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Video Published: 21 Dec 2022

An Oral History with Robert B. Driver

On August 20th, 2021, stage director Robert B. Driver sat down with OPERA America's President/CEO Marc A. Scorca for a conversation about opera and his life.

This interview was originally recorded on August 20th, 2021. 
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. 

Robert B. Driver, stage director

Stage director Robert B. Driver joined Opera Company of Philadelphia (now Opera Philadelphia) as general director in 1991 and led the company for more than two decades, retiring as artistic director in 2012. Under his leadership, the company tripled its number of performances, became a principal tenant at the Academy of Music, and began producing chamber operas in the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater. Driver has directed countless productions throughout North America, Europe, and Brazil, including the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s productions of Falstaff, Fidelio, L’enfant et les sortilèges, Gianni Schicchi, La traviata, Orphée et Eurydice, Otello, and Phaedra.

Oral History Project

Discover the full collection of oral histories at the link below.


Marc A. Scorca: Robert Driver welcome. We're so happy to spend this time with you and to hear about your experience, your history in American opera, and all that you've contributed to the development of our field. So really thank you so much for taking the time today.

Robert B. Driver: And thank you for inviting me.

Marc A. Scorca: I always ask (and you are no exception): who brought you to your first opera?

Robert B. Driver: My first opera was in Memphis, Tennessee. It was in the early '50's, I guess. My mother's best friend was a sculptor and she just decided that I would need to see an opera. And her cousin was an impressario that brought the Met to Memphis and it was Carmen with Rise Stevens and he took me backstage. And then I said, "I like this. It's just great."

Marc A. Scorca: And I always ask, was your first experience one where you thought, "Wow, this speaks to me." Some people say, "It took me 10 more operas until I liked it." Did you like it from the start?

Robert B. Driver: Oh, I was just absolutely fascinated. Yes. I just had never seen anything like that. I did not come from a musical family. I did participate in a local Memphis children's theater company, and I loved that, but I had never been to an opera and certainly not Carmen. And it's funny because Carmen has been rather interesting in my life at times that caused me some sensations in some other cities with Chris Alden and things like that, but I had no inkling then, of course. And then it was a few years later that I was in (Italy). My father had an international cotton company and one of his offices was in Milan, and his manager was a great opera fan and took me to La Scala regularly. So that was very nice.

Marc A. Scorca: When did it occur to you that your career would be in opera: that this is actually what you wanted to do?

Robert B. Driver: I told my father when I was nine that's what I was going to do. And he said, "That's very nice."

Marc A. Scorca: And was it that you wanted to - because I think of you in two different ways - one as a stage director and one as a general director. Which one was your first inclination: to run a company or to stage direct?

Robert B. Driver: I had no idea. At that point, staging was not even in my mind. No, it was simply 'I'm going to do that; I'm doing that. I'm going to bring all this together and do that'. And, of course, I was challenged considerably along the way about my plans by my father who had other tests for me. It's a common story, obviously.

Marc A. Scorca: Absolutely. A little civil disobedience; a little domestic disobedience.

Robert B. Driver: Absolutely. In fact, it got so that we even made a contract, so that I would have to fulfill things that he wanted before I could throw away my life to the arts.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow. Since you did emerge as a stage director, I'm curious, do you have any recollections of the production values of that early 1950's Met tour Carmen? What did it look like?

Robert B. Driver: Well, I was just overwhelmed by the grandeur of it all, and then of course, this extraordinary singer, who was in the lead. That was kind of all I remember now. And I remember there's just so many people, and so much music, and it was so exciting, but I have to say that in terms of directing, it was really - oddly enough - Opera Company of Washington in the Lisner auditorium (when I was in boarding school) that absolutely hooked me.

Marc A. Scorca: Say more about that. Washington Opera: before there was a community center, Lisner auditorium, which is the hall where Washington Concert Opera still performs. So Washington Opera performed there in Lisner Hall?

Robert B. Driver: Yes. And as part of this arrangement with my father, I had to go to this boarding school, which our family had unfortunately been involved with since the early 1800's. And of course I detested it. And so we made a contract: if I was going to graduate, I had my list and my father had his list, and opera was of course my ultimate goal. But you can't imagine the difficulty it was for me to get to Lisner auditorium to see an opera performance. You would have thought this boarding school would (encourage)....No, no. And I remember the headmaster...I finally called a board member of the opera company to have him call the school to try and get me released, so I could go to Falstaff at Lisner auditorium. And they did incredible things there: (James) McCracken in his first Otello.

Marc A. Scorca: I don't think of Lisner auditorium as a working stage. Was it a working stage?

Robert B. Driver: Yes: full staged production. And that appealed to me more: the intimacy, and all these different operas, but it was a real battle to get there each time. In fact, (Maria) Callas sang at Constitutional Hall, I think it was. And I snuck out at night of boarding school and had someone check me out and there was no chance of my being caught there, because there wouldn't have been anyone from my boarding school there. Il pirata, she sang there.

Marc A. Scorca: How fabulous to have heard that. And I can imagine it was a great performance.

Robert B. Driver: I was such a groupie. That's the only time I saw her live, but I was a complete groupie.

Marc A. Scorca: Was your enthusiasm rewarded when you saw the Pirata there?

Robert B. Driver: Oh yes. Oh my goodness. I was in seventh heaven. I just couldn't believe it. It was an amazing, amazing experience. She didn't need scenery; she was the show. And of course I had never heard this opera, Pirata. I just went because of her, and I had wonderful other experiences there: (Renata) Tebaldi sang there. I got to meet her and things like that. Washington...that awful boarding (school)...I was so wrong for it, but that was really the key...we didn't have doors on our rooms; they had curtains, and I was walking down this hallway and I heard this incredible music coming out of someone's room. And I went in and I said, "What is that?" And I had come in during the big ensemble in Trovatorewhen Leonora is about to go into the chapel. I was so utterly fascinated; that really impressed me. And, it just built on that.

Marc A. Scorca: So what was your first step then into an opera career?

Robert B. Driver: Well, I was at First National City Bank in New York in the foreign division. And I did everything I could to sabotage my interview, but it didn't work. And the person who interviewed me said, "You know, there's nothing in your resume that shows any interest in banking or business." I said, "I have none. Absolutely none." And she said, "Why are you here?" I said, "I have this terrible feeling you're going to have to hire me." And they did. Much to the annoyance of one of my best friends who was in the University of Virginia Business School, I got a hire offer to be in the overseas division: that's how desperate my father was. And the one thing I was able to do is: languages have always been an interest of mine from the start. I grew up speaking Portuguese, because I go to school in Brazil and I studied German in boarding school because my father said I was to study Latin and French. So I studied German and then I studied Italian on my own, and so if I hadn't done opera, I would have done something with languages.

Marc A. Scorca: How did the overseas work in the bank contribute to the opera career?

Robert B. Driver: First of all, I was in New York City, so I went to The Met constantly, and I took groups of bankers to The Met and we were up in the circle at the top and I would take groups there. But I then contacted my father's partner (who) was a patron of The Met, and he made it possible for The Met to come to Memphis. And so I called him and I asked him if he would give me an introduction to Rudolf Bing's managers, because I wanted to plan a career. And there was no plan; there were no programs for administration or anything like that. So I wanted to know how I could plan a career. And so he set that up with me and I met with Mr. Robinson who was in the PR department and Robert Herman at that time was in artistic. And Mr. Krawitz. I met with the three of them.

Marc A. Scorca: And Herman is still alive.

Robert B. Driver: And Mr. Robinson immediately offered me a job. In fact, when I was talking to him... Roger Moore, the president of Citibank, when he hung up, he said "I was just talking to your boss." But he offered me a job and I said, "Very lovely," but I wasn't ready for that then, and I hadn't completed my arrangement with my father. I had to be in the bank three years. And I said, "No, I really want to work in Europe." And so he made the contact for me with Herbert Graf in Geneva and he said, "You should start and work with Mr. Graf because he's well-known to us, and he is a very fine director.”

So, I wrote to Mr. Graf and he was very kind to reply, and we set up an appointment for three years hence, and luck would have it though - I must've done something right at the bank - because they decided they wanted to send me to London after a year. And my arrangement with my father was three years. I had to stay three years and I would've had to sign another contract for an additional three years. And I said, "No, wait a minute; I'm out of this." I didn't sign up for four years. I signed up for three years and if they're going to send me away, I'm not staying. So I called my father in Brazil. I said, "We got a problem; I'm going to resign." So he came immediately to New York, and the irony is that we spent a week in the St Regis hotel in the huge ballroom, and the guy there with pencil and paper. He was trying to convince me not to do this. (He said) "I have to do this; go to London; that's a wonderful experience.” I said, "No, I'm not doing that," and that's not the deal. So I resigned in December of '65 and I took off for Geneva in January of '66. And landed in Geneva, and guess who interviewed me? Lotfi Mansouri.

Marc A. Scorca: Oh my goodness. I know Mr. Graf's name from Lotfi and I think as well, Plato Karayanis with Mr. Graf.

Robert B. Driver: Of course, I arrived and was ready to work and my father had an office in Geneva too. And I was to have lunch with his manager - clearly they wanted to know what was going on. And the meeting with Lotfi: he was wonderful. And he said, "Well, this is January, and the position is open in August." And I said, "Can I just volunteer in the meantime?" And he said, "No, but we can send you to Bayreuth, and we'll send you there, and then you can come back after that." And my reaction was 'Bayreuth, with Mrs. Wagner there'...my family could never accept that. That would have just been too much. So they said, "Well, it's not open til August." So I took the first train out of Geneva, (never contacted my father's office) and went back to Munich where I had studied at the University of Munich and signed in for the Musik Hochschule. And I took the exams for the doctoral program in direction and I was accepted. And I go to the first seminar and the professor, Heinz Arnoldo (is that is name?): He opens book of Fidelio. And he says, "So Kinder: so inszeniert man Fidelio." (This is how you direct Fidelio). And he started reading his directions out. An hour and a half later, I thought "This is just ridiculous." And we took a break and I headed for the door, and the class president said, "Your professor is not finished." I said, "He is for me, bye."

So I decided, in the meantime, before August, I'm going to see if the Munich Opera will hire me. So I write a letter to the intendant of the Munich Opera, Professor Hartmann. I get no response. So I go to the opera house to see what's going on; why I haven't heard... It's insane the naivety and hubris at the same time, but I get sent away. The doorman obviously talked to someone and they just told him to get me out of there. And I'm walking around in the Residenz, and I noticed these windows open, and it was just three feet above the ground. And I looked in, and there were people in costumes and what were obviously stagehands, drinking beer. So I just slipped in the window and I'm sitting at this table thinking, "Now, what are you going to do?" And this woman comes over to me and she said, "What are you doing here?" And I said, "Well, I was trying to talk to Professor Hartmann, but I was sent away." And she said, "You're an American, right?" And I said, "Yes." And fortunately she adored America; and she was Teresa Stratas's best friend, can you imagine? And she says, "Professor Hartmann's secretary detests Americans, and no letter from you will ever get to Professor Hartmann, unless you have someone of importance write on your behalf.” And then she escorts me out, past the doorman who had just sent me away, (looking) a little amazed. And so that night I'm with friends. And we had a place that we always went, and we had a special table that we just all showed up at, and I was telling my adventure and in the middle of my telling of the story, I thought, "Oh my God, I'm going to go and talk to the Baron Tucher," who was the president of the Bayerische Vereinsbank. His son and I were best friends, and we both hated the bank, but I had fortunately paid a courtesy call on him on my way to Geneva. And he was very gracious and a lovely, lovely man and turned out to be... Well, I went back to see him and he was a little abrupt with me. I told him my story and that I needed a letter. Would he please just write me a letter? I said, "I just need to get in the door. I'll take care of the rest." And he sent me away; told me to come back tomorrow. I thought, "Maybe I shouldn't have done that." And so I go in the next day and he says, "You're a very presumptuous young man, that I could just write a letter for you." He said, "I had to call my son Martin, to ask about you, because if I contact the Munich Opera, they're going to have to give you a job." And so I said, "Well, what did Martin say?" And he said, "Well, Martin said, if I don't write you a really good letter, he won't come for Christmas." "So where's my letter?" He says, "Your letter's delivered; you start tomorrow."

Marc A. Scorca: And how long did you work with the Bayerische Staatsoper?

Robert B. Driver: I was there for three seasons; that was one of my great mistakes: that and being too impetuous. I was then working with Guenther Rennert: I adored working for him. He was very severe and everyone was terrified of him, but I had grown up with my father; he was nothing. Rennert was a piece of cake, but he had a wonderful sense of humor. And I think he liked the fact that I would take risks and do things that needed to get done, even if it were against the rules. So anyway, he says "Driver", (and he always just called me Driver) "There's this American guy who's running this university in Indiana, and he wants to build an opera house. Can you show him around?” And it was Dean Bane of Indiana University. He was going all over Europe, looking at opera houses to get plans for the opera center in Bloomington and halfway through it, he said, "You know, I'm going all over Europe, and all the people showing me around who spoke English, spoke British English. You're the first one who speaks American English." I said, "Well, I'm an American.” Boom. He said, "We need you in America. You have to come back. You have to come back now; we need you." I was astonished. I actually went to Bloomington and met with him. He said, "Things are going to happen in America; you really need to be a part of it.” And he said, "I would love to have you run the opera center here. I have already asked someone to do that, but I know someone who's trying to hire him away, so if he leaves, I would like for you to do it. So it's something for you to think about.” So when I get back to Munich and I got a phone call from Louisville, Kentucky of all places.

Marc A. Scorca: One of them was going to come through because they were offered to the same person.

Robert B. Driver: Mr. Bomhard was shrewd enough, because I was a little bit taken aback by his persistence and forwardness, and I didn't know anything about him and I then get a call from my father. Mr. Bomhard went to Memphis to interview my father, to convince him to convince me, to consider his offer. And he loved telling the story because my father took him to this place for lunch, The Tennessee Club, and the waitress spills the soup in my father's lap; my father, didn't bat an eye. He just said, "I won't have any soup." And then he calls me. And instead of one of the thousand offers, he had prepared for me that I turned down regularly, he said, "I have spoken with this gentlemen, Mr. Bomhard. I've had him checked out. He is very highly regarded in the city of Louisville. He's very well-respected. So if he does offer you, at least you will know that he is a person of real standing, and you might want to consider that." You can't imagine how flabbergasted I was to have that. And then he did call me and offered me. And I said, "I have to get Rennert to release me," which he didn't do for three months. He said, "You're absolutely out of your mind. What are you thinking: going to America now? You're not ready; you have no idea." He really knew that I didn't know, but I was so amazed at being sought after, I think partially. And I think this aspect of the stamp of approval, so I signed the contract and then I went to the postbox; mailed it; got back to my office, and Dean Bane was on the phone saying, "I'm able to offer you the job." I said, "But I just sent the contract Louisville." And he said, "Oh no, he went to St. Louis." I have no idea who it was ever.

Marc A. Scorca: So, the first real US opera work that you did was in Louisville, Kentucky, taking over from Moritz Bomhard.

Robert B. Driver: No, not taking over. He wanted to retire in about three years and he wanted to train me so that I could take over in several years, and they were building this new performing arts center. So on August 26th, 1968, my wife (Monica) and I drive into Louisville, and the first thing that happened to us as we were looking for our apartment - we were driving down this main street in Louisville (I think it was Fourth Street) and we got in the middle of a George Wallace for president rally. And our car was surrounded, and people were trying to put stickers on my car. I said, "You can't be near my car, I'll run over. Get away from me." So we finally get to our hotel. I go to the Brown Hotel, which was nearby to call, to say (because the apartment we were given had no phone). And so I go and let Mr. Bomhard know, and he screams on the phone. "Oh my God, I don't know what we're going to do. I don't see how we're going to have the season." I'd just landed; I'm two hours in the city of Louisville, and he tells me, he doesn't think we're going to have a season. And he says, "They've canceled the opera center. That's not going to happen. And I just cut off my fingers under the lawnmower." And I thought, "Well, that's too bad, but what does that have to do with..." He played all the performances. I mean, that's where I got an inkling of what I was getting into. So for three years I listened to him, play the piano with plastic caps on his fingers. And then the next day he took us to his shop, which he was so thrilled with, which was an abandoned school with sparks arcing all over the place. And he was just thrilled because they had a shop to build scenery. And I was in complete shock.

Marc A. Scorca: A little different from your experience in Munich.

Robert B. Driver: The thing is: Mr. Bomhard was a wonderful person and had extraordinary energy and devotion and you couldn't help, but get swept in to his dedication. He would sacrifice anything for his company. And I have never met anyone as zealous and hardworking as that man was. He drove me absolutely insane, but I adored him.

Marc A. Scorca: And he was an immigrant, I assume, from Europe, from before the war.

Robert B. Driver: Yes. And he had started in America, taking traveling operas around in America. And then he landed in Louisville and founded the company. And he really was adored in the city. I mean people just...."Moritz...oh Moritz...Moritz... he's so wonderful." They called him Moritz and I never called him Moritz. He insisted. I said, "No, you are Mr. Bomhard. I can't call you Moritz." And we did extraordinary things there. I didn't realize they were extraordinary, because coming from Munich they weren't extraordinary. But doing Rape of Lucretia; doing Ariadne auf Naxos, I mean, he did it, and they came, and they listened to it and liked it whether they liked it or not. And of course, very difficult was that the level of visual productions was just appalling. But with all the best parts in the world, trying to make it happen. And we did take full touring operas all over the state of Kentucky. He got grants to do that. We went with a full orchestra and chorus to Pikeville, Kentucky. One place in Southern Kentucky we went to was the only time my father and mother came to see a production of mine. And it was my first staging, which was Don Pasquale and I built it; I was directing it and we had a wonderful young American cast: people from IU. It was a very nice production. It was very modest visually but it was well sung and I went around and prepared choruses in the different cities. So it was a lot of fun to do. I built in myself as a majordomo for Don Pasquale and I had a 'drinking problem' in the opera...

Marc A. Scorca: So: Louisville for three years, but when I think of your work as a general director, I really think of you as a pioneer, the way you developed a three company collaboration, that included Memphis. And now I realize how deeply rooted you are in Memphis: it makes perfect sense. And Indianapolis, which gets us close to Bloomington and Syracuse, New York. That was unprecedented at the time, that there would be one leader for three companies benefiting from the potential of using production materials in each of those three cities. How did that come to be?

Robert B. Driver: There, you hit the nail on the head with OPERA America. After Louisville, I went and did doctoral work at Johns Hopkins on my PhD for German literature, and during that time, as I was writing my dissertation, I got a call from Kansas City (Russell Patterson) to come there. I didn't even know where Kansas City was. I went to the library. I thought it was in Kansas, obviously. So I go, I can't find it. And then I found it in the crease of the book and it was a big star, so I was reading up on it. Anyway, I go there. And the day he called, I had gotten my Fulbright scholarship, the German scholarship (DAAD), but I had also been at the library in Washington and discovered a dissertation on my topic. It was only 40 pages long from Rostock University, but it was devastating because then, in those days, you didn't have the equipment we have now to search for this. And Monica said, "I've been answering the phone all day here. You need to get a secretary." So this invitation came from this Russell Patterson and I went out and he was doing things with .... I love that it was on some five productions; American works; young American singers. Those were all the things that I thought were so wonderful.

Marc A. Scorca: And I think opera in English?

Robert B. Driver: Yeah. I wasn't a big fan of Jack Beeson, it turned out, but I mean, he was doing American works, and that seemed to make sense to me. But then he said, "Look, I am in touch with the opera companies: Center Opera in Minneapolis, and David Lloyd at Lake George opera.” I had heard a lot about Lake George in Munich because Jeanette Scovotti, for example, came to sing in the Munich opera, and we went to lunch and she told me, "Oh, when you come to the United States, you have to come and see us; we've just started this place in Lake George." So I knew about that. And then, I was fascinated with Wesley Balk. He was a fascinating person, a wonderful director. And he introduced me to Conrad Susa and that really got me going, I was really charged and we established something called Co-opera. And I managed something called Co-opera among the cities of Lake George, Minneapolis and Kansas City.

Marc A. Scorca: I had no idea about this. Very interesting.

Robert B. Driver: And you know, you couldn't find three more different people.

Marc A. Scorca: That's what I was just thinking...or three more different places...

Robert B. Driver: More different places, more different people. But they had this original idea of doing this thing that they named Co-opera, and I managed that for two seasons and, and it was fascinating, and I loved it. It was also a complete nightmare because there were no rules or regulations. Every time I would go to Russell, he would say, "Well make them pay for that." And then I would talk to David Lloyd, "Well, I'm not paying for that; they can pay for that." Talk about a rough beginning. But, for example, the first production was Zauberfloete. It came from Lake George to Kansas City and then went to Minnesota and then Transformations came from Minnesota to us and that was just a fabulous, fabulous experience: Transformations. It was one of the really exciting things I recall doing and it was a big hit, even though it was a new piece. So that was the good part. And the following summer, '75, I represented Russell Patterson at the summer board meeting of OPERA America. I was not the general director of course, and we had a session on...I was asked to get together in a room with people to hammer out what one should have as a standard for renting scenery: who pays what, where; who pays shipping, and things like the fact that all three companies have to share the total shipping cost. It was all just logical stuff, but it had never been written down. So that's what we did. We did that at an OPERA America meeting, and I was in a room there in Santa Fe, at the opera, writing that down.

Marc A. Scorca: That is remarkable. So really at the birth of co-production in our country.

Robert B. Driver: So it really set in my mind; so that when I came to Syracuse, which was my first opera. The company was nine months old, had a $90,000 budget and a $90,000 deficit. It was a wonderful experience because they had built this new performing arts center, with 2,000 seats, wonderful acoustics and a 400 seat (auditorium). So it was a perfect place for your first thing. And I was close to New York, but as I tried to build the company, I had a lot of trouble. That's one of the reasons I left Kentucky, because I just couldn't cope with working all year to do four productions with two performances each: that doesn't make sense.

And that's why I did the German, and I taught German at the University of Louisville and I taught in Johns Hopkins. I wanted to have something broader, but then I said, "Well, I'm going to do this. I'm going to search for partners for Syracuse because the financial base of Syracuse,” I just didn't think was big enough to sustain what I wanted to accomplish in this opera house. It just wasn't, and once I was established several years, I went out...I happened to be driving back from my family's home in Virginia and went through Wilmington, Delaware and saw this little opera house, and I contacted the people at the Wilmington Opera, and I said, "Would you like to join Syracuse?" And it was all very complicated, but we started producing together. I took productions from Syracuse there, and then I contacted the Bardavon Theater in New York state. And I took stuff there. And then I got a call, of all things, from the Shea's Buffalo Theater in Buffalo. I was doing Jim Gould's production of Aida in Syracuse, and they wanted a production of Aida in Buffalo. And I said, "Sure, no problem." So we did that, and we formed a cooperative and we took the orchestra from Buffalo and we built up a chorus and I did three seasons with them. And then I did with Ruth Rosenberg in Rochester: we co-produced things together. And I tried Albany, but I couldn't get anyone in Albany to listen to me.

Marc A. Scorca: And Albany is just a city that doesn't have an opera company. I didn't realize that you had really tested the concept of this kind of collaboration. So many different partners over so many years before you found kind of the trio of companies.

Robert B. Driver: And then I got called by Omaha to come there. They had an opening and I tried the concept on them. They were not interested, at all. And then I got a call from Mr. Bomhard. He had retired and he had wanted me...he came to Syracuse to get me to come - when he finally did retire - he wanted me to take over Louisville. And I said, Mr. Bomhard, the only way I would do that is if Louisville wants to combine with Syracuse. I'm not going to leave Syracuse to go to Louisville. That just doesn't add up. I have a wonderful, much nicer performing arts facility, but I would be thrilled if the board wants to consider that." He was ecstatic, because he said, "Well, everybody knows you; everyone likes you." They said, "Absolutely not. Not on your life would we consider that." So that was out.

Marc A. Scorca: A matter of local pride; of not wanting to be seen to be a second fiddle.

Robert B. Driver: Exactly. And then Mr. Bomhard calls me and said, "Listen, I need for you to do me a favor. The Indianapolis Opera has collapsed and is in terrible financial disarray. And you can help them put back in financial order." Because at that point, I had built Syracuse and we were doing fine financially, and it's a modest company. But we had gotten up to a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year from ninety; no deficit. I had no idea what Indianapolis from the moon. I'd actually never been there, even though I'd gone to IU. So I go there and immediately they want me to come there, after I advised them for a week. I spent a week with the board of directors there, advising them how they could build this back financially. It was all financial and they were in a terrible mess. They had allegedly misused $300,000 of something called CEDA funding or something. And so I said, "We have to dig out slowly; it would just take time." And when they asked me if I would consider coming there, I told them my idea. And they were not interested. And I said, "Fine, but that's the only way I'll do it. Because you would be a great partner. And if you were smart...you're a much bigger city and we could share everything."

And so they thought about it. Then they called me and said they were going to hire someone else. And I said, "That's fine." And they said, "You really don't want to come here?" I said, "I would love to go there, but I'm not going to go there and switch one place for another, to do two performances of an opera. That's just not what I'm going to do." And then I did the heavier pitch to this board member. I said, "Look, I go to New York and I hear some singers and I can offer them four performances with one and a half preparations (prepare in one city) and we would switch back and forth. One would open in Syracuse; one would open in Indianapolis: we switch back and forth." And he said, "Well, we would always want to be first." I said, "You won't want to be first in the course of time, you're going to let the other city prepare and then you will (perform it)." I told them that. So they started listening. So then I went, and then they said, "Let's do it." So that's how we started Indianapolis. So then that was formal.

Marc A. Scorca: How did Memphis come into it then?

Robert B. Driver: I arrived back from a trip...I grew up in Brazil and I had never been back for over 20 years. So I took a vacation of five weeks and traveled from one end of Brazil to the other, and a board member from Memphis tried to call me and spoke with my wife, Monica. And she said, "I got to speak to your husband right away." And she said, "Good luck. He's on the Amazon right now. And he's not getting back." She said, "When he gets back, please have him call me." So I get a call. And I get this very, very enthusiastic board member. He had known my family's presence in Memphis and he wanted me, in the worst way, to come there. And he picks me up at the airport and I didn't commit to anything. He picks me up at the airport and then we pull down this small road in a residential area. I thought, "This is very strange, cause that's the road I lived on."

Then we stop in front of my house. And that's where I was interviewed. I was interviewed at my home that my father built for us when we came from Brazil, and the president of the board had bought the house. So I'm being interviewed and I said to them, "I think it's very nice that someone was so interested in my coming here because of course I grew up here and I know Memphis and I do love Memphis, but I must tell you I have a love/hate relationship with Memphis, because it was very hard growing up and being interested in the arts, in the WASP community,” and I got some chuckles out of that. And then I said, "I fear that Mr. Gibson (Marsh Gibson) thinks that I can really get money from the WASP community. But the only thing that the WASP community wants to do is murder birds on the river, (kill duck on the river) and plan debut parties.”

And, of course, I was being really outrageous. I mean, that was just an awful, stupid thing to say, but I did. And I got a lot of laughs from half of the room and that was the Jewish contingency of the Opera Memphis board. And they were all against me until I said, "The only people who really support the arts is the Jewish community. I would consider coming here. I have to check with my other two companies. I think we could make a great thing, but you'll have to have a managing director, and it would have to be someone from the community that I don't know." So that's what we did. And we got a very nice, wonderful, wonderful person. And we just had a wonderful time. I had a wonderful time in Memphis.

Marc A. Scorca: The three company collaboration lasted for how long?

Robert B. Driver: Indianapolis and Syracuse started in '81; Memphis joined in '84 and then I went to Philadelphia in 1991.

Marc A. Scorca: So it lasted that whole time.

Robert B. Driver: And it really worked well. We got Memphis out of debt overnight, because I did know people obviously. And it was a triumvirate of the three richest men in Memphis, who came together. The thing I did incur wrath from the board president was when I got...The largest grant I ever got was from a man named Bobby Fogelman, who didn't really care for opera all that much, but he said, "So what are you going to do to put Memphis on the map?" And I said, "I could do Aida on a barge on the Mississippi and nobody would care, or I could do Traviata til you fall down. No, but if I did a new American opera in Memphis and premiered it in Memphis, that will bring the world press.” He said, "I will underwrite that." And so he did. I started an Opera Center for new works in Memphis, and we just got it going when I left and it then dissolved. But then they hired a composer, young man, who was Michael Ching.

Marc A. Scorca: How remarkable to draw the through line through all of that. And that's just amazing. Now, Robert, we only have a few minutes left today, but I was just wondering through all of this: were you just making it up as you went along? Was there a role model? Was there a mentor who you talked to or were you just sort of discovering it on your own?

Robert B. Driver: I have to tell you that one of my inspirations was a very short and brief encounter, that really gave me hope. Because I have to tell you, I was devastated when I first came to America and I said to Monica, "I've just made a terrible, terrible mistake."

Marc A. Scorca: Devastated about what?

Robert B. Driver: Having come to America without having explored it more carefully and the state of opera in America in 1968. And I found out right away, wonderful singers. And I already knew that, because of the wonderful singers coming to Munich. All the American singers who came to Munich were so incredible, whether it was (Teresa) Stratas, (Anna) Moffo: all of these people. But producing in regional America, I thought, "Oh my goodness, what have I done?" But when I went to the first organizational meeting that I attended with Mr. Bomhard of OPERA America: - at that meeting was Göran Gentele.

Marc A. Scorca: Oh my goodness.

Robert B. Driver: He had just been named the new director of The Met and I had probably a 20 minute conversation with him in that room. It was for another meeting. It was an organizational meeting for OPERA America. And I was not a director of a company. I was just there with Mr. Bomhard. But Gentele came over and we had this long talk and he was curious about what I had been doing. And he said that one of the things he wanted to do was to have a piccolo opera - a small opera group. And he wanted to know more about regional American companies and young singers. And I thought, "Wow, imagine the new director of The Met is interested in what was going on in Louisville, Kentucky." And that really was inspirational.

Marc A. Scorca: And of course so sad that he perished in a car accident and never was able to come to New York.

Robert B. Driver: And when I heard that you'd have thought he was a relative when I heard that. I was just devastated by that news.

Marc A. Scorca: For your first visit to an OPERA America board meeting, was Glynn Ross still the president of OPERA America at the time?...It was Bob Collinge.

Robert B. Driver: Bob Collinge was the person who really looked after me and the person who invited me, and then in 1978, he is the one who came to me and asked me if I would serve on the board. And that's when I started serving on the board of OPERA America.

Marc A. Scorca: So, some decades later, do you feel better about opera in America today?

Robert B. Driver: I am absolutely over the moon about opera today; I would not want to be anywhere else, except that now, in retirement, I mean, I am just so, so grateful and thrilled about what has happened in Philadelphia and what David Devan is doing there. This whole new works thing, and he calls me and Sarah there keeps me in touch with everything. They're very, very welcoming. I go there for everything I can. And, I just think that what he and Corrado Rovaris... So now, I've been working with Richard Danielpour and we're working on a project for 2024 in Italy. So I'm going in September, so I hope that will work.

Marc A. Scorca: It's just fantastic. It is amazing to hear some more detail than I've ever heard before, about how you put together the early years of coproduction and collaboration in American opera. Just as the industry was beginning to flower, you were laying the seeds for how everyone could work together.

Robert B. Driver: It was hard though. It was hard, because I came under a lot of criticism. I had people calling it 'Drivers Franchise Operas'. I was introduced once at The Met to someone from another director saying, "He does franchise opera." And I said, "I don't think you meant that as a compliment, but I hope my father hears this because this is what he wanted me to do."

Marc A. Scorca: But you know, it's true. And I do think there still is some negative energy around companies that just borrow, bring in, don't originate and that people want pride of ownership that this is our premiere; our opening night; our production. And yet, even if it has opened someplace else, you do have your own opening night in your city, and it is possible that the work that results can be better than you would have on your own.

Robert B. Driver: Absolutely. And one of the real joys of Philadelphia was getting granting from a foundation to start out, because - the theater in Philadelphia - in the first 10 years, I had to move scenery in and out in three hours. I had to do the rehearsal; move it out and I had to have a clear stage. So I had to get a scenery designed for that. But then it worked out that scenery was modest, but well-designed, and went to all the regional companies. So I was criticized, but how else were you going to do it? And then of course, now they're doing co-productions and all of that on a much higher scale - just much higher quality of scenery and design and all of that sort of thing, and it's wonderful.

Marc A. Scorca: Fascinating. Well, you really are a part of OPERA America history. I'm so grateful to you for spending this hour with us. You are a great raconteur and you were telling your story and it was wonderful to listen to it. I'm so glad you still have projects up your sleeve and I'm so glad you're still paying such close attention to the wonderful developments of opera in America over these last number of years.

Robert B. Driver: I think what you have done is just extraordinary. If it hadn't been for OPERA America, there wouldn't have been the Opera for the Eighties program that got all the directors thinking about doing new work. And that's where I then was able to tie into that, in all three cities. And this is the result of all of that investment of that time. And I remember Ben Krywosz beating me over the head. "You have to come now to Minneapolis."

Marc A. Scorca: Ben is still doing it. Johnny Opera Theaters, they call it.