A Beautiful Mind
Downing ends internship with Washington National Opera on a high note
by Christine Baksi
September 14, 2011
Brayden Downing '13 (right) mingled with opera elite including world-renowned tenor Placido Domingo. Photo courtesy of Downing.
Where economics and the arts intersect, you’ll find Brayden Downing ’13. The economics and music double major is an accomplished violinist, who has played on stages in the U.S. and abroad since age 7, and an aspiring arts manager polishing his business acumen. It was that impressive resumé that landed him an internship this summer at the Washington National Opera (WNO) through The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
But it wasn’t his early success as a musician or his majors that led to him rubbing elbows with the likes of Supreme Court justices and international opera stars—it was his sheer ability to think that made an impression with WNO executives.
“Brayden was always asking questions about arts organizations and the operation,” says Michael Mael, executive director of the WNO. “The ability to think—and answer questions and ask the right questions—continues to be among the single greatest skills a young person could have. When I interview, I am only interested in how people think and how they solve problems. Those are the skills that are critical. The other stuff you can teach.”
Downing credits Dickinson’s liberal-arts education for honing those critical skills. “Dickinson’s approach really works,” he says. “They teach you how to think. You’re not just learning a skill, you’re learning a standard of excellence.”
Up to task
Downing was entrusted with artistic research—preparing biographies on up-and-coming singers and conductors. His thorough work and sharp presentation style was recognized by Mael, who continued to assign him more meaningful projects, such as enhancing WNO’s CD commentary project, which records expert analysis of each performance to make opera more accessible for audiences. Downing spoke with other opera houses across the country, identified best practices and placed on Mael’s desk a list of findings and recommendations on how best to proceed. Mael took Downing’s recommendations to the WNO board, which plans to adopt them.
Downing also was called upon to develop a blogging strategy for the WNO. “Brayden put a sample blog together, gave a presentation to the staff on how to navigate it and made specific recommendations on what would work, what wouldn’t and how to populate it with good content,” says Mael.
“Every day at work, they’d put new things on my desk and I was prepared for it,” says Downing. “No one was sitting there telling me what to do. You’re thrown in the deep end, and you have to figure out how to swim. This was not new to me. I knew how to approach new challenges.”
And so it goes at the WNO, where the best interns are considered members of the team. “Brayden was a bit of a rock star around the office,” says Michelle Pendoley with The Kennedy Center press office.
The Kennedy Center internship is recognized by The Princeton Review as one of the Top 100 Internships in the U.S. and administered by the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at The Kennedy Center, an experiential training initiative that has advised individuals, organizations, governments and foundations in nearly 70 countries and six continents.
Downing attended DeVos seminars alongside leaders of international organizations. “It looked like a United Nations meeting, with individuals from Africa sitting next to individuals from Eastern Europe and Canada,” he recalls.
But as nonprofit organizations, they all faced the same challenges and struggles. “The experience demonstrated that, at its core, art is internationally focused and is truly an international business,” Downing says.
The WNO internship came with perks. Downing shadowed the WNO orchestra manager during performances of Madame Butterfly and Wicked and attended formal dinners with the WNO’s general director Placido Domingo and Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Near the end of his internship, Downing received a two-week extension to assist with off-site rehearsals for the WNO’s production of Tosca, which opened Sept. 10. In what he describes as a converted hangar outside of Washington, D.C., he greeted renowned soprano Patricia Racette as she arrived for the first rehearsal.
“There I was, 15 feet away watching Pat Racette in normal clothes, working with her director and cast, sculpting the vision for the production. It humanized the whole experience,” says Downing. “It’s one of those moments you live for. It’s one of the few times when I saw or witnessed something and went, ‘Wow, this is why I am doing everything I’m doing. This is why I’m practicing. This is why I traveled and worked so hard.’ ”