Opera in San Antonio is rich in history and in drama. For more than a century, audiences have watched companies come and go, from an Alamo Plaza opera house at the turn of one century, to the ill-suited Municipal Auditorium at the turn of a new century. Opera has enjoyed golden moments with world-class performers gracing city stages, and operatic moments of collapse and bankruptcy.
Opera is an archaic European art form to some and thus has struggled in this city, but a newly formed organization seeks to surmount rather than succumb to such challenges. The Opera San Antonio (TOSA), headed by Interim General Director and CEO Plato Karayanis, and Artistic Director Tobias Picker, is sifting through the rubble to establish a new performing arts organization that will find new life in a new venue ideally suited for opera productions and audiences.
But first, the organization’s Opening Gala Concert of Stars will be staged this Thursday, 7 p.m. at the Majestic Theatre.
The program includes excerpts from some of opera’s most celebrated composers: Rossini, Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, Tchaikovsky and Puccini. Some distinguished American composers will be heard, too: Carlyle Floyd, Robert Ward, Leonard Bernstein and The Opera San Antonio’s own Tobias Picker. To fully understand the impact of this rebirth, a little context is in order.
Ron Moore has hosted opera programming at KPAC-FM, Texas Public Radio, for about eight years, and has been deeply involved in opera for more than 40 years.
He said the art form has a rather rich history in San Antonio, a city that once boasted a substantial audience of opera lovers.
The Grand Opera House, later named Grand Theatre, was built in 1886 at 303 Alamo Plaza. It stayed in business nearly 50 years until the 1930s when it closed and was demolished for redevelopment.
The legacy of the late Robert Tobin, one of San Antonio most’s distinguished arts patrons, ties San Antonio to opera and its history throughout the world.
His passion and philanthropy will be reflected anew with the opening of the highly anticipated namesake Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in September 2014.
For the first time, San Antonio will have a concert hall and multiple performance venues designed specifically for symphonic music, opera, ballet and other theatrical presentations. Fully staged TOSA productions will be presented at the Tobin Center starting in January 2015.
For more than 40 years, Tobin himself collected theatrical set designs from operas performed around the world. The McNay Art Museum, the major beneficiary of his philanthropy in San Antonio, houses the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts, a singular collection of more than 10,000 objects that tell the history of opera in the Western world from 1600 to the present.
Opera rose to prominence in San Antonio under the legendary Max Reiter (1905-1950), a young German conductor and refugee from European anti-Semitism who found fertile soil in Texas and established the San Antonio Symphony in 1939. In the spring of 1945, Reiter founded the San Antonio Symphony Grand Opera Festival as an extension of the symphony season. That spring grew into an annual four-opera season that lasted until 1983.
Moore remembers attending those festivals, recalling in particular stagings of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Strauss’ Salome. The performances were housed at the Municipal Auditorium, and as many as 6,000 people were said to attend. The opera operated in the black and an attendance of 4,000 was considered ‘a slow night’. Moore recalls older opera goers speaking of attending The Metropolitan Opera on tour here and seeing everyone from mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne to soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
Attempting to further the progression of opera in San Antonio, tenor and opera lover Mark Richter founded the San Antonio Opera and became its general and artistic director in 1997. The company experienced steady growth, boosted by celebrated tenors Placido Domingo, Andrea Bocelli, and mezzo- soprano Frederica von Stade. Funds dwindled, however, as the 2008 recession hit and philanthropic support decreased. San Antonio Opera was forced to file for bankruptcy in May, 2012 with listed assets of just $1,500 and debts of about $900,000.
Richter remains committed to opera in San Antonio. He launched the nonprofit Opera Piccola of San Antonio in 2012, focusing on smaller chamber opera productions. Opera Piccola will stage its upcoming season at the Charline McCombs Empire Theater starting in October. Richter’s alternative company approach hopes to provide a more accessible, affordable and intimate operatic experience for seasoned patrons while attracting newcomers to the art form. Last season, the “piccola” (meaning “small” in Italian) opera performed Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, Mollicone’s Face on the Barroom Floor, Menotti’s The Telephone and Donizetti’s Don Pasquale – all in English at the Josephine Theatre.
“We are dedicated to providing opportunities to local and regional emerging artists while hosting veteran professional from across the country as well,” Richter said. “Our greatest intent is to see opera thrive in San Antonio like it does in most major cities in the world – where there is room for both grand opera and smaller chamber opera.”
John Toohey, executive director of ARTS San Antonio, who previously served as the director of marketing and communications of The Dallas Opera, believes the difficulties faced by the San Antonio Opera were largely the result of inadequate venues.
The San Antonio Symphony has been the resident performing arts organization at the Majestic Theatre since it was reopened in the 1990s, and it proved difficult to coordinate opera dates there. The Lila Cockrell Theater closed for renovation, which left the Municipal Auditorium as the only available venue. Toohey feels the venue’s large size and poor acoustics were not conducive to opera performances, noting, “When it’s distant, it doesn’t work, which is why no one was walking out saying, ‘Wow that was a great show.’ ” Casual opera fans left the Municipal unimpressed by the performances.
Having seen the rise and fall of opera in San Antonio, Moore remains skeptical about the success of yet another company. It seems only time – and audience attendance numbers – will tell, but the addition of the Tobin Center suggests that San Antonio’s historic lack of a true performing arts venue could prove to be the difference.
“Every decade or so it seems someone tries this, but it should be noted [that] none of the aforementioned institutions have survived as a ‘continuous organization,’” Moore said. “By contrast, both Dallas and Houston have grown into houses of national importance.”
Toohey acknowledges the new company will have to work hard to establish itself and achieve financial stability.
“The majority of arts organizations struggle financially,” Toohey said. “It doesn’t mean the organization is bad… they are just struggling, but who isn’t?”
TOSA’s Board Chairman Mel Weingart says the support for the new company has been strong.
“The private sector, the City, various foundations and even other organizations have been extremely cooperative and supportive,” he said. “Everyone is offering no less than their complete support.”
The future of opera in San Antonio holds both challenge and promise. Founding a new performing arts organization is never easy. With San Antonio’s growing population and wealth, the new Tobin Center, and the city’s sense of itself as a growing destination for creative workers, the time for TOSA seems right. The biggest challenge will be gathering enough support to exceed investment.
Weingart is optimistic: “There are very few other art forms where you can experience such a comprehensive spectacle on such a grand scale.”
Melanie Robinson graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English with a Concentration in Professional Writing and a minor in Anthropology from the University of Texas at San Antonio in December 2011. Her current Marketing position at the local nonprofit organization ARTS San Antonio has afforded her the opportunity to further explore her love of the arts. She now spends her nights among local musicians, artists and poets – finding beauty in self-expression. You can contact Melanie through her Facebook.