By Mike Greenberg
SAN ANTONIO — Opera in San Antonio has a checkered and intermittent history, but also a golden age to look back on. Here are some highlights, with the names of the various San Antonio opera companies set in bold:
1886: The city opened its Grand Opera House, one of the first to be built in Texas, in 1886, at about the same time the predominantly German merchants, bankers, and industrialists were building their Italianate and Romanesque mansions on the most fashionable residential street, named for Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany. The frontier town’s orientation was European in both architecture and music.
Turn of the century: Touring opera companies passed through the city with some regularity in the late 19th century and into the early 20th. The Metropolitan Opera visited once with Lohengrin in 1901 — click here for the complete cast — and Mary Garden’s Chicago Civic Opera made three trips between 1927 and 1931.
1938: The Italian-German conductor Max Reiter, having left Nazi Germany for Italy in 1933, fled again after Fascists staged an anti-Semitic demonstration outside the hall in Rome where he was conducting. In New York, the Steinway family advised him to seek opportunity in Texas. In 1939, he found support in San Antonio to organize a new orchestra.
1945: The San Antonio Symphony inaugurated a spring Grand Opera Festival, which soon grew to four operas on two consecutive weekends in the 5,000-seat Municipal Auditorium, with leading international singers in the principal roles. (A prominent patron of the festival recalled that the tenor Richard Tucker paled visibly when he saw the size of the hall on his first visit.) In its first decade, before the rise of Dallas Opera and then Houston Grand Opera, the San Antonio Grand Opera Festival drew its audience from throughout Texas.
1949-50: Reiter’s friendship with Richard Strauss helped bring national prominence to the orchestra and its opera festival. In 1949 Virgil Thomson, then the music critic for the New York Herald-Tribune, made the trek to San Antonio to review Der Rosenkavalier with Rose Bampton as the Marschallin. (She sang Elsa in Lohengrin the following weekend.)
On Nov. 25, 1950, the soprano Kirsten Flagstad gave the U.S. premiere of three of the composer’s last songs (she deemed “Frühling” too high for her) with the Symphony under Reiter. Three weeks later, Reiter died of a massive heart attack at age 45.
1950s and ’60s: The opera festival continued to thrive, however, under Reiter’s successor, the Texas-born Victor Alessandro. In 1968, the five-act version of Verdi’s Don Carlos, a rarity at the time, inaugurated a new 2,700-seat theater that became the home of the Symphony and its opera productions.
1976: A long decline in audience and artistic standards ensued after Alessandro’s death in 1976. Opera, which had been a profit center for the San Antonio Symphony, began to ring up deficits.
1980s: A sparsely attended Wozzeck, in its Texas premiere in 1980, broadened the flow of red ink. The Symphony board pulled the plug in 1983. That same year, two new organizations tried to fill the gap. The San Antonio Festival started with high ambitions and productive relationships with Deutsche Oper Berlin and the English National Opera, but ticket sales, fundraising, and a revolving door of artistic leadership could not sustain the initial vision. The festival ended its run in 1992, following a production of Offenbach’s La Périchole that, notwithstanding the splendid soprano Angelina Reaux in the title role, could be described most charitably as a catastrophe. Opera Theatre of San Antonio fell to financial irregularities and bankruptcy in 1988, leaving in the lurch the performers and ticket buyers for a sold-out run of Don Giovanni.
Turn of another century: In 1998, another company, Pocket Opera, was launched with very modest productions in a 300-seat theater. The company quickly built a surprisingly young and polychrome audience on the strength of low-budget but spirited and generally adept productions led by a resourceful young conductor and stage director, Wayne Wyman.
Renamed Lyric Opera of San Antonio, the company successfully graduated to a 1,000-seat theater at a community college, but administrative and fund-raising capability remained weak. Wyman’s 2003 departure portended trouble. Renamed once again, this time as San Antonio Opera, the company made an ill-prepared leap to large-scale productions in larger venues. Musical standards continued to rise, with strong singers and, for seven productions, excellent conducting by Enrique Patrón de Rueda of Mexico, but scenic and theatrical standards suffered. Never having gained much corporate or foundation support, the company declared bankruptcy in 2012 with just $1,500 in assets and nearly $900,000 in debts.
Present day: San Antonio Opera’s co-founder and general director, Mark Richter, resigned shortly before the end of the company’s bankruptcy but then resurfaced with a new chamber opera company, Opera Piccola of San Antonio, which has been relying largely on good regional singers and creative teams. Opera Piccola continues its second season next month with a double bill of Mozart’s “Bastien et Bastienne” and San Antonio native Robert X. Rodríguez’s “La Curandera,” in an 856-seat former vaudeville house, the Empire Theatre.
Origin of The Opera San Antonio: Although most of San Antonio Opera’s troubles were of its own making, one was beyond its control – the limited availability of suitable venues. At the same time, the San Antonio Symphony was dissatisfied with its home since 1990, a visually splendid but acoustically dry former movie palace, the Majestic Theatre. The origin of The Opera San Antonio is thus entwined with planning for the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts:
In 2007, Bexar County officials appointed a citizens committee to study the idea of building a performing arts center, to be funded in part with $100 million in hotel occupancy tax revenues. The plan that emerged called for demolishing all but the historic facade of the old Municipal Auditorium, which was owned by the city of San Antonio, and building a large multipurpose theater and a small black-box space on the site. The county’s voters approved the proposition in May 2008. A foundation was chartered to raise additional funds from the private sector. The largest private gift was $15 million from the Tobin Endowment, the most visible part of Robert L.B. Tobin’s legacy. In the final design, the center’s main theater will seat 1,750 for concerts and 1,660 for opera.
But some in the community were not satisfied with San Antonio Opera’s artistic standards, its very conservative repertoire or its managerial limitations. One was that company’s own former board chairman, Bruce Johnson. Another was Mel Weingart of the Tobin Theatre Arts Fund. Together, they initiated the process of developing a new company while the existing one was still in business.
The new company was chartered under the name Opera Theatre San Antonio – one preposition shy of the name on one of those tombstones. The name was changed, Weingart said, because “a number of people commented that they thought Opera Theater San Antonio was a ‘club’ which served food and drinks and then had ‘opera theater’ as entertainment.”
In August 2009, Weingart recruited Tobias Picker to join the team. “I have known Tobias since An American Tragedy at the Met in 2005,” Weingart said. Picker, Weingart, and agree that the company’s repertoire will include both standard and contemporary operas, and the debut work in the Tobin Center is likely to be something familiar. The leadership team is not ready to disclose which opera that will be.