida School of the Arts at St. John’s River Community College, Florida’s first state-supported professional arts school for high school and college students.
Following a decade of service as dean, he got bored. Humphrey decided he wanted to work for the National Endowment for the Arts, The Kennedy Center, or the Metropolitan Opera. As if on queue, all three institutions sent letters offering him a position.
Humphrey’s subsequent journey through the arts led to creative collaborations with earthshakers of every stripe—from Carly Simon to Herb Albert, Richard Thomas to Geoffrey Holder, Maurice Sendak to Chris Van Allsburg, Erick Hawkins to Jacques d’Amboise, Diana Ross to Sharon Stone, Barbara Bush to Tipper Gore.
Ten years into his tenure at The Kennedy Center, Humphrey was ready for another scene change. Ready to escape the politics of working on the national and international stages, he felt he could make a greater impact by leading smaller, community-based arts organizations. “Some of my most lasting accomplishments have been when I worked in smaller contexts,” says Humphrey.
No longer a big fish in a big pond, Humphrey is already building the groundswell for a tsunami that will ripple out from the lakes of southern Oregon to the far tips of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
E-interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels in August 2012
(left to right) Press photos of the 1968 St. Petersburg Florida Theater demolition (left by Bernie Oram, right by Dan Hightower, both courtesy of the St. Petersburg Times)
MM: Going back to your childhood, what inspired your passion for music and the performing arts? Was there a defining moment when you realized this is what you wanted to do with you life?
DH: The defining moment for me was a sixth-grade school trip to see the St. Petersburg Symphony at the Florida Theater (tragically demolished in 1968). This was a glorious old movie house. It was designed to seem like you were sitting on a warm evening in a Spanish courtyard. The stars were out, and the façades were bathed in bright orange and straw-colored light. The lights came up on stage, and sitting there were 100 symphony musicians, who played such beautiful music. It was the entire experience that inspired me—the music, the theater, the lighting, and the excitement of the audience. I knew then I wanted to be in the performing arts.
(left to right) The arts at SOU: Music alumna Wenjun Qi; art alumnus David del Francia; Native American Studies Coordinator and theatre alumnus Brent Florendo; and theatre alumna Monique Barbée (Wenjun Qi by Professor of Music Rhett Bender; all other images by Rory N. Finney)
MM: With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education and a PhD in opera production/music education, you clearly recognize the value of music in the classroom. What do you see as the potential repercussions of dwindling funding for K–12 music programs? And what benefits do children and teens reap from learning music?
DH: I recognize and understand the importance of music and all of the arts in people’s lives no matter what age they are. This value was clearly brought home to me about a year after 9/11, when I attended an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. This exhibition featured all of the materials people created and left behind expressing their sorrow and loss following the attack on the Twin Towers. There were thousands of poems, drawings, 3-D works, songs, and photographs. Most of these items were somewhat crude in their construction, but through the arts, people were able to express their deepest emotions. They were trying to communicate what they were feeling, and the arts were the only way they could do it. What struck me was that even without artistic skills, people still reverted to artistic means to communicate.
The arts need to be taught to everybody because all people use them to express their emotions. The arts are a means of human communication. Leaving the study of the arts out of the classroom is like not teaching reading, language, or even math. We are ignoring one of the strongest forms of human communication there are.
(left to right) Gian Carlo Menotti (by Carl Van Vechten); Erick Hawkins (by Barbara Morgan); Alwin Nikolais (by Austin S. Brown); Geoffrey Holder with his wife, Carmen (by Carl Van Vechten); Richard Thomas (courtesy of CBS Television); Maurice Sendak (courtesy of TVRage); and Carly Simon (by Alan Light)
MM: You’ve worked at such organizations as The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York City Opera. Those are some heavy hitters in the arts world. What was one of your most fulfilling experiences during this period of your career?
DH: Commissioning new works and productions and festivals for young audiences was the most fulfilling. These were not just ordinary presentations but works that were created by some of our nation’s most respected artists. It is my belief that performances for young people need to be as sophisticated as they are for adults. The first experience in the performing arts needs to be the very best because, like my story, that becomes memorable and can affect a child’s entire life.
I developed commissions, productions, and festivals that involved such noted artists as opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti; dance artists Erick Hawkins, Jacques d’Amboise, and Alwin Nikolais; bluegrass artists John Cephas and Phil Wiggins; actor/costumer Geoffrey Holder (the Un-Cola Man for those who remember); actor Richard Thomas (John-Boy from the TV Series The Waltons); Native American artist John Kaufman; children’s authors Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) and Chris Van Allsburg (The Polar Express); and, of course, Carly Simon. Each of these artists was adamant in wanting to create their very best work for young audiences. It was such an honor to work with them all.
MM: I can’t resist asking about the Carly Simon opera for children you produced in collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera Guild while working at The Kennedy Center. What a curious undertaking! It gets even more interesting when you start reading the description of the characters, including a 12-year-old protagonist, his artsy father and prim mother, and what the New York Times described as “an imaginary Rastafarian named Zoogy who knows enough Jamaican magic to help with the plot.” What was it like working on that project?
DH: This goes back to 1990 when I was director of education at The Kennedy Center. I approached my counterpart at the Metropolitan Opera, and we decided we wanted to commission new works for family audiences with popular artists to interest young parents in bringing their children to opera. Together, we approached Elvis Costello, Paul Simon, and Carly Simon about doing a new work for young audiences as a music theater piece. Both Elvis and Paul liked the idea but were booked out for nearly 10 years. Carly had a window of time and expressed interest in doing this project. At the time, her sister, Lucy, was composing the music for the Broadway production of The Secret Garden, which opened in 1991, and I believe Carly felt a little competitive. As incredible an artist as Carly is, she doesn’t read music, so we brought in a team of professionals to assist and teach her principles of the opera form. Carly hears all her music in her head, and then she records them for others to transcribe for performance and commercial recordings. There are many wild stories connected with this three-year project, but ultimately, the work was completed. The show premiered in New York in February of 1993, and two months later in Washington, DC. It received mixed reviews—opera critics hated it, of course, but musical theater people thought it was innovative. The New York Opening Night party was held at Tavern on the Green, and Carly’s best friend, Jacqueline Onassis, attended. This was a year before Jackie passed away. When she walked into the room, it lit up with her amazing presence. It was a very magical evening.
The opera storyline is based on Carly’s son (Ben Taylor), who is torn between two divorced parents (Carly and James Taylor), and he seeks by any means the attention of his father. Fortunately, the work was recorded and distributed by Angel Records (with a sizeable gift from EMI, their parent company, to support the project). This experience brought me into contact with amazing artists, but it probably remains the most difficult project I ever tackled.
MM: Rogue Opera takes its mission to bring opera to children seriously—often with the involvement of SOU music majors—and it’s exciting to see elementary school kids falling in love with it. Some people talk about opera like it’s a dying art form, but I’ve actually heard more Americans attend opera than National League Football. What can opera offer contemporary audiences, from children to octogenarians?
DH: Who says opera is a dying art form? It certainly isn’t where I come from. Opera performances are in high demand, even with the outrageous ticket prices. And now with the Metropolitan Opera presenting the Live in HD showings in local movie theaters, opera is becoming more popular than ever. What opera provides contemporary audiences is the most spectacular and entertaining performances available. Where else can you see hundreds of performers on stage in gorgeous costumes performing with a 70-member live orchestra in a magnificent theatrical setting? It is thrilling!
Opera tells stories, but it does so using every element of the arts to convey the highest emotional impact. It is an art form that is able to successfully compete with television and film for audiences. But once again, opera has to be produced with the highest quality and should never ever be presented to young people when it isn’t at same the artistic level as presented to adults.
MM: Southern Oregon University has a relatively new emphasis in musical theatre, a genre that has become so lucrative that a single musical is often used to fund a year’s worth of theater productions at smaller companies. What do you think accounts for the recent success of musical theater, particularly when it was so maligned as a lowbrow medium in previous decades?
DH: Musical theater is a very broad art form ranging from the classical-inclined Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim to the Broadway spectacle Spider Man: Turn off the Dark. Once again, good storytelling is the heart of good musical theater (note I use the American spelling of “theater,” which was emphasized by Broadway Producer (West Side Story, Annie, Death of a Salesman, etc.) and Founder of The Kennedy Center Roger Stevens).
Without a good book, musicals struggle for attention unless they rely on special effects, and today, musicals without special effects are rare. People do love spectacle in whatever form they can find. That is why musicals are now so expensive to produce. I remember when Roger Stevens complained that it cost $5 million to produce Annie, but I can only imagine what he would say if he knew that this past year, Spider Man cost over $75 million.
Washington Bach Consort (courtesy of the Washington Bach Consort)
MM: In addition to major arts institutions, you’ve also worked with smaller organizations like the Museum of Performance & Design in San Francisco, California Center for the Arts in Escondido, and Washington Bach Consort. I imagine funding was more of a challenge, but I wonder if you felt a closer connection to the community while working in more localized contexts.
DH: Yes. Indeed, one of the reasons I left The Kennedy Center was that after 10 years, I grew weary of the intense politics of working only on a national and international level. I felt separated from the creative work of more community-based arts organizations. Some of my most lasting accomplishments have been when I worked in smaller contexts. That includes the founding of the Victoria Symphony in Texas (I needed an orchestra for the musical Stop the World – I Want to Get Off when I was chairman of the Music Department at the University of Houston – Victoria) and the Arts Council of Palatka (Florida), which I founded because I needed a local presenter for big-name artists at the Florida School of the Arts; or the Arts Cohorts Program for teachers I helped create at CSU San Marcos when I was director of education at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido.
You can have a greater impact on the lives of people when you work in a smaller context. You also have the ability to actually see the accomplishments of the work.
MM: Straight out of your PhD program, you established a music department at the University of Houston at Victoria. You also developed a community education program in the arts there—and as you mentioned, you launched the community’s first orchestra! Those are significant accomplishments for anyone, let alone someone just out of grad school. As if that wasn’t enough, you went on to become the founding dean at the Florida School of the Arts at St. John’s River Community College, Florida’s first state-supported professional arts school for high school and college students. Wow! That must have been rewarding to immediately apply your music education degrees in such meaningful ways.
DH: Well, as with most graduates, one has the feeling that you can do anything and you are willing to jump in and try to accomplish incredible feats. Also, I thought I knew it all with my PhD in hand, and so I was fearless and sometimes stupid. I learned a lot of valuable lessons since then, but I was presented with some amazing opportunities as well. I have to say that I was an overachiever, and once I put my mind to something, sure enough, it would come to be true—perhaps not exactly as I had imagined it but indeed valuable.
One story that comes to mind was that after 10 years as dean of the Florida School of the Arts, I was bored and I longed for something more challenging. I decided I wanted to work for either the National Endowment for the Arts, The Kennedy Center, or the Metropolitan Opera. High aims, wouldn’t you say? Wouldn’t you know that three offers of positions came to me from each of those institutions at the same time? Of course, they were not high-level positions, but they all promised the opportunity to work on a national level. I decided to go to The Kennedy Center in that I wanted to work with a world-class arts institution on the national stage. After leaving The Kennedy Center, similar opportunities came my way when I figured out what I really wanted to do, including working at SOU here in beautiful Ashland.
(left to right) Diana Ross in the foreground with her fellow Supremes (detail of album cover courtesy of Wikipedia); Sharon Stone in France (by Roland Godefroy); Cyd Charisse (studio portrait); Herb Albert (publicity photo); and Jack Valenti (courtesy of University of Houston)
MM: You also founded the AlphaCentauri Production Group and Weird Web Radio. What inspired you to create these organizations? Tell me about one of the AlphaCentauri projects you’re most proud of.
DH: My greatest love is theatrical production and creating performances. I knew at an early age that being on stage was not going to be my form of artistic expression. I also knew that if I performed as a musician, I’d probably starve to death, and besides that, I had a family to support. So I looked at ways to create artistically and yet seek some kind of financial stability. I found I could direct and produce in an academic setting and be fulfilled. At The Kennedy Center, I realized I had the skills to produce works with major celebrities such as Diana Ross, Barbara Bush, Sharon Stone, Cyd Charisse, Herb Albert, Jack Valenti, Tipper Gore, Luci Baines Johnson, Ronna Romney, and others.
Another skill I had was being able to put a show together from many parts, and I could do it fast. In 1984, I was asked to direct and produce the Salute to the Presidential Scholars Show at The Kennedy Center, which was presented by The White House and the US Department of Education. This is a show that has one day to rehearse and to do technical for an evening performance with 2,000 audience members. This was a daunting task, but at the time, I didn’t think I couldn’t do it—I just did it. The show was a big success, and under AlphaCentauri Production Group, I annually produced the show for 25 years. It was nationally televised on two occasions. Working with our nation’s most talented young people, who performed in the show, was an incredible experience.
(left to right) SOU students interning and alumni employed at Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Kristen Mun, Jon Dyrud, Jenny Graham, Savel Sabol, and Stephanie Smith-Pearson; human communication alumna Anita Hagy Ferguson working at Britt Festivals while a student (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: With all of the performing arts organizations in the Rogue Valley, Ashland is an ideal setting for students to put their music and theatre education into practice. Are you excited about deepening SOU’s already close ties with organizations like Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Britt Festivals, and Rogue Opera? Do you have ideas for other potential collaborations that could give Southern Oregon University students even more hands-on learning opportunities?
DH: Actually, it was these professional affiliations that most interested me in this position. In all my previous academic positions, I have always looked at establishing professional affiliations that would benefit both students and faculty. I believe it is the responsibility of university arts departments to set up professional tracks that allow students to transition from training to workforce. The arts present a unique set of circumstances in that so many artists work for themselves and therefore need extensive education in how to operate as a small business. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a preeminent professional theater company in the nation, and SOU needs to build even stronger ties to this internationally recognized institution. Also, SOU needs to seek affiliations outside the Rogue Valley for the benefit of its students, and some of these affiliations could be linked to the Bay Area, Portland, Seattle, and even Los Angeles, depending on the arts discipline. This is critical to the success of arts students and the reputation of the University’s Performing Arts Department.
(left to right) SOU theatre arts students getting some lighting production tips from Professor of Theatre Arts and alumnus Chris Sackett; music students practicing with Director of Music Education Fredna Grimland (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: As a newcomer to Ashland and Southern Oregon University, what was your first impression of the Performing Arts program, faculty, and students?
DH: My first impression was what a wonderful environment this would be to work in. This is a small community positioned in one of the most beautiful locations in the nation, and it is a destination for artists and patrons of the arts. I was struck with the unique opportunities SOU students have to study with an incredibly talented performing arts faculty in music and theatre and to have such personalized attention at a small university. When I was interviewing for the position, I had an opportunity to view the work of theatre students in a university production, and I was delighted with the high quality of talent and training I witnessed on stage. I was also impressed with the level of enthusiasm everybody had about their course of study and the excitement they had for being on this campus.
MM: What do you envision for the future of the performing arts at Southern Oregon University?
DH: It’s too early to say exactly, but I have some ideas. First of all, there are a number of outstanding programs in the performing arts, and there needs to be an easier way for these programs to connect. Like producing a show, I can see the amazing individual parts of a greater whole. I like to think big and envision the impossible. Only in doing so will SOU’s performing arts excel even beyond the accomplishments they have already experienced.
Ashland, Oregon, panorama (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: What keeps you inspired—and is it all that different from what inspired you to go into music education originally?
DH: Besides this interview? I am personally inspired by the incredible natural beauty of the environment here. It is an amazing place to study and reflect on the world of the arts. I am inspired by the accomplishments so many of the people have made here at Southern Oregon University. And, of course, I am inspired by any performance that is sincere, technically proficient, and clearly communicates an artist’s thoughts and emotions.
We all must inspire each other and recognize and respect the unique contributions each of us gives. Inspiration is where you seek it, and we are surrounded by it every day of our lives.