BAM’s Joseph Melillo Surfs the Next Wave
Joseph V. Melillo (the V is for Vincent, his Italian father) is the executive producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the inspiration for all that institution undertakes, from BAM’S Next Wave, to a film series, "Baroque Opera," and a new, beautiful, flexible space called The Fisher, that occupies its own renovated building.
Melillo’s rise to fame started with a graduate degree in arts management at Catholic University in D.C., followed by a stint in regional theater before moving to Miami in 1982 to helm The New World Festival of The Arts.
It was during his tenure at this festival that Melillo came to the attention of Harvey Lichtenstein, the dynamo behind the re-launching of the Brooklyn Academy. Harvey, as everyone calls him, had a full producing and traveling career behind him and was searching for a successor. He became Melillo’s mentor and brought him into the BAM family in 1983.
"I guess what attracted Harvey to me initially was that I had produced a festival with 22 world premiers and we showed them all in three and a half weeks and I was still standing. Oh yes, and I could still speak," joked Melillo, who is rarely at a loss for words.
A lot to tell
In fact, he seems to pipe down only when the house lights dim. Considering his experience in the arts, from visual to performing, he does have a lot to tell.
"I am so dedicated to responding to this kind of experimental work, it is what I love and what I do for work," Melillo said.
"We forget sometimes that the experimental genre is not what we have always had in such abundance. We are in the second generation of experimenting at BAM and now we believe it has always been this way. This is not the way it has been. We are now more global, less Eurocentric, and that reflects my experience and my interests, but also the way the world is evolving."
This coming spring BAM will hosts a festival of hip-hop musicians from North Africa and the Middle Easy, liberally mixed with icons like Peter Brook, Trisha Brown and William Christie. The spring will also present exciting young artists Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the band The National. They will reprise their music and film festival here this spring ("Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"). Another production "Planetarium" brings together musicians Sufjan Stevens, and super star composer, Nico Muhly.
Puppet Master to Experimentalism
One wonders if being the puppet master to experimentalism in a venue like BAM is the daunting job to which Melillo always aspired. "I thought, honestly, this is a one year gig," he said. "I would finish and move on. Now it is decades later I am still here. I did take a one-year hiatus to be a consultant to the New York International Festival."
Anyone who has met Melillo will tell you he is the consummate gentleman and seems as if nary a harsh word escapes from his lips or is even wedged in the corner of his mind. So I posit, How can you be this nice and still manage world class organization of artists? "This work is very intense. It is after all L I V E! Work that is live means there are problems. There are tech problems, there are human beings moving through very complicated set ups and artistry, so yes it can be tense. That doesn’t mean the drama has to be off the stage. It can stay there."
What about the fundamental changes in performance art over the past two decades?
"The big change is that there is a certain kind of acceptance to large scale interdisciplinary work, the audiences share that acceptance," he said. "Twenty-five years ago, people had never seen work done like this on this scale. The festival was committed to a group of American artists and to certain international artists to do this large-scale work. Many people now come to expect to see pageantry and scope when they think of theater. Now we are focusing on getting the next generation in. We are building a new audience.
"I am always balancing the care of the old and the young artists. When appropriate I give space to what I call the Legacy Artists. If they want to create a new work and it is the right time for that kind of work then we invite that artist or group. But it is not a sure thing. It has to conceptualize with a season."
Still Having Fun?
When asked how he makes choices between the old favorites, the standards if you will, of the experimental genre, the Next Wave mode VS the new young guns, Melillo demurs, "I am curating seasons. I am looking to continue with certain artists who believe that BAM is their artistic home and also pushing to make relationships with new groups. I am discovering cachet and iconic artists on every journey I take."
After so many years of doing this work we wonder how does he keep fresh eyes? " You either have a passion for the performing arts and therefore immerse yourself completely read everything, go to as much as you can hold from small clubs to the American Ballet Theater and from NYC to Helsinki, from Poland to London, and be excited and open. I see things at LaMama, the Joyce and Hubbard Street in Chicago. I am leaving soon for Casa Blanca and Algiers. It is all a part of staying current and engaged."
Is Melillo still having fun?
"This is still a dream job, it seems like a carnival," he responded. "I mean recently I flew to India and then to Paris, then London and back to NYC. But the artistic director has to do this. I have to feed the beast. I’m here to serve, but I get great pleasure when the curtain goes up, the clapping, it is then that I feel I have made a contribution to the lives of the people of New York City.
"I have only one trajectory and that is service to the BAM audience. I attempt to enter a theater with no bias. I have a sense of wonder. I am always eager to see what will be revealed. But in 2017, I will be 70 years old and I think by that cycle The Fisher, the Harvey and the Opera House, the whole campus of BAM will need to be in the hands of a younger person."
Guilty Pleasures and Romance
Of course, certain guilty pleasures, or perquisites like terrific lunches in Paris and choice seats at the new Barclay Center for the Barbra Streisand concert, (Melillo is a consultant to the Brooklyn based Barclay beast ) all keep him energized and hopping. Melillo is also the force behind the DanceMotionUSA project with the US State Department. They recently announced dance companies for the 2013 tours. This is a great example of what Melillo calls global BAM projects (like The Bridge Project in London) that take BAM productions around the world.
So with all of this hob-nobbing, jet-setting, we wonder is there a private Joey Melillo? "I am a good Italian basic cook. I like to have one night every week to make dinner, ask a friend or two over. I’m simple gay guy. I’m not complicated. It isn’t always work. I have always been a curious guy, you know, seeking answers to the big questions. Part of that comes from working with so many artists."
Melillo’s favorite places include Bali which he describes as "an intoxicating culture, so different from anything I had ever experienced, The people were so generous, hospitable and kind. I love the south of France, Provence, the landscape, the light, the food. It is all about sensual pleasures. It feeds every one of our senses."
This begs the question of lovers, the partners who partake in these very sensual adventures. "I call sweethearts diversions because they take me away from my work," Melillo explained. "I don’t try to integrate the men I date into my life at BAM. I’ve learned that lesson. When I am out at BAM, I am official. I am very careful. It takes a very strong, kind of centered adult male to want to investigate me because there is this perception issue. So they have to break through and find out that I am really easy."
Since he’s so easy what really wins him over?
"A great sense of humor is the most important thing," he said. "If you have that, you have my heart. I am a gay man and yes I date, and yes I am looking."
To see what’s happening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, visit the BAM website.