Since he became director of Cal Performances in 1986, Robert Cole has turned the performing arts presenter of the University of California, Berkeley, into a venue that rivals New York’s Carnegie Hall and Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center. The Spark episode “Movers and Shakers” offers a glimpse into one of the country’s most renowned performing arts centers.
After studying music at the University of Southern California, Cole began his career as a high school music teacher and part-time conductor. As a conductor, he became interested in other aspects of the orchestra, raising money and organizing a board of directors for a little opera company and a ballet company. In the 1970s, Cole moved from his native California to New York, where he took the job of associate conductor under Michael Tilson Thomas at the Buffalo Philharmonic and began presenting companies like the New York City Ballet and the Dance Theater of Harlem.
When he came to Cal Performances, Cole saw a unique opportunity to turn U.C. Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall into the premiere performing arts theater in the region, attracting acts accustomed to playing the most prestigious venues of London, New York, Paris and other cultural centers. He also set out to expand the number and variety of performances, and over the course of his tenure has increased annual ticket sales nearly tenfold, from $700,000 to more than $6 million.
In 1991, Cole booked a little known mezzo-soprano, Cecilia Bartoli, who has since become internationally celebrated as one of the greatest opera talents of her generation. In recent years, Cole has taken on the role of producer as well, enabling artists like choreographer Mark Morris to create new works whose world premieres are presented by Cal Performances.
Cole has been able to achieve this remarkable expansion in part by booking a combination of world-renowned performers and emerging young talents. Every January, Cole travels to the Arts Presenters Conference in New York, where he selects acts from among the thousands that meet there. Over the years, the New York conference has enabled Cole to bring performers from more than 50 countries to Berkeley, attracting new audiences to Cal Performances from the diverse ethnic communities that are characteristic of the Bay Area.
Where: U.C. Berkeley, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
Phone: (510) 642-9988