Steven Stolen calls himself a "restless" person. I wonder if that's a strong enough word. He started an emotionally demanding job as Director of External Relations at the Julian Center a little more than a month ago. And now he's trying to learn a new 30-minute, one-man opera, Michael Schelle's The End of Al Capone, in time for next month's Butler ArtsFest. And his next destination on a Friday afternoon was a WFYI fundraiser, because he still anchors that punny radio show. And it's been like this for a quarter-century, as the singer and arts administrator —we'll stick with those two descriptions; others could apply — has worked in various creative and/or managerial capacities for Butler University, the Indianapolis Children's Choir and Indiana Repertory Theatre, among other institutions, while performing with his Meridian Song Project and, as he puts it, just about every big performing arts group in town.
I don't think things have changed a lot. The big guys are still the big guys. They can do whatever they want, and I've been the beneficiary of that. I've been able to sing and work with and for almost all of the marquee leaders. I don't think anybody was ever going to let the leading institutions fail.
But the IndyFringe Festival taught us something. Most people go knowing that they might see something they don't necessarily love. But they go anyways. There's a sort of tolerance for the experience — it's only going to be so long; it's only going to cost so much money — and you don't expect to see 500 people go. If there's been a shift in the city in my mind, it's the breadth of small-ball that we can play now without being embarrassed about it. That's allowed a whole bunch of artists to find success.
I heard the ballet comparison when talking about the opera. I think we've proven that we are a world-class city without the ballet. I don't see it as a game-changer, but I'd be willing to listen to somebody like David Hochoy tell me differently. Once things go badly and you get rescued — and that happens a lot of times — if you're not an essential service, it's hard to go back to the community and say, 'Give us another try; we're just going to try harder this time.'
Twenty-five years ago, there was a smaller group of pretty powerful people helping generously with their time, influence and resources. That's been diffused some and that's been better for us. And there are more connectors now. More Michael Kaufmanns, more Michael Hubers — and other people not named Michael — who can direct you to places that you might not have been.
I'm a classical guy. I started my career singing with baroque orchestras, of all things. But I was always interested in a more eclectic part of the world. I was the guy at the IMA who always wanted to do music in the galleries. Can you imagine if I was there now? I could do anything I wanted! The traditional arts are always a little late to the game — and I think Indy gets that rap anyways, that we're behind everyone else.
Artists are the ultimate entrepreneurs. Twenty-five years ago, it would be hard to imagine all this vitality, this many theater companies, this many individual artists with places to play. Classical music is probably the one area where there hasn't been that change. I'm not so sure we're doing anyone a favor with these rigid, highly structured music programs. The academy continues to own the intellectual property that is classical music — it's an intellectual property and not an emotional property.
People like classical music! The deliverable is the problem sometimes. Opera is like this. I'll be in focus groups and they're really interested in the music — they just don't want to be trapped in a big hall for hours at a time. They don't even want to go to Clowes Hall.
Sublime moments over the past 25 years? I did a show with Jack Everly and the Symphony, a 1940s show. And at the end of that show, Jack honored me with a song, on-stage with the symphony, with solo piano. He's been a sustaining presence in that orchestra with a lot of people coming and going. I don't think people realize how brilliant Jack is. Sometimes when the music is music we know, we forget about the responsibility there is to play someone's favorite song, to sing someone's favorite music. And to do that at the level he does, at that high level of creativity? He's a man of the theater, a brilliant musician. And Jack was really good to me. I sang with him in St. Louis, Detroit, Baltimore, Pittsburgh.
Another untold story here is [Indianapolis Children's Choir founder] Henry Leck, who's the most influential musician of the last several decades in Indianapolis. Every kid in that situation has a great experience. Whether they're great singers or not, they can take that experience to their scout troops, church groups, basketball teams, Brownie troops or student councils. Henry is a living legend, the Pied Piper. He respects children and asks a lot of them, but he's not unreasonable. My work at the Children's Choir was just inspiring. You watch Henry Leck work with 185 kids in the room; it's just magic.
During my run at the IRT, maybe the most breathtaking moment was at the end of an incredible production of The Diary of Anne Frank, which is kind of a cliche play. You know those police officers are coming up the stairs — but the audience takes a deep breath, even though you know they're coming, that they're all going to die. That's pretty amazing. I probably watched hundreds of Christmas Carols, and I never got tired of it. I love watching the Scrooge redemption scene when he wakes up.
When I moved here, I wanted to create ways to sing song concerts. I didn't want to be an opera singer because I couldn't be. Maybe that was a good self-realization. I went to the IMA with an idea about doing concerts in galleries, doing concerts for families — and the museum gave me a platform for seven years to do free concerts. The museum goes through these times where they think they need to charge for things. So they wanted to do this nominal charge for the concerts. And I said, why would we do that? It's not enough money. So I moved, partly because I thought they had had it with me, partly because I thought I could raise my own money and keep it free. We went to Trinity because it's my home church and I said we'll do this as outreach, you can be my umbrella so people can give to the church and support the concert series, and 17 years later we still do that.
It's more okay than ever to be an artist and live in Indianapolis. Twenty-five years ago, you had to have been from somewhere else or you had to be going somewhere else. And here I am, 57 years old, and I'm still here. I don't know if that's old; I still have a couple whaps left in me. This has been a pretty great run for me — 25 years doing concerts, almost all of them free, and not running out of gas. Maybe it speaks to, again, being able to play small ball.
— As told to Scott Shoger
Stolen's many job titles, past and present: Singer, educator, higher education administrator, fundraiser, radio host.