In 1968, opera came home to Tacoma.
Seattle used to be the artistic hub of Western Washington, but the founding of the Tacoma Opera made the area a new destination for entertainment.
The Tacoma Opera has evolved from a small, amateur organization with a light budget to one of the few professional opera companies in the state, and in 2018, it’ll ring in its 50th season.
In the early days, the Tacoma Opera utilized an all-volunteer cast, performing one “light” opera with spoken dialogue — known as an operetta.
At the time, Dick Moe was Dean of the School of Arts at Pacific Lutheran University, and was pulled into the Tacoma Opera as a board member.
“This was in the ’60s, and there was not a whole lot happening in Tacoma,” Moe recalled. “You had to go to Seattle for theater, for ballet, for opera, and even for orchestra. The orchestra in Tacoma was the Tacoma Symphony, but its conductor was a professor. We were going to Seattle sometimes three nights a week for the arts, and there was a strong feeling that we’ve got to do more in Tacoma.”
The first opera they performed, Die Fledermaus at the Eastvold Auditorium at PLU, was exciting and nerve-racking during the preparation. Would people come? Would they be proud of what they’d accomplished? Moe, now 89, remembers the night well.
“It felt euphoric almost over the fact that this had happened in Tacoma,” he said. And the night was a huge success.
The Tacoma Opera has flourished into the professional operation it is today, employing more than 150 mainly local artists and production personnel each year for three shows, said General Director Noel Koran. Former Director Hans Wolf was instrumental in the company’s evolution, as was former Executive Director Anne Farrell. Many of those stitched into the history of the Tacoma Opera, including Farrell, remember Wolf lovingly. He had an infectious passion for the arts, and helped advise the company before officially joining them. He also brought opera to local schools and invited them to see the final dress rehearsal as audience members. Sometimes they were chorus members as well.
“He was a dreamer,” Farrell said. “And enthusiastic, and he loved spreading the opera. I worked to corral him so we could make it more businesslike, but he kept the joy in it.”
Farrell, whose background is rich in the arts, volunteered in the ticket office at first, and was quickly moved to stage manager. It was an enormous job, she said, one that she didn’t have much experience in.
“This was a new awakening, I thought, that this company needs help,” she said. “That’s when I became a board member.”
Under her tenure, the budget grew from roughly $10,000 a year to about half-a-million when she left 18 years ago. When becoming professional in 1983, the opera had also moved from PLU to The Broadway Center for Performing Arts and the Pantages Theater. Now it performs in several Tacoma theaters.
What makes the Tacoma Opera really stand out is the intimate atmosphere and authentic feel each production has. By attending cozier theaters, like the Rialto Theater, audiences feel like they’re interreacting with the characters — like they’re part of the opera in a sense, Koran said.
In the past several years, the opera has sought actors whose heritage mirrors those of the characters they play. Two years ago, it did a production of The Magic Flute and involved members of the Puyallup Tribe, including some students. It used the same tactic for a run of Eugene Onegin, a Russian opera written in the late 1800s. The Tacoma Opera hired Russian dancers, Russian-speaking lead cast members and chorus members.
“It was a really unique experience,” Koran said. “So many people from the Russian community that don’t normally go to the opera all of a sudden came to our production. I think several noted that there was as much Russian being spoken during the intermission as English. And that’s something we strive to do.”
To many, operas seem elitist and can be perceived as exclusive, but the Tacoma Opera strives to be the opposite, Koran said. It prides itself on being accessible by using more intimate theaters and by keeping ticket prices affordable. The goal is to draw locals who may not otherwise see an opera.
For its 50th anniversary, they’re performing two popular operas and one operetta. In the fall, it’s opening with The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the Rialto. For the 50th celebration, it will perform Carmen by Georges Bizet in the Pantages, the theater it’s most traditionally associated with. The season is closing with the operetta The Merry Widow by Franz Lehár, one of the most popular operettas ever written, in the Rialto.
“I think the operas are exciting,” Koran said. “I think that someone as myself, in my position, it really is about the operas. For me, any Mozart opera is a delight to work on. Carmen is one of the great operas of all time, and then The Merry Widow is also just a tremendously enjoyable and fun experience, not just to watch, but to be a part of.”
Farrell and Moe, though they’re not directly involved in the company anymore, are anticipating the upcoming season and plan to attend some of the shows. “If I had any wish, it would be that more people would become aware of the good production that we can now put on,” Moe said. “The last two productions we went to were not sell-outs. There were some empty seats, and I don’t like empty seats.”
When you go:
The 2017/2018 season will begin this fall. If you go to a show, feel free to wear whatever you like. Some people dress up, and some come in jeans. Everyone is welcome. More at tacomaopera.com.