Today, Tulsa Opera is the 16th oldest opera company in North America, and one of America’s Top 10 favorite regional opera companies according to Opera News magazine. However, the story of opera and the foundations of Tulsa Opera begin with the city’s earliest settlers.
As Tulsa grew from cowtown to Oil Capital of the World seemingly overnight, the city attracted a sophisticated citizenry with a developed taste for the arts and culture. In 1904, just six years after Tulsa was incorporated as a city, Gounod’s Faust was performed at the Epperson Opera House on Main Street – this is the city’s first documented opera performance. As L. J. Martin, president of the Commercial Club and City of Tulsa founding father, famously commented in 1905, “Of course, we did not have any sewers or street paving, but these were luxuries that could wait, whereas an opera house loomed as an immediate necessity.”
In 1914, Convention Hall opened at the corner of Brady and Boulder, and for the next fifteen years, this venue, now known as Brady Theater, hosted many opera greats of that time. This includes the great tenor Enrico Caruso, who died shortly after his appearance at the Brady Theater, and who some say still haunts the building today.
In the early 1930s, even in the midst of the Great Depression, Tulsa’s love affair with opera survived. Albert Lukken, Dean of Music at The University of Tulsa, decided to take on a mammoth production of Verdi’s Aïda – taking over Skelly Stadium and hosting nearly six thousand guests for opening night – still the record attendance for any one opera performance in Tulsa.
However, opera in Tulsa really began to come into its own on the evening of December4th, 1948, when a capacity crowd gathered at Central High School Auditorium to witness a sold-out performance of Verdi’s La Traviata – and the Tulsa Opera Club was born. This new era of opera was made possible by in large part by two of the production’s stars, Ralph and Ione Sassano. Ione had returned home to Tulsa from New York City with Ralph to visit her parents, and the two got involved in the community and were eventually persuaded to stay and become founders of the Tulsa Opera Club. They were joined in this effort by fellow opera lovers Bess Gowans, Beryl Bliss and Mary Helen Markham.
By the early 1950s, the name was officially changed to Tulsa Opera Inc., and Lady Maud Lorton Meyers, a co-founder and board member, decided it was time to gather more community support for the young company. She began a recruitment campaign of Tulsa’s most prominent citizens, garnering financial support to transition the performances from light operettas to more lavish grand opera affairs. In 1953, a presentation of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, under the artistic direction of Managing Director Ralph Sassano, moved Tulsa Opera squarely onto the stage of national prominence.
In the fall of 1960, an article appeared in Life Magazine, featuring a 4,000 prism chandelier that was hand made for Tulsa Opera’s performance of La Traviata. After reaching such notoriety, this sparkling set decoration drew applause all on its own when the curtains opened on Act III.
In the early sixties, the Guild of Tulsa Opera established a children’s opera workshop, bringing the world of opera to younger generations. This was the beginning of Tulsa Opera’s educational activities, which remains a cornerstone of its mission today.
In 1962, taking full advantage of a prolonged strike at the Metropolitan Opera, Tulsa Opera’s production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville brought together five Met stars, including Roberta Peters and Cesare Valleti.
In 1966, Laven Sowell made his debut as chorusmaster with Puccini’s Turandot, a position he would hold until 1994.
The tradition of attracting national level talent to Tulsa Opera endeavors continued throughout the next several decades, and the top names in opera, including stars like Simon Estes, Beverly Sills and Luciano Pavarotti, mesmerized local audiences with their vast vocal talents.
During the 1990s through the beginning of the 21st century, Tulsa Opera expanded its interest globally, bringing in international talent and taking part in collaborations that would bring worldwide interest.
This era included the debut of famed Russian soprano Olga Kondina, a much heralded co-production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser with Finland’s Savolinna Opera and Russia’s Maryinsky Theatre and the global premiere production of Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince, based on the beloved children’s book.
The time period also saw exciting Oklahoma premieres of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. During this time, Tulsa Opera hosted the debuts of several young singers, including Joyce DiDonato and Stephanie Blythe, whom have gone on to major stardom.
Under the leadership of current artistic director Kostis Protopapas, Tulsa Opera has continued to grow from this impressive history, presenting beloved operatic classics, but also beginning a concentrated commitment to the American repertoire.
This era has seen Oklahoma premieres of exciting American works, including Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fellow, Robert Aldridge’s Elmer Gantry and upcoming production of Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice And Men and Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire.
Tulsa audiences have never lacked for beautiful singing. In recent years, we’ve been delighted to hear Tulsa’s own international opera star Sarah Coburn in four breakthrough performances, along with exciting debuts from Keith Phares and Lauren McNeese and a triumphant return for Kim Josephson.
Tulsa Opera and opera are an integral part of who Tulsa is, both its history and its future. We’ll see you at the opera.