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Impresario Introduced D.C. To World's Stars

Martin Feinstein was artistic director of the Washington Opera, overseeing huge ticket-sales growth, after eight years at the Kennedy Center.
Martin Feinstein was artistic director of the Washington Opera, overseeing huge ticket-sales growth, after eight years at the Kennedy Center. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 6, 2006

Martin Feinstein, 84, who, as the first executive director of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and later as the long-serving general manager of the Washington National Opera sought to transform Washington into a capital of culture, died yesterday at his home in Potomac. He had pancreatic cancer.

Feinstein spent 25 years in New York as a top assistant to Sol Hurok, the legendary impresario who brought the world's finest concert artists and ballet companies to American audiences. During the Cold War, Feinstein was largely responsible for ensuring Hurok's near monopoly as a presenter of Soviet dancers, including the Kirov and Bolshoi ballets.

When Igor Moiseyev's Soviet folk-dance group was about to appear at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1958, Feinstein developed an effective publicity strategy to avoid any political questions from the media.

He told Hurok's biographer, Harlow Robinson: "When Moiseyev arrived, I told him I wanted a press conference. I want three or four of your most beautiful girls. I want someone who's a mother, who's left a child behind in the Soviet Union, in the care of a grandma; I want a beautiful girl who has a boyfriend she's left behind; I want someone who's a newlywed, and so on and so forth, and I'm going with this to the editors of the women's pages."

The U.S. tour was a sensation, one of many presentations that paid off handsomely for the Hurok organization. Disagreements over financial arrangements led Feinstein in 1971 to accept a new job in Washington, working as deputy to then-Kennedy Center Chairman Roger L. Stevens.

As Stevens's No. 2 man for the next eight years, Feinstein designed festivals and other programming efforts for the new arts center. Although Stevens usually served as the public face, Feinstein emerged ebulliently every December when he took the baton for the "Hallelujah" chorus during the "Messiah" singalong concert series.

A Washington Post music critic noted the speed at which Feinstein conducted and jokingly suggested it may have been from fear of having to pay overtime for the freelance orchestra.

Funding for the center was a continual concern for Feinstein, especially as he stated a wish to remake Washington as an arts capital competitive with New York and Vienna. At great expense, he arranged for visits by the Bolshoi, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the Berlin Opera, the Vienna State Opera and La Scala opera company.

Getting La Scala was an ordeal that required lobbying the Italian government, which briefly reneged on a deal, and persuading the stage employee union in Washington to agree to a temporary moratorium on a planned wage increase.

Feinstein also had a major role in the planning and construction in 1979 of the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, which he saw as a more intimate alternative to the center's large Opera House.

The Kennedy Center continued to have budget deficits, reportedly a factor in Feinstein's departure not long after the Terrace Theater's opening.

He jumped to the Washington Opera and spent the next 16 years luring artists of the stature of Gian Carlo Menotti (who directed "La Boheme"), Daniel Barenboim (who conducted "Cosi Fan Tutte") and Placido Domingo (who debuted in Washington in 1986 with Menotti's "Goya").


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