SALT LAKE CITY — What began as a small company selling tickets out of a shoebox has in 40 years become one of the most renowned regional opera organizations in the U.S.
Utah Opera’s 40th anniversary, currently being celebrated with 40 Days of Opera, marks the legacy of a thriving company preserving an art form hundreds of years old that continues to speak to the human experience today.
“The experience that you find in the theater when you’re connecting to that human voice and telling a story is priceless, and you can’t replace that live moment with anything else,” said Michelle Peterson, daughter of Utah Opera’s founder Glade Peterson and company manager for the opera.
The Utah Opera journey
A legacy that precedes Utah Opera’s first main stage production is its tradition of sending its performers to schools throughout Utah to introduce opera to younger generations. This tradition began with Glade Peterson in the fall of 1977 and continues to this day.
Carolyn Talboys-Klassen, a longtime chorus member with Utah Opera, was part of the group that performed in schools during the company’s early years.
“That was almost 30 years ago, and here we are still doing that and bringing this art form to the community and exposing children to something they otherwise wouldn’t experience,” Talboys-Klassen said.
Utah Opera’s first main stage performance was its January 1978 production of “La bohème,” an Italian opera by composer Giacomo Puccini. In honor of its 40th anniversary, Utah Opera will again perform “La bohème” this October.
At the same time Utah Opera was being established, the Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City was being renovated and reopened. The Capitol Theatre has since become a natural home to Utah Opera productions.
“We were so excited to have the Capitol Theatre as our new home, having been in little rooms at Daynes Music, where Skip Daynes graciously gave us rehearsal space for years,” said Claudia Flandro Ward Howells, a former Utah Opera assistant director who helped to establish the company. “There were so many wonderful donors who helped the company become a reality.”
Utah Opera’s resident artists program is also a unique aspect of the company, allowing young professional singers and pianists to perform onstage and in schools throughout the state for 10 months each year.
“It’s a highly sought-after program, and we receive many auditions every year from singers who are interested in participating in the program,” said Leslie Peterson, another of Glade Peterson’s daughters and vice president of development for Utah Symphony and Utah Opera.
A defining feature of Utah Opera is its production studios in Salt Lake City. The building was purchased in 1995, allowing the company space to create and store its sets and costumes in addition to providing practice and rehearsal space for performers and office space for the company’s administrative employees.
“Our Utah Opera Production Studios today are state-of-the-art and some of the finest in the country, and in fact, I think we’re the envy of many other companies around the country,” Leslie Peterson said.
The production studios’ storage space also allows the company to rent out costumes and sets to other companies.
“We have quite a considerable inventory of costumes, and it’s great to associate our name and have the state’s name out there every time we rent costumes and scenery across the country,” Michelle Peterson said.
Another notable achievement in Utah Opera’s history was when under Glade Peterson's direction, the number of performances per production was increased to five, and then in 1996, when the company increased the number of productions per season from three to four.
“Typically, similar-sized companies might only offer two or three performances of each production, so the fact that we’re doing as many as five performances of four full productions is indicative of the fact of how much the company has grown,” said Paul Meecham, current president and CEO of Utah Symphony and Utah Opera.
A big move for the company happened in 2002, when Utah Opera merged with Utah Symphony. The two groups are now much stronger jointly than they were individually, according to Meecham.
“We are the only merged symphony-opera company of our size in the United States, and I think that certainly has helped to create certain efficiencies — you only need one marketing department, one finance department, one education department,” Meecham said.
Utah Opera has put on numerous notable productions over the years, including the 1996 world premiere of “Dreamkeepers,” the 2007 western states premiere and co-commissioned production of “The Grapes of Wrath,” and the upcoming co-production of “Moby-Dick” in January 2018.
The caliber of Utah Opera productions has always been high, and its approach has become more professional over the years, according to longtime chorus member Nelson LeDuc.
“Several times during my time with Utah Opera, visiting principal artists have, unsolicited, praised the quality of our chorus, comparing us favorably to that of any of the major opera companies in the nation,” LeDuc said.
40 years of operatic change
Leslie Peterson said the initiation of supertitles in 1985 was an important turning point for Utah Opera because it made opera accessible to a wider audience. These translated English lyrics projected above the stage have broadened the art form’s audience by enabling all who attend to understand the words being sung, Meecham said.
“Technology has enabled audiences to know exactly what’s going on,” Meecham said. “You don’t need to know every detail of the story before going into the theater, whereas I think opera 50 years ago was really for the people who already knew the opera, because it was sung in a foreign language and they knew the story.”
Opera has also become more accessible over the last 40 years with the creation of more American opera, which is performed in English.
“There are works that have been created that are now being produced and performed and appreciated by audiences in a way that just didn’t happen 30-40 years ago. The repertoire then was Italian opera or maybe a little bit of German opera or French opera,” Meecham said. “I think that’s a big change, and it has helped us sort of democratize and to make it more accessible because it’s in our native language.”
Michelle Peterson said directors have also changed opera to make stories that have been around for hundreds of years relatable in the modern age.
“It’s still the same story, but they know how to stretch the performers and make it relevant to today’s audience,” Michelle Peterson said.
The present and future of opera
Meecham said he thinks the current state of opera in Utah is strong.
“Certainly in our case, we’re seeing our subscription audience grow over the last few years,” Meecham said. “I think as an arts-loving state, which Utah is with a great performing arts heritage, I would say that the state of opera is as healthy as it’s ever been.”
Meecham said he expects to see more American opera, more co-productions with other opera companies and more of Utah Opera’s own productions in the future, as well as an increased use of technology and social media to build enthusiasm for upcoming productions.
Paula Fowler, Utah Opera’s director of education and community outreach, said she also thinks opera might be adapted more in the future for young artists and audiences in order to further support and promote a love of the art form.
“The future is not only in what we’re embracing and producing but also in supporting young artists who have found their way to it and making sure that they feel supported and can continue on,” Fowler said. “And that’s not just performers; it’s the artisans who work in the costume shop and the scenery and lighting and stuff as well.”
Fulfilling the founder’s dream
Howells said from the beginning, the people were what Utah Opera was all about.
“We all were family and worked long, hard hours together for Glade’s dream to become a reality,” Flandro Ward Howells said. “The sky was the limit and we kept dreaming.”
Leslie Peterson said she thinks that were he alive today, her father would be impressed by how much the company has grown since its early days.
“I think our dad had a dream, and he would be very impressed with how that dream has been realized today, all those years later,” Leslie Peterson said.