It’s late Friday afternoon, and a basement music club known as Le Poisson Rouge is ringing with operatic voices. Amanda Frederick and Ruth L. Carver are testing the sound system and preparing for the New York debut of scenes from “Madame White Snake,” which earned a Pulitzer Prize for UMKC Conservatory composer Zhou Long.
Long, just this week named a distinguished professor, is one of four award-winning composers at the University of Missouri-Kansas City whose work was showcased Friday night at the club.
Reason enough for pride and local celebration. But university officials took the opportunity to focus on the possibility of a significant campus transformation.
They expanded this New York visit into an opportunity to gather evidence for a proposal to move the Conservatory of Music and possibly create a larger arts campus downtown, specifically in the vicinity of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
So earlier in the day, UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton led a delegation of about 30 campus leaders, Conservatory backers, the mayor pro tem and downtown representatives on a tour of Lincoln Center and the Juilliard School of Music. The idea was to investigate the synergy created by the music school’s location in New York’s major performing arts complex.
Morton got to the crux of the matter when he posed a question to Joseph Polisi, Juilliard’s president, during an end-of-tour conversation around a long board table.
“In order for us to get this project done,” Morton said, “we have to rely on donors, and what is the most compelling case we should make?”
Polisi’s reply was encouraging and added talking points for the civic conversation that already has begun over a project that could cost many millions of dollars.
“The most compelling case to citizens is that this is an opportunity to enliven the downtown area,” Polisi said. With 500 or 600 students, plus faculty, parents and concertgoers, he added, “you’re getting more flow.”
There’s also a multiplier effect when arts education happens so close to major arts institutions, he said.
“It makes people proud to see young people grow and be part of the process,” he said.
More than 60 percent of Juilliard students become involved in outreach efforts in New York, he said, and similar performance and teaching activities might be expected of UMKC Conservatory students.
“They’ll be growing as teachers, as artists and as imaginative people.”
Morton also asked Polisi about how best to address the issue of taking students away from the main Volker campus.
When he learned that the Kauffman Center was perhaps four or five miles from the campus, he shrugged.
“Get a shuttle service, and you’ve got it going.”
Easy, said UMKC provost Gail Hackett, who noted later that a proposed site would be within spitting distance of UMKC’s Hospital Hill campus, which already is served by a shuttle.
The delegation began the day with a tour of the Public Theater, the downtown home of the New York Shakespeare Festival and operator of six theater spaces in a 19th-century building complex.
By afternoon the group saw several pieces of the huge Lincoln Center complex, which has undergone more than a billion dollars of renovation in recent years. They were collectively impressed by the wood-lined Alice Tully Hall and wowed by the Metropolitan Opera, whose stage was abuzz with urgent activity.
At Juilliard, Polisi showed the delegation almost every corner of the complex from theaters to rehearsal halls to the glass-lined walls of a renovation that opened the 43-year-old structure to the city.
Juilliard’s roots date to the early 20th century, and over the decades it expanded to embrace dance and then drama. The school moved to Lincoln Center in 1969. Its half dozen public performance spaces range in size from 70 seats to more than 900.
With a student body of 750 to 800 students, Juilliard is a formidably selective school. The UMKC Conservatory includes about 600 undergraduate and graduate students, and the idea of moving the campus is not to grow, necessarily, but to heighten the artistic attractiveness of the university, Morton said.
The idea of a UMKC night at Le Poisson Rouge helps contribute to that.
“It’s the proof of concept,” said Peter Witte, the Conservatory’s dean.
The plan began germinating last fall after Le Poisson Rouge’s principals visited the Conservatory and gave talks to students about the state of classical music, entrepreneurship and other topics. Witte later wondered whether a New York showcase would be possible and found the club owners to be not only amenable but excited about it.
“We were flattered they asked,” said Daniel Handler, one of three founding owners of Le Poisson Rouge.
Handler said he was impressed by Kansas City’s creative community in general and that his Conservatory visit was eye-opening.
“I was heartened by fact that there’s a camaraderie there. You don’t always see it in the New York schools. That was really refreshing. The students were engaged and proactive about making the most of our sessions. When we met with the faculty, we were encouraged by their belief in one another and what a tight-knit family it was. That’s not always the case.”
The work of the Conservatory composers fits right in with the club’s new-music aesthetic.
“In newer music,” Handler said, “we’re trying to reach a common ground with our listenership. Many of them are coming to classical music for first time, and they’re finding that maybe Paul Rudy is more relatable than Haydn.”
It was Rudy who opened the concert with a haunting piece in which he vocalized some deep, drone-like, meditative tones over a prepared track of natural and mechanical sounds.
Le Poisson Rouge is the kind of creative space “where risks are rewarded,” Witte said.
“And that’s an important thing for our students to experience.”