The Sweet Sound of Brooklyn


The pillars upon which communities build a vibrant cultural life are the museums and performance spaces, the schools and libraries, but beyond the bricks and mortar are the people who run them. That’s where the art and artistry are on display. But these miracles of content couldn’t happen without leaders who build programs, constituencies, and loyalties both inside and outside their particular institutions; who can manage the fight for survival, summon the necessary resources to put on the show, and build on the fruits of artistic prosperity.

In the 15 years I’ve lived in Brooklyn, I’ve been lucky enough to get know three such amazing individuals: Arnold Lehman of the Brooklyn Museum (about whom I wrote in the October 2014 issue); Susan Feldman of St. Ann’s Warehouse (about whom I hope to write in the near future); and, perhaps the most knock-’em-dead cultural leader of all and the greatest arts administrator I know, Karen Brooks Hopkins, the retiring head of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, known by its thousands of adherents as “BAM” (pronounced the way it looks).

Brooklyn is currently experiencing a multi-faceted boom as dynamic as any modern city ever has. The rush for living spaces hasn’t yet come to dueling pistols at 20 paces, but that can’t be far off. Indeed, Brooklyn could fairly be said to be experiencing three booms simultaneously. The first is whatever’s going on in Williamsburg—the flowering of a certain kind of attitude expressed in a lifestyle that emphasizes what some call “hipness” and is seen in the restaurants and clubs of the moment. Next, off to the right on the map, are neighborhoods like Crown Heights, Bushwick, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, names once identified with drugs and gang violence, but are now positively sublime as eastward the course of gentrification takes its way. They’ve become swathed in an agreeable bohemian glow fringed with the insistent glitter of breathlessly increasing real estate prices.

Finally, grandest and most diverse of all, there’s the area that begins in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and sweeps southward, encompassing Fort Greene and the world of Pratt and BAM, DUMBO (where I live), Brooklyn Heights, Downtown Brooklyn and the new Barclay’s Center, the genteel precincts bounded by Atlantic Avenue, Prospect Park (I had to fit Park Slope in here somehow, although it is a societal enigma I am nowhere close to solving), and ending under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) at Red Hook and the upper reaches of New York Harbor.

BAM sits right in the middle of this, at the southern edge of Fort Greene. It has been in business since 1861, which makes it the nation’s oldest continuously operating performing arts venue. For the past 36 years, it has been led by Karen Brooks Hopkins, although she will tell you the equal credit is due to her producing partner, Joseph V. Melillo. Actually Karen’s one of the few people outside of a sheikdom who can claim two life partners: Joe Melillo and Ron Feiner, with whom she shares her offstage life.

In 1987, BAM made its first significant physical expansion outside their capacious Peter Jay Sharp building, their café, and the Howard Gilman Opera House, where four movie theaters whose 300,000 annual ticket-buyers help substantially to keep the BAM lights shining. That year, a decrepit movie palace a block or so away was acquired and rehabilitated into about the best place in which to watch theater that I know of. This is the Harvey, named after Harvey Lichtenstein, the inspired, inventive, quarrelsome, often exasperating visionary who kissed the sleeping BAM princess awake after a long period of dormition. Karen spent 20 years being mentored by, partnering with, and, I dare say, being yelled at by Lichtenstein. But such personalities often make the best leadership models in the arts, and Karen absorbed those lessons totally and then some (although not the yelling).

Opening the Harvey was a giant leap forward in providing BAM with a really remarkable versatility, an asset (there’s no other word for it) that few if any other venues in the country can match. The Hopkins regime—she took over from Harvey Lichtenstein in 1999—has taken full advantage of these. I have seen Hamlet, starring Simon Russell Beale, on the stage of the enormous Gilman Opera House, and I have seen Hamlet, directed by Peter Brook, in the Harvey. Both were terrific. I have heard David Byrne and Paul Simon at the Gilman, and Jonathan Miller’s staging of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion in the Harvey. Both worked wonderfully.

Since then, a number of other important cultural venues have been added in and around BAM. Its own Fisher Building provides space for experimental work, with emphasis on Brooklyn artists. Mark Morris, whose dance, vocal, and orchestral piece L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is one of the truly towering artistic accomplishments of our time, has his own studio building. Across the way, the Theater for a New Audience, a non-BAM company, has a new theater. More will follow.

But here’s the thing. The spirit that moved across the waters in all this was Karen Brooks Hopkins, who understood that if a real cultural complex was in place when the developers arrived  (as arrive they would), then any development would have to build around and above the theaters and arts spaces. Culture both high and popular would not be displaced to make room for apartments, but would live in harmony with the newcomers. And so it has turned out. In the next few years, enough new units will be built in the cultural district to add 12,500 residents. BAM will surely snag its fair share of these, whether their taste is for theater, film, dance, or music. Culture has a nice way of becoming resurgent when it’s only a few steps away. And this is true whether it’s high-, middle- or lowbrow; whether it’s aimed at graybeards like yours truly dozing sweetly to the threnodies of Bach or the Bard, or at younger, more energetic types who want to dance in the aisles and feast on what’s new and venturesome.   

This is what we call foresight. But then foresight might be Karen’s middle name. She came, she saw, she learned, she conquered. She and Joe Melillo are by turns traditional and experimental. As long as it’s good, it deserves to be seen. Brooklyn is a place both polyglot and polymath. The BAM cultural district contains multitudes.

In the fall, during its Next Wave Festival, BAM devotes its spaces and its energies to the cutting-edge stuff; right now, there’s a good deal of dance in the programming, because that’s where it’s at. This past fall, you could have heard Shakespeare’s sonnets in German, orchestrated by Rufus Wainwright and directed by Robert Wilson, whose five-hour Einstein on the Beach had the chatterati wetting their pants with excitement three seasons ago. Two years before that, the more conventionally-preferenced among us reveled in a delicious staging of Cimarosa’s Matrimonio Segreto, directed by Jonathan Miller. This past March, my wife and I heard a killer production of Handel’s Semele, into which were interpolated whatever they call a Minnesinger in Lhasa as well as an interlude of Sumo wrestling. It worked. And by the bye, this adventurous production was underwritten by my generous friend Mercedes Bass, a longtime pillar of the Metropolitan Opera. She sat across the aisle from us and enjoyed every note. When pedigreed Manhattan money crosses the river to support Brooklyn-based cultural enterprise, that tells you something.

These have been incredible years for Brooklyn. When I came to live here, there was no real wealth in the borough. Now there is, in real estate mainly, but also in technology, finance, and hives of activity like the Navy Yard. Hard to imagine a future brighter than the immediate past, but I suspect that’s the way it’ll turn out. There’s kind of a sad irony, though. Brooklyn’s enjoying the beginning of what promises to be a hyper-Warholian decade of fame and fortune, and two of the people who have most made that possible, Arnold Lehman and Karen Brooks Hopkins, are taking their curtain calls. Karen will retire, she says, but she has a book to write about arts administration with examples and advice drawn from actual passages in her BAM life. She also wants to be available to her successor, Katy Clark, a young woman who’s made a fine, fine institution of the St. Luke’s Orchestra.

If it were my call, I’d say Karen’s proudest accomplishment, reflective both of her genius and the Brooklyn Renaissance, is a simple demographic fact. Five years ago, I recall asking her how BAM’s overall audience broke down between the home borough and the rest of the city. It was around 50-50. When I called on her the other day and asked the same question, the answer was that BAM’s Brooklyn-based audience now greatly outnumbers its Manhattan constituency, possibly by as much as 65% to 35% of its audience.

Of course, you don’t do all this by yourself. Karen will be the first to tell you she’s had a great and supportive board, a loyal and super-competent staff, and that’s certainly true, but in my judgment  the key factor has been that creative, innovative artists want to appear at BAM. They prosper artistically when working with kindred spirits like Karen and Joe, who “get” what they do. The great performers and the great ensembles aren’t at BAM because of the architecture and acoustics and the Brooklyn vibe, it’s the cultural hospitality of the place that seduces them.

What’s Karen’s secret, then? “Good manners and common sense,” is what she told me. To which I can only say, “Amen,” and then, joining the thousands upon thousands of her fans, to add: You done good, honey. So thanks, and happy trails.