In the years following the Second World War, West Michigan was home to several community and civic theater companies that occasionally produced musical comedies and operettas. During this period, the only grand opera in the region was presented by touring companies that passed through infrequently. By the middle 1950s things had begun to change. Opera in West Michigan started at the St. Cecelia Music Society.
During the late 1950s and into the early 1960s, the Society staged a number of small-scale opera productions. Some of these early productions, which were sung to the accompaniment of a solo piano, went on tour to Battle Creek and other area communities. Although they were modestly produced, the operas at St. Cecelia became home to a dedicated group of participants, who wanted to bring grand opera to the region. At that time, a group called the Opera Association Committee, with Joan White (now Joan Gillett) as temporary chairperson, began to lay the groundwork. Discussions were held with Grand Rapids Civic Theater and the Grand Rapids Symphony, both of which offered their strong support, and with Calvin College, which offered the use of its Fine Arts Center on the Knollcrest Campus.
By the middle of the 1960s, the group was ready to formalize its efforts. Although the first performance didn’t take place until 1967, the company that would eventually become Opera Grand Rapids was actually formed in May of 1966.
By July of 1966, the Opera Association of Western Michigan was officially incorporated. Founding officers included John F. Gilmore as president, Joan White as executive vice president, Marnie Houseman as secretary, and R. Edwin Owen as treasurer. Carl Karapetian, musical director of the Grand Rapids Symphony, and Paul Dreher, director of Civic Theater, agreed to serve as artistic directors. They would also serve as conductor and stage director, respectively, for the Association’s productions. The Grand Rapids Press reported that the Association had announced ticket prices for the production. The best orchestra seats would sell for $7.50 for opening night and $4.00 for other evening performances.
On June 2 , 1967, the long-awaited day finally arrived. The Marriage of Figaro opened at the Calvin College Fine Arts Center Auditorium. The cast, including Richard Sjoerdsma, Julianne Kelly, Edward J. Huls, Catherine Barrow, Thixton Sprenger, Lois Poppen, Judith Coulter and James Drummond, acquitted itself admirably. The five performances were played to enthusiastic audiences and rave reviews. Under the headline “Local Opera Unqualified Success,” Gerald A. Elliot’s review in The Grand Rapids Press described the production, musically, as being of “consistently high caliber.” Mr. Elliot went on to praise Paul Dreher’s staging, which abridged the lengthy recitatives by substituting
a clever narration provided by Paul Drummond in the character of Don Basilio.
He concluded his review by stating,
“In the Opera Association of Western Michigan this part of the state has something of outstanding musical merit to preserve and nurture.”
A review in The Almanac echoed these sentiments, saying, “Some of West Michigan’s best singers were cast in the roles and they sang and acted very well indeed”, and that “Special praise should be given to the orchestra that Karapetian put together.” The Almanac opined that, “The Opera Association of Western Michigan should be congratulated for this first outstanding achievement.” The Marriage of Figaro marked an auspicious beginning to grand opera in West Michigan. In all, about 3,500 people bought tickets to hear the initial production.
Although the revenue generated from the sale of those tickets was barely enough to pay the bills, it was enough to encourage the intrepid pioneers of the Opera Association to persevere in their endeavors. They and their successors would continue to produce grand opera in West Michigan, growing into the Company known today as Opera Grand Rapids, a proud regional company with a strong national reputation.