February 12th, 2017
By By ROBERT BERKVIST
Harvey Lichtenstein, who transformed a moribund Brooklyn Academy of Music into a dynamic showcase for cutting-edge performing arts and its Fort Greene neighborhood into a cultural hub during his 32 years there as the executive producer, died on Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 87.
His son John confirmed his death. He said Mr. Lichtenstein had a stroke about seven years ago, and had been in declining health over the past few months.
When Mr. Lichtenstein arrived at the academy in 1967, its stately building on Lafayette Avenue, erected in 1908, needed extensive and costly renovation. Portions of it had been rented out, and there had even been talk of tearing down the building and using the site for tennis courts. Many members of Mr. Lichtenstein’s target audience, especially Manhattanites, viewed the neighborhood — the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn — as undesirable.
“It was a risky business, and we often landed in the soup,” Mr. Lichtenstein wrote in a reminiscence in The New York Times in 1998, after he had announced his retirement as the president and executive director. “For all the excitement, audiences and money were hard to come by.”
Even so, Mr. Lichtenstein was determined to open the Brooklyn Academy, also known as BAM, to all that was new and exciting, and he wasted no time getting to work.
The 1967-68 season, Mr. Lichtenstein’s first, included Alban Berg’s atonal opera “Lulu”; performances by a number of modern-dance troupes — Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham and Alwin Nikolais, among others; and the Living Theater’s evening of political protest, “Paradise Now.” Attendance was sparse at first, but Mr. Lichtenstein’s efforts began to draw attention.
“Recognition came first,” he acknowledged ruefully; “attendance only later.”
The academy, which was founded in 1861 and calls itself America’s oldest continuously operating performing arts center, gained a reputation as the place to find new and provocative work, be it dance, drama or music. And audiences grew.
All the while, Mr. Lichtenstein hardly seemed to pause to draw breath, and those who dealt with him knew he was a man with a mission. His ebullient managerial style could also become blunt and abrasive. John Rockwell, the first director of the Lincoln Center Festival and a longtime critic and editor at The Times, characterized that style in a 1998 Times article as a mixture of “the inspirationally collegial and the petulantly dictatorial.”
Even so, he added, “People complain but, with a few exceptions, they keep working with him.”
There were some missteps, including Mr. Lichtenstein’s unsuccessful attempt to set up a repertory theater company in the early 1980s headed by the British director David Jones. But there were plenty of highlights as well, among them Peter Brook’s imaginative staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha,” an opera about Mahatma Gandhi’s youth in South Africa; “The Gospel at Colonus,” a freewheeling adaptation by Lee Breuer and Bob Telson of a work by the Greek tragedian Sophocles; another Glass opera, “Einstein on the Beach”; and Mr. Brook’s monumental 1987 staging of “The Mahabharata,” a nine-hour dramatic voyage through Hindu theology and mythology.
When they began planning for “The Mahabharata,” Mr. Lichtenstein and Mr. Brook agreed that the Opera House was too large for the production, which had first been staged at Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Mr. Brook’s more intimate Parisian theater.
The problem was solved when Mr. Lichtenstein suggested they take a look at the Majestic, an abandoned theater built in 1904 and later used as a movie house, on nearby Fulton Street. There they climbed a ladder, entered through a window and found what they decided was the perfect performance space, surrounded by an ocean of decay.
After a $5 million renovation — with most of the funds supplied by the city — the Majestic was deemed ready and was renamed the BAM Majestic Theater. Seating was reduced to just under 900 from a little more than 1,700, and although there had been some patching and painting, there was no effort to fully modernize. Both Mr. Lichtenstein and Mr. Brook wanted the theater to remain in an unfinished, distressed state — an archaeological link to the past.
After “The Mahabharata” was staged there, the Majestic became a thriving academy annex, and when Mr. Lichtenstein stepped down in 1999, the house was renamed in his honor. It is now the BAM Harvey Lichtenstein Theater — the Harvey, for short.
The main building also underwent changes during Mr. Lichtenstein’s tenure. The upstairs Carey Playhouse was converted into a four-screen movie theater, now known as BAM Rose Cinemas, and the Lepercq Space ballroom became the popular BAMcafé, a combination restaurant and performance space.
In addition, Mr. Lichtenstein was instrumental in helping the choreographer Mark Morris acquire a derelict state-owned building a block away from the academy in 1998. The sparkling Mark Morris Dance Center opened in 2001.
One of the most important milestones of Mr. Lichtenstein’s tenure was the Next Wave Festival, which he formally established in 1983 and quickly became a prime showcase for the avant-garde, with an accent on dance and drama.
Mr. Lichtenstein brought in Joseph V. Melillo as director of the festival — he would ultimately succeed Mr. Lichtenstein as the academy’s executive producer — and their combined efforts brought in a diverse group of artists, including Mr. Brook, Robert Wilson, Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Glass, Pina Bausch and Steve Reich.
Harvey Lichtenstein was born on April 9, 1929, in Brooklyn, the son of Samuel Lichtenstein, an immigrant from Poland, and Jennie Waldarsky, an immigrant from Ukraine. After graduating from Brooklyn College, he became a dancer and performed with several modern-dance troupes, including the Pearl Lang company. He also studied and performed with Ms. Graham and Sophie Maslow.
After starting in 1954 as a Ford Foundation administrative intern at New York City Ballet, he went on, during the 1960s, to develop audiences as subscription manager for both the ballet company and the New York City Opera. He became president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1967.
He also served as the American director of the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds in Italy from 1971 to 1973.
Mr. Lichtenstein married Phyllis Holbrook in 1971. Besides his son John, he is survived by Saul, a son from his first marriage, to Eve Johnson.
Mr. Lichtenstein was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 1999. In 2013, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg presented him with the Handel Medallion, New York City’s highest award for achievement in the arts.
After his retirement, Mr. Lichtenstein became the chairman of the BAM Local Development Corporation, a multimillion-dollar project designed to create an entirely new cultural district in the surrounding area including new theaters, dance halls, art galleries and libraries.
The project ran into financial difficulties, as well as strong opposition from residents, who feared they would be displaced by the inevitable gentrification of their Fort Greene neighborhood. The project stalled, funds melted away, and, in 2006, the city stepped in and took control of the cultural district, making it part of what it called the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, made up of several organizations devoted to improving the downtown area.
Jeanne Lutfy, the president of the project, said that she and Mr. Lichtenstein would continue to take part in planning for the district. More time passed. Finally, on June 24, 2011, ground was broken for the Theater for a New Audience’s Classical Theater on Ashland Place in Fort Greene.
Among those attending the ceremony were the Brooklyn borough president, Marty Markowitz, as well as the director Julie Taymor, the actor Mark Rylance and Mr. Lichtenstein, whose presence reaffirmed a vow he had made during a 2004 interview with The Times. “I’ve got this vision,” he said then. “I think that my job is to keep the real heart and soul and core of the plan alive.”