The History of Opera in Columbus
This is an article I was asked to write for Opera Columbus’s 25th anniversary program book a few years ago. “I’m not making this up, you know!”
Diva Mary Garden Incites the Masses
The meanest Buckeye linebacker is no match for a prima donna. On a cold January night in 1914, Columbus’s Southern Theatre had a packed house, waiting for diva Mary Garden, Debussy’s first Melisande and the toast of Paris and Chicago, to appear in recital. But Mary was eight hours away, leaping at the chance to sing a favorite role, Massenet’s “Jongleur de Notre Dame” in the Windy City.
A wire was sent to the hapless crowd in the Southern Theatre. Mary was a no-show. The audience wasn’t amused, nor was the Columbus Citizen: “Mary, Mary quite contrary/How does your garden grow?/An opera date/Will surely bring/More kale in the spring, y’know.” Just for good measure, Mary canceled her make up date, scheduled for four days later, to sing Manon in Chicago.
Opera NOT in Columbus
Because Columbus had no resident opera company until 1981, Central Ohioans traveled to hear the Metropolitan Opera on tour in Cincinnati, braving a flood for an opening night Faust at Music Hall in 1884.
Special trains were run from Columbus, and the New York Times reported, “There were some strangers present, who came into the city early in the day on trains that ran through long stretches of water, and who heartily wished they had not ventured from home”.
Cleveland was a favorite Met tour stop, from The Barber of Seville in 1899, to La traviata, with Granville-born Barbara Daniels as Violetta, eighty-seven years later. Not that Columbus lacked for operatic glamor. Adelina Patti appeared at the Auditorium Theater on Town and Front Streets in 1893, but not before receiving her $5,000 fee in gold coin.
Our large German population demanded Wagner, inviting Angelo Neumann’s touring company to present its potted Ring cycle in 1899. Memorial Hall opened on Broad Street in 1907 to make a home for touring orchestras and artists from Rachmaninoff to Jan Peerce.
Mary Garden finally arrived, with the touring Chicago Opera, to triumph in Alfano’s Resurrection in 1928. She returned the following year for Thais and Montemezzi’s The Love of Three Kings.
Opera Stars Who Sang in Columbus
Mary was not the only star to come through Columbus. Rosa Raisa, Puccini’s first Turandot, appeared as Aida with Alexander Kipnis. Charles Hackett was a big name in radio. Rosa Ponselle gave an annual recital in Memorial Hall. Maria Olszewska, Richard Strauss’s favorite contralto in Vienna, sang Carmen in Columbus.
The Columbus Auditorium later became a Lazarus annex. “If you want to stand on the very spot where Mary Garden thrilled 5000 opera lovers in 1929, you can,” writes Phil Sheridan in his 1978 Those Beautiful Downtown Theatres.” Climb either of the two short stairways near the range and refrigerator display, walk to the center, face east, and you’re there.”
Full scale opera productions came through Columbus between 1935 and 1950 via the touring San Carlo Opera. Organized by a Brooklyn born impresario called Fourtune Gallo (‘lucky rooster’) The San Carlo’s Aida could play on any stage, the public seldom bothered by the chorus of six and whatever elderly camel could be rented from the local zoo.
Dorothy Kirsten, James Melton, Richard Tucker and Coe Gladeall played Columbus with the San Carlo, usually at the Hartman Theatre. Beverly Sills began her career at seventeen with the touring Charles Wagner Company, visiting Columbus in 1949 and 1950. Mees Hall at Capital University hosted a 1954 tour of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, starring Phyllis Curtin.
Miss Curtin, America’s loveliest soprano, remembers Columbus fondly, “I felt myself really growing as an artist during those performances at Mees Hall.” Maria Callas sang one of the last concerts of her career in the Ohio Theater in 1974, repairing to the Kon-Tiki for a late dinner. Broadcaster May Rousculp (Hoffman) had caught La Callas at Port Columbus that morning for a pithy, impromptu interview, one of the diva’s last.
The Ohio State University presented staged opera going back to the days of Royal Hughes, whose voice students included Ruby Elzy, the original Serena in Porgy and Bess. Irma Cooper, long a beloved local artist and teacher, sang a sinister Herodias in Salome at Mershon Auditorium with Grace Bumbry in the title role.
Evan Whallon’s love for singers led to a series of concert operas with the Columbus Symphony, including Die Fledermaus, La boheme, and Don Giovanni. James King and Pablo Elvira co-starred in Verdi’s Otello, and Christian Badea led one of the most complex of all opera scores, Richard Strauss’s Elektra with Johanna Meier and Barbara Conrad.
Opera Columbus Begins
Michael Harrison put Opera Columbus firmly on the cultural map, following an inaugural Tosca in 1981. The thrills were not all on stage.
“Jack Hanna brought all sorts of animals for our Aida“ remembers Harrison. “He brought two llamas into my office and they relieved themselves in the elevator! That was the production where the tenor threatened to kill me for replacing him. The Columbus police protected me admirably.”
Harrison points to the world premiere of Thomas Pasatieri’s Three Sisters with pride, and “I loved coming back to sing the Simpleton in Boris Godunov with the great Jerome Hines. That was a role to which everyone thought I was ideally suited!”
“Opera Columbus went under for four days in January, 1991, but Irma Cooper, Phil Jastram and Rocky Morris raised the money to keep it going” remembers former General Director John Gage. “Phil was not going to let it go under.” Bill Russell brought bel canto elegance back to Columbus with Anna Bolena and Lucia di Lammermoor, along with another world premiere, Leslie Burr’s Vanqui. Opera in Columbus is different than Opera/Columbus, but our hometown company continues to set high standards.