Opera Southwest celebrating 50 years

Opera Southwest celebrating 50 years

From left, singers Matthew Burns, Ashraf Sewailam and Scott Ramsay performed in “The Italian Girl in Algiers.” Opera Southwest put this on in 2010. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

bright spotOpera Southwest is nothing if not a survivor.

Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the company has endured catastrophic fires, near-bankruptcies and cancellations.

“It survived all these years because there is an appetite for opera in Albuquerque,” executive director Anthony Zancanella said.

The company will celebrate with a Zorro-themed Oct. 1 gala at Hotel Albuquerque.

OSW has presented many world premieres of new operas in addition to the standard repertoire. In 2015, its production of Franco Faccio’s “Amleto (Hamlet),” the opera’s first performance in 143 years, was a finalist in the International Opera Awards.

In 1972, University of New Mexico music professor/conductor Kurt Frederick and Dr. Edward T. Peter launched what was then called the Albuquerque Opera Theatre.

“It’s not clear if anyone thought it would take off,” Zancanella said, adding that funding was “almost none.”

Frederick was an Austrian-born violinist who fled the Nazis in 1942 and landed in Albuquerque. Peter was chief of surgery at the University of New Mexico Hospital who performed the first kidney transplant in the state. Opera was his hobby, Zancanella said.

Peter took the job of stage director; Frederick was the conductor and general taskmaster.

Their first performance was the Mozart classic “Così fan tutte” in UNM’s Popejoy Hall in 1973. The 1974-75 season featured Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” and Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème.”

“They were intrepid fundraisers,” Zancanella said of the founders. “These people were really passionate about the art form.”

Soprano Donna McRae sang the role of Fiordiligi in the maiden production.

“Of course, the singers didn’t get paid,” she said.

Frederick demanded perfection, she added.

“He was excellent and he expected quality work,” she said. “It was a good audience. I think Albuquerque was very hungry for opera at that point. I just remember a very good feeling about it.”

Justine (Sally) Opel wore “at least a dozen” hats at the opera, culminating in her work as production manager and stage director after she joined the company in 1977.

“I did all the jobs, but I didn’t do it alone,” she said.

From left to right, Benjamin Warschawski as Don Jose, Blythe Gaissert as Carmen, and Tim Mix as Escamillo in Opera Southwest’s production of “Carmen” in 2010. (Morgan Petroski/Albuquerque Journal)

Opel had studied theater at Yale University before her career propelled her to Broadway. She was originally hired as an administrator at OSW, a job entailing budgets, check writing, scheduling and tax statements.

“They got me to direct the first ‘Traviata,’ ” she said.

Money was an ever-present concern.

“We had a couple of moments when one of the board members stole money,” she said. “We owed a lot of money.”

During the 18th season, the company switched to piano accompaniment in lieu of hiring a full orchestra.

“We owed $225,000,” Opel said. “We built every set and we maintained every costume or made some. We all worked together. We were blessed with people who forgave our debt.”

Local orthodontist Arthur Hawkins took on the company’s old loans, which they paid back across 10 years, Opel said.

“These were people who knocked themselves out with generosity,” she added. “We all wanted to do opera and we had an audience. We had no problem we couldn’t solve.”

At one point, Opel earned $300 per month, then her salary got cut.

“I was paid back some of it,” she said. “We staged over 65 operas.”

And then there were the glitches. When the company moved to the KiMo Theatre in the 1980s, PNM had just installed the lights.

“We opened the KiMo with ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ ” Opel said. “At the beginning of the second act, we had a blackout.

“We played the rest of the opera with the strip lights that sit on the stage. We lived the rest of that opera in a blue wash.”

A fire scorched the OSW warehouse in 1990, destroying costumes, sets and props.

“Nobody quit,” Zancanella said. “They had to start all over again. They had one or two brushes with bankruptcies.

“They struggled for finances,” McRae said. “There was one role I had to learn twice. They had to cancel it because of lack of funds.”

That opera was Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”

“It struggled for years and then they finally got a really good board,” she said.

By the 1980s, organizers were staging three operas annually. Now they schedule four per year.

Sarah Asmar, portrays Desdemona and Rodrick Dixon portrays Otello in Opera Southwest’s production of “Otello” in 2012. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

OSW began with a budget of about $500,000, Zancanella said. Today, it tops $1.2 million. The classical radio station WFMT in Chicago produces its live broadcasts. Critics have come from as far away as Milan, Italy, London and Germany.

“We do world-class opera on an Albuquerque budget,” Zancanella said.

Zancanella and music director/conductor Anthony Barrese arrived 10 years ago with a commitment to lost and forgotten works, operas by Hispanic composers and Gioachino Rossini, Barrese’s favorite operatic composer, as well as one fully-staged classic.

“We’ve done more Rossini than anybody in the country, including the Metropolitan Opera,” Zancanella said.

This year’s classic is Puccini’s “Turandot” on March 12, 15, 17 and 19, 2023. “Zorro” by Héctor Armienta (He also created the 2018 operatic production of “Bless Me, Ultima”) is on Oct. 23, 26, 28 and 30. Rossini’s “Le comte Orly” is scheduled for Feb. 5, 10 and 12, 2023. All are at the National Hispanic Cultural Center.

The opening opera, “Le Loup-garou” by Louise Bertin, will take place at the Albuquerque Museum Amphitheater on Sept. 9, 10 and 11.

OSW enjoys a cordial relationship with the Santa Fe Opera, regularly renting costumes and props from the summer festival. The SFO also offers summer jobs to OSW workers.

Zancanella hopes to raise $2.5 million in current fundraising and dreams of an outdoor summer festival.

To date OSW has produced more than 140 major operas for hundreds of thousands of patrons. Organizers have mounted 23 world premieres.

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