Oral History Project I
Key figures in OPERA America's history offer their reminiscences.
When I was working at San Francisco Opera in 1970, Glynn Ross came in one day to talk to our general director, Kurt Herbert Adler. Glynn was a fire engine, always on the go. But rumor had it that, because Glynn had tried to put together another opera company in San Francisco, he and Mr. Adler were not on particularly good terms. We were all fascinated about what the result would be, because Mr. Adler was very clear, always, about what he felt.
Lo and behold, Glynn stayed in Mr. Adler’s office more than an hour. When it was done, Mr. Adler called us all in and said, “Glynn has got the best idea. He thinks that all of the professional opera companies in this country should band together and have a unified voice and an office in Washington, D.C. So we said, “Okay, why?” And he replied, “Because the National Endowment for the Arts has become a reality, and we can only raise funds through it if we all support the process. Glynn wants me to get Carol Fox [Lyric Opera of Chicago] and Julius Rudel [New York City Opera] and Rudolf Bing [Metropolitan Opera] to come together with us and agree that the idea is sound, because without the biggies, the small won’t happen.”
Soon after all this, my former husband Robert Darling was doing costumes for The Visit of the Old Lady for San Francisco Opera. We had bought men’s costumes in a small town in Germany and they were getting shipped. Mr. Adler said, “Now don’t you pay duty!” That very day there arrived an official letter from OPERA America, which said from now on, no North America opera company will pay duty on costumes. So I took the letter to the airport. The customs official looked at it and said, “Are you sure this is for real?” I said, “I’m absolutely sure this is for real.” And we got it through free.
Arts administrator Ann Farris served as OPERA America’s executive director from 1974 to 1979.
When I first joined OPERA America’s board, opera was part of the NEA’s orchestra funding program. The NEA would convene field leaders to talk about the condition of the field and how grant programs might be adjusted to respond to those conditions. That no longer happens. In a way, OPERA America serves in that capacity. Then there were onsite evaluations: The NEA would fly people from city to city to write evaluations. It was a great cross-pollination exercise. People got to know one another. But for cost purposes, that was eliminated about 10 years ago. But one takeaway from that experience, which I still think is valid for the endowment: You can’t make an artistic evaluation of a small company in Montana when you’re also evaluating the Met. You have to be objective, but also recognize the value to those communities of the arts.
The leadership of opera, symphony and arts organizations in the 70s really was optimistic. They thought that, with the establishment of the NEA and NEH, an objective of getting significant government money as a portion of your budget was realistic. And so when you served at the NEA, there was a level of excitement and commitment to making the NEA work in a way that would enable increased funding to achieve that mission. Obviously, the mission has diminished because of Congress and the way things have changed in our country. [Met General Manager] Anthony Bliss thought that one-third of the Met’s budget one day should come from government funding — city, state and federal. Now, it’s one-tenth of one percent, if that.
Michael Bronson was technical administrator at the Metropolitan Opera and an OPERA America board member from 1974 to 1985
The Oral History Project, an initiative launched during OPERA America's 50th anniversary, is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation.