Glynn Ross, 90, turned Seattle into opera destination
They called him the "bantam of the opera. " But what Glynn Ross lacked in physical stature, he more than made up for in the amazing force...
Seattle Times music critic
They called him the "bantam of the opera."
But what Glynn Ross lacked in physical stature, he more than made up for in the amazing force of his personality and his tremendous drive to put on great opera.
Mr. Ross, the founding general director of Seattle Opera, died of a stroke at age 90 yesterday in Tucson, Ariz.
Mr. Ross, a former Golden Gloves boxer who grew up on a Nebraska farm, founded and ran Seattle Opera for two decades, and also developed its international calling card: regular productions of Wagner's four-opera masterpiece, the "Ring," the ultimate challenge for any opera company.
The company's 2005 "Ring," produced by his successor, Speight Jenkins, opens Aug. 7 with 12 sold-out performances. Mr. Ross and his wife had purchased tickets and planned to attend.
Mr. Ross was one of the creators of Pacific Northwest Ballet (originally an offshoot of Seattle Opera). He also imagined and co-founded Opera America, the national service agency uniting the country's opera companies.
And when he was edged out of Seattle Opera in 1983 by a board that was ready for change, Mr. Ross took on a new challenge: Arizona Opera. Ross turned that struggling company around, eliminating its deficit, building enthusiastic audiences in both Phoenix and Tucson, and, yes, putting on Wagner's "Ring" with some of the performers he'd discovered in Seattle.
"Everyone in the United States who loves opera," Jenkins said yesterday, "owes a debt to Glynn. He showed that two communities who had only supported occasional touring opera could develop excellent regular opera companies. As the originator of Opera America, he had the idea for an organization that allowed for an interchange of ideas vital to both large and small companies.
"Because of his love for the 'Ring,' Glynn began a tradition here that we glory in today. His tremendous salesmanship made opera lively and real in the imaginations of people in the Northwest."
A hard worker
Mr. Ross was born Dec. 15, 1914, to a man from Norway named Herman Aus (later Anglicized to Ross), and his Swedish wife, Ida, and Ross was brought up on a 10-acre farm. As a youngster, Mr. Ross worked hard on the farm and had no time for opera. After the death of his father, young Ross held down five jobs to help pay off the farm debts. Through the help of a teacher who recognized his potential, Mr. Ross went to the Leland Powers School of Theatre in Boston. There he went to the symphony, opera and theater for the first time.
After graduation, Mr. Ross spent two summers in England at Stratford-on-Avon, before the onset of World War II. He joined the Army and was wounded in combat in North Africa; later, he ran a rest-and-recreation camp. In Naples, Italy, he was put in charge of seven hotels for American military personnel. It was there that he put on operas for the first time, as entertainment for the troops. He also met his wife, Angelamaria "Gio" Solimene, an infallibly gracious woman whose artistic background and personal warmth made her the ideal opera-director's wife.
Success with excess
Back in the United States, Mr. Ross worked as a stage director for San Francisco Opera, Los Angeles Opera Theater, Fort Worth Opera in Texas, New Orleans Opera Association, Northwest Grand Opera Association and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, before taking on the challenge of leading a new company in Seattle in 1963. A one-man dynamo, Mr. Ross became an inveterate promoter, a tireless fund-raiser, a fountain of ideas and a great talent scout. During his 20 years in Seattle, he wrung money out of donors even when it was harder than wringing blood from turnips.
No corny gambit was beneath him if it promoted the cause of opera: cement trucks bearing signs saying "Get mixed up with Seattle Opera," for instance, or signs declaring "Get a head with 'Salome.' " He was photographed arm in arm with two costumed characters from the "Ring" — a Valkyrie and a giant — in images that ran in magazines and newspapers around the world.
"Anything worth doing is worth overdoing," he always said. "Nothing succeeds like excess."
'A real pioneer'
Nobody thought he could stage the "Ring" in a frontier outpost like Seattle. Mr. Ross not only did so, starting in 1975, but he also produced the four operas in both German and English, in a manner that won international acclaim and made Seattle a tourist Mecca for opera lovers. His successes were celebrated in a full-length profile in The New Yorker on June 26, 1978.
He also presented a new rock opera, the Who's "Tommy," featuring Bette Midler, and produced the world premiere of Thomas Pasatieri's opera "Black Widow" and Carlisle Floyd's opera "Of Mice and Men."
Mr. Ross finally retired from Arizona Opera in 1998, at 83. He ran opera companies for 34 years without posting a deficit, despite the fact that his chosen art form is the world's most expensive performance art. Among his many awards were knighthoods in Germany and Italy for his service to opera.
At the time of his retirement in Arizona, legendary soprano and arts administrator Beverly Sills called Ross "a real pioneer who changed the public's attitude about opera by daring to convince them it was a thrilling, totally accessible art form. I also might add, he's an old friend, a loyal friend, and I love him."
Managing all the details
The man The New York Times once called "the most affable megalomaniac in opera" was such a promoter, such a manager, that he even stage-managed his own obituary. In July 1997, when he announced his upcoming retirement in Arizona, he sent a letter to this writer stating: "I've always felt that a person of high-profile has more than one 'obituary.' The first, when that person steps down from their prominent position. The second, when that person leaves the field of activity; and third, when he or she goes to 'that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns.' The first two are herewith. You write the third. (Unless I outlive you!)"
Mr. Ross attached to that letter accounts of his 1983 departure from Seattle Opera and his 1998 retirement, as those first and second "obituaries."
Did he really expect to outlive a writer 33 years his junior? Who knows? But it's so typical of Ross' venturesome attitude and his determination to leave no stone unturned that he allowed for this contingency.
Here, old friend, is the third obituary. I hope it's worthy of the tremendous work you did on behalf of all of us who cherish the companies, the artists and the great works you always championed like the fighter you were.
Mr. Ross is survived by his wife, Gio, of Tucson and Bellevue, and by his four children: Stephanie Rogers, of San Francisco; Claudia Ross-Kuhn, of Seattle; Melanie Ross, of Bellevue (company manager of Seattle Opera); Tony Ross, of Des Moines, Iowa; seven grandchildren; and his nephew Roger Aus of Omaha, Neb
The family requests donations to Seattle Opera's Wagner Reserve Fund or Arizona Opera in lieu of flowers.
The family will hold a private memorial service in Arizona, followed by a Seattle memorial that will be announced at a later date.
Melinda Bargreen: firstname.lastname@example.org
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