Former Baltimore Opera Company
The Baltimore Opera Company, Inc. closed its doors in 2009, leaving Baltimore temporarily without a grand opera company. The following history is reprinted below in hopes of keeping the memory alive of the once great organization known as The Baltimore Opera Company.
The Baltimore area’s first operatic performance took place in 1752 when a touring company presented The Beggar’s Opera, followed a few years later by the American premier of Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona. During the 19th century traveling opera companies made Baltimore a regular stop on the itinerary, giving the city its first performances of works such as Faust, La Sonnambula, and Norma featuring divas such as Clara Kellogg, Marcella Sembrich and “The Swedish Nightingale” herself, Jenny Lind, who was exuberantly feted from her hotel window on Howard Street.
Major institutions also brought opera to Baltimore: the Chicago Lyric Opera came with its General Director Mary Garden in Le Jongleur de Notre Dame and the Metropolitan Opera brought major luminaries to the Lyric Opera House from 1883 to 1959.
“Imported” opera thus became a Baltimore staple, until the Martinet School of Opera was founded in 1924, performing at the Maryland Casualty Auditorium on West 40th Street (now the Rotunda Shopping Center). This organization evolved into the Baltimore Civic Opera Company, incorporated in 1950 with the great American diva, Rosa Ponselle, as Artistic Director. It was this organization that became the present Baltimore Opera Company.
The first opera by the fledgling company was Aïda, presented at the Maryland Casualty Auditorium in April of 1950, starring local singers. Hugo Hoffman, Board President, saw potential and did much to propel the non-union, amateur company into a semi-professional, union company performing in The Lyric Opera House with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in the pit. Thus, the first performance of the newly re-organized company, a 1952 repeat of Aïda, featured Metropolitan diva Herva Nelli in the title role. The Company, under the exuberant aegis of the matchless Rosa Ponselle, thrived during the next years, featuring both established and new singers including a young Beverly Sills (who sang for a fee of $75 per performance!) in Manon. Other repertory staples were Madama Butterfly, Carmen, Faust, La Bohème, Rigoletto, and Cavalleria Rusticana/ Pagliacci, with performances coached by Miss Ponselle and featuring her protégés, including artists Kira Baklanova, Spiro Malas, and Richard Cassilly.
1960 marked a milestone in which the board determined that the company needed a further “face-lifting”. The Company dispensed with outmoded drop type scenery, hired professional designers and built sets in Baltimore. The Company, primarily funded by private resources, made its first real effort to raise funds within the corporate sector. Through this fiscal impetus the Company became fully professional and the repertory, which had been primarily the operatic “war-horses,” diversified with such productions as the 1962 Der Rosenkavalier, featuring noted conductor Kurt Adler. Major stars appeared such as Sherrill Milnes in a 1964 Rigoletto, Anna Moffo in 1965 (Lucia di Lammermoor), a 1966 Turandot with Birgit Nilsson and Teresa Stratas, and a 1967 Tales of Hoffmann with Beverly Sills, Placido Domingo, Norman Treigle and Mo. Julius Rudel.
In 1963, the Ford Foundation made a generous contribution that allowed the Company to stabilize a format of three operas a season and to hire a full time Production Manager. 1963 also marked the first year of the Baltimore Opera Vocal Competition. For over 30 years, the competition gave many talented young singers recognition and financial help to support their careers. Many winners went on to major operatic careers, among them Paul Plishka, Maria Ewing, Shelia Nadler, Carmen Balthrop, Vivica Genaux, Kim Josephson and “Native Son” James Morris, who got his start in the Baltimore Opera Chorus.
In 1970, the name Baltimore Civic Opera Company was changed to Baltimore Opera Company. The word “civic” denoted amateurism, a term scarcely applicable to the Company’s offerings, which featured diverse repertoire such as The Saint of Bleeker Street, Thaïs, Maria Stuarda, and Der Fliegende Holländer, featuring such artists as Carol Neblett, Gilda Cruz-Romo, Adriana Maliponte, Marisa Galvany, and conductors Anton Coppola, Emerson Buckley, Sergiu Commissiona, and Anton Guadagno.
The American Bicentennial year, 1976, appropriately saw the Company’s first commissioned work, Ines de Castro, composed by American Thomas Pasatieri with a libretto by Bernard Stambler. This work was a major American operatic event and featured a cast that included Richard Stillwell, James Morris, and Lili Chookasian, with staging by Tito Capobianco.
In 1988, Michael Harrison was hired as General Director upon the untimely death of Jay Holbrook. Mr. Harrison’s expertise in the world of theatre and opera led to a decade of unprecedented growth during the 1990’s.
1993 was the inaugural year of the Summer Aria Series, dedicated to works by American composers. In 1994, a sizable grant was awarded to the Baltimore Opera Company by the National Arts Stabilization Fund in order to cement complete financial stability. The 1994-95 season also saw a dream fulfilled as the BOC added an additional subscription performance for each opera.
World renowned opera stars donated their time and talent for the benefit of the BOC. Chris Merritt gave a recital in 1994, and in 1995 a constellation of opera stars, including Mr. Merritt, James Morris, Deborah Voigt, Florence Quivar, and Anton Guadagno gave a magnificent concert for the benefit of the BOC Education Department.
During 1995-96, the season expanded again to four grand operas, presenting La Traviata, The Merry Widow, The Pearl Fishers and Tosca to record setting audiences. The 1996-97 season, dedicated to the memory of Rosa Ponselle, commemorated the Centennial of her birth on January 22, 1897. The season opened with the company’s most ambitious production to date, La Gioconda, one of Miss Ponselle’s signature roles. This acclaimed production starred Ghena Dimitrova and was conducted by Anton Guadagno.
The company continued to expand the repertoire and attract major American and internationally renowned artists. Notable productions from the late 1990s include Sherrill Milnes in Falstaff, Diana Soviero as Madama Butterfly, The Flying Dutchman with James Morris, Chris Merritt and Paul Plishka and the company’s first Russian opera in 20 years, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin starring Dwayne Croft.
The Baltimore Opera Vocal Competition for North American Artists, chaired by Lisa Di Julio Bertani, was re-organized and continued to thrive in the form of the Baltimore Opera Studio, a four month apprentice program for young singers, providing artistic and career training for the operatic artists of tomorrow.
The 1999-2000 season proved to be a landmark year for the company. Record attendance and universal critical acclaim were generated by Don Giovanni starring James Morris, legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog’s production of Tannhäuser and a premiere of the company’s own production of La Cenerentola starring Vivica Genaux.
In 2000-2001 the company celebrated it’s 50th Anniversary Season with new a production of Aïda designed by Roberto Oswald and Anibal Lapiz, followed by Elektra with Renata Scotto, a Maurice Sendak designed production of Hansel und Gretel, Faust and Turandot.
The Baltimore Opera Company joined other area arts organizations in celebrating the 300th anniversary of the City of St. Petersburg by staging the Russian arts festival of Vivat! in March of 2003. The BOC’s entry was the controversial artistic triumph, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Dimitri Shostakovich. Ambitious programming choices continued as the BOC premieres of La Fanciulla del West with starring Giovanna Casolla and I Puritani with Elizabeth Futral and Gregory Kunde in the Fall of 2004.
The Baltimore Opera Company was a member of a consortium of US companies that developed a production of Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s powerful new American opera Dead Man Walking. The opera was presented in Baltimore in March of 2006 with both Jake Heggie and Sr. Helen Prejean in attendance on opening night.
The curtain fell for the final time at The Baltimore Opera Company’s production of Norma in November of 2008. In March of 2009, after months of trying to reorganize for the 2009-2010 season, they filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and liquidated their assets at auction.
From the early performance of The Beggar’s Opera, to Rosa Ponselle’s Aïda in the Maryland Casualty Auditorium, to the spectacular new American opera Dead Man Walking, The Baltimore Opera Company thrived for many decades. They were supported by the opera lovers in our community, the Board of Trustees, the Baltimore Opera Guild, the Baltimore Opera Supers, the dedicated Opera Staff, many volunteers, and of course, their subscribers, patrons, and benefactors.