Tuesday, June 17, 2014

50 Years of Seattle Opera – Now Available Online!

This year, Seattle Opera turned 50. While you might think that makes us over-the-hill, we’re still just a kid among the world’s great opera companies.

Our half-a-century has certainly been a wild ride. We started--back in the days of the Seattle World’s Fair and the creation of Seattle Center--as a gleam in the eye of the ambitious Seattleites who saw that their city could become a major world metropolis. Our first General Director, Glynn Ross, used crazy PR stunts and outrageous marketing tactics (including, but not limited to, skywriting, grocery store billboards, and bumper stickers with slogans such as “Get A-head with Salome”) to grab people's attention and get them in the door; he then majorly delivered the goods, with world superstars such as Joan Sutherland, Franco Corelli, and Beverly Sills singing here regularly when Seattle Opera was only a few years old. The ambitious Ross then began presenting new American operas, vigorous education and outreach programs, and genre-bending works such as the world premiere of The Who’s Tommy (in 1971, at the Moore Theatre) or Mantra, a combination of kinetic sculpture, dance, classical music, and a psychedelic light show, which toured the state in 1969 thanks to Washington’s Cultural Enrichment Program.

Glynn Ross

Nowadays, for many people worldwide, Seattle Opera means Wagner’s Ring. (For instance, when the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl, the New York Times included a mention of our Ring in its profile of the city.) Of course, we present all kinds of works on the McCaw Hall stage; but at the heart of what we do is this epic masterpiece, which we first presented in 1975 thanks to Glynn Ross’s ambition and infectious optimism. At the time, it was a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk story: a small opera company, barely ten years old and geographically about as far from the opera centers of the world as you can get, took on the biggest challenge in all of opera—and did it justice?! Ross believed that if he built it, they would come; and so they did. They came from all over the world. For every summer. For a decade.

Glynn Ross publicizing Seattle Opera's first Ring
Dale Wittner, photo

Glynn Ross and Seattle Opera parted ways in 1983, and the new General Director, Speight Jenkins, was asked by the board to refresh both the company and its Ring. Jenkins made a number of changes. Instead of offering operas sung in English, as Ross had done (in addition to the original languages), Jenkins was an early adopter of supertitles. A firm believer in opera as theater, Jenkins brought exciting new directors and the latest European trends in staging to Seattle--for example, he discarded Ross’s old “storybook” Ring for a new, visually stunning Brechtian production, set in a world of nineteenth-century theatrical imagination. Instead of doing the Ring every summer, he moved to presenting it every fourth summer, opening up room for other vast productions (such as 1989’s Meistersinger or 1990’s War and Peace). His innovations re-invigorated the company, and, thanks to his high artistic standards, opera lovers around the world began associating Seattle Opera with the utmost in quality.

Speight Jenkins

All this history and much more--premieres of operas such as Of Mice and Men, Black Widow, and Amelia; our productions of all Wagner’s major operas; our fantastic Young Artists Program, launched in 1998 by Education Director Perry Lorenzo; and the people who made it all happen--is extensively chronicled at our special 50th Anniversary mini-site, www.seattleopera50.com. This site is our historical archive. It hosts thousands of photos, audio and video clips, fun stories from behind the scenes, and every program (cover and cast page) since day 1. It’s a resource, not just for remembering and learning about Seattle Opera, but for the art form in general. We hope you, our beloved audience, will comment and share your own memories on these digital pages. Without an audience, we would cease to exist: YOU ARE Seattle Opera.

In addition to this ever-expanding site, you’ll soon have another way to view our company’s history through photos, text and programs. A beautiful coffee-table book, 50 Years of Seattle Opera, written by Melinda Bargreen is in the works. Stay tuned! And thank you for being a part of Seattle Opera’s story.