Building to a Crescendo

Dallas Opera was once the toast of the nation. Now it is reaching for that high note again.

The Music Hall in Fair Park was half empty, the writer for Time noted, but it was understandable. After all, "two of the city's most popular debutantes were giving dances that night." Still, the opera went quite wonderfully, despite "a Texas chorus that had a lot of trouble learning to sing in Italian," the writer said. The production was topnotch, the sets were expansive and gorgeous, the singing was brilliant, the staging was sharp and witty--everything and more one expects from opera, even when the production in question is a lesser-known work from the renowned Rossini.

"As of today," Time quoted one opera buff as saying, "Dallas is on the map as an opera town along with New York." Newsweek then chimed in with the breathless proclamation that "for a couple of nights running last week, Dallas, Texas was the operatic capital of the U.S."

"The city has always prided itself on being an opera-minded town, supporting various local operatic enterprises," continued the writer, "but rarely has it found itself with as much vocal excitement as when two national attractions held the stage of the big Dallas Music Hall in Fair Park."

Such praise--in the same week, no less--from two of the nation's most widely read publications cements an opera company's place in the world of opera, a place filled with men and women driven by grand tradition and elite pride.

The praise, however, dates back to December 2, 1957--a time when Maria Callas, one of the most famous opera singers ever to set foot on a stage, considered Dallas a home away from home; the phrase "Callas in Dallas" was often heard around the world. Thirty-seven years ago, critics and opera fans from all over the world flocked here, to what was then one of the most prestigious operas in the world.

It's been decades, a presidential assassination, and a boom-and-bust cycle or two since the Dallas has had that kind of notice, but the opera supporters say its time is at hand again.

On a mid-December evening, the Dallas Opera Orchestra, an ensemble of local union musicians, is practicing in its Deep Ellum rehearsal space. Their new leader, Dallas Opera music director Graeme Jenkins, who served as the director of the prestigious Glyndebourne Touring Company in England before coming to Dallas this season, lounges nearby on a brown couch, dressed casually in jeans and a pullover. It's a far cry from the elegant, tuxedoed image he projects during a performance of the opera when his conductor's baton pierces the air above the orchestra pit.

"Internationally, this company is considered in a very, very high light," Jenkins says. Yet even he anchors that reputation in the Opera's distant past. "Remember, this is the company where Maria Callas sang more of her performances in America than any other company," he says. He is anxious to join his orchestra for rehearsal, but before he does, Jenkins spells out his long-term goals for the survival of the Dallas Opera: a broader repertoire featuring modern productions, a multimillion-dollar new opera house in the Arts District, and renewed public enthusiasm for the art form--from a younger audience.

It's a tall order for a city that seems to appreciate any one of its sports franchises more than the arts. But Jenkins gamely predicts a time in the near future when the Dallas Opera and other local arts organizations will bring people back to downtown to restore the soul to the city. It is a matter of nothing less than civic pride, he says.

"You look at these early pictures [of Dallas] at the turn of the century, and you see how vibrant downtown was," says Jenkins, with the perspective of an outsider who has yet to fight the funding battles. "Now, once the offices are closed, it's a ghost town practically. You have the magnificent Meyerson, the fantastic museum, but apart from Deep Ellum and a little bit in the West End, this city is very quiet at night. Everything goes on in the suburbs.

"It's very important that the Dallas Opera, along with the other theater companies of the city, generates more of a nightlife going on if this city wants to be regarded as one of the major international cities of the world," says Jenkins, who seems to have already learned the trick to motivating Dallas, a city that has an obsession with becoming world-class.

In the first year of a three-year contract with the company, Jenkins is ambitious, articulate--and, perhaps, all too aware of the difficult job that lies ahead of him. Though the Dallas Opera is still regarded by opera experts and enthusiasts as one of the top 10 companies in the country, it has been a long time since it has received the glowing praise that warmed it in the late '50s.

And so Jenkins defines his vision of the future with triumphs from the past. But while a storied past has certainly given the Dallas Opera a sense of history and credibility within the opera world, it has also given Jenkins and his company a tough act to follow.

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