Opera Goes Public

Not yet as popular as football, the four opera companies of Texas are setting out to become the people's entertainment.

December 1973By Comments

MANY YEARS AGO A BARITONE visiting the Opera House in Parma, Italy, was delighted to discover that upon finishing the last note of the Prologue to Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci the audience greeted him with cries of “Bis! Bis!” or “More! More!” Naturally, the singer was well pleased with himself and proceeded to sing the aria again. The crowd roared for another time through; the singer complied. Again the audience requested a repeat; again the baritone gave it to them. But, they were not to be so easily satisfied, and still cried for more. The dazed singer, who was by this time exhausted, came before the curtain and said “Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, but I cannot sing it again.” A voice from the crowd answered authoritively: “You will sing it until you get it right.”

About the same time in El Paso, a touring opera company was presenting The Barber of Seville. One of the musicians happened to mention to his neighbors during the intermission that the touring version included several minor cuts. Within minutes the word spread throughout the audience, who then became so enraged that the sheriff had to be summoned. The ticket holders were convinced they had been cheated and were not getting their money’s worth.

Separated as they were by geography and cultures, these two incidents together reflect the sort of growth which has kept Grand Opera alive and vital through the centuries.

From its Florentine beginnings around 1600, opera’s growth has almost always followed a two-part pattern. First of all, opera is seen as a diversion for the rich. (This is usually accompanied by the belief that the host country is not sophisticated enough to produce real opera, and that foreign composers and artists must be relied on to provide the necessary skills and talent.)

The second stage occurs when someone (or some people) realize that their nation (or section) is not as impoverished as everyone believed, and that homegrown singers and composers could produce operas just as vibrant and alive as those fancy foreigners.

This pattern is particularly evident throughout European history. In France, many thought that a successful French Opera was impossible until the composer Lully assumed control of the Royal Music Academy and forged a new French style. Germany borrowed styles, composers and singers from Italy until Mozart came along and produced a masterpiece called The Magic Flute, which became the progenitor of all subsequent German Opera.

In his Short History of Opera Donald Grout points out that: “The English tendency to underrate their own music in comparison with Continental composers has been a bane of their musical history ever since Elizabethan times.” He goes on to describe the emergence of a true English opera as being owed “partly to the genius of a very small number of English composers who were either conservative enough or of sufficient original genius to resist foreign domination.” One of those composers was Henry Purcell, who produced England’s first operatic masterpiece: Dido and Aeneas.

Even Russia has experienced the difficulties of starting a successful national opera. Until the 19th century most singers, conductors, and stylistic features were imported directly from Italy or France. Then Glinka composed A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Ludmila both of which became models for later Russian opera.

The Russian court nobility was as intent on getting its money’s worth from visiting Italian companies as was that turn of the century El Paso audience. Even critical Parma’s opera began as an imitation of the fashionable French opera of the period.

At some point, however, opera ceases to be an imported commodity and instead becomes an art and entertainment that local talent is capable of executing as well as anyone. This phenomenon is now happening in Texas. It began in San Antonio and has spread to Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston (where it is currently the most vital).

The credit for the first professional opera locally produced in Texas goes to the Symphony Society of San Antonio. In 1945, Max Reiter, then conductor of the symphony, decided to augment the season with a short festival of opera. The response was positive and unanimous. As a result of the first year’s success a pattern was set which has continued in San Antonio and which has also been followed in a major way by Dallas and Fort Worth.

The procedure called for importing well known stars for the principal roles with secondary parts taken by local singers. The three local San Antonio colleges or the Mastersingers could be called on to provide the chorus parts.

This system has attracted numerous stars. Patrons have been offered Birgit Nilsson’s Tosca, James McCracken’s Otello, and Norman Treigle’s Boris Godunov. In 1968, the first uncut North American version of Verdi’s Don Carlo was presented to celebrate the opening of HemisFair and the Theater for the Performing Arts.

The repertory has, in the main, been rather conservative. There have been uncountable offerings of Aida, Traviata, La Boheme, and Il Trovatore. The most favorable receptions from a musical vantage point have been in the lesser played works such as Boris Godunov.

San Antonio’s Municipal Auditorium seats 6000 people, which means barn-like acoustical qualities to at least part of the house. The smaller Theater for the Performing Arts has a bright sound suitably balanced and warm throughout. The sightlines are also excellent and offer a fine view with uniform sound anywhere in the hall.

The star system employed in San Antonio and also utilized by Dallas and Ft. Worth has several fundamental drawbacks. Too often insufficient rehearsal time is granted to the incoming leads, who can then do little to tailor their performances to fit the particular house, company, and situation in which they are performing. Secondly, the absence of a resident company means that the secondary singers who are selected from the community are often not up to the professional level required by the performers with whom they share the stage. One’s credulity is stretched to hear a dialogue between the excellent Louis Quilico as Rigoletto and a Marullo who has all the mannerisms of a church choir baritone.

Thirdly, the young American singers of today are helped very little by this sort of situation. For the most part they are denied even semi-permanent engagements since the stars take the leads and the townspeople the minor parts.

The result of the entire system is that it perpetuates the attitude of opera as a foreign guest, something that is bought and presented, and after which, one is more “cultured.” The situation is hardly different than that of Catherine the Great of Russia who hired the Italians and French to present opera to her court.

Although much has been just mentioned about the drawbacks of the star system, it must also be said that much good comes from it. After all, opera is being presented by some of the greatest artists living to audiences who might never get to see it otherwise.

The crux of the matter is to know when to go beyond the star system and start a live, growing resident company. To view the star system as an end in itself is to miss out on much growth and quality that the system by its very nature cannot provide.

The advantages of living in San Antonio, however, will be very evident this spring when the opera celebrates its 30th year anniversary. Norman Treigle and Carol Neblett team up for an English Marriage of Figaro February 1 and 3, March 29 and 31, Die Meistersinger will be presented with Jean Cox, Heather Harper, and Thomas Stewart. Rounding out the season will be Lucia di Lammermoor, starring Beverly Sills, and Barry Morell.

In contrast to San Antonio, where the opera was an outgrowth of the symphony, Fort Worth owes its company to three enterprising housewives who decided in 1946 that some opportunities should be provided for young talent. The result was the Fort Worth Opera Association.

The first production was a Traviata that got the young company off to a good start. During the years many financial difficulties have beset the company but somehow a way has always been found to continue.

The approach taken to the promoting of the productions is sometimes rather ingenuous. (“Opera is great musical theater!” reads the brochure. “Come on! Relax, enjoy, thrill…”) The publicity releases assure subscribers that a season ticket is the best opera bargain in the United States.

The Fort Worth Opera acquired one of its strongest members when Rudolf Kruger signed on in 1955 as General Manager and Musical Director. Bringing with him years of experience with the Columbia (South Carolina) Symphony and the Chicago Light Opera, he very capably oversees each new season.

During the years the number of productions has increased from three each year to five. English is now only one of the languages heard on stage. (Previously, everything had been done in English.) And the young singers are on stage with some very experienced veterans.

The Fort Worth Opera gives the impression of great desire which lacks only visionary leadership. Perhaps that too will come with time.

The artists featured are not the superstars (Treigle excepted) that are found at San Antonio or Dallas; most come from New York City Center, San Francisco or are “House” singers from the Met. Area singers get a chance to sing some small roles. This is a modified star system. Modified in the sense that the stars aren’t that big,…yet.

At the date of publication, the first production is over. (Lucia with Patricia Wise). The upcoming winter and spring productions consist of Norman Treigle’s Figaro (previewed here before he does it in San Antonio) on January 18 and 20. Strauss’ Salome is featured March 8 and 10, with Maria Kouba in the title role. The seemingly unbeatable combination of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci comes to town April 5 and 7, with Louis Quilico, Enrico di Giuseppe, William Lewis, Heather Thomson, and Marisa Galvany leading the cast. The season’s close will be with Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel (in English) April 21, 23 and 24. (The latter are school performances.) Susanne Marsee and Eileen Shelle will star in this production which is presented through a grant provided by the Corbett Foundation of Cincinnati.

Probably no opera in Texas has offered so many important American debuts in the past few years as has the Dallas Civic Opera. They have included such names as Sutherland, Caballe, Vickers, and Domingo. Not bad for the youngest company in the state!

Formed in 1957 by Lawrence Kelly, who had left Chicago’s Lyric Opera, DCO started off with an impressive list of plusses: Music Director was Nicola Rescigno, Broadway’s Jean Rosenthal joined up as production manager; and a young Italian named Franco Zefferelli (later to do Romeo and Juliet for the movies) came on as stage director. The ace-in-the-hole was an agreement by Maria Callas to sing during the first year.

The opening of the company was inaugurated by Ms. Callas with a concert on November 21,1957, followed by her singing the lead in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. The accompanying cast included such artists as Giulietta Simionato, Giuseppe Taddei, and Nicola Monti. The results were sensational. “For a couple of nights running,” wrote Newsweek, “Dallas was the operatic capital of the United States.”

The Dallas tradition has always had a very cosmopolitan or European flavor. The caliber of production is usually of the highest, and the stars are of the International Variety, names like Schwarzkopf, Del Monico, De Los Angeles and Vickers.

In short, there is something different about DCO. San Antonio will hire the stars for the leads and the secondary roles are local talent; Fort Worth features primarily younger or lesser known talents; but Dallas chooses the cream of the crop for all its productions.

The sets and costumes receive as much care in the choice of designers as does the choice of singers. There is something of the fairy-tale about all this. Artists fly in, sing superlatively and are gone almost as if a kind uncle had bought the services of the greatest entertainers to put on a show and then leave. After it is over we are still dazed by the wonder of it all.

Although limited to a usual three full length productions a year, the company has shown some ingenuity in trying to offer something each season for those who enjoy a taste of lesser known or infrequently played works. Last year, this tendency resulted in the novel pairing of Dido and Aeneas with Pagliacci, and a glimpse at Massenet’s bittersweet masterpiece Werther.

Since the DCO season extends barely over a month, readers will already have had their chance to view all three offerings, with perhaps the exception of the last opera Andre Chenier. To mention them, however, is certainly appropriate.

The novelty of the season was certainly selected as the opener: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Coq D’Or, featuring Donald Gramm, Jeanette Scovotti, William Johns, and Frances Bible in the leading roles. The second offering on the schedule was the popular Nozze di Figaro, with a star-studded cast led by Sir Geraint Evans, Victoria de los Angeles, Graziells Sciutti, and Sesto Bruscantini. On November 30 and December 4 and 8 the season will culminate with Jon Vickers in the title role of Andrea Chenier. The tenor will be in the good company of cast members Ilva Ligabue, Silvano Carroli, and Nancy Williams.

An “Extra Subscriber-Only Benefit!” (the brochure points out) is a first priorty rating on tickets for the only Dallas appearance of Maria Callas in March. Since Ms. Callas’ recital tour marks her return to singing after an absence of eight years, this is certain to be a remarkable drawing card for the DCO. Anyone interested in the musical stage who doesn’t avail himself of this opportunity to hear a near legend will surely look back in regret.

“MONEY’S NICE AND OF SOME importance, and singers have their little space, but I’m the one they can’t replace!”

This selection from Mozart’s The Impresario, although sung by the stage manager, might more suitably be spoken by the impresario himself, for he is the one who produces and oversees the fantastic conglomeration that creates opera. And nowhere in Texas has the importance of this figure been more in evidence than in Houston.

The Houston Grand Opera had its inception under the watchful eye of musical director Walter Herbert. The first production was in January, 1956, with Brenda Lewis in the title role of Salome.

From the first, Houston’s emphasis has been toward a more daring repertoire than the other Texas houses. Opera goers have been treated to such rare gems as Rossini’s Cenerentola, Strauss’ Elektra, (with Inge Borkh in the title role), and a Walkure, in 1959 that gave Texans their first taste of the Ring in over 20 years.

However, the real possibilities inherent in the company were not even vaguely realized until a forthright, outspoken young go-getter named David Gockley assumed the responsibilities of General Director. After a novitiate as Business Manager for the young organization, Gockley felt he was just the man for the job of turning the company into a major professional opera, and his prediction is turning out to be a bull’s eye.

Although the budget has more than doubled (from $448,000 to just over $1 million), the percentage of annual deficits has shrunk from 40 per cent to 22 per cent. The subscription list has zoomed from 4100 to 8400 and 14 more performances have been added per season.

As impressive as these figures are, they are secondary to the artistic achievements. Realizing that for any opera to really grow it must develop a reputation and acquire a permanent company, Gockley has aggressively and sometimes blatantly pusued the means to achieve this end.

One of the first innovations of his reign was Gockley’s inauguration of opera in English. Each production is given on a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. The Saturday performance, however, is given in English with young American singers instead of the stars of the previous nights. The prices are also reduced to a more popular level. This was so effective that over 15,000 (mostly opera novices) attended performances last year.

Another innovation was a festival of fully-staged operas in a downtown Houston park during the early summer. The unusual part about the festival is that it is free. (Nowhere else in the world is this done.) The productions are also daring in scope and concept. A highlight of the festival was the American premiere of Ralph Vaughan William’s Hugh the Drover.

This penchant for premieres is quickly becoming a Houston Opera trait. This year they will present the world premiere of Thomas Pasatieri’s The Seagull based on the Chekhov play. In a brochure—prepared by Ogilvy and Mather Advertising Agency—Gockley explains that not only should the audience find the production enjoyable, but that premieres draw global attention. (“World Premieres are what put Santa Fe and Seattle on the operatic map,” explains the promotional literature.)

One of the results of this enthusiasm and courage is that gradually a nucleus of resident singers is forming. Although stars are still imported, ample time is given to assure a satisfactory series of rehearsals. And although the opera is now housed at Jesse Jones Hall, rumors have been flying that a new “Opera House” is in the offing.

Another feather in the Houston cap is in education. In addition to the Saturday English language performances, a full slate of 12 student performances is given throughout the season, more than any other opera company in the country provides.

Houston’s major problem is lack of financial support by local industry and business. The largest corporate gift so far has been five thousand dollars. Most of the funds are raised by nickel-and-dime contributions. A dominating feeling about Houston is that area residents have not yet recognized the possible importance and prestige the opera can bring to the city.

This year Gockley has expanded the season from five to six productions. Opening October 9, 12, 13 and 14 was Verdi’s Macbeth, which starred Gian Piero Mastromai as the Thane of Cawdor, and Pauline Tinsley as his grisly mate.

The Lone Star State’s fourth Figaro of the 1973 season was presented November 13, 16-18 with Michael Devlin in the lead slot, and Patricia Wise as the lovely Susanna. The Count and Countess were portrayed by Benjamin Luxon and Felicity Palmer. All performances were in English.

If you have missed Beverly Sills’ Traviata another chance is offered to you when the renowned diva appears as the Lady of the Camellias. Performances are scheduled for January 22, 25, 26, and 27, 1974.

March 5, 8, 9, and 10 will see the premiere of Thomas Pasatieri’s The Seagull. Pasatieri’s previous works have included the N.E.T. opera The Trial of Mary Lincoln. The new work will be Houston’s first world premiere.

The bon-bon of the season is Offenbach’s La Perichole to be staged March 26, 29, 30 and 31. To make certain all the humor of this light hearted work comes across, every performance will be in English.

The season will draw to a close with Norman Treigle’s impersonation of Boito’s villainous creation: Mefistofele. The production opens April 26 and runs the 19 and 21. The entire production is borrowed from City Center in New York.

A definite pattern is emerging in Texas opera. Audiences in San Antonio, Fort Worth, and Dallas are offered productions which tend to favor the out-of-state, out-of-country, imported talent. As fine as these productions are, they still represent a way of viewing the musical stage as something foreign to the talents and abilities of Texas artists. In other words, they are still in the first stage of operatic growth.

Houston can certainly take the credit for entering the second stage. Gockley and company are at work diligently to change the city’s operatic self-image. The cover of a recent brochure showed a picture of the General Director with the headline: “Our daring young opera impressario refuses to rest on last season’s laurels. He asks you for $225,000 to help Houston get more and more worldwide recognition.” The inside pages pose the basic question: “It comes down to this: what does the country think of Houston as a cultural center?”

Whether or not the Houston endeavor is successful or if another city succeeds in taking greater strides is up to the future to decide. Time is proving true the prediction made by Ronald Seeliger in an article about Texas opera In the Sixties: “Opera is nearing the crossroads where something must be done if it is to continue to be a Texas tradition.” Let us hope help comes in time.

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