Planet Opera: Cincinnati Balances Tradition with Innovation

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Ask an opera lover to name America's oldest company and he or she could probably make the educated guess that it is the Metropolitan in New York, which opened on Oct. 22, 1883 with a performance of Gounod’s Faust. But how many would know that the second-oldest opera company in the nation is in Cincinnati, Ohio? There are fascinating reasons why this is the case.

For the coming season I intend to include important American opera cities in the Planet Opera series, including Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and Washington, but I decided a couple of months back that Cincinnati Opera should come first because it is distinct for many reasons. 

The Cincinnati Opera was founded in 1920 but, like most important cities east of the Mississippi River and north of the Ohio River, it had opera well before that. To understand this fact, it is important to know how opera spread in America. From the nation’s beginnings until the Met was born in 1883, local groups organized opera productions which occasionally travel to other cities (Chicago and Milwaukee shared productions, for example). 

In the Met’s first season, it performed in New York for two months late in 1883 and then, from Dec. 26, 1883 to Apr. 19, 1884, it went on an extended national tour that included 21 performances in Boston, 15 in Chicago, 14 each in Philadelphia and Cincinnati, 7 in St. Louis, 4 in Washington, D.C., 3 in Baltimore and 3 in Brooklyn, which was not yet part of New York City. The fact that Cincinnati had such a long visit attests to that city’s status as a music center that long ago.

In the Met’s stay in Cincinnati (Feb. 11-23, 1884), it performed an astonishing season that included Faust, Lucia di Lammermoor, La Gioconda, Don Giovanni, Il Trovatore, La Sonnambula, Mignon, Robert Le Diable, Mefistofele, Martha, a gala concert, and the Met premieres of Hamlet and Le Prophete.

The Met returned to Cincinnati on future tours (1885, 1886, 1897, 1899, 1901, 1903, 1904, 1905, 1907, 1911) for a total of 44 performances, many of them by Wagner. After that, nothing. Cincinnati had a strong musical tradition even before the Met came. The May Festival, the nation’s oldest choral festival, has taken place annually since 1873. Choruses from around the country came to perform grand works. The choral tradition in Cincinnati goes back further, to the 1840s, when German-style Saengerfesten, a sort of singing contest not unlike those heard in Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, took place. In 1878, the glorious Music Hall was built for the festival and it has been the venue for superb choral and symphonic music ever since. The May Festival has had many distinguished leaders, including James Conlon, who has been in charge since 1979.

The Conservatory of Music (1867) and the College of Music (1878) were two important schools that merged in 1955, then became part of the University of Cincinnati in 1962 and is known as CCM. It has always represented an important beacon of musical knowledge and instruction that local people are proud of. It is also a place where excellent student opera performances can be heard.

Cincinnati’s particular characteristics made it a congenial locale to build its own opera company, especially when the Met went in other directions. This hilly, leafy city above the Ohio River was a major port linking the Midwest to the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans. Cincinnati was reminiscent of towns in Germany near the Rhine River with their gardens (some with beer available), pavilions for music, tidy homes, stores and factories. Indeed, Cincinnati grew in the 19th century with waves of German immigrants who brought values of hard work, love of music and of hearty food. Initially, it was famous for its pigs and their products and was nicknamed “Porkopolis.” It diversified and many corporations, most famously Procter and Gamble (founded 1837), grew. In the 1880s, P&G invented Ivory (“the soap that floats”) and its fortune was made.

Not every Cincinnatian ate pork. Many of the Germans who arrived were Jewish and they too prized culture of all types. A particular characteristic of Jewish Cincinnati was that it is the place where, in 1873, Reform Judaism was founded. This meant that Jews were more integrated in the life of the city than was the case elsewhere and advocated for a rich cultural life for Cincinnati.

The city’s corporate families felt that the arts would be good for the city and, to this day, there is considerable support from the private sector in the belief that culture will help attract top executive and technical talent to the city (rather than some of the larger metropolises). Similarly, Jewish families have played an outsized role in arts philanthropy.

When Cincinnati Opera was established in 1920, part of the genius of its creation was that it was intended as a summer festival. One reason for this was that the great singers who appeared at the Met in the autumn and winter and then toured with the company in the spring would then be available. This was a time before summer festivals such as Santa Fe and Glimmerglass existed so that, by the 1930s, all good singers eager to work would head to Cincinnati. As such, the city staged its great choral festival in May and then the orchestra and a local chorus would stay on to perform opera.

The summer season also meant that the company would not perform in historic Music Hall but at the Zoological Gardens. As in Germany and elsewhere in northern Europe (think of Tivoli in Copenhagen but also Central Park in New York), public parks were multi-purpose, as nature combined with theaters, zoos, restaurants and places for other diversions. From 1920 (with Martha, Il Trovatore, Rigoletto, Faust, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Pagliacci, Don Pasquale and Carmen) until 1971, many great singers appeared “at the Zoo,” as locals say.

Not surprisingly, there were many incidents involving outbursts from animals at inopportune moments. Plácido Domingo recalled the time that, as Edgardo, he tells Beverly Sills as Lucia di Lammermoor, “Rispondimi” (“answer me!”) and, before she could, a peacock let out a big squawk. Martina Arroyo made her American opera debut in Cincinnati as Aïda. When she finished singing “O Patria Mia”, a hyena let out a bellowing laugh that took her by surprise. 

In 1972, the company moved to Music Hall, which had been modernized to make it opera-friendly. Stars continued to appear in Cincinnati, even though its population was smaller than other major centers in America, because they were made to feel very welcome by both the company and audiences. In 1973, casts included John Alexander, Arroyo, Franco Corelli, Barbara Daniels, James King, Carol Neblett, Roberta Peters, Sills, Renata Tebaldi and Norman Treigle — truly a world-class list.

A Cincinnati native whose first musical exposure (including opera at the zoo) was James Levine. His mother, Helen, was very active with the Cincinnati Opera until her recent death, and was fondly recalled by its excellent artistic director Evans Mirageas. His statement attests to a particular characteristic of the company, a quiet pride in its glorious past but seeing it as a foundation for a better future. It struck me that, unlike most of the opera world which is so despondent and rudderless, there is a positive energy in Cincinnati and I could have called this article Planet Optimism.

Mirageas and Patricia K. Beggs, the opera’s president and CEO, visited New York recently and I had the chance to speak with them over coffee. They have already announced the next two seasons that include classics as well as unusual works (Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei, Kevin Puts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night, Cavalli’s La Calisto). 

They can make these plans, and others, because of a careful approach to finances. A rule of thumb in arts management is that a company’s endowment must, at minimum, be the same as a year’s budget. According to Beggs, “We have an endowment of close to $20 million and a budget of $6 million. One of the reasons we are optimistic is that we have, for our market size, an incredible base of supporters.”

The Cincinnati Opera is planning an "Opera Campus" in the coming years, using parks and performance spaces to expand its offerings through public concerts, recitals and educational programs. A second stage, part of an initiative called CO2, will allow the company to present some of the lesser-known operas while doing traditional repertory at Music Hall. Using what Mirageas calls “Midwestern pragmatism,” the company will, says Beggs, “do this with responsibility and prudence, finding the gifts before we announce the projects. We are not planning things if we cannot fund them.”

To which Mirageas added, “Don’t live beyond your means, but you must dream beyond your means.”