Gio Solimene Ross: The first First Lady of Seattle Opera

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 5/23/2018
  • Essay 20567
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Glynn Ross, the founding director of Seattle Opera, was known for putting Seattle on the international opera map. But he did not do so alone. His Italian-born wife, Angelamaria Solimene Ross, known as Gio, assisted in important ways as Glynn took on a variety of directing positions at opera companies throughout the U.S. and in her hometown of Naples, Italy, and especially in Seattle. The couple moved to the Northwest in 1963, when Glynn Ross was asked to direct the newly created Seattle Opera. Having studied and taught art, Gio Ross painted scenery, chose accessories, and designed and fitted costumes. She was also a gracious host and an exceptional cook, and was noted for her elegance and her knowledge of opera, and for remaining true to her Italian and Neapolitan heritage. Rita Cipalla's article on Gio Solimene Ross was published in L'Italo-Americano in September 2017, and is reproduced here with permission.

Not a One-Man Show

In 1975, just a dozen years after its founding, Seattle Opera created an international sensation when it staged the complete production of Richard Wagner's "Ring" in the six-day cycle prescribed by the composer.

This landmark accomplishment stood the opera world on its ears. Producing the complete operatic masterpiece was seldom seen outside Germany, and the last "Ring" cycle presented in the U.S. was nearly 40 years earlier -- in 1939 in New York City. Yet, for the next nine years, from 1975 to 1984, Seattle Opera produced a "Ring" cycle each summer, with one cast singing in German and one in English.

Glynn Ross, Seattle Opera's founding director, was the person responsible for putting Seattle on the international opera map. Described as everything from energetic and adventurous to "a hip huckster," Ross in many ways changed the very face of opera in the U.S.

But putting Seattle Opera on the map was not a one-man show. Ross was assisted along the way by his Italian-born wife, Angelamaria Solimene Ross, known to family and friends as Gio.

From Naples to America

The daughter of a well-known lawyer and a concert pianist, Gio was born in Naples in 1917. She attended Naples' Academy of Fine Art, a university-level art school and one of the oldest in Europe, where she studied studio art and art history. She later taught classes there, as well.

Gio met her husband-to-be on the island of Ischia where Glynn was serving with the U.S. Army and running a rest camp for American military personnel. After the war, Glynn stayed on in Italy to become the stage director at the great Neapolitan opera house, Teatro di San Carlo.

Ross worked at the theater in Naples for two years -- the first American to direct in a major Italian opera house. A year later, the couple married and moved to America.

For nearly two decades, the Ross family was based in Los Angeles while Glynn traveled around the country to take on directing positions with various opera companies, including those of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Fort Worth, New Orleans, and Philadelphia.

Artistic Background

During this time, Gio put her artistic background to good use. She painted scenery; selected accessories such as canes, jewelry, and masks for the singers to wear; and revamped or created original costumes that would make powerful visual statements on stage.

"She knew costuming through her training in art," said her daughter Melanie Ross, who also spent most of her career at Seattle Opera, recently leaving her position as director of artistic operations. "My mother knew what styles and colors were appropriate for a certain era and which ones would bring an historical period to life. Plus she could fit a costume beautifully."

At one point, the family returned to Naples and the Teatro di San Carlo, where Glynn reprised his role as stage director. But a 1963 phone call from Albert Foster, then president of the newly created Seattle Opera, changed the direction of their lives and that of the arts community in Seattle. Glynn was asked to direct Seattle Opera and the family moved to the Northwest.

Gio balanced family life -- the couple had four children: daughters Melanie, Stephanie, and Claudia and son Tony -- with the opera's costume shop. "Gio did the hard work of creating and running the costume shop," said Speight Jenkins, who succeeded Glynn Ross in 1983 as the Opera's general director. "She started it off on the exact right footing, consistently, indeed brilliantly, disguising how little money she had to work with!"

Many Other Talents

In addition to her talents as a gifted costumer, Gio was a warm and gracious host and an exceptional cook. In 1968, The Seattle Times featured her recipe for ricotta cheese cake, calling it "a delicious light-as-a-feather entrée."

"She did a lot of hostessing of singers, donors, board members, members of the media," said Melanie Ross. "She could put together a phenomenal dinner on a moment's notice, often with what she had on hand. As kids, we all learned to help out. We poured punch, we dried the dishes, and along the way, we probably picked up some social skills."

Clothing and accessories remained a huge part of Gio's life. She was always beautifully dressed, accessorizing her outfits with large dramatic pieces of jewelry. Necklaces were a particular favorite.

"My mother was extremely elegant in how she carried herself, how she dressed and how she decorated our home," said her daughter Melanie. "She had such an eye for beauty. She made our home elegant and expensive-looking just with things she would find around town. It is one of her many talents that I wish I had inherited!"

In her later years, Gio went back to school to study art, taking up painting again in her 70s for her personal pleasure. After her husband's death in 2005, she remained in the family home until her death in 2015 at the age of 98.

"She gave the last half-century of her life to Seattle Opera," said Jenkins. "I was exposed to her charm, her perception, her knowledge of opera and her brains. She was a very wise and bright individual who contributed tremendously to opera and to the artistic scene in Seattle."

Although Gio Ross' contributions to Seattle's artistic community were many, she is perhaps best remembered for her graciousness, elegance, and staying true to her Italian heritage. "She was a true Neapolitan and lived every day as an Italian," said her daughter. "She showed us unparalleled warmth and humanity, but we also experienced our fair share of decibels in our household. She was demonstrative and affectionate, loving and artistic. She was truly her own person."

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