The Fat Lady Sings

Arizona Opera Company Director Glynn Ross Is Set To Retire After A Long And Illustrious Career.

By Emil Franzi

THIS YEAR, WHEN Glynn Ross retires as general director of the Arizona Opera Company, the community and the state will lose the service of a man who has become an institution.

Ross came here in 1983 after 20 years of brilliant, if sometimes controversial, management of the Seattle Opera Company, where he staged the first outdoor production of Wagner's Ring cycle in North America.

Currents When Ross arrived in Tucson, opera here was a struggling operation. There were some fine people trying hard, but it was a badly managed company having difficulty raising its $750,000 annual budget. Three operas were presented each season, with two performances each in Tucson and Phoenix. Sets and costumes were acquired and disposed of haphazardly, the production quality varied greatly, and the entire company barely qualified as a professional outfit.

Ross was 68 at the time he took over--past retirement age for most people.

His success can be measured simply by noting where Arizona Opera is today:

The budget is more than $3 million, the season has expanded to five operas--some with three performances each--and the quality has risen dramatically. And Ross immediately founded Opera America, an internet of smaller companies organized to exchange props, sets and costumes.

Critics note that not every Ross production succeeded, but that's true of any growing company. Even the Met bombs occasionally. And Ross was ultimately able to do what he's best known for--Wagner.

He made Wagner's Ring an institution in Seattle, and this June he'll cap his long and distinguished career with a second cycle in Flagstaff, where he also presented the massive work in 1996. Again, Wagner lovers will be treated to all four operas spread over eight nights. It's little wonder that Ross has been called Richard Wagner's best friend in America.

ROSS WAS BORN in Omaha, Nebraska--not the usual place one would expect of an opera director, until you remember that the legendary director of the Eastman School of Music and one of America's greatest composers, Howard Hanson, was born down the road in Wahoo, Neb.

Ross left early for Boston. He studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he met and worked with one of the first of the many great artists he's known throughout his life, the American soprano Geraldine Ferrar. In addition to being one of the great voices at the beginning of the century, Ferrar was rumored to be the reason Arturo Toscanini left the Met and returned to La Scala with his wife.

More legendary figures pop up when Ross recalls his early years. From Boston he went to Los Angeles and worked in a 1940 production of Gounod's Faust under the great English conductor Albert Coates, whom Ross remembers fondly.

ROSS SERVED IN WW II and was wounded in North Africa. Recovering in Naples, he drew a great assignment--he was allowed to use his talents to re-open the Teatro San Carlo as an entertainment center for convalescing troops. There he met Angelmaria Solimene, the woman he's been married to for more than 50 years. Together they've raised four children. Ross proudly reports that at the age of five, his daughter Stephanie could name all nine of the Valkyries.

It was during his Naples tenure that he was given the opportunity to become stage director at the home of Wagnerian production, Bayreuth. The Conductor Richard Lert secured a recommendation for him from the famed Wagnerian conductor Hans Knappertsbusch, and Ross was retained by Wagner's grandsons Wieland and Wolfgang from 1953 to 1954. He then moved on to a job as stage director for the San Francisco Opera, where he remained until he became director of the Seattle Company in 1963.

Ross considers stability to be the key to building a successful opera company, or any other artistic endeavor. He's down on the gypsy approach common among today's directors, who hop around into bigger and better outfits, leaving little in the way of improvement behind. He calls them "the ghosts of advancement.

He's got some advice for those who think they'd like to try a job like his: "Stick around and pay your dues." And for many opera boards: "There are too many people aboard who are simply un-informed."

He thinks the same about orchestral conductors. Citing the example an old friend, the late Maurice Abravanel, Ross describes him as "a great conductor who chose to stay and build an orchestra in then-provincial Utah. His tenure was 30 years." Abravanel's Utah recordings are today prized by many collectors.

Ross reminds us that when he began there were really only four opera companies in America--San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, and the Met. "There were few places for anyone to learn the job," he observes. "There are now 120 opera companies in the U.S. and Canada, and those in charge are often learning the job after they get it."

One of the keys to being a good director is the ability to audition singers, says Ross. He's done a lot of that, and while some aspects of his presentations have drawn complaints, the singers usually don't. "Nine out of 10 opera directors don't know how to do it," Ross says, throwing out some hints: "Competition winners get grabbed by agents who burn them out and destroy them. It's competition losers who make careers." Also, "Keep singers out of Rome--all they learn there is how to speak English. It ruins them."

Who are some of Ross' all-time favorites? "For a tenor, Giuseppe di Stefano. He couldn't act, but God what a voice." He tells the story of losing di Stefano in Dallas before a performance of Rigoletto. Ross finally found him just in time. "Pepi had no idea what he was supposed to do or what the staging was--he just sang the role. His voice was so good he got away with it." On the other hand, there was Magda Olivero: "Not a great voice, but her gestures were hypnotic. An incredibly charismatic stage presence." Surprisingly, his favorite conductor was the somewhat obscure Joseph Keilberth: "Unassuming, self-effacing, and beloved."

And Ross is probably one of the few left who even knows of the great Neapolitan conductor Leopoldo Mugnone, considered in the south of Italy to be greater than the legendary Toscanini. "Mugnone once picked up an operatic score that had been marked by Toscanini. He flipped through it, tossed it down, and said 'Bah! It stinks of Parma.' "

Ross believes that staging, for which he has sometimes been criticized, is "generational," and what some consider "corny" was actually the composer's intent. He tells of working on the opera L'amore Dei Trei Re by Italo Montemezzi in L.A. many years ago. "The staging was just awful. I found out that it was being done exactly as instructed by the composer himself, who was living in California." Beyond that, Ross considers most staging debates "matters of ego."

And Montemezzi wasn't the only composer he's known. Kurt Weill, Igor Stravinsky, and Darius Milhaud were some of the greats Ross worked with over the years. "It was Milhaud who taught me to be careful rehearsing with piano accompaniment. It's often too percussive, and it's better to sing a capella."

Ross expanded repertory here by adding more operas and more performances. But he always stuck to bread-and-butter works, and he can tell you which ones will draw the most--that's why some have two performances and others three. "La Boheme will sell better next year than Andrea Chenier."

He's wary of introducing off-beat items, like Santa Fe Opera does annually, even though he'd like to. "They get great critical acclaim and never get played again--some of us refer to them as the bomb of the year."

And Wagner's Ring--once a bomb too--has been in the black both times. Ross says that's because he chased down outside funding, "some even from out of the country."

LOOKING BACK ON his 15-year tenure here, Ross admits to some mistakes. The biggest, he thinks, may have been not living in Phoenix, where 30 of the 35 Arizona Opera board members currently reside.

"I was told from the beginning that I should move to Phoenix, where the real corporate contributors are," he says. "The individual per capita contributions from Tucsonans are higher, but they're outnumbered. And Phoenix is 'can-do'--in Tucson most business types still think you finance operas with brunches and ladies' teas." Ross' successor, David Speers, will live in Phoenix.

After the Flagstaff Ring cycle in June, Ross plans to spend time "back in Italy, seeing it through the eyes of my wife instead of from the opera stage."

His retirement has been noted in many national and international publications--BBC Magazine, Orpheus, the American Record Guide and a forthcoming issue of Opera News. Ross is proud of four major accomplishments --his work with Pacific Northwest Ballet and the San Francisco Opera, his role in setting up Opera America, and the Wagner Festivals in Seattle and Flagstaff.

A recent article about Arizona Opera Company's new director was subtitled, "Director envisions a glowing future." Many opera fans hope so, but it should be noted that under Glynn Ross they had a helluva glowing past.

He will be missed--they don't make his kind anymore. TW

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