Administrator  Glynn  Ross

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Glynn Ross, 1914-2005: His energy and ideas built Seattle Opera


Published 10:00 pm, Thursday, July 21, 2005  [Text only - photos and links to Bruce Duffie's interviews added for this website presentation.]

Glynn Ross was "a giant in American opera," says Seattle Opera General Director Speight Jenkins.

Glynn Ross, the "hip huckster of grand opera" who used bumper stickers and slogans, famous singers and Wagner's "Ring" to launch Seattle Opera and make it one of the nation's biggest regional companies, died yesterday in Tucson, Ariz., of complications from a stroke. He was 90.

As the company's founding general director, the energetic and creative Ross built Seattle Opera into a vital part of the city's cultural life, nurtured Pacific Northwest Ballet in its early years as part of the opera and made presentation of Wagner's four-opera cycle into a local tradition at a time when mounting it outside Germany was a rarity.

Ross also was the organizing force in launching Opera America, a national organization of opera companies, which now numbers more than 100 members.


"Glynn Ross was a giant in American opera," said Speight Jenkins, who succeeded Ross as general director. "Seattle Opera exists because of his imagination and ability to sell this art form to the people of Seattle. Our emphasis on Wagner, particularly the 'Ring,' began with Glynn's love for these works and his realization that our public would respond. All American opera lovers owe Glynn a debt, not only for what he did in Seattle but establishing opera in Arizona and having the foresight to dream up Opera America, which now has a vast influence in the world of opera. His abilities as a spokesman and salesman for opera cannot be exaggerated."

Arriving in Seattle from Naples, Italy, in 1963, with his Italian wife, their four children, and a letter of intent from the barely born opera company, Ross jumped into action. He was wiry, energetic and determined.

During his first season, the company produced "Tosca" and "Carmen," both staged by Ross. Quickly he created longer seasons and publicized them in ways some found amusing, others found appalling but no one could ignore.

"He was the greatest sloganeer in opera," said Jenkins. There were bumper stickers that declared "Opera Lives." The acronym WITCO, for "What Is This Thing Called Opera?," appeared all over town. There were skywriting slogans and signs on school buses and cement trucks. One of his more outrageous promotions was for Richard Strauss' "Salome" -- "Get Ahead with Salome." For Puccini's "Boheme," the ad campaign centered on the slogan "Six Old-Time Hippies in Paris," and for Gounod's "Romeo et Juliet," "Two Kids in Trouble, Real Trouble, With Their Families."

Seattle Magazine referred to Ross as "the hip huckster of grand opera" and others, "the bantam of the opera." Looking back on those days, in a 1978 profile in the New Yorker, Ross said, "I myself thought it was cheapening to use such methods. But I was merchandising opera, and I'd do anything that would shock the public into coming."

They did. The first season drew 10,000. By the third, the number had jumped to 50,000. Soon, Seattle Opera was one of the largest regional companies in the United States, with a big subscription base and a balanced budget.

ross & floydWithin a decade of the company's inaugural season in 1964, Ross had presented the world premieres of Thomas Pasatieri's "Black Widow" and Carlisle Floyd's "Of Mice and Men"; the West Coast premiere of Pasatieri's "The Seagull," and striking productions of Robert Ward's "The Crucible" and Stravinsky's "L'Histoire d'un soldat." In 1971, Ross produced The Who's rock opera "Tommy," starring Bette Midler, at the Moore Theatre. Four years later, he mounted the company's first production of Wagner's "Ring," the first American company to produce the cycle in German and English and within one week.

In his 20-year tenure, Ross presented a number of the most celebrated singers of the day -- sopranos Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland appeared several times. Other famous singers during his reign included Richard Tucker, Anna Moffo, Birgit Nilsson, Sherrill Milnes, Norman Triegle, Regine Crespin, Dorothy Kirsten, Cornell MacNeil, Roberta Peters, Eileen Farrell, Regina Resnik, Giovanni Martinelli and Grace Bumbry.

Ross was a pioneer in presenting opera in English translation. His productions were always in both the original language and, with different principals, in English. Although Seattle Opera, post-Ross, abandoned English-language performances -- with supertitles projected above the stage providing translations instead -- it still maintains two somewhat different casts for most productions.

Ross was a conceptualist, a man who could barely contain himself with the ideas he had swarming about his head. He had so many, he kept them in a file in his office. He had the drive of several men and when needed, considerable charm -- enough to obtain financial support from the rich as well as businessmen who might think opera was not for them. He was an expert at convincing the unknowing to try the seemingly arcane pleasures of opera.

Certainly, his biggest and most far-reaching idea, beside the company itself, was creating the Pacific Northwest Wagner Festival in the summer of 1975. The production schedule was what Wagner wanted -- the four operas performed within a week -- but at the time was nearly unprecedented outside the Bayreuth Festival, which the composer founded.

With limited financial means, the company could not produce a "Ring" on an international scale, but it attracted worldwide attention nonetheless and became the city's best-known cultural product, widely covered by the national and international press. Audiences came from around the world, with Ross proudly counting the number of states and countries represented. The festival ran every summer until 1984. It is now produced approximately every five years.

Because Wagner's "Ring" is seemingly ubiquitous in the opera world today, it is hard to realize what a bold move Seattle Opera's production was in the mid-1970s, especially for a young, not-so-large or well-endowed company. At one time, Ross had hoped to make the "Ring" the impetus for an annual summer festival located at a specially constructed facility in Federal Way. The idea was well-received by cultural groups, public officials and patrons until they realized how much it would cost.

In some ways, that was the beginning of the end of Ross' regime in Seattle. Many believed he was devoting too much time and resources to the summer venture at the expense of the main season. His critics thought he served up clichés, was too authoritarian and lacked taste: No longer was he the golden boy of Seattle culture. In 1983, the Seattle Opera board forced his retirement, two years before the end of his contract.

At the time, he noted: "Success has its penalties. You see, there is one big benefit in failure -- no one envies you. ... We were the 'Mr. Big' in the Seattle arts world."

Ross did not stay idle for long. Less than a year later, he was general director of Arizona Opera, a company with financial problems that gave performances in Phoenix and Tucson. Some months after his appointment, a member of the board of trustees said in an interview: "A conversation with Glynn Ross is like a vacation. One comes away with a refreshed sense of renewal and the comfortable feeling that everything is going to be all right. This slight man with blue eyes has ... the energy of Jiminy Cricket, the charm of Cary Grant and the promise of Santa Claus." With many of the same marketing tactics he used in Seattle, Ross built the company and met with success. He even produced the "Ring" not far from the Grand Canyon. He retired in 1998 and returned to Seattle.

Ross had a hard-scrabble beginning in South Omaha, Neb. His father was a cowpuncher from Norway, and his mother, the daughter of Swedish farmers, was born in a sod house. In 1937, he went to Boston to study at the Leland Powers School of Radio and Theater, arriving in town with $7 in his pocket. He waited tables, worked in a meat market on Saturdays, wrote publicity material for the Salvation Army and went to Orchestra Hall to hear Serge Koussevitzky conduct the Boston Symphony. His ambition was to be a Shakespearean actor.

He staged his first opera, Gounod's "Faust," in Los Angeles three years later, founded the opera department at the New England Conservatory in Boston the following year and, in 1942, joined the U.S. Army. He ended up in Naples, where his Army duties included running a rest camp in an old hotel on the island of Ischia. After the war, the Allies wanted something for the troops to do before they were shipped home, so the great Neapolitan opera house, Teatro di San Carlo, was put to use. Ross made his debut there as a stage director in Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" and continued to work at San Carlo for two years. He was the first American to direct in a major Italian house.

Ross married Angelamaria Solimene, nicknamed Gio, the daughter of a well-known lawyer, who quietly supervised Seattle Opera's costume shop in its early days.

In 1948, Ross and his family returned to the United States, and he began to direct at San Francisco Opera and Los Angeles Opera Theatre, as well as Fort Worth Opera, New Orleans Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia. He was a working observer at the Bayreuth Festival in mid-1950s. In 1953, he made his Seattle debut with the Northwest Grand Opera, a forerunner of Seattle Opera, for which he staged several productions. Five years later, he returned to Naples and a job at San Carlo as a stage director. In 1963, Albert Foster, president of newly created Seattle Opera, asked Ross to come to Seattle for an interview, the result of which was an offer to direct the company.

In many ways, Ross had one of the most unlikely and successful careers in opera. He broke traditions, created new ones and won supporters and detractors around the globe. He copied no one, for he was always his own man.

In addition to his wife, Ross is survived by four children: Stephanie Rogers of San Francisco; Claudia Ross-Kuhn, Seattle; Melanie Ross, who is Seattle Opera's company manager; Tony Ross, Des Moines, Iowa; seven grandchildren and a nephew, Roger Aus, of Omaha, Neb.

Services are pending. Donations may be made to Seattle Opera's Wagner Reserve Fund or Arizona Opera.

In August of 1987, I was in Seattle for their Ring featuring my old friend Roger Roloff as Wotan.  I was also able to interview several of the artists, among them Glynn Ross.  As affable as ever, he was pleased to be able to speak with me about some of the aspects of his life . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie
:    You are presently General director of the Arizona Opera?

Glynn Ross:    Yes.

BD:    Before we get to your company specifically, let me ask where opera is going today?

GR:    It’s been booming.  All the arts have been booming, so in fact that’s one of the problems that it faces.  It’s been booming and therefore there has been a shortage of all talents.  There’s been lots of studying.  All the universities have opera departments and things of this kind, but just theory alone is not enough.  Theory is wonderful, talent is wonderful, but sometimes experience helps.  It would be wonderful if, say, 25% of those people running American opera companies could spend a year in a European opera house.  Even if it was paid for by the government, in the end it would probably save everybody, and be a wonderful benefit for the United States as a whole.  It’s simply the exposure, the ambiance, getting used to thinking differently.  Someone of artistic influence in the company should have this experience because every artistic decision is a financial decision, and every financial decision is an artistic decision.

BD:    Where is the balance, then?

GR:    That’s the name of the game; that’s exactly the trick
— how to find and anticipate that balance so that you are always satisfied artistically, because that is your reason for being.  Arts commissions are there for us.  We make the arts commissions possible, though they often seem to think their role is that of overseer or inspector general.  If tomorrow the National Endowment were go down the drain and the government would simply stop giving us money, there would still be poets writing poetry, potters potting, producers producing, and there would be as many composers composing.  You don’t do these things unless you must, and when you must, then you will.

BD:    Those who must, will, and there appears to be an enormous number of them doing it.  How do you view the sorting process of all this material?

GR:    We in the United States have had probably the most efficient form of musical censorship the world has ever known.  It’s virtually impossible in most cities for a young person to hear anything but the rock stations.  We came from Europe to Seattle when the children were 15, 13, 11, and 9, and they were just as pleased when hearing the Brandenburg Concerti of Bach as they were when hearing the Beatles.  I’m not putting down the stations that play rock music, but the opportunity is very improbable.

BD:    How can you as Artistic Administrator help to re-balance the opportunities?

GR:    When I was in Seattle, we did about 80 different operas over 20 seasons.  That includes five world premieres and about five other ‘esoteric’ works.  My general philosophy has always been that out of four productions, an average of 1 ½ will be the popular works.  In other words, some years there will be one, other years there will be two.  There are really nine operas that you cannot wreck or spoil, and people will come year after year if you put them on.  Some will complain that you should be doing other works, but these are four by Verdi — Aïda, Traviata, Trovatore, and Rigoletto — and three by Puccini — Tosca, Bohème, and Butterfly — also Barber of Seville and Carmen.  There are a few others that are close — Pagliacci and Lucia among them — but of those nine, I try to put on one or two every season to draw new people in.  I also try to do something more esoteric, such as Queen of Spades by Tchaikovsky.  I thought that the name ‘Tchaikovsky’ would draw some symphony-goers, but it didn’t to the extent I’d hoped.


BD:    Would the same relationship hold if you doubled or tripled the length of the season?

GR:    There’s no point in tripling the length if you’re not already selling out, but to balance the season, the same kind of proportion would probably work, yes.  Remember that we are really a very young country, and basically a trade-school country.  We will have world peace because of economics, not because of politics.  There are three things that are all-encompassing despite differences in ethnic origins and languages — athletics (such  as the Olympics), money, and the arts.  If we are going to take our place in the world, we must be communicable in at least one of those three, and preferably have the respect of other nations in the arts.  Educated people will know what I’m talking about when I mention a certain painter, or writer, or composer, or architect.  The connection will be there and the communication will be on an educated level.  Poetry, mythology, history, means an awareness of the past.  But we don’t have that here because our past is only 200 years.  We pursue our ethnicity on a personal basis, so there is a hope, but our job in the arts is to give a bit of maturity to our life.

BD:    Do you feel that the arts are useful?

GR:    They are useful beyond understanding, but not as a trade.  It’s the most useful thing in the world because you have to balance that which is affected by daily events.  That stability is more important than the economy.  That stability makes for perspective, and that’s what all these things are about.  There comes a peace of the mind where people can be creative.  Parents of talented youngsters almost become their slaves because they are so happy that the offspring have a purpose in life.  Events that are merely topical are forgotten as quickly as they are made famous, so the arts begin to give people another kind of security other than religion.  There’s a kind of spiritual confidence.  I call all the people who go to the Ring ‘celebrants’ and ‘communicants’.  We are able to understand how people in their time and place approached the world, and this is revealed in the arts and education.

BD:    Then how do you take all of this and transcend it into running the Arizona Opera?

GR:    First of all, survival must precede success.  Second, stability is more important than economy.  In other words, if you’re artistically unstable, it’s worse than being financially unstable.

BD:    How far can you go in taking risks?

GR:    That’s the name of the game.  I often say to singers, “Don’t enter a contest if you can’t afford to lose.”  It’s the same in the stock market as running an opera company or anything else.  If you have stability, you can afford the luxury of being creative.

BD:    Do you always try to stretch it to the limit?

GR:    Oh, of course!  You’re always trying to stretch an audience... at least I am.  But the arts are a process or business of communication.  If and when we can’t communicate, we’re not in business and we’re not artists.  If  a great painting is in an attic where no one can see it, it’s not art until it communicates with someone.

BD:    Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment.  How do we convince young composers to keep writing when they can’t get productions of their works?

GR:    There is nothing we can do about it because they will write if they have to write.  It’s not a matter of bulk, but rather of maturity.

BD:    What advice do you have for the composer today?

GR:    I tell them, “If you must, you will.”  Sometimes it takes an adaptability.

BD:    Do you have to be an administrator?

GR:    [Laughs]  Well, I have to do opera.  I have to be in the arts.  I almost think of myself as a preacher/rabbi/priest.  I was on a panel recently and we were telling whey we do what we do.  I said that I give memories for a lifetime.  I’m the one that brings you something spiritual that fills your life and gives you stability.  The religious men and women have a better product and deal with posterity, but I enjoy what I do very much.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

GR:    Oh yes, surely.  Art is long, life is short.  None of us really get to look at progress.  We look back at when one era stopped and the transition began, but we can’t see it as it happens.

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BD:    How are young singers today different than they were 20, 30, 40 years ago?

GR:    The focus is entirely different.  Virtually every one has to think about many things besides voice.  Some say that’s to the harm of opera, and others say it’s to the good.  When I’m presenting a Bel Canto opera, I want someone who just loves to sing.  When you sing with conviction, people think you’re acting, but singers have to know so much more now.  It also depends on which country you’re in because the audiences are all different.  Despite the fact that the world is getting smaller, reactions will not be the same from city to city around the world.

rossBD:    Is opera on TV doing a service?

GR:    Surely.  Any exposure of any art is a good thing.  I remember that on Italian TV, the programs would not be timed as exactly as we’re used to here in the US.  They would allow a bit of time so that when the program ended, there would be an intervallo filled with some pictures of architecture and brief descriptions, or some other kind of presentation.  So there were always these injections of cultural heritage being constantly absorbed by the people watching wherever they were.  The arts are forever.  That’s their value.

BD:    What do you expect of the audience that comes to the Arizona Opera?

GR:    An open mind.  I hope for persons with curiosity, who think there’s more to life than sitting by the pool mentally chewing gum.  There’s more to life than a beautiful sunset or a beautiful desert.  There’s something that can add a new dimension. They may not know what it is, but they’re curious about what makes us tick.

BD:    Is opera for everyone?

GR:    It’s available to everyone.  It’s like chess.  Should everyone play chess?

BD:    In all of this time observing and managing the arts, what is the most surprising thing you’ve noticed?

GR:    The first was when I discovered Shakespeare and the poetic way of presenting words.  The next was when I discovered opera and how music could take the poetry and transcend it to a higher intensity.

BD:    We’ve had the age of the composer, then the age of the singer, then the conductor and now the director.  What’s next?

GR:    It’s still going to have to come back to the basic product, and we’re talking about different products.  In the age of the singer, flexible composers went along with it.  The composers were happy to change this or that for the best effect.

BD:    [With mock horror]  You’re not suggesting that we tamper with scores now, are you???

GR:    [Laughs]  No, we’d better leave some things alone.  We can tamper with musical comedies, but not with grand operas.  The growth of opera as a whole includes the importance of dramatic continuity.  The age of the stage director is here now because of what their education has given them thus far.  A Hollywood critic once wrote that any third-rate script writer could have done a better job than the librettist of The Magic Flute.  Obviously he didn’t realize the complexity of the three interwoven stories going on in that opera.  The Northern European audience wants philosophy, their symbols, their spiritual ideas.  The average Italian just wants a good voice sung with conviction.  The Slavic person wants to hear about their roots, the past that has been virtually removed from the history books.  Our audience in the U.S., which has been raised on radio/TV/movies, wants a story line, and that’s the reason for the success of the supertitles.  A specialist who knows a work inside out might find them disturbing, but the best performance is the one that is communicating with the audience out front.

BD:    Are you trying to explain opera to others?

GR:    All the time, but I’d rather that opera would explain itself to them.  Once there is a motivation, you learn it very quickly. 

BD:    Are you pleased with what you have accomplished so far?

GR:    Probably the most important thing in life is to have a slight brush with significance; that you’re used your talents to whatever good the world will allow you to in the circumstance under which you are living.

BD:    Thank you for all that you have done, and for what is yet to come.

GR:    It has been my pleasure.

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at the Opera House in Seattle, Washington, on August 4, 1987.  This transcription was made and published in The Opera Journal in December of 1989.  It was slightly edited, pictures and links were added and it was posted on this website in 2016.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.