OPERA. Often regarded as the most esoteric of the arts, opera didn't arrive fully garbed in Cleveland for more than half a century. The Manvers Operatic Co. is generally credited with bringing the city its first opera on 23 May 1849 in Watson's Hall. Actually, they performed only selections from Vincenzo Bellini's La sonnambula, "in full costume" as advertised, but without scenery. Locally, the Philharmonic Society mounted Maeder's The Peri at National Hall on 19 April 1852, but neither composer nor work has survived in standard operatic reference works.
Real opera definitely arrived in Cleveland on 25 July 1854, with the appearance of Luigi Arditi's Italian Opera Co. at the Atheneum in Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. The visitors also brought Bellini's La sonnambula and Norma. Home-grown opera is generally dated from a performance of Friedrich von Flotow's Alessandro Stradella by the Cleveland Gesangverein at the Bank St. Theater on 11 Jan. 1858. Highly successful, the production was revived on at least 2 other occasions.
Through most of its history, Cleveland has relied upon outside producers for its initial exposure to the operatic canon. La sonnambula was a perennial early import, along with Donizetti's Lucia and The Daughter of the Regiment. Il trovatore, The Barber of Seville, Der Freischutz, and Ernani first arrived in 1859. In an epochal 3 weeks at the ACADEMY OF MUSIC in January and April 1864, New York impresario Jacob Grau produced 13 different operas, introducing Clevelanders to Don Giovanni, Martha, Faust, Un ballo in maschera, La traviata, and Giacomo Meyerbeer's Robert le diable and Dinorah. With the opening of the EUCLID AVE. OPERA HOUSE in 1875, opera had a suitably grand venue in Cleveland. The respected Maurice Strakosch company brought Wagner's Der fliegende Hollander there in 1876, and a German Grand Opera Co. (largely synonymous with New York's Metropolitan Opera Co.) put Rienzi, Tannhauser, and Lohengrin on its stage 10 years later. Verdi's Aida, paradigm of grand opera, arrived in Cleveland in 1880, 9 years after its premiere. In its dependence on touring companies, Cleveland differed little from such midwestern peers as Pittsburgh, Detroit, and even Chicago, while lacking some of the novelty and variety enjoyed by such coastal centers as New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco. As a major road town, Cleveland caught occasional reflections of the "golden age" of opera. The Metropolitan Opera (founded 1883) made its official local debut in 1899 with 4 performances at the Opera House; in 1910-11, the Met gave 2 similar stands at the HIPPODROME THEATER. Enrico Caruso sang Martha in the former season, his only operatic appearance here. In the 1911 Met appearance, Arturo Toscanini conducted Otello with tenor Leo Slezak.
Cleveland's ethnic groups, meanwhile, played a pivotal role in the development of a domestic operatic product. GERMANS continued to lead the way with performances of Martha, La sonnambula, and Carl Maria von Weber's Preciosa by the German Harmonic Singing Society in the 1870s. The Czech LUMIR SINGING SOCIETY gave the Cleveland premiere of Bedrich Smetana's The Bartered Bride before a full house of 1,650 at BOHEMIAN NATIONAL HALL on 11 Feb. 1898. Slovenian opera was introduced locally in the 1920s by the ZARJA SINGING SOCIETY, as part of the Theater of the Nations festival in PUBLIC AUDITORIUM. Cleveland was also the site of an early performance of The Martyr, the first opera written by an African-American (see HARRY L. FREEMAN).
Mainstream producers also appeared on the local scene. ALFRED ARTHUR and FERDINAND PUEHRINGER were both active at the Euclid Ave. Opera House in the 1870s. Arthur, organizer of the CLEVELAND VOCAL SOCIETY, produced his own opera, The Water Carrier, as well as a creditable amateur production in 1878 of Gioacchino Rossini's La gazza ladra. Puehringer also divided his attention between his own work and that of others. In the present century, Max Faetkenheuer produced opera seasons at the new Hippodrome from 1907-09 and at the METROPOLITAN THEATER in 1913. A permanent local company appeared in 1920 with the original CLEVELAND OPERA CO., which worked its way up from operetta to the premiere of Akronite Francesco de Leone's Alglala in 1924. It lasted through several transmutations into the 1930s.
The future of a locally rooted operatic tradition was inadvertently stunted in 1924 when a group of backers arranged to bring New York's Metropolitan to Cleveland on an annual basis. Institutionalized in 1927 (see NORTHERN OHIO OPERA ASSN.), the week-long "seasons" continued for 6 decades and gave local opera fans occasional glimpses of such singers as Lily Pons and Jon Vickers. Rosa Ponselle sang her farewell during the series (1937), and Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad sang Wagner together 10 times (1937-41). Although Public Hall proved a far from artistically ideal abode, it enabled the Met to draw record crowds in Cleveland, such as the 72,690 who thronged to 8 operas during the 1946 season.
Other visitors continued to arrive through the 1920s. The Chicago Civic Opera came from 1924-26, and two German companies gave Cleveland its only staged productions of Wagner's Ring tetralogy in 1923 and 1929. Eventually, however, opera in Cleveland became tantamount to the annual Met visit every spring. As the anchor of the Met tour, Cleveland, rather than nourish a local counterpart, assumed a proprietary interest in the New York company. By the 1950s, when the Met repertoire became ossified under the Rudolf Bing regime, Opera Week had become as much a social as an artistic occasion. Special boxes were installed on the main floor of Public Hall for Cleveland's elite, who might be identified by the rank-and-file opera lovers up in the balconies by means of a seating chart printed in the programs. Perhaps in deference to the checking accounts of the guarantors, who were rarely, if ever, called upon to make good any losses, the repertoire favored popular chestnuts with proven drawing power.
Significantly, the most glorious chapter in the history of local operatic production occurred during a Depression-induced hiatus in the Met tour. For 5 seasons beginning in 1933, ARTUR RODZINSKI produced a fully staged opera as part of the CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA seasons at SEVERANCE HALL. Repertoire leaned heavily toward Wagner and Richard Strauss but included, on 31 Jan. 1935, the first performance outside Russia of Dmitri Shostakovich's controversial Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Rodzinski then reversed the prevailing artistic current by taking his Cleveland production to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House. Financial restraints led to the demise of the Severance Hall series at about the time the Met visits resumed in 1937.
During the 1940s and 1950s, practically the only local, professional alternative to the Metropolitan was a single annual performance by the Cafarelli Opera Co. (see CARMEN CAFARELLI), which was performed in the Masonic Auditorium and, with few exceptions, duplicated the perennial favorites offered by the Met. For more imaginative fare, opera departments of local colleges helped fill the void. That of the CLEVELAND INSTITUTE OF MUSIC was under the direction of the renowned Boris Goldovsky from ca. 1936-42. Western Reserve Univ. began a program in 1931 which gave Cleveland premieres of Zoltan Kodaly's The Spinners (1939) and Virgil Thomson's The Mother of Us All (1949). A major effort to provide an antidote to the predictability of the Met's seasons occurred with the activity of the Lake Erie Opera Theater from 1964-70. Organized by HOWARD WHITTAKER, director of the CLEVELAND MUSIC SCHOOL SETTLEMENT, the company gave 2 operas in the fall at Severance Hall, using Cleveland Orchestra players in the pit. Its conscious attempt to expand the local operatic experience resulted in such productions as Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress and Strauss's Capriccio.
The repertoire of the Metropolitan itself began to open up in the 1970s, and a new era was anticipated when the New York company moved from Public Hall to the newly restored STATE THEATER in 1984. Ironically, the new era proved a much more drastic departure than anticipated, when the Met announced the cessation of its tours only 2 seasons later. For better or worse, Cleveland was finally dependent upon its own resources for whatever opera it wanted to support. Fortunately, 2 local opera companies were poised to inherit the Met's mantle. Organized in 1976, CLEVELAND OPERA moved into the 3,100-seat State Theater with 5 productions per year, largely replicating the old Met's standard repertoire. More adventurous in programming was LYRIC OPERA CLEVELAND (1974), which offered 3 productions per summer in the more intimate, but physically constricted Kulas Hall of CIM. In its possession of 2 viable professional companies, whatever their present limitations, Cleveland enjoyed an operatic potential never before experienced. With the return in 1985 of semi-staged opera to the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph Von Dohnanyi, there was little in the way of opera that could not be done here.
John E. Vacha