Our history

Explore the story of Portland Opera, and some of the defining moments and productions that played a role in making the company that we share today.

We are developing a Cultural Equity Plan for Portland Opera that will be our road map to actively confront and dismantle white supremacy, patriarchy, and exclusion in our company, field, and community. We commit to being inclusive and strive every day to be an anti-racist organization. This commitment has not always been present at Portland Opera, and we believe that is important to acknowledge the pain that our company has caused, especially to BIPOC individuals, as we consider the history of Portland Opera, and endeavor to build an equitable, inclusive, and diverse company for the future.

Portland Opera's Cultural Equity Planning committee, comprised of current staff and board members, is also engaged in a process to develop an accountability action statement for Portland Opera that recognizes that "the Portland Metro area rests on traditional village sites of the Multnomah, Wasco, Cowlitz, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Bands of Chinook, Tualatin, Kalapuya, Molalla and many other tribes who made their homes along the Columbia River creating communities and summer encampments to harvest and use the plentiful natural resources of the area" (Portland Indian Leaders Roundtable, 2018), and articulates actions that Portland Opera will take to respectfully support and celebrate Indigenous knowledge and culture—particularly in traditions of stories, teachings, and songs. 

Learn more about our Cultural Equity work. 


 

The following history is adapted from research and writing from the company's archives. Our staff is grateful for the research, writing, and records kept by those who came before us.

The Early Years

According to company archives, boisterous Portland patrons enjoyed comic opera performances in the 1800s, in the rough and tumble, smoke-filled environs of the New Park, Casino, and Tivoli theaters, where waiters hawked drinks and cigars.

"Notwithstanding all the roughness of the place, it was patronized by the best people. The women did not smoke, but many of them did drink to some extent...It was necessary to have a policemen in attendance to preserve order." - Letter to The Oregonian

With the opening of the Oro Fino Theatre in 1866, Portlanders increasingly enjoyed more and more opera, as Bianchi Opera Company—a touring troupe employing five singers with piano accompaniment—presented seven evenings of complete operas. Additional touring opera companies offered productions as additional theaters opened around town: the New Market theater in 1875 (SW Akeny and First), and the Marquam Grand Opera House in 1890.

In 1913, the Chicago Grand Opera arrived by train, complete with sets, costumes, crew, management, 85 musicians, 75 chorus members, and a group of soloists—nearly 200 people in all. The Chicago Grand Opera Company would return five times to Portland, the last in 1931.

In 1917, the Civic Auditorium—now known as the Keller Auditorium—was built. 

In the coming years, numerous local opera companies were launched, though all were eventually disbanded or reorganized: the Portland Theater of Opera and Ballet, the New Savory Opera, the San Carlo Opera Company, the Community Concert Association, the Portland Opera Society, the Portland Opera Association (which had the same name as the present company today, though that Portland Opera Association disbanded in 1923), and the West Coast Opera Company. 

In 1950, Opera in Portland celebrated a milestone, as the Portland Civic Opera Association emerged from the numerous local operatic companies under the leadership of Ariel Rubstein. This group's debut—its free production of Aida in Washington Park—has become a key moment in Portland's thriving operatic life.

Reorganized in 1957 as the Theatre Arts Opera Association under the City of Portland Bureau of Parks and Public Recreation, the organization's leadership passed to Eugene Feurst. The company would stage two productions a year, and would evolve into a opera organization with a devoted audience, community support, and local roots: paving the way for opera to continue to thrive in Portland. 


Portland Opera Association

Though opera was already beginning to thrive in Portland, our company was officially established in 1964, with its incorporation as the Portland Opera Association. The first production was Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus, which opened on November 7, 1964, at the Leodis V. McDaniel High School (then known as Madison High School). This first season also included Puccini’s beloved masterpiece, La Bohème, which (to date) has been the most performed opera in the company’s history.

Portland Opera continued to grow its deep roots in Washington Park as well, sharing performances in the Rose Garden Amphitheater for several years. Eventually, we began to share performances at the Keller Auditorium (even back when it was called the Civic Auditorium), the Newmark Theatre, and Gregory K. and Mary Chomenko Hinckely Studio Theatre at The Hampton Opera Center. Today, you can still find Portland Opera singers in parks and festivals around town, with our Opera a la Cart performances. 

Fun Facts:
Most Often-Performed Composers

Puccini (31), Verdi (29), Mozart (25)

World Premieres

Bernard Hermann’s Wuthering Heights (1982); Christopher Drobny’s Lucy’s Lapses (1990)

Languages Sung

Czech, English, French, German, Italian, Latin, Russian, and Spanish (in fully staged productions, anyway)

Legacy Seats

Some of our amazing Portland Opera subscribers have had the same seats at the Keller Auditorium since our first productions there in the 1960s. Our patrons are the best!

Beloved Cats

Nerissa the cat came to Portland Opera's costume shop in 1996, which at the time was located on SW 15th. She was named after a character in The Merchant of Venice, which is the opera the costume shop was building at the time. She made the move to the "new" building (today known as The Hampton Opera Center) with the staff in 2003, where she was an integral part of the team. Staff members took turns taking care of her as she aged, and eventually passed away in 2009.  She was so loved!

After Nerissa's passing, Portland Opera was briefly without a cat until 2011, when Figaro (or "Figi" for short) joined us to help guard the Hampton Opera Center. Figaro moved out of the shop, and retired to a team member's house in 2015. You can learn more on his Facebook page

We love cats. 

American Premiere

Ernst Krenek’s Life of Orestes (1975)

Blast from the past

Our patrons' favorite former Portland Opera tagline:

"Evenings of Passion, no regrets in the morning."

North American Premiere

Reynaldo Hahn’s Merchant of Venice (1996)

The Dream of the 90s

The dream of 90s is still alive in the Portland Opera supply room, where staff members have reported seeing floppy discs as recently as 2020. No one knows what is on the discs, nor do we have a way of knowing.

West Coast Premieres

Philip Glass's Galileo Galilei (2012),  Philip Glass’s Orphée (2009), William Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge (2003), and Jacques Offenbach's La belle Hélène (2001).

Commercial Recordings

Portland Opera has made two commercial albums—both Philip Glass operas: Orphée (2009) and Galileo Galilei (2012). 

Portland Opera's General Directors

Henry Holt
Portland Opera's General Director 1964 - 66

Herberg Weiskopf 
Portland Opera's General Director 1966 - 70

Stefan Minde
Portland Opera's General Director 1970 - 82
Portland Opera's Artistic Director 1982 - 83

Robert Bailey
Portland Opera's Executive Director 1982 - 84
Portland Opera's General Director 1985 - 2003

Christopher Mattaliano
Portland Opera's General Director 2003 - 2019

Sue Dixon
Portland Opera's Current General Director
October 2019 - present day


The Next Chapter

Portland Opera's story is far from over, and this page can't capture the full depth and experience of making and sharing art through the decades. We invite you to learn about what we have planned for the future by learning more about our current strategic plan.

If you'd like to share your Portland Opera story, or have a comment about what you've read here, please email feedback@portlandopera.org.

 

Keep exploring! Visit our Repertory Page.