Longtime Juilliard trustee and benefactor James S. Marcus died on July 5 in Manhattan at age 85. Marcus, a lifelong opera lover, joined the Juilliard board with his wife in 1995, and they were incredibly loyal to the school over the years. In 2010, they donated $10 million to Juilliard to create the Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts. A true patron of the arts, Marcus was a longtime member and former chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Opera, and he and his wife supported many other organizations.
The first things you noticed about Jim were his intelligence and his wit. Even in a casual social exchange, the sparkle in his eye and the acuteness of his observations flashed at you right away.
I had known that Jim had already made a major impact as an arts philanthropist by the time I first met him as a board member at Juilliard. His knowledge of opera was extraordinary, developed through years of patient and not-so-patient operagoing. But, as I realized with time, it was much more. Jim spoke about the operas he treasured, especially his beloved Tristan und Isolde, as vital parts of his experience of life. He was the kind of audience member that performers normally just dream about; he engaged with these works, many seen countless times and in innumerable productions, on a deep and personal level.
So when we would discuss upcoming plans or hash over a show we'd seen, whether at Juilliard or elsewhere, I always anticipated Jim's reaction with a slight rise in my blood pressure. I knew that Jim's reactions were informed by real insight and a strong sense of attachment to the works he loved. He showed this love by his support of many arts organizations, not just with financial help but with the contribution of his powerful mind and finely-honed sensibilities.
Jim and his beloved wife Ellen were already strong presences at Juilliard when I became artistic director of vocal arts in the early 2000s. I had known that Jim had already served a long and fruitful stint as chairman of the Metropolitan Opera board. As he got closer to understanding the complicated layers of learning that go into training a singer his appreciation for what we were doing at Juilliard grew. He also understood how we could improve our teaching to help round out a singer's education, particularly in the area of acting. The transformational gift that he and Ellen gave our department in 2010 marked a watershed in his involvement. We worked hard to identify the areas in which we needed to improve and he was with us every step of the way.
He and Ellen were such frequent visitors to our performances, large and small, that our students came to see them as familiar and beloved presences. Jim astonished me by how closely he followed their growth: with pride, delight in their accomplishments, and astute questions about how we could serve them better.
Certain moments stand out. Jim and Ellen opened their magical East Hampton home for a summer concert where the early evening light and the spontaneous artistry of John Brancy (BM '11, Graduate Diploma '13, voice), Peter Dugan (BM '11, MM '14, piano), and Charles Yang (BM '11, MM '13, violin) astonished their guests. Another example: Jim was floored by a short but potent excerpt from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin in Stephen Wadsworth's Artist Diploma acting class. "They got it, they got to the heart of it" he would remember even years later. It was an acting exercise in street clothes, accompanied by piano under fluorescent light. None of that mattered to Jim because he saw and felt the power of the work we were doing. Less potent work in fancier garb wouldn't have fooled him for a minute. He was looking for truth, for human gifts that he could help nourish and he poured forth his support unstintingly.
We miss him and remember him as one of the most engaged and most generous supporters Juilliard has known.