The Academy of Music’s Jody McNeil Lewis

As the oldest grand opera house in the United States, the Academy of Music has a bloodline that runs deeper than that of most Main Liners. A premier backdrop for dance, theater and music, it’s one of the busiest halls in the world. But while convention reigns for diehard supporters, this cultural hub is losing its grip on younger audiences. Now under the direction of Jody McNeil Lewis, its youngest president ever, the academy aims to bridge that gap and preserve its 150-year tradition.

MLT: What are the key issues facing the academy?
JML:
It is a 150-year-old building that gets a lot of [use] from the city, so it needs to be taken care of. A lot of people who live in the city now weren’t born there, so they have no emotional ties. We need this upcoming generation to show support for the arts—and the building.

MLT: How much money does it take to fund the academy?
JML: We spend $1 million annually on capital, but it takes a lot more for renovations and to keep the buildings in good condition.

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MLT: You’re the youngest president of the academy. Did getting here come as a surprise?
JML: The academy has been a part of my life since I was a little girl, but I was surprised. My first response was that I’m too young and I have young kids, so I didn’t know how I was going to juggle everything. But then I realized that I spend so much time here anyway. So I can handle it.

MLT: How do you plan to attract younger audiences?
JML: Youth is really important to us, as they’re going to be our sponsors one day. We’re trying to get younger people to the Academy Ball. Last year we had Rod Stewart as the performer, and this year our theme is “From This Moment on.” This year, our performers include Billy Joel—who I think will do a great job of bringing the two generations together—and the Blue Man Group.

MLT: What are some things we might not know about the academy?
JML: Well, I’m sure you know that it’s a national historic landmark. But it’s also been a skating rink and a football stadium. In 1889, University of Pennsylvania and the Riverton Club in Princeton played a football game here; it ended in a 0-0 tie. And in 1872, the Republican Convention was held here; President Ulysses S. Grant was nominated for a second term.

MLT: What are your fondest memories of the academy?
JML: I remember being in awe of the building. I always thought one day I would be on stage playing the piano here. Actually, I did get to play on stage—it just wasn’t in front of an audience. I had a meeting here, and afterwards I just started playing.

MLT: We’ve been reading about the chandelier restoration. If anything happens during transport, who takes the fall?
JML: It’s insured by the restoration firm and the Philadelphia Orchestra. [The firm] has done a lot of research to make sure it will be authentic—and we get to go to the south of France to see how everything is going, so that’s pretty nice.

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