Once in Love With Irma: The Opera Columbus Vocal Competition

Irma M. Cooper. Character.(Photo: AIMS)
Irma M. Cooper. Character.(Photo: AIMS)

This Sunday I’ll be the MC for the annual Irma M. Cooper Opera Columbus Vocal Competitions. The goings-on attract young singers from all over the country. The only condition is that they must have lived in Ohio for a three-month period (like getting a divorce in Reno in the old days)

The finalist singing at the Southern Theater on Sunday have already passed several rounds. It all begins with wading through piles of recorded performances. In this advanced digital age there are still a fair amounts of unlistenable, technically poor recordings. That’s what slush piles are for.

The next group sings for preliminary judges in Columbus, further winnowed down to several place-winners. There are generous cash prizes and scholarships to the AIMS (keep reading).

Denyce Graves is a past winner. Richard Paul Fink, Alison Cambridge and Lucas Meachem are among past winners enjoying good careers.

Now then. Who was Irma M. Cooper?

Soprano, pedagogue, chatelaine and capital C Character. Irma was on the voice faculty at OSU after years of appearing in German Opera houses, some with names no one outside of Bremerhaven can pronounce, and some well-known indeed.  God love her, if you mentioned any opera to Irma in her later days she’d pipe right up: “I sang that in Gelsenkirchen, honey-or was it the Landestheater Freiburg?”

Irma came from money. She was wonderfully generous, particularly to young singers. She lived well and  provided scholarships and help for others.  Irma founded the American Institute of Vocal Studies in Graz, Austria. This provided a showcase for American singers to be discovered by the plethora of German agents and opera houses, often leading to lucrative,  full-time employment.

I served with Irma on a number of committees.  If she felt the high spirits getting out of hand, she’d bang her cane on the floor. The sight of her wolfing down a pizza while listening to young singers  (“I sang that in German dear, better than this poor girl”) was endearing in the extreme. One of my jobs was to park her car. Okay. She’d come in and toss me the keys to whatever enormous Lincoln she was driving that season.

Where’s the car, Irma? I don’t know, dear,with a wave of the hand.

The car wa usually in the middle of High Street  (in the middle of High Street) with outraged cops and commuters trying to get by. No kidding.

It will be fun to listen to the young artists this Sunday and wonder what will happen to them. Better still is to think of Irma writing checks for them while muttering, “That fat girl shouldn’t wear something so low-cut honey.  In my day, we knew how to dress!”

Opera Columbus Irma M. Cooper Vocal Competition, March 10, 2 PM Southern Theater, Columbus. Free admission