It was the winter of 1955, and the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College had just celebrated its ceremonial dedication. The day after the dedication festivities, its musical lineup was slated to kick off with a young, rising star by the name of Leontyne Price – a soprano who rose to international acclaim and became one of the first African Americans to star at the Metropolitan Opera. But Ms. Price was late – and those waiting for her at the center were nervous.
“It seems that the limousine driver could not find this new arts complex,” the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts explains on its website. “She was first driven to BAM and then, of all places, to the Brooklyn Public Library. But what went askew in the drive over the Brooklyn Bridge to the middle of Brooklyn that night was more than redeemed when a packed house ranging from the black-tie folks to the blue collar workers to the students, all heard the incomparable, angelic voice of Ms. Price. She would revisit the center many times over the next quarter century and the audiences would never tire of lavishing standing ovation after standing ovation upon her.”
Following the center’s ever-so-slightly shaky beginnings, it has, for six decades, played, with steady footing, an integral role in the borough’s cultural landscape, hosting a vastly diverse group of entertainers, from Italian opera singer Luciano Pavaraotti to such Yiddish Theater stars as Molly Picon and Fyvush Finkel, and singers, actors and writers who protested the Vietnam War at Brooklyn College, including Pete Seeger, Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, and Phil Ochs. With its focus on music, dance, theater, and politics (following the Vietnam War protests, Jimmy Carter addressed Brooklyn residents there when he was running for president, and Bill Clinton spoke there during his presidency, for example), the center has become inextricably linked with the borough.
Now, the center is hoping to showcase its extensive history as it kicks off its 60th anniversary season this Saturday, November 1 with a concert by 10-time Grammy winner Bobby McFerrin.
“We’re approaching the year as looking back and forward – bringing artists who’ve been here in the past and also having new artists that reflect our cultural landscape,” Jon Yanofsky, the director of Brooklyn Center, told us in an interview.
And, indeed, the season is as diverse as its history, with performers from across the globe, as well as from right here in Brooklyn, performing everything from Flamenco to ballet, Latin jazz to a cappella, and classic dramas to family musicals. Some of those who will be performing include Black Violin, a duo that combines classical compositions, hip-hop, rhythm and blues, rock and more; the South African a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo; and the Klezmatics’ Woody Guthrie’s Wonder Wheel Tour, which the Brooklyn Center summed up as:
Flash back to 1940s Coney Island, where Woody Guthrie and his wife settled into the raucous life on Mermaid Avenue. Inspired by his Jewish family and their community, he wrote hundreds of lyrics rich with spirituality, tenderness, and a passionate belief in the human fight for peace and justice. Now Guthrie’s poetry is given new life by the Grammy-winning Klezmatics, infusing his words with Eastern European, klezmer, Celtic, Afro-Caribbean, and folk flavors in a lively dialogue about the spiritual power of music to unite.
There will also be plenty of non-musical events, including The Golden Dragon Acrobats, Moscow City Ballet’s Don Quixote, the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, and the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica.
You can see the entire list of this season’s performers here.
As it has tried to do consistently over the years, the center aims to offer affordable tickets to allow the arts to be accessible to everyone, no matter their income level, Yanofsky said.
“Accessing the arts shouldn’t be a luxury,” he continued. “Our school time program, for example – we serve every zip code in the borough and range between service 35,000 and 42,000 students each year. Huge numbers of Brooklyn public school students come to see a breadth of live performances. For many of them, it’s the first time they’ve been at a live performance.”
To decrease the financial barriers, the director added, they’ll typically offer ticket prices that hover around $7 for a school time show and $9 for family performances. The most expensive tickets for this season are $60, for the Bobby McFerrin show, which ranges in price from $36 to $60.
As for the future of the Brooklyn Center, Yanofsky, who worked at Jazz at Lincoln Center before becoming the executive director at the center about a year and a half ago, said he’d “like to expand our reach in the borough.”
“I want people, particularly to the north of us, to look to us for a place of cultural entertainment and artistic experiences,” he said. “There’s an amazing plethora of organizations in the borough, but we do something unique with our family program, our school program, and the diversity of our programs.”
Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts is located at Campus Road and Nostrand Avenue. To purchase tickets for this Saturday, or any of the upcoming performances, you can go here or call (718) 951-4500.