Opera Grand Rapids’ History

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.

Early members of Opera Grand Rapids get ready for the stage in 1968.
Early members of Opera Grand Rapids get ready for the stage in 1968.

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.

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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.

Celebrating 50 Years of Opera

June, 1967: an age of iconic headlines. The conflict in Vietnam was a shadow across the American psyche. The ink on the Voting Rights Act was still fresh. The first presidential election open to all Americans loomed large. America was intent on reaching the moon, but our first grasp at the cosmos ended in tragedy. These were times of upheaval and promise: a perfect epoch for opera.

In such heady eras, we look to the arts to elevate, to animate and transform us. We rely upon those practicing their crafts patiently and out of sight to pull us into the theater, to remind us of our own souls’ capacity. To feel the tumult of the world melt away, as a pleasant chill ascends the spine beneath a blooming aria.

The founders of Opera Grand Rapids knew that passion is best when shared with the world. Nevertheless, it was a bold proposition: to build a professional opera company that would put Grand Rapids on the map for a very discerning audience.

They would have to assemble the city’s most prodigious musical talents and create something greater together than they could alone. They must prove that risk and perseverance could shatter obstacles and win the day—a lesson worthy of Figaro himself.

The performers’ nerves were wild that hot night in early June. Peeking out at the house as it filled up—the steady, giddy pressure of it building with the noise. The pantheon of Grand Rapids high society, sparkling with finery taking their seats. The audience bubbling with expectation and chatter, fans fluttering amongst the sea of faces.

The excellent Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra would uphold its reputation, so a deft overture was certain. But what of the performers, the staging? Figaro takes the stage and counts off the paces—five, ten, twenty—and in an instant, a legacy is born. Couples exchange smiles beyond the footlights, and connoisseurs sit up in their chairs. In the hours that follow, a timeless tale unfolds, with a consoling idea at its heart: no matter how madcap our days, they may end with love. They are witnessing the birth of an institution, and the papers the next day are bold in saying so: real grand opera has come to Grand Rapids.

Over the next five decades, the country would change, and so would Opera Grand Rapids—keeping the grand tradition alive while embracing innovation. We are humbled to be the modern bearers of classical standards and modern ingenuity. The contemporary opera landscape is an exciting place. In 2017, you can watch opera composed for online audiences. You can watch a miniature opera in the intimacy of a small theater. You can even enjoy opera over a craft beer in a local brewery. We plan to honor our bold beginnings by embracing the future of contemporary opera and bringing modern stories and eclectic programming to new and familiar venues alike.

That spirit will be evident this January, when we stage I Dream: a truly unique musical fusion of blues, jazz, gospel, and opera that tells the story of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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.

Want to learn more? Read “50 Years, 50 Stories”, a series of blog posts published in honor of Opera Grand Rapids’ 50th Anniversary.