ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Frank E. Taplin
If the Metropolitan Opera's 100th anniversary season has
been a resounding success and, more important, if the last seven years have
seen a dramatic reversal in the Met's financial and artistic fortunes, no
small part of the credit must go to its outgoing president and chief executive
officer, Frank E. Taplin. When he was elected in 1977, the music world was
all too aware of the Met's monumental problems. With spiralling costs and
diminishing earning capacities, inability to attract international talent
consistently, and a totality which seemed to be smaller than the sum of its
parts, alarm signals were constantly heard: were the Met's woes terminal?
No one is asking such questions today and the signals emanating
from the southwest quadrant of Lincoln Center are optimistic and strong.
Sights are no longer set on yesterday's errors or today's emergencies, but
on the new millenium and a long-range plan which makes maximal use of available
resources as technology brings opera's message to countless people throughout
Presiding over this transformation, Frank Taplin has brought
to his (unpaid) job a set of qualifications which have made him one of the
most sought-after executives in the American arts community. At 68, this
cheerful and ruddy man brims with energy and ideas. No one who sees him at
work in his modest and crowded fifth-floor office, overlooking the reflecting
pool and Henry Moore statue at Lincoln Center, could fail to sense Taplin's
dedication. He knows the multiplicity of the job to be done, and he knows
how to make connections. He seems to have a knack for getting people to contribute financially, physically, emotionally and, amazingly enough, to love doing it. Perhaps
it is because he so obviously loves what he's doing that makes his
own contributing contagious. There's nothing high-power or evangelical about
his comportment, and his conversational style is easy, low-key, and laced
with sometimes salty humor. The person on the other end of the relaxed smile
or self-assured voice never doubts what is motivating Frank Taplin: it is
his commitment to service brought to his love of cultural expression.
Frank Elijah Taplin was born in Cleveland, Ohio on June
22, 1915. His father, a successful business man, enjoyed music of all sorts
(though "from the operas he only liked the arias"). But it was
probably his mother, a Smith College graduate (Class of 1905) who instilled
in young Frank an enthusiasm which is still an essential ingredient today.
She played piano, and the Taplin house was filled with music, both classical
and the popular songs of the day. Among the very favorites were Jerome Kern
and George Gershwin and there's a twinkle of abandon in Taplin's eye as he
croons snippets words and all of a potpouri of evergreens. A younger sister
(who sang) and a younger brother (who played all sorts of instruments and
loved jazz) completed the Taplin clan.
At Princeton University (Class of 1937), he majored in
history and participated in the Triangle Club's musical productions, performing,
conducting, and composing. (One of his songs was even recorded by Tommy Dorsey.)
He was thinking of a career in business or the law. ("Nice little boys
from Cleveland Heights didn't think of music as a profession in those days.")
From Princeton, he went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, graduating as a Master
of Arts in Jurisprudence in 1939; and from there to the Yale Law School from
which he was admitted to the bar. World War II interrupted his professional
development, and he served as a naval intelligence officer in the South Pacific
until his discharge in 1946 with the rank of lieutenant commander.
Back in Cleveland, he practiced law
from 1946 to 1950, but left the law to engage in business activities. He
co-founded a Canadian oil production and exploration company, served as a
director of a motor company, and as a director of North American Coal Corporation.
In 1957, at the age of 42, he moved to Princeton. ("I started a new
life. I've made several changes. I suppose people say that the guy can't
hold a job. I like finance. I like administration. But I also like music
and art and literature.") Frank Taplin decided to devote himself to
serving the arts and education.
He became a trustee of The Cleveland Orchestra in 1946,
just when George Szell became its music director. Later, he served as president
of the Orchestra and the Cleveland Institute of Music. He was the first president
of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center when it was formed in 1969.
Among the organizations which have called him to high executive and adminstrative
service have been the Marlboro School of Music, Sarah Lawrence College, Princeton
University, and Lincoln Center, of which he is a vice chairman. Taplin: "I
think, if we've been fortunate enough to have opportunities which earlier
generations gave us, that we ought to put something back in the pot, so that
those who follow us can have the same advantages. Those who have been blessed
with more favorable circumstances shouldn't go to Florida and rust [sic]
on their laurels. Life is happiest when you feel fulfilled. You don't feel
that if you don't participate in the passion and action of your day. Some
choose to be lonely scholars, and that's perfect. But I like participation
as well as reflection. I like to be involved in things."
Involvement certainly is a key to Taplin's temperament.
We asked him how it was possible for him to have avoided the narrows of specialization
in this specialist-hooked age. "The underlying problems of institutions
are very much the same. The difference is one of scale. Institutions must
achieve sufficient financial security so that their educational or artistic
missions may be carried out. My assignment at the Met and elsewhere has been
to develop among all parties a sense of mission and enthusiasm, and to generate
a consensus about what is important."
But opera has been only one of Taplin's involvements. Himself
still a proficient amateur pianist, he is an ardent chamber music buff who
sets aside many a Princeton evening to play a Brahms piano quartet or other
chamber work with string players ranging from unknown amateurs to the most
celebrated artists of our time. In support of this passion, Taplin has given
commissions to an impressive cross-section of composers, including John Harbison,
Andrew Imbrie, George Perle, Gunther Schuller, Yehudi Wyner and others, to
write chamber works which use piano as a component. Once these commissioned
works have been completed, Taplin assists in generating performances, bringing
these compositions to the attention of the many chamber music players and
groups of his acquaintance.
A deeply cultured man, Frank Taplin muses on culture in
a society: "It is the element which relates to our humanity. We are
gifted with the ability to remember, to look to the future, to judge ourselves
within the context of the world around us. Culture has to do with ideas and
values, and with the quality of life. Culture should be very broadly defined.
It includes folk art and naive art and any expression of the mind and heart.
The essence is communication, and the greater the art, the more it will find
an ongoing audience."
Audiences, participants in the artistic experience, must
be carfully nurtured, Taplin feels. It is a process which must begin in early
childhood and continue lifelong. It may start with comic books or radio or
television. The Lincoln Center Institute's program for the schools (see MadAminA!,
Spring 1983) uses other approaches. For example, "the Metropolitan
Opera Guild takes opera to the schools. They get a bunch of kids to write
an opera, paint the scenery, put it on with the help of our advisers. In
addition, we need publication. We need good newspaper coverage. We need to
educate the people, to make them want to read and dance and play."
In Taplin's view, composers must recognize that the only
way music can be realized is through performance, and the only way one assures
performances is by having audiences who wish to hear it. "Composers
are getting away from sterile dead ends and addressing themselves to communicating
something to someone again." Towards this end, the Met's search for
a "Mini-Met," which would permit greater flexibility than the 4,000-seat
main house allows, continues. It is a project which must be left to Taplin's
successor at the Met, Bruce Crawford.
Meanwhile, it is a pretty safe bet that other educational
and musical institutions will be knocking on Taplin's door, asking his counsel,
and hoping to derive some guidance and inspiration in coping with their seemingly
inevitable problems. "But problems which are created by men," says
Frank Taplin, "are surely soluble by men."