Article Published: 01 Jan 2020

Back Stories

Three of OA’s founding companies offer a microcosm of the history of American opera.

Minnesota Opera

Minnesota Opera’s roots can be traced back to the 1964 world premiere of Dominick Argento’s The Masque of Angels. The commissioner was the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis’ museum of con­temporary art. In its first years, under the guidance of the Walker’s director, Martin Friedman, “Center Opera” assigned painters and sculptors, rather than established scenic and costume designers, its pro­ductions. For its second season, the company hired H. Wesley Balk as artistic director, a position he held for the next 17 years. Center Opera soon earned national attention for its adventurous repertory and innovative productions.

The company took its present name in 1969 after splitting off from the Walker, and it was as “Minnesota Opera” that it became a found­ing member of OPERA America. In 1971, the company took two operas to the East Coast for an 18-day tour. Over the following decade, Minnesota Opera’s commitment to new American opera continued: Those years saw the world premieres of Conrad Susa’s Transforma­tions and Argento’s Postcard from Morocco and The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, among other works.

For much of its early history, Minnesota Opera was a nomad, moving from theater to theater, but it found a permanent home in 1985 with the opening of Saint Paul’s Ordway Music Theater. However, a financial crisis in the mid-1980s, aggravated by a 1983 fire causing $250,000 in damage to its administration offices, nearly brought the company to its knees. Under Kevin Smith, who took over as president/CEO in 1986, the company’s finances gradually improved, helped by a sold-out run of Oklahoma! in 1988.

Dale Johnson became artis­tic director in 1995 and began steering the company back toward unusual repertory, including a se­ries of bel canto rarities. The 2007 premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie’s The Grapes of Wrath provided the impetus for the company’s seven-year New Works Initiative. This has led to such successful premieres as Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell’s Silent Night, the same team’s The Manchurian Candidate, Douglas Cuomo and John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, and works set to two further Campbell librettos: Paul Moravec’s The Shining and William Bolcom’s Dinner at Eight. Under its current general director, Ryan Taylor, Minnesota Opera continues its commitment to innovation, as exemplified by the upcoming world premiere of Edward Tulane, based on a beloved young people’s novel by local author Kate DiCamillo, adapted by Campbell and Paola Prestini.

Lyric Opera of Kansas City

Conductor Russell Patterson’s aim, when he started an opera company in Kansas City, was to stress theatrical values. He also wanted to attract audiences who might have had no previous exposure to the art form, and might even be put off by the concept of opera. That’s why, when his company debuted in 1958 with a production of La bohème, its name was “Lyric Theatre of Kansas City.” Stressing accessibility, the productions were given in English, and featured unknown but gifted singers who were able to devote the kind of rehears­al time needed to create viable music theater.

That initial season was ambitious. In its first week, Lyric Theatre mounted four operas on four successive nights. Over the next decade, it offered over 200 performances of 30 different works. It also started touring: first to other Missouri towns, and later as far afield as Arkansas and South Dakota. In 1970, the year the company became a founding member of OPERA America, it moved into the Capri Theatre; renamed the “Lyric Theatre,” it served as home base for the next 40 years. In order to avoid being confused with its venue, the company soon renamed itself “Lyric Opera of Kansas City.”

LOKC devoted itself not only to stagings of the core repertory, but to American works like The Saint of Bleecker Street and Of Mice and Men. In 1975, it presented its first world premiere, Jack Beeson and Sheldon Harnick’s Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines. Coyote Tales, the company’s second world premiere, in 1998, also had a Harnick libretto, with a score by Henry Mollicone. Several of its forays into American repertoire spawned recordings, including both of its world premieres, Vittorio Giannini’s The Taming of the Shrew, Beeson’s The Sweet Bye and Bye and Douglas Moore’s The Devil and Daniel Webster.

In 2011, the company moved into its present venue in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Over the past decade, LOKC has placed new emphasis on education programs, making connections with teach­ers, parents and young people throughout the region.

Opera Carolina

The Charlotte Opera bowed in 1948 with Rosalinda, an English-language version of Die Fledermaus, presented at a local junior high school. The all-vol­unteer chorus made its own sets and costumes, working within a budget of $150. The success of that production led the company over the next few seasons to present a variety of different operas, all in English: standards like La traviata and The Marriage of Figaro, along with off-the-beaten-path reper­toire like The Bartered Bride and Vittorio Giannini’s Blennerhassett.

In 1955, the company, now known as the Charlotte Opera Association, moved into the newly opened 2,400-seat Ovens Auditorium. It was still under volunteer leadership until the next year, when John Richards McCrae became the organization’s director and Henry Janiec its music director. Conductor Charles Rosenkranz became general direc­tor in 1971, just after the company became a founding member of OPERA America. He oversaw the company’s forays into ambitious repertory like Aida and Un ballo in maschera and worked with well-recognized stars like Gilda Cruz-Romo and Rosalind Elias.

Dr. J. Richard Marshall took over the company in 1976, oversee­ing a growth in its budget from a modest $200,000 to $700,000. Under his leadership, the company offered the 1981 premiere of Robert Ward’s Abelard and Heloise. The company’s next general director was Bruce Chalmers, appointed in 1982. Notable productions during his tenure include Carlisle Floyd’s Willie Stark, under the direction of the composer, and an Aida presented in conjunction with an exhibit of art from the reign of Ra­messes II at Charlotte’s Mint Museum.

James Wright became general director in 1989, overseeing a rebranding of the company as Opera Carolina, in recognition of its service to communities out­side Charlotte itself. In 1992, after 35 years at Ovens Audi­torium, the company moved into the recently completed Belk Theater. The year 2000 marked the appointment of James Meena as general director and principal con­ductor — positions he holds to this day. Under Meena’s leadership, Opera Carolina has put an emphasis on new and recent American operas, including Floyd’s Cold Sassy Tree, Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison’s Margaret Garner and Adolphus Hail­stork’s Rise for Freedom. The tradition continues this April with a production of Douglas Tappin’s I Dream, the story of the life and death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This article was published in the Winter 2020 issue of Opera America Magazine.