Stories by Janelle Gelfand / The Cincinnati Enquirer
It started in 1920, as an added attraction at the Cincinnati Zoo. Cincinnatians could see grand opera amid the flora and fauna, in a carnival atmosphere that included ice skating shows, dancing, beer and brats.
By 1921, a crowd of 4,000 turned out on a humid August evening for Lohengrin by Richard Wagner, and Cincinnati's love affair with summer opera was launched.
Cincinnati Opera, the country's oldest, continuous summer opera festival - and the only opera company that performed in a zoo for more than 50 years - opens its 84th anniversary season Thursday.
"In the beginning, people loved to go to the zoo for the band concerts," says Cincinnati Opera historian Charlotte Shockley, 87, of Wyoming, who has attended since 1926. The unique events provided summertime employment for Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra musicians.
"One complicating thing was Susie the gorilla, who did her act twice a day," recalls Gene Frey, 83, president of the Musicians Union, who played clarinet in the opera orchestra from 1940 to 1957. "The keeper insisted that we stop rehearsing, because she'd get uneasy. So (music director) Fausto Cleva would lay down his baton, and Susie did her show."
The concerts also served as a kind of summer camp for Metropolitan Opera singers.
"There wasn't any other opera in the summertime," says Brian Kellow, an editor of New York-based Opera News. "In those days, singers didn't go gallivanting off to Europe to sing all summer long. Cincinnati gave them an opportunity to perform in the United States."
The world's greatest opera stars made Cincinnati their summer destination, from Jan Peerce and Rise Stevens in the '30s. Later came Roberta Peters, Montserrat Caballe, Beverly Sills, Norman Treigle, John Alexander, Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett and Placido Domingo.
Singers, such as opera basso Italo Tajo, put up with the heat. "He talked about sweating, especially in Don Pasquale, because of the leggings," recalls his widow, Inelda. "There was only one dressing room - for the soprano."
The animals were also part of the show.
"Peacocks made such a shrieking sound, that the public would either think it was the soprano or that someone was being murdered on the grounds," says James de Blasis, general director 1973-95.
"Sometimes a donkey would bray, too, but this was all taken in good humor," says Styrk Orwoll, general manager 1964-72. "We used to do 10 operas in five weeks."
In 1972, the company moved indoors to Music Hall, where it continues to build on its reputation.
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