Leader of the Pack

Arvind Manocha's childhood rock-star dreams have evolved into a broader Wolf Trap reality

Interview by Doug Rule
Photography by Todd Franson
Published on June 27, 2013, 6:07am | Comments

Arvind Manocha remembers his first record collection. For a first-grader, already pretty impressive. In the Manocha mix: Queen's Live Killers, Donna Summer's On The Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II, the Rolling Stones' Some Girls and the Brothers Johnson's Light Up The Night. All that plus regular spins through his parents' collection of Indian classical music.

''I really was in love with music at a very, very early age,'' says the 41-year-old Manocha, born and raised in northeastern Ohio. ''And it was very eclectic. I kind of do like it all.''

By the time Manocha got to high school, he had picked up the saxophone and joined the marching band. And by the time he graduated he had picked up the guitar and was shredding it in local metal bands.

Arvind Manocha, President and CEO of Wolf Trap, on cover of Metro Weekly

Arvind Manocha, President and CEO of Wolf Trap, on cover of Metro Weekly

(Photo by Todd Franson)

''I went through a big metal phase,'' he concedes, admitting that he even grew his hair out for the role. ''There might have been felt ankle boots from time to time. It was the '80s, I was in a metal band…. What are you going to do?''

But Manocha didn't end up pursuing those early dreams of becoming a rock star. Instead, the youngest of two boys born to Indian immigrants earned a literature degree from Cornell University and a master's from England's Cambridge University, which he attended as an impressive Marshall Scholar.

Soon enough, though, he was working for rock stars, at least of the classical kind. Manocha, for example, helped oversee construction of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's primary home, the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall.

This past January Manocha signed on as president and CEO of Wolf Trap, a job with striking similarities to his perch over the past decade as head of L.A.'s Hollywood Bowl. Like Wolf Trap's Filene Center, the Hollywood Bowl is a thriving outdoor venue. ''Both festivals have a mandate – and follow my personal interest – to embrace music across a very wide spectrum,'' he says, presenting everything from Top 40 pop to blues to opera to classical.

The Hollywood Bowl is an 18,000-seat facility, whereas the Filene Center holds 7,000 people. But what Wolf Trap, which also includes the nearly 400-seat Barns, may lack in capacity it more than makes up for in its imprimatur as ''the only national park for the arts in the country.'' Nestled in 128 acres of gorgeously, dramatically preserved woods administered by the National Park Service, Wolf Trap, Manocha says, has ''an added responsibility to be inclusive, to speak to diverse audiences, to be accessible.'' It achieves that with programming that includes everyone from Garrison Keillor to the National Symphony Orchestra to Kesha; and by keeping ticket prices low, offering free parking and a shuttle service from the West Falls Church Metro stop, and allowing patrons to bring in their own food and beverages. Wolf Trap also runs its own well-regarded opera company and opera-training program, plus arts-education initiatives for children in 16 cities around the country.

Manocha effused about all that Wolf Trap has to offer on a recent Friday morning in the artist lounge below the Filene Center stage, where stagehands for Celtic Woman were causing a raucous setting up for that evening's show. Manocha also expressed great enthusiasm for his new life in the D.C. area. He and his partner, Gideon, whom he first met while at Cambridge, have just finished renovating a house near Wolf Trap in Great Falls, Va.

''I don't have a history here, he doesn't have any history here,'' he says. ''It actually makes me feel like I felt when we first met, which is really corny, I know, because that was a long time ago. But it really does feel like a very fresh start.''

METRO WEEKLY: Let's start at the beginning. As a kid, what did you want to do when you grew up?

ARVIND MANOCHA: When you're little you want to do a lot of things. I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I wanted to be a rock star. And I wanted to be a writer. But in some ways when I think about it, I loved music. So something artistic.

MW: Were you musical growing up? Did you sing?

MANOCHA: I did not sing. I learned how to read music by playing the saxophone. That was my instrument. In the fourth grade you had to pick. I think I quit band my junior year of high school. When you got to high school you had to be in the marching band. And in Ohio, in the fall/winter, you're basically marching with a baritone saxophone in the snow, while it's raining on you. That got old pretty quickly.

MW: Do you play any instruments now?

MANOCHA: I moved on from the saxophone to the guitar -- the bass guitar -- because I was more interested in being in a rock band than the marching band. And I did that through high school and college. And beyond. I still play the guitar from time to time.

Wolf Trap CEO Arvind Manocha

Wolf Trap CEO Arvind Manocha

(Photo by Todd Franson)

MW: I understand in college you wrote a couple plays, some fiction. Do you still write?

MANOCHA: No, not really. I realized in my mid-20s, as much as I had been doing it up until that point, when I stopped doing it I didn't miss it at all.

That's a pretty important thing to know about yourself. Some people are born to create. And other people, I think, are born to celebrate and support those who create. Sometimes people get confused about which one of those two they are. But I knew that my more fundamental calling wasn't to spend a lot of time on my own writing. I'm not good spending all day by myself. I need to be with other people, interacting and engaging.

MW: Was coming out a struggle?

MANOCHA: No, actually, not at all. Quite frankly, I feel very fortunate. When I told my parents that I was gay, it was more an issue for me than it was for them. They were great. I can't remember the exact words, but it was something along the lines of, ''We just want you to be happy.'' They were awesome about it.

MW: It probably helped that they were professors, educators.

MANOCHA: I don't know. They were both in a university setting, so certainly their life was spent in large part with younger people -- college kids, graduate students. But the area we grew up in, the colleges they worked in, I wouldn't say were hotbeds of liberalism. '

MW: This was suburban Cleveland?

MANOCHA: A place called Warren, Ohio, which is a suburb of Youngstown, which in itself is an hour south of Cleveland. We weren't really in a Cleveland suburb – that would have been more cosmopolitan.

I grew up in a place where there was not a lot of diversity. At all. There were some ethnic-minority communities, but it was a mostly very homogenous town. People knew each other. It was mostly a fairly conservative, white community, so my family and some of my parents' friends were definitely different.

Just looking at it on paper, you might not have thought that was going to be a place where the Indian kid goes back and tells his parents he's gay and everybody's happy and hugging and responsive and supportive.

MW: Did you have a rough time growing up in high school being non-white in such a white setting?

MANOCHA: I wouldn't say rough. I would say we were conscious of it, though. I think that there's a very big difference between prejudice and ignorance. I think there was definitely prejudice in town, and that would come up from time to time, absolutely. I'm not candy-coating it, but I would say my overriding feeling about growing up there was that there was a lot of ignorance.

It's kind of comical to think back about some of the questions you would get. People really didn't know what Indian people were. They didn't know where we came from. People would say things like, ''When did you leave the tribe, or the reservation?'' Or when they realize India is a foreign country as we got a little bit older in life, kids would say, ''But are there airports there? How do you get there? Do you have to take camels?'' Ignorant stuff.

If you think back about the '70s and '80s, there was almost no representation of Indian people in the media, right? Now it's a very different day, both on the gay side and on the Indian side, which is great for me. [Laughs.] Suddenly ''gay'' and ''Bollywood'' all kind of equals interesting and fabulous.

MW: When did you come out? Were you bullied?

MANOCHA: That part of it came much later. Growing up, the most obvious, defining characteristic that made me different was being Indian. I was very conscious of that, and much more focused on navigating childhood and wanting to be accepted. You want to fit in. And I never was bullied, never felt like an outcast. But the Indian-ness, the fact that at home we lived very differently than every one of my friends did, that all was much more top of mind.

It wasn't until I went to college and then past college into grad school, where I started to feel more comfortable about racial identity. Once that became more comfortable, I started to peel away and figure out the rest of my life.

MW: Were your parents also supportive of your focus on literature as a degree, and your career in the arts that followed?

MANOCHA: Absolutely. My parents never did the kind of stereotypical thing. I didn't get any pressure to be a doctor, I didn't get any pressure to be an engineer. Certainly, a lot of that exists. That stereotype has certain realities to it, for sure. But they weren't medical doctors either, and I think that played a big part of it.

A lot of the population that emigrated from India in the mid-'60s when the laws changed were engineers and medical doctors, and therefore I think quite naturally encouraged their children to follow in similar footsteps. My parents were very happy that I was studying literature, and that I was more on the liberal arts side. My elder brother's an engineer who went to MIT. We're very different in that sense, and my parents never really expressed any preference or coaching as to which direction to follow.

MW: Let's talk about your life now. How long have you and Gideon been together?

MANOCHA: Well, we met 17 years ago. I can't say we've been exactly together all of that time, because he was in London and I was in L.A., and at some points the long-distance thing became very complicated. But we kind of figured it out for ourselves in 2002. We kind of made a commitment to making it work.

MW: And having just moved to the D.C. area, you're making it work in a new environment. How has it been so far?

MANOCHA: Great. We moved here very happily. Part of what's been great is that when he moved to L.A., he was moving to a city that I had already lived in for 10 years. I think coming here has been particularly good, because we're coming to someplace fresh together.

MW: Are you two married?

MANOCHA: No. We are planning on getting married. We had planned on getting married last year, and had actually started planning that wedding for the fall of 2012, and then I started getting calls about moving out here. It was too much to do both. We're hoping for next year.

MW: Will the wedding be here?

MANOCHA: It'll depend on a few things. It depends on what happens with the [Supreme] Court. I do anticipate that DOMA will be repealed, which will at least allow us to get married, either in the District or Maryland or somewhere where it is legal on the state level and have that recognized. Who knows? If the court goes all the way on the Prop. 8 case, potentially it could be legal everywhere soon. I'm not holding by breath for that, though.

MW: With Gideon a U.K. citizen, you must be following the immigration-reform efforts in Congress.

MANOCHA: Very keenly. For us, the biggest impediment in our lives personally is the complete lack of equality when it comes to immigration for binational gay couples. This actually has been the first time in my whole life where it really became very painfully aware to me the difference between prejudice and discrimination. People can be prejudiced and that's unfortunate, but it's a reality. If your neighbor doesn't like your family, that's kind of their problem. They can make your life complicated, but as long as it's just them not liking you, fine.

When the state that you were born into – meaning the United States – where you feel like you're a model citizen, you do well in school, you have a good job, you're paying your taxes, you do all the things you're supposed to do to be a productive member of society, and then you're told you don't have this right that everyone else has. That's a very different feeling. There are very few vestiges of that kind of state-sponsored discrimination left, which is great. I know that it's not been that long that other elements of the highly discriminatory practices of the state have been repealed -- in the last 50 years -- but this inequality bit on marriage, it's a shocker.

People used to say to us all the time, ''Why don't you just go get married in Massachusetts and then he can move here?'' Frankly, gay people used to say this to us all the time. You'd have to remind people that immigration rights are federal rights, not state rights.

We were fortunate in the sense that when we decided to make a go of this, before I had to move there (the U.K.), he got a job at UCLA. That was an amazing turn for us, [because] they sponsored his green card. So he was able to live and work here on a work visa, and then got his permanent residency based on that experience. Otherwise, I would have moved, for sure.

MW: It would have been easy for you to gain citizenship, in Britain or another Commonwealth country, such as Canada, through him?

MANOCHA: It would have been very easy to get citizenship through him. It would have been a very different career path for me, but at that point we realized if we can't live together here, even though I had a good career going in L.A., we would have moved for sure.

All sorts of people who shouldn't have to leave their country to be with somebody are leaving. Moving to Canada, moving to Argentina, or moving to England or moving to someplace in Europe.

MW: To return to the distinction you made between prejudice and discrimination: You felt prejudice growing up, chiefly as an American of Indian descent, but you didn't feel discrimination until more recently, and strictly as a gay person?

MANOCHA: I didn't feel discrimination growing up. I felt prejudice. You felt that people were being unfair. You felt that people were in that sense exercising their personal rights to be dickheads. There's no mandate from the state that you must be a good person. That can be very hurtful, but did it prohibit me from going to school? Did it prohibit me from getting a job? Did it prohibit me from applying to certain colleges? I felt like I was able to do those things.

But the marriage-equality thing, when I realized I might have to leave the country over this, because the state says that we not only can't get married on a federal level, but there's no provision in any of the immigration statutes that allows you to do this. If I were a straight guy and went to Europe for the weekend and met a woman and fell in love and got married the next day, she could have moved here with status and a visa within six weeks.

MW: Let's turn to your career. I guess the challenge you have at Wolf Trap, as with the Hollywood Bowl, is the broad scope of performances. You're not just a rock venue, or a presenter of classical concerts, or jazz jams, but all of that and more.

MANOCHA: We are, on some level, all of those things. It makes it complicated. That's actually harder than if we were any one of those things.

We buy time on every radio station on the dial. We have to have a relationship and a vocabulary and something relevant to the pop station, the indie station, the jazz, classical, Latin – all of it. It makes it very hard, but also really great.

We consume music so differently than we did when we were kids. Now we consume music on a much more eclectic basis, because the technology has made it easier to do that. We're not necessarily dropping the needle on a record and having it play through and then flipping it over. We're listening to individual tracks that we've downloaded. It's much easier to go from your love of R&B to your love of metal to your love of blues in the same playlist, artist to artist. And I think festivals like this make it easy for people to have that kind of writ large in the course of a summer.

Wolf Trap exterior

Wolf Trap exterior

(Photo by Todd Franson)

MW: How much of a hand did you have in putting together the 2013 Filene Center season? I could be wrong, but I don't know if Carly Rae Jepsen or OneRepublic, to name two acts this season, would have been on the calendar five or 10 years ago.

MANOCHA: I can't say about five or 10 years ago. A lot of this season was put together before I got here. Some of it we were tweaking after -- the cycle of planning a season is generally about eight months to a year in advance. So depending on when in this summer calendar, I was around for some of the last parts of the booking. The booking team here is very creative. I certainly am open to a lot of new things, so when they present ideas about different artists and acts, I definitely feel like there's a lot of opportunity in shaking things up a little bit. And so some of the things you [mentioned] are in the vein of what you'll see in the future.

MW: You're aiming to appeal to a younger, or at least different, demographic than in the past?

MANOCHA: Maybe different. Because we still appeal to the Garrison Keillor crowd and the opera crowd, and that's all foundational. But it's nice for the Kesha fans to start their relationship with Wolf Trap earlier in their life.

I like that when I'm talking to donors who have been involved with Wolf Trap for many, many decades, and I mention that Kesha is coming, they all kind of do a double-take. And then they're excited, because their teenage daughters are hitting them up for tickets, and so they're starting to be engaged on the Kesha front as well. I don't think they're all getting loaded and brushing their teeth with Jack Daniels in the morning, but they're starting to understand that there's more to it.

MW: How selective can you be with your programming? You want to sell out shows, but bringing in the likes of Kesha might strike some as substituting quantity for quality.

MANOCHA: It's a balancing act. The financial imperatives are especially important here – not because they're going to shareholders, and there's that pressure – but because the money that we make here helps support our education programs. We're very conscious of the fact that -- and I hope the audience is very conscious of the fact -- that there's a much more altruistic reason that we care about the bottom line on these summer shows. Because the more we [make], the more education we can provide. It's very linear, it's very causal. It's not a casual relationship at all. We're not apologetic about it, because we know that what we do with that money actually goes back to benefit on a much broader scale.

MW: A portion of ticket sales goes toward your education programs?

MANOCHA: Yes. I think that's a very important and under-known fact. When you come to see a concert at Wolf Trap at Filene Center, the ticket that you buy, you're going to get the experience that you want from a musical perspective, but some of that ticket money is helping us educate children, using the arts from Arizona to Detroit to Florida to Boston -- all of which have Wolf Trap programs.'

MW: I understand that one of your extracurricular passions is architecture, so being at Wolf Trap must present an extra thrill for you.

MANOCHA: These buildings are amazing. The two main venues we have for music, Filene Center and the Barns, are architecturally showstoppers. I was very fortunate in the sense that I had worked both at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which was Frank Gehry's project, and then at the Hollywood Bowl, which is another iconic piece of architecture.

But we all looked at Wolf Trap as a real example in the industry, certainly on the Filene Center side, of just a stunning piece of architecture that was so well placed within its site so that you end up having a very successful sensory marriage. You're coming for music, but you're at a place that was clearly built for the enjoyment of music and for the enjoyment of the park. Patrons understand that an arena that was built for ice hockey that is being used for a concert is a very different thing than going to someplace that was clearly built for music and for the enjoyment of music. This was obviously a place that was built with a tremendous amount of care and attention to the beauty of the architecture itself.

The Barns weren't built for music, were converted for music, but that is a stunning interior and a very intimate space for music. It's a place that's unique. It's got character. It's not a little black-box club that could be anywhere. It's a very unique spot, and you know it when you're in it. If you're somebody like me who loves architecture and really respects the role that architects play in society, it's a very all-encompassing artistic experience. '

MW: You mentioned that Wolf Trap is a national park. The grounds are available for patrons – or anyone, really – to come and spend the day and have a picnic, or go for a hike?

MANOCHA: It's the ''national park for the arts,'' but it's a national park. There are over 100 acres of parkland that make up this national park, and they're stunning.

We have a children's theater that's buried deep in the woods, which we program during the day in the summertime. Parents can bring young kids to learn about various music and cultures around the world.

There's a stream, there are picnic areas, there are jogging trails -- it's all well sign-posted. People come out during the day and have picnics and exercise. Or sled in the winter when it's snowy.

MW: Over the next five or 10 years, what are your general goals, both personally and for Wolf Trap?

MANOCHA: For Wolf Trap, I would say clearly continuing on the traditions of the Filene Center in terms of our commitment to diversity. There are some new things that I want to put in place for the next year and the year after. I think a big opportunity for Wolf Trap, and something that I'm very focused on, is making sure that people understand the Wolf Trap story better. The education work that Wolf Trap does is so important and so far-reaching, and I find it's something that not everybody is aware of. The only thing that stands between getting more kids through the Wolf Trap program is a matter of awareness and money. And that's my job to figure out how to bring more of both into the mix.

On a personal level, well, within five years we'll have moved into our new house, gotten married. Beyond that I can never say.

MW: What about kids or pets?

MANOCHA: In terms of children, no, we are not looking at children in our future. Pets? [Gideon] wants pets because he grew up with dogs, but he refuses to believe that he's allergic. But he is. I did not grow up with pets so it's harder for me to see…. We are talking about a chicken coop. '

MW: To raise for eggs and meat?

MANOCHA: I don't know so much about meat. I think we're just focused on the eggs. I mean maybe eventually.

MW: And you can do that in your new neighborhood?

MANOCHA: We're not entirely sure yet. In L.A. you can do it anywhere. They have urban chickens everywhere. You can have a little 10-feet-by-10-feet patio and have chickens out there. Here it's a little bit more regulated, weirdly, because it's one of the few things that seems to be more regulated in Virginia than California.

I saw a really great, very contemporary-style chicken coop, so I thought, if he really wants the chickens for the eggs, then we could build or buy something that's really sleek for the chickens, that could be a good combination of both of our interests.

MW: While at work at Wolf Trap, at least, I gather you see a lot of animals. Though, despite the name, no wolves.

MANOCHA: This used to be a place to trap wolves. I see foxes from my office from time to time. There are lots of bunnies, lots of deer. And bears if you come on a gay night.

[Read more "Hints from Arvind: Wolf Trap's Future"]

For a complete listing of upcoming performances and other offerings at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, located in Vienna, visit wolftrap.org. For general information, call 703-255-1900. For the box office, call 877-WOLFTRAP.

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