The History of Opera Grand RapidsOpera Grand Rapids Today
Michigan is home to two opera companies, Opera Grand Rapids and the Michigan Opera Theater in Detroit. Opera Grand Rapids the State's longest running professional company. In 2010 the Company moved into its first permanent home. The Betty Van Andel Opera Center is the Country's first GREEN or LEED Certified opera center, and serves as the Company's base of operations. The facility is home to a rehearsal space, costume shop, staff offices and meeting spaces
Each season Opera Grand Rapids produces three main stage productions using a regional chorus, the Grand Rapids Symphony and national talent. Opera goers in 48 counties across the state attend Opera Grand Rapids' events, with an average attendance of 17,000 people per season.
The Early Years
During the late 1950s and into the early 1960s, the Society staged a number of small-scale opera productions. Some of these early productions, which were sung to the accompaniment of a solo piano, went on tour to Battle Creek and other area communities. Although they were modestly produced, the operas at St. Cecelia became home to a dedicated group of participants, who wanted to bring grand opera to the region. At that time, a group called the Opera Association Committee, with Joan White (now Joan Gillett) as temporary chairperson, began to lay the groundwork. Discussions were held with Grand Rapids Civic Theater and the Grand Rapids Symphony, both of which offered their strong support, and with Calvin College, which offered the use of its Fine Arts Center on the Knollcrest Campus.
By the middle of the 1960s, the group was ready to formalize its efforts. Although the first performance didn't take place until 1967, the company that would eventually become Opera Grand Rapids was actually formed in May of 1966.
By July of 1966, the Opera Association of Western Michigan was officially incorporated. Founding officers included John F. Gilmore as president, Joan White as executive vice president, Marnie Houseman as secretary, and R. Edwin Owen as treasurer. Carl Karapetian, musical director of the Grand Rapids Symphony, and Paul Dreher, director of Civic Theater, agreed to serve as artistic directors. They would also serve as conductor and stage director, respectively, for the Association's productions. The Grand Rapids Press reported that the Association had announced ticket prices for the production. The best orchestra seats would sell for $7.50 for opening night and $4.00 for other evening performances.
On June 2 , 1967, the long-awaited day finally arrived. The Marriage of Figaro opened at the Calvin College Fine Arts Center Auditorium. The cast, including Richard Sjoerdsma, Julianne Kelly, Edward J. Huls, Catherine Barrow, Thixton Sprenger, Lois Poppen, Judith Coulter and James Drummond, acquitted itself admirably. The five performances were played to enthusiastic audiences and rave reviews. Under the headline "Local Opera Unqualified Success", Gerald A. Elliot's review in The Grand Rapids Press described the production, musically, as being of "consistently high caliber". Mr. Elliot went on to praise Paul Dreher's staging, which abridged the lengthy recitatives by substituting a clever narration provided by Paul Drummond in the character of Don Basilio.