It all began with a few women intent on building an opera from nothing

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.

Five decades ago, it was merely an afternoon’s conversation. But among the right people, such a conversation can become something transformative—something that becomes part of a city’s lifeblood, and leaves a mark on generations of music lovers.

It’s hard to imagine Grand Rapids without its family of performing arts institutions. It’s easy to see a zoo, or a theater, and simply accept them as a natural feature of city life, without much thought about their origins. But even the grandest structures began as an idea.

Cities the size of Grand Rapids usually have an assortment of museums and performance spaces… but few have a dedicated opera company. That’s a rare jewel in the crown of a city our size. And it wouldn’t have happened without the dedication of a few women intent on building an opera from nothing.

Joan Gillett as Giovanna in Rigoletto, 1996

Joan White Gillett, Muriel Burger, and Marney Houseman MacAdam were all members of the St. Cecilia Music Society, which has been part of the Grand Rapids music landscape since 1883. The ladies were united by a love of music, and had sung a handful of small operas for St. Cecilia. The women were capable singers (a vocal music scholarship at Grand Valley State bears MacAdam’s name). As they recall it, an afternoon chat between friends was the seed from which a decades-long endeavor was born.

“I worked out of my house. I did the business part of it,” says Gillett. Her work as a secretary meant she was comfortable on the phone and behind a typewriter. As the euphoria of beginning their new venture gave way to the reality of building a business from the ground up, Gillett spent her days making deals and finding allies.

She got hold of a contact at the Grand Rapids Symphony and convinced her that this new project was worth supporting. As an opera company, they would need accompanists, and the Symphony’s early support was arguably the most crucial aspect of OGR’s founding. It’s a partnership that continues to this day.

The Marriage of Figaro, 1967

For their first production, the founders selected the grand opera classic, The Marriage of Figaro. As performance time neared, storm clouds gathered on the horizon, and the sky turned green. “We had a tornado,” says Gillett. “We all ended up in the basement at the Calvin College Fine Arts Center with this green sky outside. So that’s how we started the opera company: with a tornado.” The performance itself went off without a hitch, but outside was chaos. “Things were flying through the air,” says Gillett. Debris was still being blown about after the performance was over. Says Gillett, “We were going back to [Opera Grand Rapids’ then-President] John Gilmore’s home, and a big log got caught under the car.” Just a few minutes after the conclusion of OGR’s first successful performance, its originators found themselves stranded in the road, wrenching and pushing at their car. They got it loose, and had the opportunity to celebrate from the safety of the Gilmore home.

During the early days, the founders took nothing for granted. They still fondly remember individual favors and donors from those uncertain times. Even as the day-to-day operation of the company went smoothly, a question loomed: would the community itself be able to sustain a dedicated opera company for the foreseeable future? “Funding is always a concern for arts groups,” says MacAdam. But even more uncertain than money was whether the local population was interested enough in opera to sustain the livelihood of the organization. Luckily, Grand Rapids was (and remains) home to enough people with a refined musical palette to keep the company going strong. “We have a core group of people that are really interested in the opera. They’ve been our base, and we really couldn’t do anything without them,” she says.

While many patrons, families. and organizations have supported Opera Grand Rapids over the years, Gillett is quick to give the Van Andels special mention. She has fond memories of Betty Van Andel, a singer who adored opera and sat on the original OGR board. “I want to give special kudos to the Van Andel family,” she says.

In addition to donors, counselors, and organizers of every stripe, the founders are grateful for the efforts of local opera support groups, such as the Friends of the Opera (FOTO) and Opera Affiliates. Support groups like FOTO emphasize the communal nature of our opera, opening their homes to visiting singers who are performing with Opera Grand Rapids. “The singers enjoy that,” says Gillett. Rather than stay in a hotel, touring performers have a chance to make friends and settle into the community, however briefly. It helps each cast feel more like a family.

What’s the secret to building a large, extended performing arts family? “It’s like anything you decide you’re going to try and do,” says MacAdam. “There are people who are very supportive, and people who aren’t. So, we grabbed the people that were supportive and had them help us out.”

On the night of a performance, you can look out over the finely-attired crowd at DeVos Hall, listen to the tuning from the pit, sip a glass of wine, and forget that this institution was not a given thing. It wasn’t something that sprung wholly-formed. Five decades ago, it was merely an afternoon’s conversation. It could have been the kind of idle talk that we all engage in—a few minutes of fun speculation before we move into the next moment. But among the right people, such a conversation can become something transformative—something that becomes part of a city’s lifeblood, and leaves a mark on generations of music lovers.


OUR FOUNDERS HAD A BOLD PROPOSITION: to build a professional opera company that would put Grand Rapids on the map for a very discerning audience. 50 years later, we are humbled to be the modern bearers of classical standards and modern ingenuity. Learn more.



As an integral part of our city’s artistic fabric, it’s our responsibility to see to its continual flourishing. Please consider donating to Opera Grand Rapids to ensure our artistic excellence for the next 50 years and beyond. You’ve already made us great. With your support, there’s no limits to the height our voices can reach together. Give today.