Seattle Opera

  • By Sheila Farr
  • Posted 11/14/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20902

Seattle Opera was formed in late 1963 with the merger of two briefly competing groups -- Seattle's Western Opera Company, founded in 1962 by Helen Jensen (1886-1974), and the Seattle Opera Association, a committee of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. The two entities combined boards  under president Albert O. Foster (1905-1986), with Glynn Ross (1914-2005) as managing director and Seattle Symphony conductor Milton Katims (1909-2006) as musical director. During the 20 years of Ross's leadership, he brought international stars to Seattle, including Joan Sutherland, Brigit Nilsson, Igor Stravinsky, and Beverly Sills. He produced two world premiers and initiated annual productions of Richard Wagner's four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen. His successor, Speight Jenkins (b. 1937), brought a fresh aesthetic to the company during his 30-year tenure. He introduced new operas, the use of supertitles, and created two new productions of the Ring -- the first quite controversial -- while focusing on education and expanding the audience for opera. Aidan Lang served as general director of the company from 2014 to 2019, after which Christina Scheppelmann, former artistic director of the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Spain, took charge.

Glynn Ross, the First Director

The first half-century of Seattle Opera history basically is a tale of two ambitious, driven, and utterly devoted leaders: Glynn Ross, whose no-holds-barred marketing made Seattle Opera a magnet for opera fans worldwide, and Speight Jenkins, who brought a connoisseur's vision to the company that he became synonymous with.

Ross has been called a "hustler," "an opera impresario," "a fund-raising hit-man, a culture catalyst," and "a dreamer, dynamo and workaholic ..." ("The Dynamic Hustler ..."). A farm boy from Nebraska, Ross was all of those -- and more. As a young man, he dreamed of becoming an actor and experienced his first opera as an extra in Lohengrin. Although an acting career eluded him, Ross stayed close to the stage by producing operas in Los Angeles until drafted into the army during World War II. Injured in combat, he ran a soldier's rest camp on the island of Ischia and staged operas in Naples to entertain the troops. In 1946 Ross returned to the U.S. and continued to hone his skills, producing operas for various companies around the country and abroad, until he was hired in 1963 as general director of Seattle Opera.

The First Season

As a director and promoter, Ross was a high-octane brand. Within weeks of the merger, he was auditioning chorus members for a "little opera season" in the spring. ("Opera Chorus ..."), and in February announced upcoming productions of Puccini's Tosca and Bizet's Carmen. With mezzo-soprano Gloria Lane (1925-2016) lined up as the lead --"probably the most distinguished Carmen in the world today" ("Dates Announced ...") -- Ross added Lola Montes (1918-2008) and her Spanish dance troupe to spice up the show. Conducting duties were shared between Herbert Weiskopf (1903-1970), former artistic director of Western Opera, for Tosca, and Seattle Symphony musical director Milton Katims for Carmen.

That first season was short and relatively quiet, drawing some 10,000 people, but Ross's fervor and gutsy style won over any remaining skepticism on the opera board. They gave him a new contract, and he took off at full speed. For the 1965-1966 season, Ross booked La Boheme, Samson et Dalila, Lohengrin, Madama Butterfly, and Il Trovatore. He appealed to younger audiences and the mood of the times by advertising La Boheme as "Four old-time hippies in an attic" ("50 Years ...").

Big Names, Great Opera

Ross understood the draw of big names, and typically engaged some star power to fuel anticipation each season. In 1965, when a hoped-for contract with diva Maria Callas (1923-1977) fell through, Ross phoned the up-and-coming talent, Beverly Sills (1929-2007), and convinced her to sing three performances of Mimi in La Boheme for just $1000. Lucky Seattleites got to hear the gifted soprano at a bargain price, and Ross developed a relationship that would pay dividends down the road.

In 1967 Ross created a stir -- and made opera history -- for an unusual reason. He invited the renowned Caruso-era tenor Giovanni Martinelli (1885-1969), then 81 years old, to sing the brief role of Emperor Altoum in Turandot. Martinelli not only brought the audience leaping to its feet to cheer him, but also gained lasting glory, retaining the title of "oldest opera singer" in the Guinness Book of Records for the next several decades.

For added excitement, Ross also booked Joan Sutherland (1926-2010) to sing Lakme that season, and the following year secured leading tenor Franco Corelli (1921-2003) for his Seattle debut in Romeo et Juliette. Then Ross outdid himself by luring composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) to Seattle to conduct his 1918 opera, L'Histoire du soldat, with English screen star Basil Rathbone (1892-1967) as narrator and sets by illustrator Saul Steinberg (1914-1999). The one-night show was limited to Seattle Opera donors, a brilliant strategy, and everyone fortunate enough to be there was dazzled by the cast, the music, the sets, and the charismatic presence of the aging, legendary Stravinsky.

Overcoming Adversity

Ross was beginning to seem unstoppable -- that is, until Seattle's economy, built largely around one major employer, crashed in the legendary Boeing Bust that started in 1969. Even Glynn Ross couldn't defend against a financial hit of that scale, and Seattle Opera suffered. The company posted a 20 percent drop in attendance for the 1969-1970 season, despite performances by acclaimed Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005) in Turandot and the company's first world premier, Carlisle Floyd's (b. 1926) Of Mice and Men. A reviewer called the new opera "one of the best pieces of musical theater in any form to appear on the American stage in recent years" ("Of Mice and Men ...").

The big dip in attendance numbers left Ross undaunted. For the next season he planned a shocker, intended to shake up the opera community and lure a different set of music lovers to his fold. First he pleased his stalwarts by booking Joan Sutherland for Les Contes d'Hoffmann, and then scandalized them by staging The Who's rock opera Tommy at the Moore Theater. The local rock band Cannon Ball, led by Seattle musician/composer Norman Durkee (1948-2014), played in a flashy multi-media production. With the then little-known Bette Midler (b. 1945) appearing in a breakout role and plenty of nudity, the show drew national attention and subscriptions to the opera doubled, making it the best season to date. By then Ross had become something of a star himself. In 1971 the New York Board of Trade named him Arts Administrator of the Year, and the Seattle King County Association of Realtors dubbed him First Citizen of the Year.

Energized by success, Ross raised his sights further. He booked Beverly Sills -- at a much higher fee -- to sing Lucia di Lammermoor in 1972, and again in 1973 for La Traviata. He then scheduled another world premier, Thomas Pasatieri's (b. 1945) Black Widow. Ross also took time to form Seattle Opera's resident dance company, Pacific Northwest Dance, in 1972. He oversaw the company for the first five years, until it split off into a separate entity, with Kent Stowell (b. 1939) and Francia Russell (b. 1939) taking over as joint artistic directors. They changed the name to Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Wagner in Seattle

Ross also took his first step toward making Seattle a destination for Richard Wagner enthusiasts. In 1973 he booked Die Walküre, the company's initial foray into Wagner's epic four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. Die Walküre sold out (although a number of exhausted viewers reportedly slipped away during intermissions in the nearly five-hour opera). Ross's plan was to introduce another opera from the cycle each year and then, in summer 1975, debut a full production of the Ring, which he would bring back each summer. With funding promised from the Gramma Fisher Foundation, Ross won grudging approval from his board. One trustee declared he was bored with the Ring and another said that the thought of producing it scared him, but Ross's enthusiasm and record of success won them over.

That set Ross off on a four-year promotional blitz, working with the U.S. Information Agency to spread the word around the globe. In Seattle, the ticket office established an 800 number for long-distance callers. Ross's PR department blanketed the region with posters and lapel buttons, proclaiming "The Ring's the Thing" and even advertised a "Free Wagner Orgy Kit."

For his 1975 cast, Ross lined up the impressive six-foot 10-inch Noel Tyl (b. 1936) as Wotan, Ingrid Bjoner (1927-2006) as Brunnhilde, Paul Crook as Mime, and Ticho Parly (1928-1993) as Loge. Henry Holt (d. 1997) would conduct. In those pre-supertitle days of opera, when the meaning of the words being sung remained a mystery to many in the audience, Ross decided to run the Ring in separate German and English-language versions, thinking English would be less intimidating to Ring neophytes. The German version sold out the 3000-plus seat Opera House at Seattle Center and the English version brought in a 75-percent capacity crowd. Opera fans streamed to Seattle from across the U.S. and abroad.

At the time, Seattle was the only place outside of Wagner’s original Bayreuth Festival in Germany where one could regularly hear all four operas performed together as a cycle. Over time, with Seattle's annual summer performances, some took to calling the city "Bayreuth West" ("The Ring's the Thing").

A Rare Failure

This was another grand achievement for Ross. But, as always, he wanted more. He now envisioned an even more encompassing performance extravaganza, dubbed "Festival in the Forest," that would take place year-round, with opera, theater, symphony, and symposia geared to an international audience. He convinced the Weyerhaeuser Company to pledge the use of 30 acres sited a half-hour south of the city. And, with Ross projecting millions in tourist revenue, then-governor Dixie Lee Ray (1914-1994) signed on for state support. Ross had a theory: "The commodity market has been largely satisfied, and now people are going for the experience market" ( "The Ring's the Thing").

Ross never got to test that theory. This time his oversized ambitions had spun too far out. Festival plans began to unravel when the Seattle Arts Commission balked at funding an event outside the city. Ross's board wasn't convinced, either: Its members thought he should be putting his energy into improving the regular opera seasons, which had grown repetitive. In addition, "the mid-century model of hiring a single superstar as an audience magnet began to fail" ("50 Years ..."). Hiring top names simply had become too expensive.

Ross had long kept the company operating debt-free, but now he faced budgetary challenges as well. With the national economy in recession, funding from Washington state and the National Endowment for the Arts decreased, and Ross was forced to cut educational programs and lay off a third of the opera staff. Beset by pressures, he resigned in 1983, a year before his contract ended. In the course of 20 years, he had presented 76 operas, including three world premiers. He still had more to give, and he didn't give up. Instead, Ross took on a new challenge as general director of Arizona Opera in Tucson, which he rejuvenated and led until his retirement in 1998.

Enter Speight Jenkins

When Speight Jenkins was chosen as Ross's successor, he had no experience running an opera company, and he got the job as general director of Seattle Opera more or less by accident. With a degree in law and a lifelong passion for opera, Jenkins had served as a music critic for the New York Post and was editor of Opera News, as well as narrator of the Metropolitan Opera's live radio broadcasts. When Seattle Opera's search committee called on Jenkins to advise them, his eloquence and fervor left the committee so captivated that they decided to quit searching and hire him.

Obviously Jenkins faced a steep learning curve when he stepped into a 1983-1984 season that had been previously booked by Ross. But no detail of planning or productions escaped his attention, and he soon started chipping away at things he didn't believe in. That included dropping the English-language performances of the Ring in 1984 and, later that year, introducing supertitles, a new technology for projecting translations above the proscenium as the singers performed.

The 1985-1986 season brought more changes. The Seattle Symphony’s new music director, Gerard Schwarz (b. 1947), would make his Seattle Opera debut conducting Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte, beginning his long association with the company. And Jenkins tapped Seattle native and rising-star choreographer Mark Morris (b.1956) to create the provocative "Dance of the Seven Veils" for a production of Salome. Then Jenkins shocked Wagner devotees by canceling the 1985 summer Ring cycle. It would be the first time in a decade that Seattle had not hosted the Ring. Jenkins planned to make his mark by introducing a dramatic new production, with a postmodern design concept by Robert Israel, to debut the following year. He had no idea what an uproar that would cause.

A Controversial Ring

Like his predecessor, Jenkins tried to build anticipation by previewing a single opera from the cycle. In summer 1985, he presented Israel's production of Die Walküre (Jenkins's preferred spelling at the time was Walkuere). But the abstract, industrial-looking set disgruntled audiences accustomed to the old-style mythological scenery of years past. A chorus of boos erupted as Israel, lighting designer Joan Sullivan, and director Francois Rochaix took their bows. The Seattle Times declared the production "saddled with excessive conceptual baggage, obscured by vague symbols and marred by a sometimes cartoony approach to tragic subject matter" ("The Opera was Great, But ...")

Jenkins and his board held course. Israel wasn't interested in playing it safe, he told the Times: "We're not just here to see a faithful reproduction. We're here to enlarge ourselves" ("Opera Rings New ..."). Jenkins's confidence soon got a boost from an unexpected patron. Michael M. Scott (b. 1945), who until 1981 had served as the first CEO of Apple Computer, saw Die Walküre and later called Jenkins to offer financial assistance. Jenkins -- new to the fundraising game -- threw out a figure that made Scott laugh. Scott said he could do better, and Jenkins would rely on his support for the next decade.

When the full Ring cycle debuted the following summer, revisions had been made to address some problems. But technical glitches abounded, and many viewers were not thrilled with the concept or presentation. "The Rheinmaidens pop out of little mounds of drapery fabric as if exiting from Eddie Bauer sleeping bags; Siegmund is got up like a Pioneer Square derelict, and 'seized' is misspelled in one of the 'Walkuere' supratitles," complained critic Melinda Bargreen of The Seattle Times ("A Rousing Good Start ..."). Enough booing erupted at the end of Götterdämmerung that Jenkins feared for the next summer's ticket sales. Amid the flowers flung to the singers, someone tossed a tomato.

Unbowed, Jenkins read all the angry letters, answered them, and then enlisted his stage and costume designers to make improvements. And fortunately, the controversy around Seattle's new Ring production only ramped up interest. Curious Wagner fans and music critics from around the country and the globe came to see the show and weigh in on its merits. The 1987 production, with a new dragon and flaming finale, outsold the previous year, and the audience, for the most part, seemed to approve. "The four-opera epic has had its successes and its pitfalls in this year's staging," the Times noted, "but Götterdämmerung was a triumph of Wagnerian proportions" ("Last Opera ..."). No matter: Jenkins had overspent his budget and was forced to cancel the following year's Ring cycle so the company could regroup financially.

Tradition and Innovation

Like Ross before him, Jenkins enjoyed his role as a public figure. He made a point of greeting audiences as they arrived for performances, stationing himself on the lobby stairway. His radio ads for Seattle Opera were a hallmark of his tenure, as was his eagerness to talk up the opera to anyone within earshot. His basic formula for the company was "a mixture of standard repertory presented with strong production values, fascinating rarities, and the occasional landmark production that changed how we thought about opera" ("Fifty Years ...").

The summer of 1990 and the Goodwill Games in Seattle, with its concurrent arts festival, gave Jenkins a chance to do just that. Seattle Opera mounted a spectacular $2 million staging of Prokofiev's War and Peace -- its most extravagant production to date. The cast included soprano Sheri Greenawald, baritone Julian Patrick (1927-2009), tenor Peter Kazaras (b. 1952), and several members of Russia's Kirov Opera. Mark Ermler (b. 1932) of the Bolshoi Opera conducted and Francesca Zambello (b. 1956) directed a cast of hundreds, earning the company's first Artist of the Year award.

Other highlights of Jenkins's tenure include a 1990 Rusalka, starring the captivating Renee Fleming (b. 1959) in a role that she would become known for. In 1994, Jenkins called on English soprano Jane Eaglen (b. 1960) to make her U.S. debut after Carol Vaness (b. 1952) was injured during rehearsal for Norma. Eaglen's voice so delighted the crowd, and Jenkins, that he made her a regular with the company. Taking on the roles of Turandot, Brunnhilde, and Ariadne, among others, Eaglen twice won Seattle Opera's Artist of the Year award and eventually made the city her home.

In 1998 Jenkins debuted a triumphant Seattle Opera production of Wagner's epic Tristan und Isolde, starring Eaglen and Ben Heppner (b. 1956) in the title roles. Enthusiastic Wagnerites and critics descended on Seattle and all 10 performances sold out. Seattle Opera also launched its Young Artists Program that year, directed by Perry Lorenzo and Dean Williamson, to train and coach outstanding young singers.

After retiring the controversial Robert Israel-designed Ring in 1995, Jenkins rolled out a widely anticipated and well-received new production in 2001, directed by Stephen Wadsworth and designed by Thomas Lynch. In 2003 he welcomed opera audiences to a completely renovated theater, now called Marion Oliver McCaw Hall. He would continue to stage thought-provoking new productions and work to expand the audience for opera, including offering a live, free HD simulcast of Madama Butterfly at Key Arena. In 2011 Opera News named Jenkins as one of the 25 most powerful figures in American opera.

The Torch is Passed

Jenkins retired in 2014 and Aidan Lang, former director of New Zealand Opera, took over as general director of Seattle Opera. Aiming at a younger audience, he introduced chamber operas dealing with contemporary issues, and partnered with Santa Fe Opera to commission The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, composed by Mason Bates (b. 1977), with a libretto by Mark Campbell.

Lang also spearheaded a new $60 million building at Seattle Center, next to McCaw Hall, to serve as company headquarters, costume shop, education, and rehearsal space. He resigned in 2019 to become general director of the Welsh National Opera and the company named Christina Scheppelmann as Seattle Opera's fourth general director in its 56-year history. In 2019 Scheppelmann was one of only two women at the helm of a major opera company in the U.S.


Sources:

"History," Seattle Opera website accessed October 25, 2019 (https://www.seattleopera.org/mission#history); "Performance Archive," Seatte Opera50 website accessed October 25, 2019 (https://seattleopera50.com/); HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Ross, Glynn (1914-2005)" (by Paula Becker) https://www.historylink.org/ (accessed October 22, 2019); Emily Cabaniss, Seattle Opera Librarian, email to Sheila Farr, October 21, 2019, in possession of Sheila Farr, Seattle, Washington; Jonathan Dean, Seattle Opera Dramaturg, emails to Sheila Farr, October 21, 23, 24, 2019, in possession of Sheila Farr, Seattle, Washington; Melinda Bargreen, 50 Years of Seattle Opera (Seattle: Seattle Opera, 2014); Winthrop Sargeant, "The Ring's the Thing," The New Yorker, June 26, 1978, pp. 35-50; James Grant, "Twilight Time," Opera News, Vol. 62, No. 17 (June, 1998), pp. 28-30; Ben Sisario, "Glynn Ross, 90, Put Seattle On the Map for Opera Lovers," The New York Times, July 26, 2005, p. C-16; "Arena, Opera House Improvements Set," The Seattle Times, January 9, 1963, p. 16; Louis R. Guzzo, "Seattle Opera," Ibid., November 17, 1963, p. 16-S; Louis R. Guzzo, "Seattle Opera Association, Western Opera Co. Merge," Ibid., January 23, 1964, p. 1; "Opera Chorus Will Hold Auditions," Ibid., February 11, 1964, p. 25; Louis R. Guzzo, "Touring 'Met' May Spark Dispute," February 12, 1964, p C-6; Louis R. Guzzo, "Dates Announced for Production of 2 Operas Here," Ibid., February 16, 1964, p. 65; Wayne Johnson, "Opera Stages Fine 'Turandot,'" Ibid., February 1, 1967, p 27; "Igor Stravinsky To Lead Concert Here," Ibid., February 5, 1967, p 82; Wayne Johnson, "'L'Histoire' Staged Superbly," Ibid., March 2, 1967, p 31; Wayne Johnson, "'Of Mice and Men' Cheered in Impressive Debut," Ibid., January 23, 1970, p. B-6; Wayne Johnson, "Rich Show from Thin 'Tommy,'" Ibid., April 29, 1971, p. B-3; Emmett Watson, "The Dynamic Hustler Who Helped Put Local Culture on the Map," Ibid., August 11, 1987, p. B-1; Wayne Lee, "Opera Rings New -- Challenging Production Is Fresh Vision of Wagner's 'Die Walkuere,'" Ibid., July 23, 1985, p. D-1; Wayne Lee, "The Opera was Great, But the Set ..." Ibid., July 29, 1985, p. D-2; Melinda Bargreen, "A Rousing Good Start, With Lots of Passion," Ibid., August 4, 1986, p. D-1; Melinda Bargreen, "Last Opera of ’87 'Ring' Truly Sizzles," Ibid., August 10,1987, p. D-1; Christy Karras, "Seattle Opera Has Big Plans for Its New Headquarters at Seattle Center," Ibid., February 15, 2018 (https://www.seattletimes.com/).


Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You