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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Cincinnati Opera celebrates 100 years

A large crowd gathers for Cincinnati Opera's 1940 season at the Zoo Pavilion.
(Img: Cincinnati Opera)

While arts organizations around the world have been forced to alter their plans in response to the coronavirus pandemic, one local company is marking a milestone birthday with continued optimism.

Cincinnati Opera, America’s second-oldest opera company, turns 100 this year. (Only New York City’s Metropolitan Opera has been at it longer.) Since 1920, the company has established itself as a cherished summer tradition, featuring a diverse slate of operas presented in June and July, accompanied by a rich array of complementary concerts, talks and community events.

In 1972, philanthropists and Hyde Park residents J. Ralph and Patricia Corbett financed the renovation of Cincinnati Music Hall, providing a new home for the Cincinnati Opera.
(Img: Cincinnati Opera) 

In fact, operas were performed in Cincinnati in the late 1800s and early 1900s, before this beloved musical organization began. But those were just one-time events, often touring companies. As the 20th century took hold, a group of philanthropists and artists — including Bertha Baur, the director of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music (later becoming CCM at the University of Cincinnati), philanthropists Mary M. Emery and Anna Sinton Taft, and conductor and composer Ralph Lyford — laid the foundation for the creation of a professional opera company. Part of this ambition included hosting performances in a curious location: the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

Conductor Anton Coppola (on podium) leads the CSO on Opening Night of Cincinnati Opera’s 1960 season.
(Img: Cincinnati Opera)

On June 27, 1920, the first performance at the Zoo Pavilion took place: Friedrich von Flotow’s Martha. In the following years the “Summer Opera” was the affordable, go-to outing for lovers of music and glorious singing. Some seasons offered as many as 18 productions during a ten-week season, always accompanied by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The CSO’s collaboration with the Opera is one of the longest-standing partnerships between performing arts organizations in the United States. Stars from New York City and Europe were regular performers, including Norman Treigle, Beverly Sills, Sherrill Milnes, Montserrat CaballĂ©, James Morris and Roberta Peters.

Making preparations for Cincinnati Opera’s summer season at the Cincinnati Zoo. 
(Img: Cincinnati Opera)

Opera at the Zoo continued for a half-century. When philanthropists and Hyde Park residents Ralph and Patricia Corbett financed the 1972 renovation of Cincinnati Music Hall, it provided an extraordinary new home for Cincinnati Opera. Audiences and artists reveled in the 3,400-seat venue, which was honored as a National Historic Landmark. Spectacular productions over the years included Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, relocated to the “Wild West” and later televised on PBS. Other memorable Music Hall productions were Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2002), Richard Danielpour’s Margaret Garner (2005) and Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar (2009).

While Music Hall’s 1972 renovation vastly improved the historic facility, by the 21st century, it became evident that it needed to be brought up to contemporary standards. Another major renovation was undertaken, completed in 2018. Today the completely rebuilt and re-seated Springer Auditorium is a glorious, state-of-the-art hall that offers both stunning acoustics and historic architectural details.

Denyce Graves in the title role of Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison’s opera, Margaret Garner. (Img: By Philip Groshong)

The company undertook a forward-thinking venture by commissioning and cultivating new works, sometimes for venues beyond Music Hall. In partnership with UC’s CCM, the company launched Opera Fusion: New Works in 2011, a kind of creative lab that supports the workshopping of new operas by established and emerging composers.

One outgrowth of this program was the commissioning of the 2016 opera Fellow Travelers by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce, which was based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel of the same name. Set in Washington, D.C., during the height of the McCarthy-era “lavender scare,” it portrayed gay men who were persecuted as presumed risks to national security. The opera received critical acclaim nationwide and audiences raved. A commercial recording was later released.

Cincinnati Opera’s 2016 production of Fellow Travelers, with Aaron Blake as Timothy Laughlin and Joseph Lattanzi as Hawkins Fuller. (Img: By Philip Groshong)

This focus on experimentation and discovery continued with the launch of CO Next: Diverse Voices in 2017. This program was designed to showcase works during the annual summer season by diverse composers and librettists, as well as those that prominently feature the stories of diverse characters. Previous examples have included Song from the Uproar by composer Missy Mazzoli, inspired by the life of writer and explorer Isabelle Eberhardt, and As One, a coming-of-age story about a transgender woman, by composer Laura Kaminsky.

Patricia K. Beggs chats backstage with legendary soprano Beverly Sills.
(Img: Cincinnati Opera)

Cincinnati Opera celebrated another milestone this year — a transition at the top. In 2019, Patricia K. Beggs, the Opera’s longtime administrative leader and Hyde Park resident, announced she would step down from her position in 2020. After a months-long international search, managing director Christopher Milligan was promoted to the position of Harry Fath General Director and CEO. (Of note: The position was endowed by Fath, Hyde Park resident and philanthropist.) Working in close partnership with Evans Mirageas, the company’s Harry T. Wilks Artistic Director, Milligan will shape and guide the company’s vision as it enters its second century.

Christopher Milligan, The Harry Fath General Director and CEO of Cincinnati Opera.
(Img: John Carrico)

Though Cincinnati Opera was forced to cancel its 2020 season, it continues to present opera in unexpected ways—notably, a robust assortment of online performances by professional singers, plus virtual educational offerings hosted by Mirageas and other members of the Opera’s staff. 

Evans Mirageas, The Harry T. Wilks Artistic Director of Cincinnati Opera.
(Img: Mikki Schaffner)

The company has also announced plans to shift many of its 100th-anniversary celebrations into its 2021 Summer Festival, including The Ball of the Century, a black-tie birthday party to open the season, and the popular free-of-charge Opera in the Park concert presented in Washington Park.

Find more information about Cincinnati Opera and its upcoming programs at or call (513) 241-ARIA (2742).

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