From Farm to Stage
Glynn Ross was born on December 15, 1914, in Omaha, Nebraska. His father was Herman Aus (Ross changed the name slightly), originally from Norway. His mother was Ida (Carlson) Aus, born in Nebraska and of Swedish descent. Ross graduated from South High School in Omaha in 1932. For the next five years he managed his family’s farm, working numerous odd jobs in order to pay the bills and operating in the black even as many others around him lost their farms to the Great Depression. After his father’s death, Ross’s mother encouraged him to pursue his dream of a career in theater. Leaving Omaha in the caboose of a cattle train with only $7 in his pocket, he headed east.
Ross attended the Leland Powers School of the Theatre, the alma mater of his high school drama teacher, in Boston from 1937 to 1939. He worked his way through school waiting tables in the dining hall of a private school. His pay was bed and board, but the wealthy pupils often passed along tickets to the Boston Symphony and Boston Opera. It was a long way from Nebraska farm life. Ross’s musical education was beginning, but his sights were still set on an acting career. He spent the summers of 1938 and 1939 running errands for the theater staff at Stratford-Upon-Avon in England.
In 1940, under the mentorship of conductor Dr. Albert Coates, he staged his first opera (Gounod’s Faust) in Los Angeles. A job organizing an opera department for the New England Conservatory of Music followed, but shortly after assuming this position the 26-year-old Ross was drafted.
During World War II, Ross served as an Army first lieutenant in North Africa. He was wounded and sent to Walter Reed Hospital in Maryland. His wound refused to heal, and he was treated with penicillin, at the time an experimental drug, and eventually recovered. He was shipped back to Europe and assigned the task of operating a soldiers’ rest camp on the Island of Ischia off the southwest coast of Italy.
With the Army’s encouragement, he staged operas in Naples -- watching opera kept the troops occupied. While there he met Angelamaria Solimene (1917-2015), known as Gio (pronounced "Jo"). On November 15, 1946, they married in Naples.
After the war ended, Glynn and Gio Ross sailed to America. As a war bride, Gio was supposed to travel without Glynn on an all-female war brides ship and reunite with him in the United States. Neither wanted this. Because they owned a dog, they were eventually allowed to sail as supercargo on a cargo ship loaded with canines. They arrived in America, bought a car, and drove to Omaha and then on to Los Angeles.
Staging Opera Around the World
Ross traveled the country staging operas for various companies, including the Northwest Grand Opera Association in Seattle. In 1959 the family moved to Naples where Ross became the first American to stage an opera at the Teatro San Carlo. The Teatro San Carlo is the world’s oldest opera house.
In late 1963 Ross was offered the General Director position at the newly formed Seattle Opera. Before Ross arrived to run the Seattle Opera, a PONCHO grant had wiped out the debt incurred by the Western Opera Company, the organization from which the Seattle Opera had grown. The Seattle Opera and Ross thus began together debt free with some capital.
Within four years, Seattle Magazine writer Charles T. Michener would state, “the Seattle Opera now ranks third among U.S. companies in the number of performances per season. This year only the Met and New York City Opera will produce more than Seattle’s 65 performances, 40 of these in high schools throughout the state. Even more significant is the Opera’s financial record. Ticket sales have been so successful that the percentage of fund-driven money needed to balance the budget is the lowest of any opera company in the country” (October 1967).
This was an extraordinary achievement. Opera is extremely expensive to produce, combining the costs of a symphony orchestra, a ballet troupe, lead singers (who command large salaries), chorus, supernumeraries (extras), elaborate sets and costumes, and a large retinue of backstage personnel to make it all happen. Ross’s successful management of this hat trick earned him the respect of the Seattle business community and a green light from his board of directors. One member of the Seattle Opera’s executive committee described the board as “eating out of his hand” (Michener).
His methods were part evangelist, part showman, part public relations genius, part administrator. An employee told Seattle Magazine, “When Ross walked in here four years ago, he walked into a hornet’s nest … There were at least 20 opposing ideas floating around, but, somehow, Ross kept everybody together. The secret is his technique: He’s so friendly and mild-mannered all the time, you never feel he’s pushing you, but that’s exactly what he’s doing -- all the time.” Ross’s motto was said to be “Nothing succeeds like excess” (Erna Husak, quoted in Michener).
In the beginning Ross programmed popular operas, popular stars, or both. He developed the community's appetite for opera, built an audience, and educated it in all things operatic. What money he had to spend, he put into productions, keeping administrative staff extremely bare-boned.
Ross pioneered methods of infiltrating opera into the community. He offered a low-priced performance series for students, a series sung in English for people squeamish about foreign languages, major stars for opera lovers, and enough traditional opera to satisfy the regulars. In partnership with the Washington Cultural Enrichment Program, he provided free opera performances to schoolchildren in Seattle and throughout the state.
He solicited grants from the King County Arts Commission to fund free open rehearsals and backstage tours to increase public understanding of how opera was produced. He encouraged avant-garde multi-media events to rope in the fringe crowd. Opera was, to Ross, for everyone. It was not elitist, stuffy, or highbrow. He worked to eliminate all excuses that Seattleites might offer for failing to attend.
Under Glynn Ross, the Seattle Opera also mounted regional tours to Spokane, Missoula, Walla Walla, Bellingham, Olympia, Port Angeles, Pasco, and Tacoma. Local residents of these cities served as orchestra members, chorus members, supernumeraries (extras), and they took minor singing roles. These productions enriched the cultural life of their communities and sowed seeds for future artistic growth.
Attracting the Hip Crowd
During the 1960s, Glynn Ross projected a hip image and demonstrated a willingness to experiment. This may have arisen from the fact that Ross had four teenagers at home. In 1967 Karen Kane wrote in the University of Washington Daily:
“Ross has launched a program to attract youthful opera-goers. Included in his drive is the projection of opera as a ‘now,’ ‘cosmic happening of sight and sound’… Glynn really means it when he says, ‘I want everybody to see opera.’ Ross described Charles Gounod’s 1864 opera version of Romeo and Juliet: ‘Two kids in trouble, real trouble with their families. Romance, duels, a tragic O.D., and Love, Love, Love!!! … What can you do with a plot like this except fill it with groovy music and costumes and lights!’ ” (Kane).
Ross kept his finger on the pulse of Seattle’s 1960s youth scene by subscribing to the Helix, Seattle’s first underground newspaper.
As early as 1971, Ross envisioned such timesaving innovations as computerized subscription renewal and ticketing -- something most American opera companies did not begin investigating until the late 1980s. He wrote, “Opera is a subjective art; it should utilize the most meaningful forms of communication available from classic to the most progressive rock music forms and multi-media tools … Opera like all other organizations serving the public must actually serve the community or lose ground … Our determination to innovate, develop and diversify must be as driving as any corporation’s” (Ross).
The Seattle Opera under Glynn Ross was prototypical of what American regional opera companies would strive to become during the 1980s and beyond.
In 1970 Glynn Ross founded OPERA America. OPERA America was “designed to effect new areas of cooperation in all aspects of opera production, including union relations, set design and rental, contracting of artists and performances of new works and new productions” (Salem, p. 403). This spread the financial burden of mounting new productions among two or more opera companies. The organization also encouraged the development of young singers.
In 1971 the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Glynn Ross First Citizen of the Year. The award was presented March 1, 1971, at a banquet at the Olympic Hotel. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported, “In announcing the citation, Fred W. Darnell Jr., president of the realtors, said: ‘This choice reflects the sensitivity and awareness which the Seattle Board of Realtors has for the quality of life in our community; a posture of a positive relationship of industry to the arts. Glynn Ross typifies the man who devotes his career and personal life to establishing these positive values locally, regionally and on an international level thus projecting Seattle’s native drive toward new frontiers’ ” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 9, 1971).
Ross was only the third recipient of the award in its 33-year history to come from the arts community. The others were the first recipient, Seattle Art Museum Director Richard Fuller, in 1939, and Milton Katims, General Director of the Seattle Symphony, in 1966. Ross told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “I’m happy for the arts. It is terribly important to take a person from the arts and call them First Citizen. Not for me, but for all the arts. We have been fighting off the myth of second-class citizenship for the arts for years and this will do much to help” (January 9, 1971).
Also in 1971, the New York Board of Trade named Ross Arts Administrator of the Year.
In November 1972, Glynn Ross helped form the Pacific Northwest Dance, later called the Pacific Northwest Ballet. The ballet company was formed under the umbrella of the Seattle Opera. Initially Ross served as the company’s director. The Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet formally separated in 1978.
The Ring Cycle
In 1975 the Seattle Opera became the first American opera company other than the Metropolitan Opera to stage Richard Wagner’s four-part cycle of Der Ring Des Nibelung (usually referred to as the Ring Cycle) as Wagner had intended: with all four operas in sequence within a week. The event drew national and international press and opera lovers from around the world. That a young, some thought upstart, opera company would be so bold as to attempt this staging and succeed put the Seattle Opera on the map culturally.
The Seattle Opera staged the Ring Cycle every summer for 11 consecutive years in a dual cycle, meaning that each production was sung in German and also (for a different audience) in English. The result was that to opera fans around the world the Seattle Opera (perhaps even Seattle itself) became synonymous with Wagner’s Ring.
In 1976 Ross proposed that Weyerhaeuser Corporation-owned land in Federal Way be used as a multi-venue setting for an annual Ring cycle called the Festival in the Forest. Weyerhauser agreed to donate 30 acres and the Washington State Legislature committed $100,000 to the project. The Seattle Arts Commission, however, refused support. Ross waged a battle for the project, but in the end was forced to step away from the idea. The failure of city officials and, increasingly, of the Seattle Opera board of directors to come on board for some of Ross’s grander plans led to disenchantment on both sides. Glynn Ross left the Seattle Opera in 1983.
From 1983 to 1998 Glynn Ross was the General Director of Opera Arizona. He kept that company in the black, producing the Ring Cycle in Tucson, Phoenix, and Flagstaff.
On August 20, 2003, Seattle Opera General Director Speight Jenkins, Seattle Opera staff, donors and the Board of Trustees gathered to honor Glynn Ross in the Grand Lobby overlook area of the new Marion Oliver McCaw Hall. The Grand Lobby overlook was named in Ross’s honor. Ross, Gio, and their four children attended the ceremony. The plaque marking the spot reads, “In honor of Glynn W. Ross, Founding General Director, whose vision forever links Seattle Opera with Wagner’s Ring.”
Glynn Ross died of a stroke in Tuscon, Arizona, on July 21, 2005.