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Can you imagine Toledo without its own opera company? How could this lively city exist without decades of its own tragic Toscas, Lucias, Mimis, Cio-Cio Sans, and Carmens, or its memorable Rigolettos, Borises, Don Giovannis, Figaros, and Romeos? That seems impossible to imagine, doesn’t it, after half a century of fine professional opera productions. Industrial city though it was, and is, Toledo has never lacked for excellent arts and culture.
The foundation was laid in the 1900s, when visionary movers and shakers built and developed the Toledo Museum of Art, the Toledo Symphony, several reputable ballet companies, and a flourishing library where a host of literary and intellectual groups found inspiration. Already in place were devoted supporters willing to underwrite endeavors that showed promise. What more did the city need?
Toledo’s cultural movers and shakers had the answer. And they were ready to prove their dedication to this amazing art form by bringing live opera to Toledo, not through touring companies but with locally produced performances. The actual birth of the Toledo Opera began with a series of 1957 conversations between two people: Toledo Symphony Orchestra conductor Joseph Hawthorne and Lester Freedman, then a faculty member at the University of Chattanooga.
Hawthorne invited Freedman to invent opera for the Glass City. What many of these innovators may not have realized then was that in carrying out their vision, they also were writing the first chapter in Toledo Opera’s own libretto, a tale filled with strong emotions, memorable characters, and, ultimately, transcendent if ever-transient beauty.
ACT ONE: Scene One
By autumn, 1959, after two years of hard work, planning, fund-raising, and touting the advantages of live opera, Freedman and Hawthorne donned white tie and tails to lead an enthusiastic cast of visiting artists and a chorus of local singers through the very first production of Verdi’s Aida, on the stage of the grand Paramount Theater. Freedman, a tall, imposing figure with strong features and a shock of white hair, announced his theme: “An opera company has a responsibility other than just staying in business. Its purpose is to broaden people’s scopes, to let them know something else exists.” Countless community people agreed and jumped on the opera wagon. Toledo artist Patricia Eckhart designed the imposing set; Old West End musician Carolyn Seeman built the costumes; Toledo Zoo’s business manager Joe Bissonnette collected peacock feathers for headpieces, and local business leader B.R. Baker and his wife, Ellie, joined Frances Freedman, Jane Bruss, and Helen Joseph, among many others, in the chorus.
The premiere was a sell-out – 3000 attended – and Toledo’s new opera instantly became the formal event on the city’s arts and social calendar. Production costs were under $500 and tickets were $4.50-$15.00 Freedman, Hawthorne, and the newly formed company followed their first smash success with three more productions that ambitious first season: the double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci in December and Madama Butterfly in March. A call to young audiences was offered through a production of Hansel and Gretel, for which local dancer and choreographer Bud Kerwin formed the Toledo Opera Ballet Corps.
As a finale, the Toledo Opera Guild was organized in June, with early opera proponent and supporter Adelaide Morse as its first chairman. Although the newly formed Toledo Opera Workshop quickly gained a permanent place in the hearts and minds of Toledo area opera lovers, Lester Freedman and his board found a major challenge in establishing a home base for productions.
After its first season in the Paramount, already a less-than-flattering venue for live opera, installation of a huge Cinerama screen removed the historic hall from consideration. The Workshop moved to the nearby Rivoli Theater, less grand, shabbier, yet possessing more flattering acoustics and workable sight lines than the Paramount. Presenters and listeners alike found the new hall a big improvement for productions of Carmen, The Merry Widow, and La traviata, with guest performers including Skitch Henderson, Eva Likova, Caloin Marsh, and Anita Salta.
Toledo Times critic, Frederick J. Kountz, wrote the first of what would become an ongoing request from opera, symphony, and theater companies, as well as critics: “The city needs a hall for the performing arts.” That essential need would not be fulfilled until four decades later, with the opening of the Valentine Theatre in 1999.
In the interim, the Toledo Opera tried out every major performance space in the city – moving to the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle and then to the Masonic Auditorium (today, the Stranahan Theater). After dropping the term, Workshop, from its name, officers of the new Toledo Opera Association – Robert Nachazel, James Rudolph, and Erwin Schuett – asked outgoing Mayor Michael Damas for free use of a building for storage and set construction. The next two seasons offered mainstream favorites for eager audiences: Tosca, Barber of Seville, and Rigoletto; then Lucia di Lammermoor, Faust, and La bohème. In that second season, new Toledo Mayor John Potter proclaimed Sept. 23-29 as Opera Week, and the TO launched the Toledo Opera Club, to further education and appreciation in the community. Ruth Lewandowski, Elizabeth Zepf, Ellie Baker, and Susan Reams took the reins.
Freedman, more firmly at the helm, continued casting Metropolitan Opera singers as soloists, then using their renown to attract up-and-coming artists eager to gain exposure. The Freedmans also developed a sister opera company in Dayton, the better to utilize their artists in two venues. Each town had chorus, orchestra, and community support, but knowledge of the double billing would later come as a big surprise to many in Toledo. “Opera is not a musical form,” wrote Kountz in the Times. “It is a theatrical form and singing is its medium.” Among the major singers who performed on the Peristyle stage in Toledo during the first decade were mezzo Blanche Thebom, soprano Maria Ferriero, baritone Dominic Cossa, tenor Giovanni Consiglio, tenor Thomas Hayward, and soprano Elinor Ross.
One relatively unknown young Spanish tenor making his first U.S. tour in 1966 earned raves from local critics for his performance of Cavaradossi in TOA production of Tosca. Placido Domingo (pictured at left), then 23, burst upon the local stage with his incredible singing, and he still continues to do enchant the opera world. In a Toledo Blade review of the January performance critic Boris Nelson wrote: “In Placido Domingo, the role of Cavaradossi exploded immediately with a vibrancy that was sustained whenever he was on stage. Without him, the first act would have collapsed…” Vincent La Selva conducted that memorable performance, which Freedman staged.
ACT ONE: Scene Two
Entering the second decade, the Toledo Opera had established itself as a successful new company and Toledoans had come to know more intimately some of the favorite opera works: Tosca, Madama Butterfly, Carmen, Die Fledermaus, Rigoletto. Soprano Roberta Peters began what would be an ongoing relationship with the TO in April, 1970, in a production of Don Pasquale.
Freedman began to explore less well-known productions such as Robert Ward’s The Crucible. After watching opening night, the composer called Toledo’s production one of the most satisfying performances of his career. Paul Plishka and Klara Barlow starred in Lohengrin to close that 1970-71 season, the first to be presented in the new Masonic Auditorium, which became the main performing venue for the opera until 1999.
Other illustrious singers who appeared with the opera during the decade were Maralin Niska, Robert Merrill, James McCracken, Sandra Warfield, Martina Arroyo, Jerome Hines, Louise Russell, and James Morris. Famed conductor and composer Anton Coppola, uncle of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and actress Talia Shire, became a regular guest in the orchestra pit. The Toledo Opera Ballet continued to perform, now led by local choreographer Hanna Hauser.
Cue the celebrity supernumeraries.
In 1977, then Toledo Mayor Doug DeGood moved from his political hot seat to the dramatic spotlight in a walk-on as the Mayor for Carmen. Seen as a marvelous opportunity to perform great opera and rub elbows with great stars in rehearsals, the Toledo Opera Chorus flourished. Many of the area’s finest vocalists were regulars in productions of Rigoletto, Tosca, Manon, and Il Trovatore during this decade.This list is incomplete, but among many who spent countless volunteer hours rehearsing, learning lines and staging, and performing were Rita Sanchez, Jane Zbinden, David Carter, Antoinette Willey, Joan Layne, Constance Denham, Erik Johansen, Greg Thomas, Judith Hauman, Joe Scalzo, Gene Ballard, Mel Harsh, and Barbara Kondalski.Among the most faithful regulars was Douglas Cook, a local industrialist with a penchant for opera and a rich baritone voice to match. Not only was Cook involved as often as possible, but he also became the unofficial Toledo Opera photographer, assembling album after album of shots from backstage and onstage.
Seasons grew: in 1975-76 Toledo Opera presented five operas including the double bill, Il Tabarro/I Pagliacci. The second decade ended on an upbeat note, as Freedman’s connections to the star system continued to foster musical excitement in the Glass City and local support of his production needs climbed accordingly.
ACT ONE: Scene Three
Enter the villain. Cue strings agitato. Bring on the chorus. After two exciting decades unrest developed within the leadership. With expenses rising, income falling, and some personnel changes, the board began to reexamine what had appeared to be a solid operation. Many Toledoans seemed unaware of the Freedmans’ involvement with the Dayton Opera company. Even though it may have made financial sense in some ways, to a growing chorus of supporters it came to look like duplicity. Freedman’s stock fell sharply. He responded by rallying his supporters and a feud developed that would last into the next decade.
In 1983 the founder and long-time impresario was sent packing by the Toledo Opera board. (An embittered Freedman would continue to produce opera elsewhere, but never come to terms with Toledo’s rejection. He died of a stroke in 1994.)
In the interim, with only a regency of board members, various directors and conductors were employed, including Johan Van der Merwe and David Bamberger, to keep productions coming. The turmoil negatively affected fundraising and public support. Nonetheless, Toledo Opera continued to mount seasons of full productions including La Fanciulla del West with Maralin Niska and Ruben Domenguez in the 1980-81 season; La bohème with Maria Spacagna and Raymond Gibbs in 1981-82; Rigoletto with Louise Russell, Dmitri Nabokov, and Leonore Lanzillotte in 1982-83; and, in 1983-84, The Mikado with Tina Bunce, Fred Reeder, Elaine Bonazzi, and Jon Garrison, and Lucia di Lammermoorwith Gianna Rolandi and Joseph Evans.
Toledo Opera arrived at its quarter-century mark with a proud record of quality performances, community involvement, and support from individuals, corporations, and institutions in the region. But (cue the tympani) there was a growing debt. While $100,000 in the red may seem insignificant in these days of trillion dollar federal deficits, the local company knew it had to resolve its unpaid expenses to continue.
Enter the tenor.
The arrival of James Meena in June of 1986 signaled a period of growth and development for Toledo Opera. Meena, 34, had a solid musical background and a passion for opera. Pragmatic and determined, Meena turned the organization toward more community events, seeking to broaden its base and further popularize the art form, without sacrificing artistic quality. There were summer opera programs in the parks and winter programs in the public schools. Students were offered a summer opera camp. Amidst all that, Meena and the company continued turning out fine productions. His first seasons included Carmen, Don Pasquale, and La Traviata, the latter with Jon Garrison and Maria Spacagna, and La bohème, Die Fledermaus with Lauren Flanigan, and Abduction from the Seraglio with Costanza Cuccaro. An up-and-coming soprano, Renee Fleming, starred in Magic Flute, a highlight of the 1988-89 season. Once again, through shrewd casting, Toledo audiences had an early taste of what would become one of the most popular and eclectic soprano performers of the times.
ACT TWO: Scene One
As the opera pressed forward, dragging its deficit like a ball and chain, James Meena and the board chose to add more presenting to their repertoire in hopes of whittling away at the deficit. A series of touring Broadway shows was introduced at the Stranahan Theater, beginning with Fiddler on the Roof in February, 1990. For several years the opera persisted, plowing profits from the Broadway series into the financial void. Still, instead of shrinking, the debt behaved like an alien film monster, tripling in size by 1991 and seeming ready to engulf the operation. Opera seasons during those embattled years included MacBeth with Christine Seitz, and Lucia with Stefan Szkafarowski, Marcello Giordano, and Elizabeth Carter. Meena, who commuted from Cleveland, drew no salary for several years while the opera struggled to recover economically.
In 1992 came the fundraising ingénue: the Opera Gala. Meena presented diversified programs melding arias and ensembles with popular music from great Broadway shows. It was a Whitman’s sampler of opera and Toledo audiences bit. Small gain by small gain, the Opera dug itself out of financial doldrums so that, by the 35th anniversary – Faust with Lance Ashmore and Aida with Pamela Kucinic – the season had generated a small financial surplus and the debt was reduced by 70 per cent. Ever the populist, Meena did not maintain silence in the face of accusations that opera was for the elite. In a 1996 Blade Forum Meena wrote: “Your recent Readers’ Forum contributor and the many thousands of Blade readers should know that the “elite class'” which attend Toledo Opera performances are carpenters and cashiers, office workers and restaurateurs, retired folks and doctors, university students and entrepreneurs, large corporate executives and even some politicians – plus their kids as well.”
A populist fund-raiser started during Meena’s term involved serving pizza to the masses in a parking lot, with revival bands offering a bit of nostalgia for an audience who might otherwise never attend live opera. The Toledo Opera Youth Chorale had been formed, bringing young and enthusiastic singers right on stage for a first-hand experience with the world’s most exciting art form. Summertime productions turned opera into a more casual, family-oriented community event.
From longtime supporters Theodore and Lucille Gorski and their foundation came a $1 million challenge grant. Over the next several years, matching funds came in to the organization bringing the endowment to approximately $1.65 million. Productions that year in the Stranahan included La bohème, with Hugh Smith and Lori Ann Phillips, and Samson and Delilah with John Keyes and Irina Mishura. Acclaimed soprano Barbara Bonney appeared for the gala in the Peristyle. And as proof that opera education in the community was working, the next spring, Toledo native and internationally renowned soprano Constance Hauman made her local debut as Rosina, the soubrette in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Just as exciting was the prospect of finally moving into a new home designed for live performance with spacious, well-appointed rehearsal rooms and ample storage – the Valentine Theatre. Toledo’s last old downtown hall, the 1896 vintage theater named for Valentine Ketcham had been saved from the wrecker’s ball and was undergoing drastic renovation and restoration where possible.
Plans called for the enhanced hall to serve as a community cultural center, with opera, jazz, ballet, and other organizations to find a home there. Such doings drew international attention, particularly when Opera Now magazine Heidi Waleson lauded the new development as a major advance for the company. More rehearsal time in the theater, the option to add performances, and a hall designed for the unamplified voice were major improvements. By this time, too, public support had blossomed, with ticket sales tripling the previous year. The decade closed with the final season in the Stranahan: Carmen and Marriage of Figaro. Tenor Jerry Hadley was special guest for that season’s Gala in the Peristyle.
ACT TWO: Scene Two
Could there have been a more splendid launch for the Toledo Opera in its 40th year than to move into a performance space tailored for what it did best: live opera. “We expected it to be good,” Meena told The Blade. “But it’s even better than we expected. The Valentine is as good as all the theaters in Ohio, and better than most. It’s a first-class facility.” The opening production, Tosca, with Diana Soviero in the title role and Gary Simpson as Scarpia, won raves from critics across the country. This success was followed by Tales of Hoffman and Magic Flute. Legendary mezzo Marilyn Horne drew raves at the Opera Gala. But, after 14 years as savior, revolutionary, and innovator – but never a resident of Toledo – James Meena announced his departure to become general director of Opera Carolina in Charlotte. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for Jim, but a great loss for Toledo Opera,” said TO president Joseph M. Colturi, as the tenor prepared to gallop away to new adventures. Meena fulfilled his contractual duties for the next season while TO officials conducted a major search for a new artistic director.
Enter the soprano
Renay Conlin, the new general and artistic director, ushered in the next decade of the resilient company. A Juilliard-schooled singer, teacher, producer, and self-taught politician, she was then finishing a term as commissioner of the Division of Culture and History for West Virginia, a $12 million state agency dealing with culture, history and the arts. Conlin didn’t travel light. She brought her husband, Thomas Conlin, the Grammy Award-winning maestro, who conducts as many of Toledo Opera's productions as his international guest-conducting travel allows. They made a dynamic duo for a city that had earned its reputation as a supporter of opera at its finest. The new director would focus on outreach, outstanding quality, financial growth, and an expanded range of programming.
“Toledo Opera is doing everything right,” she said, shortly after settling in. “We just need to expand upon what is already in place.” I would like Toledo Opera to become a household word, not just in Northwest Ohio, but nationally.
“We have to be not just part of our community, but fully invested in the community,” Conlin said. By then, the opera was based in the urban chic headquarters on the sixth floor of the Secor Building downtown, with its tricky, bifurcated rehearsal halls and limited work space. Still, Conlin was determined to cut costs and she succeeded, reducing production costs for her first season by 20 percent. In part this helped the company continue to present productions in The Valentine Theatre.
One of the first major changes Conlin made was to hire the Toledo Symphony to play for all the opera’s performances. Prior to this time, the orchestra was comprised of freelance musicians. Conlin felt that not only would the artistic product benefit from hiring an ensemble that played together on a regular basis, but it would also strengthen the community by supporting another local performing arts institution. Conlin also updated the popular Galas, held in the Peristyle, turning them from musical medleys to themed performances featuring the Toledo Opera Chorus, the Toledo Symphony, and guest stars which resulted in sell-out performances.
At auditions in New York, Conlin played her own game of Toledo Idol, identifying young singers at the start of what she deemed to be future high trajectories. Many of these singers are performing with major opera companies all over the world. TO continued the Opera on Wheels performances, bringing in a small company of young singers through national auditions. The singers live in Toledo for two months, presenting one-act operas in English with costumes and scenery to schools throughout Northwest Ohio. The artistic level and demand for this program have increased each year.
And, the opera built on past innovations. In 2002, TO produced Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, a chamber opera based on the timeless ghost story. In the 2002-2003 season Sweeney Todd, the macabre operetta which drew crowds on both sides of the Atlantic, was presented between versions of La Traviata and Cosi fan Tutte.
Not unusual for performing arts organizations, rising costs exceeded the amount that ticket sales could raise and by summer, 2003, the red tide was rising again on the TO books. Moreover, like the Toledo Symphony and other arts groups, also running losses, the opera was watching its public funds evaporate like stage smoke. Nonetheless, the company continued to deliver high-quality performances highlighted by Don Giovanni and The Crucible in the 2003-2004 season, and a Barber of Seville and Faust in 2004-2005. Critics from international publications began to review Toledo Opera performances on a regular basis where they recognized the exceptional work the company was producing. By the start of the 2005-2006 season, opera leadership had reined in costs, and plans were firming up for the first major fund-drive of the decade. With a goal of $2 million – half to augment the endowment and half to further artistic quality – the Crescendo Campaign took off at “allegro” speed.
Meanwhile, Conlin continued to pursue an eclectic mix of productions, opening the 2006-2007 season with a personal favorite, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. “I want it to be great theater,” Conlin said. “Opera is a living, exciting form of entertainment. It’s like ‘Sex and the City,’ but we sing it.” The season continued with Don Pasquale and Tosca. Continuing his long association with Toledo Opera, Ukrainian basso Stefan Szkafarowsky was featured in the annual Gala.
The 2007-08 season opened with Carmen in November, but a mysterious gas explosion at the Valentine Theatre right after the production wrapped forced changes for the next show. Il trovatore was performed with great success, minus sets and much staging – with the Toledo Symphony – sharing the Maumee Performing Arts Center stage in early 2008. When Cavalleria Rusticana opened in late April to close the season, the Valentine was ready.