This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.
On opening night, The Grand Rapids Press editorialized that the appearance of the Met was “an acknowledgment of [Grand Rapids’] importance as a musical center and as a leader in cultural affairs.”
Opera in Grand Rapids began one Tuesday evening in September 1868, in Squire’s Opera House, where the Grau Opera Company presented Flotow’s Martha complete with orchestra and chorus. Announcing this important event in the cultural life of the city, the editor of The Eagle pled for a large attendance to “disabuse the public mind of an idea somewhat prevalent, that nothing but Negro minstrels and similar performances can be well patronized. The evening was an outstanding success, the opera “admirably presented to a full, appreciative and delighted audience,” and the Grau Company no less delighted–responded with a matinee encore of Auber’s Fra Diavalo. Though neither of these Victorian favorites is much seen these days, opera took root in Grand Rapids, producing results both curious and exciting. Within a year, high-spirited local performers presented Julius Eichberg’s now forgotten, The Doctor of Alcantara. The production, entirely in the hands of local amateurs, was an unqualified success, and even a June storm was unable to dampen the audience’s enthusiasm. Everyone, The Eagle reported, was “very amply repaid by the excellence of the performance.” The troupe, accompanied by over a hundred well wishers, took the show of the road, where Kalamazoo audiences greeted them with equal enthusiasm. Clearly, it was the musical (and social) event of the season. That no further efforts followed from this group must have been a grave disappointment, indeed.
But several years later, Professor Jaroslav Zielinski, a Polish émigré temporarily settled here, returned locally produced opera to Grand Rapids. Zielinski, whose excellent musical training and artistic tastes are evident in the reputation he enjoyed while living here, twice directed local amateurs in ambitious undertakings: in 1876, it was Bellini’s La Sonnambula, and in 1878, Thomas’ Mignon. Though Zielinski coached his troupe for months, Bellini proved too taxing for local voices. Mindful of the performers’ amateur status, The Eagle generously praised them, while concluding, “we think [Professor Zielinski] was too ambitious” in his choice of operas. Mignon, however, was just right for local voices, and the future of locally-produced opera looked bright. But Zielinski’s decision to go West ended all that.
Yet, this brief flirtation with local opera was the beginning of a decade in which opera came to Grand Rapids in a big way. During those years all the major impresarios–Grau, Holman, Strakosh, Gorman and Emma Abbott–brought their troupes to town. With them came opera light and heavy, sung by the competent and incompetent alike. Among the best known operas seen were Gounod’s Faust, Verdi’s La Traviata, Il Trovatore, and Un Ballo in Maschera which was actually the first Verdi opera heard in Grand Rapids! –Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Linda di Chamounix. There were also several productions of Balfe’s Bohemian Girl and Planquette’s Chimes of Normandy, two chestnuts of a by gone age. In addition, the companies brought assorted operettas to lighten the season. And, of course, the Gilbert and Sullivan fever of the 1880’s did not spare Grand Rapids.
The performers who trouped through town during this busy decade make up a long list of the forgettable; but there were some memorable stars in the lot. The most famous–Clara Louise Kellogg and Minnie Hauk–appeared in concert operas, with neither sets nor staging. Miss Kellogg, who usually toured with her own company, sang a concert Il Trovatore, much to the disappointment of The Eagle reviewer, but not so for her small, enthusiastic audience. Miss Hauk brought Grand Rapids its first Carmen–her most celebrated role–but press accounts read more like a social than a musical event. The Penn Club, site of the after-theater party, was packed with everyone of standing in 1883 Grand Rapids society. All were anxious to meet not only the celebrated Miss Hauk, but also her husband, the Baron von Hesse-Wartegg, an Austrian nobleman of international fame.
But it was the Midwest’s own Emma Abbott who sparked the most enthusiasm during her six seasons here. Her Grand Opera Company introduced local audiences to Donizetti’s two ill-fated women (the mad Lucia and Linda of Chamounix), as well as Verdi’s Violetta, a role she was reluctant to sing because, she feared, “it would glorify fallen women.” Miss Abbott starred in most of her Company’s productions, but even on nights off she appeared at intermission to enthrall everyone with her “Last Rose of Summer,” “Swanee River,” and “Home Sweet Home.” She was America’s favorite songstress, and her Company always packed the Powers Opera House.
The next surge of opera activity in Grand Rapids came just after the turn of the century. In quick succession, Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo, composers of those eternal twins, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, each brought his alleged “La Scala” opera company to town. These were dazzling appearances, two internationally-famed composers conducting their own operas in concert performances. Audiences loved them, especially the flamboyant Mascagni, who entertained on and off the stage.
Operatically, the most interesting productions of the early years of this century were Wagner’s Lohengrin and Tannhäuser, both done in English by Henry Savage’s Grand English Opera Company. These two represent the only time Wagner’s operas were sung locally until Opera Grand Rapids’ 1989 production of The Flying Dutchman. Savage’s Opera Company played to capacity houses, and were warmly praised, reviewers concluding Grand Rapids was ready for both Wagner and top-notch performances. In the words of the Grand Rapids Press, “may Grand Rapids never be without its annual season of grand opera, and, if possible, Mr. Savage’s grand opera.”
Though the wish remained unfulfilled, the Savage Company did return a few years later with Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. This 1907 appearance was especially significant since it took place just after Butterfly’s American premiere, and Savage brought the original cast: Joseph Sheehan, Elza Szamosy and Walter Rothwell to conduct. It was a smash hit, easily making up for Savage’s four-year absence. The next year the New English Opera Company brought another Madame Butterfly, but this time The Daily News headline sadly reported: “Magnificent Production Poorly Attended.”
Other impresarios, however, were not discouraged with opera prospects in Grand Rapids. In quick succession, the Aborn Grand Opera Company made two separate appearances, even bringing another Butterfly. The following year Joseph Sheehan, star of the 1907 Butterfly, returned in 1912, with his own company for a season of Carmen, Bohemian Girl, and Martha. All were modest successes, but in 1916, overflow audiences greeted the Boston Grand Opera Company’s La Bohème, starring the Met’s own Maggie Teyte. The second half of this curious program featured Anna Pavlova and her Imperial Ballet Russe. An evening of a full-length opera followed by a complete ballet seems strange to modern audiences, but such mixed productions were then not unusual at all.
The following year, the Boston Company returned with two Met stars–Maggie Teyte and Riccardo Martin–in a Faust production that was, by all reports, magnificently sung. But a train accident cost the group its final act Walpurgis Night and both music and ballet had to be abandoned. In addition, the mishap forced the company to use La Bohème sets for the Act III outdoor scenes. All this the audience took in good spirits, and the Grand Rapids Press critic pronounced the Faust brilliantly presented.
For the next fifty years, opera in Grand Rapids fell on hard times. In 1923, Fortune Gallo’s San Carlo Opera Company tried a season, bringing back Madame Butterfly and La Bohème, while introducing local audiences to their first staged versions of those inevitable twins, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. But this auspicious try was short lived as audiences were simply too small. Even the valiant efforts of an impressive list of local sponsors could not rescue opera for Grand Rapids during the twenties and early thirties. Clearly, the effects of motion pictures were being felt everywhere in the entertainment world.
But the San Carlo company returned in 1938, bringing with them a block-busting Aida, which played to 5,000 at the Civic. Even the original Italian didn’t put the audience off, and for two more seasons the San Carlo brought Grand Rapids opera at its grandest and most glittering. Playing to full houses, opera seemed here to stay, but the outbreak of World War II ended all that.
In the years after the war, the Grand Rapids Symphony presented a series of annual opera concerts, with performers mainly from the New York City Opera Company. During these years, Maestro Desire Defauw scheduled Grand Rapids’ first Mozart and Richard Strauss operas! The 1958 Rosenkavalier starred Phyllis Curtin and Frances Bible, but sadly deleted all the male voices. For the 1957 Cosí Fan Tutte, Defauw employed a narrator, presumably to tie together the loose ends of Mozart’s opera. During these post-war years, Grand Rapids did see two fully staged operas, the first a New York Civic Opera production of Carmen. The cast consisted of talented, but largely unknown singers who were warmly praised by Press reviewer Gerald Elliot. Perhaps it was most fitting that the last touring company to bring opera to Grand Rapids was the Metropolitan. On December 12, 1951, the Met performed Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus before a packed Civic house. The traveling company, led by Brenda Lewis, was youthful and talented, prompting local reviewers to praise both the singing and acting. In addition, the sets and costumes were singled out as “magnificent.” On opening night, The Grand Rapids Press editorialized that the appearance of the Met was “an acknowledgment of [Grand Rapids’] importance as a musical center and as a leader in cultural affairs.” A proud boast that took a few more years to fulfill. But in 1966, opera returned to Grand Rapids for good, when The Opera Company of Western Michigan (as Opera Grand Rapids was first known) brought fully staged productions back to town. We can be thankful that for fifty years Opera Grand Rapids has presented us with outstanding productions, with ever-increasing skill and achievement, finally fulfilling the Grand Rapids Press’ proud boast.
by Gilbert R. Davis (originally published in 2007 by the Grand Rapids Historical Commission)
Dr. Davis has contributed notes for Opera Grand Rapids’ productions for over 35 years.
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