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IU Jacobs School of Music

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IU Jacobs School of Music

Last modified: Wednesday, April 2, 2008

IU Opera Theater celebrates 60th anniversary

April 2, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Sixty years ago, the first Indiana University Opera Theater production took place in an auditorium that was built as part of an army barracks during World War II. This weekend (April 4-5), IU Opera begins celebrating its 60th anniversary with a reprise of that same opera, Les Contes d'Hoffmann -- except now it will be performed on a stage that rivals New York City's Metropolitan Opera House.

"To begin our anniversary celebrations, we programmed Hoffmann to show what Opera Theater is doing in terms of pushing the envelope of technology," said Gwyn Richards, dean of the IU Jacobs School of Music. "Our mission is two-fold: educate the best upcoming opera stars by developing production values of the highest order, and offer regional audiences an opportunity to enjoy world-class productions. The performances this weekend and beyond will show the standard of excellence we have developed here in Bloomington over the years with some of the finest faculty and production professionals in the field."

"Don Giovanni"

An IU Opera Theater production of "Don Giovanni."

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Opera at IU has come to fulfill the original vision of former IU president Herman B Wells, who saw the university not only as a center for liberal arts and sciences but also as a cultural capital offering the best of performing and fine arts.

"Herman Wells saw a sense of responsibility for educated people to embrace and support the arts," said David Higgins, professor and set designer who has been with IU Opera Theater for more than 40 years. "He basically said, 'I want to have a world-class school of music.'"

Opera Theater was the contribution of then-dean of the School of Music Wilfred C. Bain, Higgins said. "He saw that opera would bring together all the elements of a great school of music."

"Dean Bain and Herman Wells at that time put a lot of emphasis on the fact that opera brought all the arts together -- vocalists, instrumentalists, visual design, costumes, dancing," said George Calder, a music professor emeritus who ran IU Opera Theater for 32 years.

In the early days of Opera Theater, Calder said, IU was the only place to enjoy opera performances within the region.

"At that time, Indianapolis did not have an opera company," he said. "People used to come from St. Louis, Cincinnati and Louisville. All of those places now have operas, but they didn't at that time. We were really catering to the whole Midwest region."

The first performances took some ingenuity to piece together.

"When Dean Bain first came here, and they were trying to put the operas together, Mrs. Bain went down to the A&P, down to the grocery store, talking to the people at the checkout line asking if they played any instruments," Calder said. "There was a lot of improvisation that went on at that time."

The first opera season, in 1948, had only three performances, but by its third season there were seven productions being staged at the university. The third season also included two momentous events -- the world premiere of Bernhard Rodgers' The Veil, which would be the first of many more premieres to come, and IU Opera's first staging of Wagner's Parsifal.

"Parsifal was something that captured the attention of the professional and educational musical worlds," said Charles Webb, former dean of the School of Music. For many years after, IU Opera Theater continued to stage the opera each season. "It focused attention on Opera Theater like nothing else did," Webb said. "Dean Bain thought this would be a good vehicle because it had roles that a lot of the students could sing, a large chorus and a very scenic setting that lent itself well to a kind of spectacle. They decided it would be the opera that they would concentrate on."

Calder recalled working in German opera houses during the early years of IU Opera Theater and hearing of these productions of Parsifal.

"Everyone knew IU was the music school where they gave a performance of Parsifal every year, and everyone wondered, 'How can they do that? A small town in the cornfields of Indiana, how do they do that?'" he said.

IU Opera also stunned global audiences by performing Puccini's Turandot at the New York World's Fair in 1964. "That had not been done before," Webb said. "It was a major milestone."

In 1968, East Hall was destroyed in a fire, and Opera Theater moved to what was then the auditorium of the University Middle School at 10th Street and the bypass of state roads 45 and 46.

"The stage was 16 feet high and maybe 36 feet wide and 20 feet deep," Higgins recalled. The auditorium held just 450 audience members, but in the four years Opera Theater was there, performances included major works of Verdi, Mozart, Rossini and Handel, and they consistently sold out.

Dean Emeritus Wilfred Bain

Dean Emeritus Wilfred Bain addresses the audience at the opening of the Musical Arts Center.

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In 1972, the company moved to its current home in the Musical Arts Center (MAC) on Jordan Avenue. Acquiring a stage with the size and technology of the New York City Metropolitan Opera House, expanding its audience capabilities to 1,500 and making space for rehearsal rooms, set and costume construction, storage and office space, the move was a major leap forward.

"The stage was designed to be virtually the same size as the stage of the Met and equipped in the same way with the same kind of lighting and stage mechanics," Webb said. "It has enabled us to do some really spectacular things."

Calder described the building of the MAC as "maybe the single greatest step," in the development of IU Opera Theater. "It resulted in a quantum leap forward in so many areas -- size, quality, numbers of students, quality of students."

While performances in Bloomington continued to thrive, Opera Theater also made history by traveling to perform for national and international audiences. In 1976, it went to Israel to perform Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti.

"It was quite a thing to do," Webb said. "We took the scenery, cast and instruments halfway across the world."

In 1981, IU Opera did the unthinkable -- it performed on the Metropolitan Opera stage itself, presenting The Greek Passion by Martinu.

"No university up to that time had ever been invited to do a full-scale performance in that opera house," Webb said. "Interestingly enough, no university has ever done it since. And if you look at the reviews, they took it seriously. It was really a very important thing for us to do."

Newsweek's assessment of the performance read, "Most schools would never dream of taking on the Met. But then, Indiana is no ordinary school."

With now close to 2,000 performances under its belt, Indiana University Opera Theater has not only thrilled audiences for generations but has also prepared the way for a great many careers in music. With each performance involving singers, orchestra members, set design and construction, directors and conductors, Opera Theater serves as a type of incubator for musical excellence.

"IU Opera Theater is a major part of the education of all the people who are studying these things at this university," Webb said. "If you look at the total number of music majors at IU, it would be hard to find anybody who didn't have a connection to the Opera Theater in one way or another."

By premiering and commissioning new works, IU Opera has also supported emerging composers throughout its history.

"Universities have a tradition of doing that," said Maria Levy, executive administrative director of IU Opera Theater. "We're a little less vulnerable than commercial opera houses because we don't have to depend entirely on the box office. Part of our job is to give these new composers opportunities to be heard."

The Jacobs School of Music faculty has also become a major destination for the most accomplished opera singers at the end of their careers. "Those that can teach and also have experience on the world's best stages are in the best position to give students what they need to be successful," Webb said.

Opera Theater has grown in tandem with the IU Jacobs School of Music, now arguably the best music school in the country.

"The growth has been absolutely symbiotic; they influenced each other equally," Calder said. "The Opera Theater could not have grown without the music school growing as it did, and the growth of the Opera Theater influenced the growth of the music school."

According to Higgins, the influence of Opera Theater on the growth of the Jacobs School cannot be overestimated.

"I don't think all these people would be here if Wilfred Bain hadn't had the chutzpah to do Hoffmann in 1948 with musicians he found at the A&P."

"We want to continue to be the best place where students can come and experiment and sometimes fail and most of the time succeed, so that when they leave here they will have gotten some experience performing," Levy said. "It's a very competitive and tough career. Not all of them will end up as performers, but hopefully, they will all have a greater appreciation of arts and the opera for having passed through this place."

The future looks extremely bright, Richards said.

"We envision that more people will be able to access our performances by electronic means, and we hope that those who are able to be at our operas will have access to video in the seat backs that will function like modern-day opera glasses, showing close-ups, as well as supertitles. There will also be a lot more possibilities with lighting -- virtual realities, unique things that put virtual performers on the stage at some point in the future."

"We'll see things we never thought possible," he said.